On the Lower Frequencies
By Erick Lyle
(Soft Skull Press, 2008)
Subtitled A Secret History of the City, this collection of material from the low-budget zines “Scam” and “Turd-Filled Donut” covers Erick Lyle’s life as a grassroots musician and activist during the final years of the 20th and opening years of the 21st centuries. Lyle was a teenager in South Florida when he read about Northern California direct action protests to save the redwoods. After his best friend returned from 1992 pro-indigenous/anti-Columbus Day protests in San Francisco, young Erick, using the moniker Iggy Scam, made his way North to investigate the dissident rumblings on the Left Coast.
Lyle train hopped far and wide, posting dispatches from New Orleans, Chattanooga, Tennessee (where he helped a friend through the agonizing initial days of heroin withdrawal), and other cities. But Lyle’s focus is mainly on street level homeless advocacy and guerrilla rock and roll in San Francisco.
I was glad to witness several of the “generator shows” which Lyle writes about taking part in. During the late 1990s and early aughts, I worked in an office directly above San Francisco’s 16th and Mission BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station where many of these impromptu, permit-less concerts took place. The generator was portable, and powered amplifiers which could be packed and unpacked quickly.
After too many hours in front of a computer screen, it was indeed a treat to hoof down to the BART “plaza” to enjoy various ensembles of ragged, cacophonous youngsters bashing on guitars and drums for a cross-section of less than well-heeled San Franciscans.
Many people I spoke to in these crowds speculated that the S.F. police let the shows continue without interference because they disrupted the open-air heroin supermarket which is the distinguishing feature of the intersection. Whatever the reason for the authorities’ kid gloves treatment, the up from the gutter abandon of the ad-hoc concerts was a true kick, and not just for dropout punk kids. The neighborhood’s majority Latino population was also well represented in the audiences, and many were clearly entertained.
Lyle’s sense of civic responsibility extends well beyond just helping fellow noisemakers challenge the eardrums and musical sensibilities of hordes of pedestrians and stray junkies, however. In an interview included here with Paul Boden, co-founder of the S.F.-based Coalition on Homelessness, Boden tells Lyle that in founding the paper Street Sheet, which homeless vendors are given free and sell for a dollar, the Coalition helped put several million bucks into homeless people’s pockets. Boden exults, “I don’t know too many non-profits that can make that claim!”
Lyle and his friends worked for other successes on the Street Sheet model — directly helping poor people, bypassing bloated bureaucracies and the managerial classes. They achieved a short-lived victory by putting together a cafe that fed hundreds of people without charge and encouraged the creation of political art. Unfortunately for its patrons, the café, like many of the spaces lovingly described in this book, is in a squatted building which becomes suddenly more valuable during San Francisco’s late ’90s gentrification.
The Turd-Filled Donut (TFD) was distributed (by unsalaried editors) via commandeered newspaper boxes. Among other items, the TFD ran hilarious riffs parodying the venerable 20th century S.F. columnist Herb Caen, bylined “Turd Caen.” It existed to inform and entertain, and to challenge the pro-growth, pro-development politics of its mainstream rival the San Francisco Examiner. From the evidence presented here, the scrappy little paper succeeded on all fronts.
Lyle describes a hilarious meeting at Examiner offices where TFD staffers confront their button-down counterparts, asking for evidence supporting the paper’s claim that crime had increased in the immediate neighborhood. When the Examiner employees fail to do so, Lyle’s crew presents internal SF police memos (gleaned through a Freedom of Information Act request) showing that no increase in crime has occurred in the area in question.
Scoring another victory for seat-of-the-pants investigative journalism, a TFD reporter succeeded in getting in to a PR-designed question and answer session with notoriously aloof mayor Willie Brown. The TFD correspondent asked Brown tough questions collected in advance from poor residents of various welfare hotels, and Brown actually concluded by saying, on the record, “I say to people who are poverty-stricken, I know how much you love San Francisco, but, because of the nature of cost of living here, you are better off being poverty-stricken where the cost of living is not so great.”
One of my favorite comedic bits in this frequently hilarious collection is the two page entry called “Scam Punks vs. Starbucks.” Lyle describes printing up thousands of fake coupons for free cups of Starbucks coffee, then distributing them for hours in San Francisco’s financial district with a few friends. The day ends with a hysterical Starbucks rep unsuccessfully attempting to make a citizen’s arrest of a quickly exiting pal of Lyle’s.
On the Lower Frequencies is as sprawling and digression-packed as a thick novel you can’t put down. It’s fitting that Hubert Selby is name-checked, as Lyle shares Selby’s commendable empathy for society’s outcasts, not excluding criminal elements. When people think of Selby’s writing, they usually forget something else Lyle shares with the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn: a decidedly bent sense of humor.
Lyle’s writes movingly of how miserable and powerless he felt after the world-wide anti-war actions he participated in during late 2002 and early 2003 failed to stop the Bush regime from invading Iraq. Didn’t we all. But while, like all of us, Lyle and his comrades make mistakes, they continue to work at keeping dissent alive in the age of the so-called “war on terror.”
And at his best, Lyle maintains that persistence with a nice sense of perspective, as when he confesses: “I certainly don’t want to have all the answers. There’s no literature in it, no mystery.”