Much of what there is to learn in San Francisco you can find at Pier 39. But what matters isn’t located in the commercial concourse, with its San Fran memorabilia store and Victorian shoppe disgorging tourists for more of a Great American Photo Op, but rather back behind on the wharf side, marked by a crowd that leans along a wooden rail and watches hundreds of sea lions flopped on floating docks to bask and sleep and steam. A ferry named Old Blue, a yacht named Naia, each take a spin around the mass of brown flesh; the wind changes its mind about asking you to consider its favorite coastal odors, such as briny drying fur and sweet rotten fish, and whether the stench comes from sea lion breath or their bodies you do what you want with it. Some people leave. “They freakin’ stink,” says one woman.
I stand at the rail to learn what matters to sea lions: room to stretch one’s flippers into the sun, and closer quarters if one’s cold. Among the sea lions, the sleepers predominate; in rows they crowd only half a dozen docks. A few stand cocked like dogs, dreamily scratching their faces with the flopping digit of a hind flipper. Several wear orange tags. One’s branded with four numerals: 3261. Older males occasionally raise their heads and bark challenges to the air, while lithe females slip along their scarred flopping bulks and nestle unseen, for a nap.
We like to watch young males fighting for an entire dock, all eight by four feet of it. If you’re a male sea lion, you throw down your challenge by jumping straight from the water at the self-proclaimed owner and his territorial barks, and if he takes it up you’ll lean shoulder to shoulder against him, heads reared back and teeth bared and sometimes slapping each other’s necks with your teeth, until the stronger one pushes you slithering off, sometimes somersaulting, into the bay. Or perhaps you win and bark triumphantly. The rules are easy. Truces always dissolve. What matters is slick wet wood, which makes for better sliding, as well as playmates who understand that tomorrow’s another day for fighting, at the end of which no one owns any more slick salty wood than one did before, which is to say none — the play matters, not the owning.
At the railing, we shift and trade territories too. Humans often interrogate nature for lessons about society; at Pier 39 we want better camera angles as well, and to stand out of the shifted wind’s natural stink. “If you stare at ’em, they’ll stare right back at you,” someone observes. Many visitors are Europeans, identifiable by decorative English on their shiny vinyl backpacks. When a French dad perches his baby on the rail in front of him, Mom doesn’t flinch. Perversely, I wonder if the bottom of the wharf is lined with cameras, and how many. One, two, three Chinese men in suits pose at the railing while another takes a photo; the thinnest one, wearing a red tie, is smileless and bored. What matters to sea lions resembles what matters to us, and I suspect if T-shirt shops, refrigerator magnets, CD-ROMS, initial public offerings, and bandwidth envy didn’t exist we’d snooze all the time too.
Several days earlier, I was further north, in Dunsmuir, a small town south of Mount Shasta, where the tourist fishing economy has come back after a chemical spill nearly a decade ago erased all life in the Upper Sacramento River. Sitting at a picnic table under tall coastal redwoods that shaded our rustic cabins, I talked high-tech with an acquaintance, now an editor at a magazine called Forbes ASAP, who was up from the Bay Area with mutual friends to fish. I noted to him how my department back in Austin has lost a number of grad student instructors to high-tech opportunities in Texas and abroad; these days you need more luck to land an academic job than to pull a native trout from an environmentally damaged river, and insofar as education has ever mattered in America, tech jobs pay better. “It’s like this,” my acquaintance explained. “Remember how during the Thirties everyone wanted to be in Hollywood? With high-tech it’s the same — that’s where the best and the brightest want to be.”
I accepted his logic, though I didn’t actually need the explanation — until much later, when I realized how his conventional wisdom cheapens, I think, the meanings of “best” and “brightest,” by presuming that money’s lure always shakes them out of the general population, and it also presumes that genius, talent, and intelligence aren’t found in other enterprises. True, Faulkner went to Hollywood — but after he’d written novels that haven’t stopped resonating sixty years later. As Faulkner might ask, if the best and the brightest go only where the money is, what about human attachments to prestige or knowledge or tradition or love?
