In Praise of Patton Oswalt

Twenty years ago, at a dingy nightclub on a block of Clement Street in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District, the aging comedy boom of the 8o’s gave birth to the snarky, cynical, over-educated meta-child that would come to be known as Alt Comedy. (Like most nicknames, it was not chosen, but given.) Cable shows had oversaturated  the market; genuine wit and brilliant absurdity had been replaced by annoyed populist observations. Hollywood had once again siphoned off some of The City’s most promising performers, and was trying desperately to figure out how best to vampirize native daughter Margaret Cho. But SF was still a mecca for stand-ups, and a peak was imminent with the ascension of a few bright locals, and the immigration of several others- locals Greg Behrendt, Laura Milligan, Brian Posehn, and Arj Barker broke out. Fiery journeymen Marc Maron and Tom Rhodes hung out their shingles from our hills, and from the Baltimore/D.C. area came Jeff Hatz, Blaine Capatch, and Patton Oswalt- a comic triumvirate  raised on Monty Python, Alan Moore, and The Pixies.   “The Class of 1992″ had arrived.

Laura Milligan, Greg Behrendt, Brian Posehn, Blaine Capatch, and Patton- 1994

I was a part of that class, too. albeit with a different function. I’d put my Jesuit philosophy degree to work as a staff member of the Holy City Zoo, San Francisco’s most historic and legendary comedy club, where 80’s celebrities like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and Bobcat Goldthwait earned their stripes, and utterly unique and brilliant talents such as Bob Rubin, Warren Thomas, and Jeremy Kramer still prowled the stage, fighting the thumping live music from the Last Day Saloon upstairs.  Capacity: 79 not counting the roaches. It was here that I married my love of comedy with my photography career and started shooting portraits of these most dynamic artists.

Patton Oswalt in my vintage Volvo.

Patton Oswalt stood out in any show’s line-up. He had a different kind of energy, material that never seemed contrived, and a distinctive vocal timbre that projected confidence, even when the joke was on himself. He can be self-deprecating, but he’s never a loser.  He was early geek-chic, and proud to be a comic book nerd way way way before it was mainstream. He’s never seemed concerned with being “cool,” as cool requires acceptance by and admiration of the majority. Patton’s comedy consoles you that it’s ok not to be.

There’s a bit of a Dennis Miller in him; he throws references around like you ought to know them. But I got all of Miller’s and maybe two-thirds of Patton’s. But I never had any desire to research Miller’s rantfrences, whereas Patton led me to read The Man in the High Castle and tipped the scales as I browsed the racks at Amoeba Records. His comedy can be a hyperlink, whereas Miller’s was arrogance plugged in to a bit. It annoys me when comics use pop culture references as the punchline, and the audience laughs in self-congratulation at getting it. Patton uses them to frame his context, to let you know who he is and where he’s coming from.


In an ad for Dark Horse Comics

Early on, I can recall someone in the industry saying he was “very ambitious” which was intended as a patronizing insult but I took as the opposite. He may have been insubordinate to the timeline ladder, but he was headlining and producing his own theme shows in short order. His impeccable taste in comedy and respect from his peers has allowed him to gather amazing people. (I look back on his “Four Tuesdays of the Apocalypse” show flyer that reads like a time capsule of the city’s best.) Many years later this talent would manifest itself as he created The Comedians of Comedy with Posehn, Maria Bamford, and not-yet-household-misspelled-name Zach Galifianakis.

Patton in SF

One great thing is that he’s always writing. Even if you see him just six months apart you can bet that half his set is going to be new, or at the very least material you haven’t heard before. Can’t see him live? Check out his blog. Or watch Ratatouille with your kids (or without) to see one of the few Disney projects that doesn’t involve a woman being rescued. Or read his interview in ¡SATIRISTAS! Or see Big Fan for a film about obsession (with a brilliant climax). Or see him in Young Adult with Charlize Theron and tell me what it’s like to see a film in a theater. (My two young kids have constricted this activity for me.) And he still finds time to appear in his friends’ webisodes, get arrested on Reno 911, write a book, and give a graduation speech to his high school.  The fucker is prolific.

Patton and David Cross at Cobb's Comedy Club

There’s a great example of his comic worldview in his closing note as guest editor of the “The Funny Issue” of Spin Magazine. If anything, I think he’s an example that you can be very smart onstage and off-  without having to prove that you are smarter than everyone else.

Class of 1992 Revisited- 2009

ALL PHOTOS ©DAN DION

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Read more.. Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Goorin Behind the Bar

One of my favorite new clients is Goorin Brothers- a local hat company that is exploding all over North America. Established in 1895, it’s been family-run for four generations, but only recently has it opened its own retail stores. Check out this recent piece in the Chronicle about them.

We wanted to do a project with real people- not models- that had some kind of local/ neighborhood connection. The result below is a collection of bartenders in North Beach- my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco, and the site of Goorin’s flagship store in the city on Washington Square.

Ana at Sodini's

Gigi at Sotto Mare

Devon at Tony Nik's

Romina at Cinecitta

Janet at Vesuvio

Deirdre and Kat at O'Reilly's

Mike D. at Amante

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Read more.. Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Yao Ming for Monster Cable

Yao MIng on Set with Noel Lee

Yao Ming on Set with Noel Lee

Just back from temperate Houston Texas where my fellow Monsters and I did a photo and video shoot with the towering Houston Rocket Yao Ming. Monster has launched a massive line of Yao Monster products being sold throughout China, and we were there to get video of him speaking Chinese directly to Chinese retailers and consumers for his headphones, power, HDMI, and other products.

