For someone raised in and around Boston I have always had a strange calling to explore California. With previous visits to San Francisco, I had enlisted a swift take, a first impression that wasn’t so lasting as much as confusing. I am not sure if it was merely being dipped into the whirlpool color bath of the city too fast without steeping in the culture or just a result of particularly muddled convergences of place and time. I did however get tickled with a charm that stuck to my shoes like wet leaves from the park that you find when you get home. So, I was by no means deterred from returning to the city when I was given an opportunity to assist photographer Joseph Linaschke on a job. The locations for his shoot were around the North Beach district. I took it upon myself research the area ahead of time. I booked a room at hotel that appealed to my personal customary taste and jotted a few notes about restaurants near the hotel. I read that the area had a particular orientation to Italian culture which perked my interest and had me saying to myself The North End in Boston is Little Italy too and I started to listen deeper to the language that writers were using about the area. After all, I was using the same set of ears and sensory processing I used for listening to music and perhaps with this awareness I could hear the the genuine tones of my destination’s history.
I often feel like listening to an music album from start to finish is like travelling from one point to another and eventually reaching a physical destination in addition to the obvious emotional and artistic developments. As if, after progressing through the songs, the listener has taken great strides to be transported. While travelling in a car provides the opportunity to listen to long stretches of music it also resets our hearing when we step out of the car in a new place. Cracking open the doorway in a parking garage near Pier 35 in San Francisco’s North Beach district was as potent to hear as the first notes that emerge from the crackling fuzz of a record player.
As I ventured into the residential area I noticed the sound shift from the bright echoless open air of the bayside to a muffled hum softly bouncing around in the tightly packed dwellings. Here this heartwarming homestead reverberation sounded safe and yet carried a mysteriously hushed pulse that undeniably pushed through the pavement like willful grass growing up through the cracks. It is this familiar longing in such vividly voiced areas that makes me curious about hearing into the past. The stories of disappeared days that are told by sounds sustained in the landscape might lack detailed reports but the personification of beats and melodies can inspire the imagination to create the characters and set the stage. I felt a particular familiarity with the sounds as they mirrored the North End of Boston. Why would I want to even explore this cryptic musical language? Will it tell me something just simply fascinating or perhaps deliver an important message?
I carried these questions up a steep street where elements of the audio mix seemed to peel away like flakes of old paint and tumble back down the hill. I stopped halfway up the way to the Coit Tower to look at the view behind me and a lovely couple approached me looking up past me smiling as if to say, without words, we hear it too.. it’s up here. What was it? I continued climbing and reached the lawn at the tower. I sat on the wall that bordered the lawn and hung my gaze upon the spreading horizon out over the bay. There it was, like a giant salad bowl of noise, filled halfway with every single layer of the city’s sound and halfway with an impenetrable silence that hovers over the hill like a lofty blanket. I closed my eyes, dug into this silence and heard a vulnerable dreamlike orchestra. Out of the sound field, like little crackling fire sparks, came some quick notes of gentle animal footsteps on leaves nearby. I opened my eyes to see a coyote, ears forward, staring back at me. In one easy move It’s ears turned outward and it’s eyes looking deep into mine softened with kindness. It seemed to say, hello, I am the Coit Coyote, thanks for listening, have a nice day, before it danced back through the tall grass under the Cypress trees.
As I descended the hill, which seemed so steep that even sound itself couldn’t defy the gravitational pull of the incline, I felt like I had won a prize. I had endured a self-motivated scavenger hunt to discover a secret sound that commonly goes unnoticed to the inhabitants of it’s location and I was determined to find this sound in other places in North Beach. Motivated more by hunger, and less for the prospect of my mission, I went to Molinari’s Deli, where the transparent sound was quite delightfully buried in the patron’s excited voices as they ordered from the menu. Here the sandwich makers laugh and sing while they work. It is a place where sounds of celebrating family and food merge in music so me and my sandwich moved on to the hotel. The most special home on the hunt for the hidden sound of my fascination was at The Historic San Remo Hotel that I stayed at. Standing in the plant lined foyer, with coyote like ears I could swear I heard the faint haunting of romantic voices and laughter. And in my room as I played guitar I could hear sympathetic tones glisten like treasure in the dark gray fog cover that had suddenly hung like curtains in the sky.