We all have our own San Franciscos. I first moved to the city in the mid-1970s and attended elementary school in Precita Park, where my first grade teacher, the gorgeous Ms. Soo Ying, had a pierced nose, several butterfly tattoos, and a boyfriend named Babatunde who taught us to count to 100 in Swahili. My mom worked at Emporium Capwell and hung out with a group of writers and underground comic artists whose apartments were filled with smoke, conversation, and strange music. All of this left a permanent impression on me of a city that was a funky home to bohemian weirdos of all stripes.
So even when I moved back to SF at the height of the dot-com phenomenon and tried to rent an apartment in the Mission while dot.commies pushed past me, offering the landlord double the asking price (remember those days?), I still clung to my first impression of the city as a haven for interesting oddballs. I suppose others who moved here to get rich in the late nineties just saw the place as a pricey exurb of San Jose with older housing stock. I feel sorry for them.
Which brings us to the Train show at the Greek next week. The rock band known as Train formed in San Francisco in 1994. This, and the fact that their song, "Free," was featured on the San Francisco-based TV series Party of Five, apparently legitimizes them as a "San Francisco band." Remember how realistic Party of Five was, with its passel of cute Salinger kids living in a gorgeous Victorian mansion and paying for it all with the proceeds from their neighborhood restaurant? Please. In this food-frenzied town, an ersatz bistro like Salinger's would be gone faster than you can say "tell me the difference between a raw food restaurant and the bulk nut aisle at Rainbow Grocery." And that's about how well Train represents San Francisco -- my San Francisco, at least.
Train does that kind of big-production, I-really-mean-it middlebrow rock that pads the playlists of WB shows everywhere. Let me say that I believe there is a place for big-production, I-really-mean-it music -- if it's done right (see: "Rocket Man," "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "We Will Rock You," etc.). But when it's done wrong...
If you're going to sing your heart out, you probably want to avoid lyrics that are just plain silly. And Train is great at ridiculous, dumbass lyrics that are so inane, they pull you right out of the experience of listening to the song and make you think: "what the hell?" I'll always remember the day when, approaching the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza at full speed, I heard the following phrase bellowing from lead singer Patrick Monahan's lungs:
"Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried chicken
Your best friend always sticking up for you even when you know you're wrong
Can you imagine no first dance, freeze dried romance five-hour phoneconversation
The best soy latte that you ever had . . . and me.
I nearly crashed into the toll booth. I might accept the combination of "love," "pride," and "deep fried chicken" in one sentence if it were written by Hunter S. Thompson, but sung, apparently without irony, at full volume with an entire string section sawing away in the background? Just like raw food, it makes my tummy feel yucky.
And then the rest of the verse, with its "freeze dried romance"... well, it all pales in comparison to that final zinger: "the best soy latte that you ever had ... and me." Let me be the first to say that the phrase "soy latte" should never under any circumstances appear in a song lyric, unless that lyric is written and sung by Weird Al Yankovic. How Train makes me long for the music of Weird Al Yankovic. Anyway, the song, "Drops of Jupiter," includes several other lyrical disasters, including "She checks out Mozart while she does Tae-Bo." No witty quip can do justice to that.
There are some basic ground rules that all songwriters should (and usually do) follow. I think we all learned a lesson from Wang Chung about never putting one's own band name in one's own song (remember "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight?" A less meaningful command has never been uttered.) That's Rule Number 1.
Number 2 is never succumbing to the temptation of shouting out the year your song was recorded, unless you are Prince and you are recording "1999." But that's the only exception. Even great bands have made this mistake; remember The Pharcyde's groovy song, "Runnin'?" It's so smooth, so chill, until you hear "But now in '95, I must survive..." and then you think: no, it's 2006. Damn, this song is old. Which means I'm old. Damn! I'm pretty sure that's not the response The Pharcyde was hoping for. And Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" begins with a date-check: "1989 the number, another summer..." Only a band of PE's brilliance could start with a mistake like that and make you forget it by the end of the song. But Train, you're no Public Enemy.
<p Which brings us to Rule Number 3, a rule tangentially related to Number 2. Yes, good writing includes specific details. But when looking for details to include, avoid references that are so trendy, so blatantly stamped with a sell-by date, that this time next year no one will know what you're talking about and/or they will simply find it lame. Examples? Oh, how about SOY LATTES and TAE-BO, for instance???
The tragic element here is that Train's songs are often catchy and even charming, with unusual song structures and good arrangements. And yes, Patrick Monahan can sing. But sing what? That's the problem.
These days, Train is a multi-platinum band, which means it has reached the mainstream and is floating comfortably there. Nothing wrong with the mainstream, but is this the kind of band that best represents San Francisco? Well, I just checked craigslist, and the cheapest apartment in the Mission today is $1600 for a 1BR with almost enough space for you and your iPod. So who knows? Maybe Train really is an exemplary SF band: overpriced and clinging desperately to a bohemian image that no longer applies. Oh, Ms. Soo Ying, where are you when we need you?
Train is playing at the Greek Theater in Berkeley on Saturday, August 26. Tickets are $38.50 -- or about ten soy lattes, including tax.