Dilettante 1: Hootenanny

In dilettante by summerburkes0 Comments

Here was my first assignment for “online,” whatever that was.

Even the word “assignment” isn’t right. “Dilettante” was most decidedly an autodidact’s column. Not long after shoving my way into this internship at the SFBG, and aiming to turn it into a job, a friend and I wanted to take a road trip on a budget.

So I called up Goldenvoice and proudly told them I “worked for” the Bay Guardian (not a lie, just not for pay), and asked for two passes to the 1997 Hootenanny in Irvine.

Before “Dilettante,” I mostly just wrote about rock’n’roll. New music was a mystery to consumers: Record stores thrived, but most didn’t yet feature listening stations. It helped if a professional music critic told you whether or not an album was worth buying before you paid $10-15 just to hear it. That was my job: Applying a critical ear towards music to make connections within the realm, to save people money on records and CDs.

Coming from a rockabilly town like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the legendary Sleazefest has jumped the joint for over 20 years now and quirky greasers lurked in every wooded hovel, I was subconsciously looking for familiarity with this assignment.

To expand my horizons beyond the prospect of seeing the same hipster bands at the same bars, shows, and galleries in Chapel Thrill for the next however long, I’d migrated West to San Francisco the previous year. It was a good move: One’s 20s should ideally include a never-ending supply of music and art scenes in which to splash around.

film cameras! this was the picture of me at hootenanny

Now, how was I going to stay poor and free and obtain free tickets to any rock show ever? Without facing the responsibility of becoming a performing artist myself? I had an idea.

Nobody in Chapel Hill knew I was a musician anyway, since singers don’t have instruments to carry. Only the people I grew up with thought I’d “be a singer,” as in a paying job. My imperious opera professor at the UNC-CH opera program could tell I felt repelled from his world of classical stuffiness and drawn to more … subcultural life choices. We went our separate ways.

In school and in general, I could never settle down into a wheelhouse and master it. Muses were as numerous to me as areas of interest and singing styles. That’s why I chose the name “Dilettante” for the column — to trumpet the praise of anyone who had foregone ultimately useless nights out in those same bars, shows, and galleries for everyday practice and performance. The artists on my beat had achieved — or at least begun slouching toward — mastery.

And I, most glaringly, had not, and wanted to own that, too. If other artists were the bright lights of humanity, then I would be a disco ball. Being unwilling to commit my life to the opera world, I had to make spectacle-hunting at the bars, shows, and galleries mean something positive and productive. In this new nightlife smorgasbord of a world-class port town, with traveling groups and weirdos coming in from all over the globe, I would find a way to make a living enjoying spectacle.

Didn’t know how lucky I’d get.

So this Hootenanny assignment was the prototypical column which would score me the gig as one of ten “Guardian Web Exclusive” columns at the paper’s new online desk. Beth Loudmouth from the SFBG’s art department designed a logo to my request, and it was thrilling, punk rock perfection:

P.S. In this trip to greater Los Angeles, toes were dipped in the California dating pool: I met ___ The Clown, my first long-distance and secret junkie boyfriend, who dropped off the face of the earth a short time later and we all thought he died. He was courteous enough to call me a year later to say that he hadn’t.

Click through to read “Honky Tonk Heaven,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on July 21, 1997.

Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter.

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