Yao Ming with iSport Headphones
Yao Ming with iSport Headphones
Yao arrived on the dot at 2pm at the studio we’d rented, which is Houston’s best- Ralph Smith Studios. He’s a real pro when it comes to this kind of stuff, and he was soon correcting our Chinese script in what was apparently a slightly awkward translation we’d brought. He was calm and friendly throughout, and he and head Monster Noel Lee have a good relationship, it seems, as they were frequently cracking each other up.
Yao Ming with Head Monster Noel Lee

Yao Ming with Head Monster Noel Lee

Yao Ming Correcting our Chinese Script

Yao Ming Correcting our Chinese Script

Video guys got their retail shout-outs, and I got some nice portraits of a legendary athlete. That night Noel got to sit courtside to watch the Rockets stomp our hometown Warriors, while the crew, hungry from a long production, got to strap on the ‘ol feed bag for some Texas steaks.
Yao Ming rocking Beats Headphones

Yao Ming rocking Beats Headphones

Yao Ming on Set With Monster Cable

Yao Ming on Set With Monster Cable

Yao Ming Between Takes With Monster Cable

Yao Ming Between Takes

Yao Ming and Noel Lee with Beats Headphones

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Read more.. Friday, March 25th, 2011

Too $hort at Yoshi’s

Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion

As part of my new ongoing work for Monster Cable here in the Bay Area, I work with the “Famous Monsters” – celebrity endorsers of our pro musical equipment and headphones (including Beats by Dr. Dre, which are the best headphones I’ve ever heard.)  So you’ll be seeing more shots of musicians with headphones and other Monster gear.

Last Saturday Night I shot Oakland hip-hop legend Too $hort at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, the first of four sold out shows that weekend. It’s great to hear a rapper in a venue with good sound, so that all the (in this case raunchy) lyrics can be heard.

Monster Cable Facebook Page

Dan Dion Photography Facebook Page

Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion
Backstage Portrait of Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Backstage Portrait of Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion
Too $hort's Vocalist at Yoshi's
Too $hort’s Vocalist at Yoshi’s
Too $hort at Yoshi's in San Francisco by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s in San Francisco by Dan Dion
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Read more.. Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

In Praise of Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams at the Warfield- 2001

I first saw Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in 1997, when she was just about to release her breakout album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. A few years earlier I’d seen Johnny Cash and he’d done a fairly complete job of curing me of my distain for country music. I’d soon be musically educated to learn that what I didn’t like was actually what was considered “new country” at the time- your Garth Brooks/ Billy Ray Cyrus kinda music.

I’ve always had a preference for great lyricists- Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman. And I’d soon find that so-called country music has some of the best songwriters in the world as I delved into the work of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda.

Lucinda and Band at The Fillmore – 1997

But I had no idea she’d become one of my favorite musicians at that first Fillmore show. I just liked what I heard and made the effort to get a shot of her with her band backstage in the stairway.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 1997

Cut to two years and a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album later. “Car Wheels” was a huge hit and critics had gone apeshit over a blend of rock, blues, country and folk. They were calling it “Americana” and “Roots Music” when in truth it was just a great blend of all of it anchored by a true poet.

Lucinda Williams at The Warfield – 1999

And Lucinda had clearly been inundated by media with her new renowned, and it took about half an hour before she came out from her dressing room to do a portrait with me. But she was incredibly kind and gracious when we did it. And I guess she’d been doing lots of annoying photo shoots because she said “I LOVE the way you take pictures! Other photographers always tell me to do this and that and look this way and you don’t do none of that!” Then she gave me a hug- something I wasn’t used to from my rock and roll subjects- and cementing me as a fan for life.

And in saying this she also helped me crystallize a part of my shooting style, which values comfort above all else. Without it, you’ll never get an honest portrait.

I think she’s had to deal with a lot of photog-douchebags over the years, because I’ve heard that she’s not a big fan of being shot- but she always seems to allow me to do a quick portrait- as long as I’m patient (she’s still a superstar, after all, and anointed by Time Magazine as America’s Best Songwriter).

Doug Pettibone at The Fillmore, 2003

But to be fair, I had a lot of help and advocacy from her guitarist for many years, Doug Pettibone. Somewhere around 2000, The Warfield had put up a shot of the band performing, and he’d seen it. I met him at The Fillmore the next year and he asked me if I knew the guy who shot it. “Yeah, I know him pretty well,” I said. We ended up hanging out and he came with me to a jam session at Capp’s Corner that was mostly comprised of cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon getting away from their camp and into some classic rock and soul tunes. He tore it up and we’ve been friends ever since.

Lucinda puts out a new album about every two or three years,  and it never disappoints. There aren’t too many artists who’s vocals and lyrics seem to get better all the time- Bonnie Raitt is an example. But what sets her apart, especially as a female artist, is that she can be honey-sweet one moment and whisky-sour the next without coming off as contrived. She can be growly, angry, and raunchy, then tender, sad, and lovely, then pointed, poignant, and political.

And something else I find attracts me to her music (and is often the case with artists I admire- be it Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, or late-era Beatles) is the percentage of songs that aren’t about love. While she can pine over lost lovers and do done-wrong songs with the best of them, she also sings of suicide, wealth, abuse, and in one case how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get her off. Not exactly the stuff of country music clichés.

Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore – 2003

She’s so smart, yet so American. So vulnerable, yet so strong and sexy. If I had to pick one word to describe her, though, it would be “authentic.” If you wonder where the heart of country music went, look no further.


Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 2003
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Read more.. Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011