The last book I loved was On the Lower Frequencies by San Francisco’s Erick Lyle, editor of the underground-classic Scam zine, freelance journalist, and musician-at-large. The book reads as a kind of political and cultural memoir, mostly comprising essays and stories previously published in Scam or the TFD, a newsletter covering San Francisco politics.
On the Lower Frequencies spans a wide-ranging grip of topics, including organizing and playing in illegal punk shows in the Mission, marching in the city-shutting-down protest against the war, and a hilarious and terrifying account of the donut shop that was the “epicenter of crime” of San Francisco, which readers might recognize from Lyle’s reading on NPR. The author is friends with many political organizers and activists, and writes about his and their experiences working on mayoral campaigns, needle exchanges, and homeless outreach programs. He is also plugged into the underground art scene, notably interviewing bay area artist Zara Thustra (Google: Sara Thustra) multiple times in the book, revealing some rad perspectives on the intersections of art and personal/political change.
One particularly interesting aspect of the book is the frontiers to which Lyle and his friends push the well-known punk/DIY ideal of repurposing unused objects and public space. San Francisco residents see street art every day, like the recent “Gold Miner Store” pieces on Market Street and the massive city-sanctioned murals in the Tenderloin. What many may not wonder about, however, is the extension of these art statements to the reclaiming of actual unused public buildings. The possible center of Lyle’s narrative, which is organized loosely since it is excerpted from multiple sources and contains interviews and letters, is the story of the 949 Market squat, wherein Lyle and his crew discover a massive abandoned building, build it into a sustainable punk paradise, and then use it to organize huge shows, host free dinners, and provide living spaces for friends. I found this story fascinating, not just for the specifics of how they found and occupied such a huge space for so long (see book for details) but also because it forces us as readers to consider what “vacant space” means in the city, especially when we walk past huge, boarded up buildings every day on Market Street while dozens of people struggle to stay warm outside the padlocked doors.
The more personal sections of the book are written very poetically, from summers in the city with old friends and new bands, to Lyle’s first nights in San Francisco spent exploring every street on foot, to listening to a Dead Moon record alone, far from home, desperately worried about a friend. Even without considering the cultural and political essays, On the Lower Frequencies captures the underground/punk moment in an elegant, beautiful and extremely informative way that I think would be of interest to anyone within or without any particular group or scene.
A final cool aspect of this book is that, despite many of the businesses mentioned having closed down and many of the events chronicled taking place a few years ago, the people and bands and artists and activists working in Lyle’s stories are for the most part still working right now. You can stop by Clarion Alley in the Mission to check out a Zara Thustra mural, you can read new articles by Lyle (latest one on Art Basel, Miami) in the SF Bay Guardian, and you can stroll down to Needles and Pens on 16th street and pick up the latest issue of Scam. The DIY-culture energy is still very much alive in San Francisco today, and reading On the Lower Frequencies is a great way to learn about both the history of the phenomenon and the current outlets for political activism and non-consumer creativity.