I live in Austin, a city where none of these matter before money’s inexorable force. Music matters here, of course, maybe more so than it did; pure libido, less go-go, it predates real estate and high-tech, so it stands the best chance of preserving the city. Last summer, a musician and writer named Mike Hall organized musicians to play twenty-four hours of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” starting at 9 p.m. on a Friday at Liberty Lunch, a downtown club where I’ve seen some important bands of my adult life: Wilco, Sebadoh, Yo La Tengo, Bad Livers, Ween, El Vez, Sunny Day Real Estate, Sonic Youth. There’s not much to Liberty Lunch — a metal roof, a wide stage, high ceilings, garage doors that open onto the yard where you want to stand on July nights, get some distance between bodies. Cool air matters, but that night we stayed inside, where musicians had played for four hours; a band named Damnations TX patched in via cell phone from a road show in Georgia, and rumor was that tomorrow Van Morrison would call from Ireland.
That is, if the musicians lasted that long: two drummers, sometimes a guy on Latin percussion, two bass, two keyboards, and at least two guitars, all wandering on and off stage as they pleased. The stage, permeable, was the song: at one point six guitarists crowded around to jam a feedbacky Sonic Youth version (one guitarist walking to his car, heard the jam start, turned around, got on stage, plugged in his guitar; “That sounds like fun,” he’d told his wife), and at another moment, a trumpet played alongside a soft groove “Gloria,” a sort of jazzy cakewalk interlude, then slowly the song revved again, the trumpet player chopped it up and everybody upped the tempo and the volume until someone starts singing “G-L-O-R-I-A.” The most amazing thing: no one (unless it was the song itself) led them there, they came around to hammering down the chords G-L-O-R-I-A, so that the butch guitarist with the long chain attached to her wallet who’d been flicking Beatles melodies in and around the bassline was suddenly sawing down hard power chords. At this point, someone from the audience gets up, a hefty blonde chick in a little blue dress, belting out “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A” a few times offkey, before jamming into Patti Smith lyrics, rolling her girthy hips around like a dye-job rock ‘n’ roll Monica Lewinsky, G-L-O-R-I-A.
In this way, the song surges and ebbs. I asked Mike Hall, “Why ‘Gloria’?” but he couldn’t answer, though I realized the better question was, “What is ‘Gloria’?” What’s a song, where are its edges? The musicians entrain tightly; on the other hand, it’s hard to screw up three chords. In this collegial atmosphere, new styles emerge, flourish for a few measures, and then fade forever: the psychedelic wa-wa guitar with the Latin cowbell, the power metal guitar with the tootly brass. Is this a song or an opportunity to incubate styles? Like the stage, “Gloria” celebrates its own elasticity: even though someone sings other Doors lyrics then Patti Smith, then the butch guitarist sounds like she’s rapping for a while, then bursting out with G-L-O-R-I-A, the song knows what it is, and you, listening, know where you are.
Liberty Lunch was never much of a building; now it’s nothing, the latest erasure in a city where, seven years ago, you could read in the weekly Austin Chronicle letters from disgruntled hippies who announced they were leaving Austin, but no such letters anymore: there’s no one left to write them. Along the way, music fails to matter, or like everything else, it turns out to be commerce, too. Libido is an untapped market, a frontier, a billboard. Where “Gloria” happened is a dirt lot surrounded by a construction fence — those twenty-four hours were the last musical event at the place, razed several weeks later. Gone too are a homeless shelter and a day labor site, the land sold to a computer company that’s building its headquarters there, a deal to develop Austin’s downtown. Progress, some call it; “smart growth.” As a friend recently put it, “Austin’s a great city, but it’s a big world.” I long for a place in that big world, where what matters will never be in danger.
Austin writer Michael Erard plays three chords very well.