Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Musically Beautiful Mind

By Steven Tavares

When John Dalcino’s short, thin fingers first hit the slick, white keys of a piano the room brightens.

At that moment, the demons go away and tranquility and grace fills his troubled mind.

“His eyebrows would raise and it was like he wasn’t there. He had this third eye that was channeling the music. If you looked at him straight in the eye while he’s playing, it was like he was looking at God. All he was seeing was the music in his head,” said rapper Shock-G, formerly known as Humpty Hump of the 80’s Bay Area hip-hop group Digital Underground.

Shock-G first met Dalcino in the early 1980s when he sold keyboards at a local music shop on East 14th Street in San Leandro.

Dalcino had a studio in his home at the time that was stocked with some of the best music equipment available, said Shock-G.

He had the hippest, most beautiful studio in the Bay,” said Shock-G.

Before Digital Underground fully formed they cut their teeth at Dalcino’s home, bouncing around rhymes and rhythms in a genre of music that was set to explode upon the nation’s consciousness.

“Back then there wasn’t many people rapping in the Bay Area yet,” said Shock-G, “Hammer was getting up there, but most were just getting started.”

While artists like Shock-G, Tupac Shakur and M.C. Hammer were gaining a large following, the career of John Dalcino didn’t falter because of the standard music stereotypes of drugs, booze and women, in his case, something fundamental was holding him back: his mind was sick.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and insanity and Dalcino crossed over that line in his early 20’s—in fact, in a clinical sense, his medical records would say he did it seven times.
His mother says she knew the baby growing in her belly during the winter of 1956 was going to be a musician when he would repeatedly kick in a constant rhythm.

When Dalcino was born, he was a quick learner.

“At six months old, I took John to the doctor and the doctor said, ‘Look at that. He has perfect control. So I put him on the toilet and he was potty trained. Nobody could believe it,” said Carolyn Dalcino.

By age four, Dalcino began playing around on the piano and vaguely discernible music started emanated from the room, said his mother, but she thought her son was too different than the other children and kept him apart from other kids.

“My mom would take the keyboard cover and slam it on my fingers,” said Dalcino, “Everybody was outside swinging on swings and making toy boxes and I couldn’t go out there and join in on the fun. She caught me looking out the window one day and she took the cover and broke three of my fingers.”

Dalcino says he can play the drums, bass guitar, clarinet and saxophone, but is most proficient playing the piano.

As he grew up in San Leandro, he excelled in music at every level of his public schooling.

He was so good that, at age 15, he played for Sammy Davis, Jr. at a concert in Lake Tahoe.

But, the mental breakdowns that would plague him throughout his life would soon begin to make themselves known through violent rants and erratic public behavior.

During one episode, he ran through the streets of San Leandro in front of a group of girls naked. Soon afterward, he was sent to a mental hospital for the first time.

“I was 20 and they committed me! I walked out, threw away my pills and snapped and they put me back in again,” said Dalcino.

Through the fog of numerous medications, Dalcino sat in with some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century.

Mingo Lewis, Woody Herman, Don Ellis, Carlos Vega and Harry Connick, Jr. all had Dalcino sit in on performance when they came to the Bay Area.

Today, after three heart attacks before the age of 50, he says he takes 22 different medications to treat his mental illness and to keep his heart ticking properly.

Luckily, he says because he worked a time as a garbage man, the local Teamsters union foots the bill for most of his medication that cost $3,450 a month.

As he orders a large coffee with eight shots of espresso, a customer in the coffeehouse raises an eyebrow and smiles.

The barista, Jose, says they limit the amount of shots of caffeine for health reasons, but he’s taken an order of nine before.

It’s clear, though, that without music, Dalcino’s eccentricities even show in his coffee order.

Sitting at a corner table, sipping his liquid defibrillator, the need for music’s mathematical order reveals itself.

It’s his habit to unload all his personal effects on the table in front of him.
It’s as if he’s placing the objects in a row similar to how a composer would place notes on a sheet of music.

To his left he places a worn, black wallet bulging with plastic cards, photos and raggedy pieces of small paper.

Next to that, placed slightly above the wallet, his keys. Next to that, again slightly higher than the keys, he places a blank compact disk, next to that slightly lower on the scale he counts out 10 one-hundred dollar bills, followed by 10 fifties and then 10 twenties placed as the low as the wallet.

The music in his head doesn’t flow as well as it once did. He says he barely plays the piano much anymore.

Walter Felis, a former tenant of one of his mother’s duplexes, says most of the time he doesn’t make any sense when he’s talking to you, just these long speeches that might mean something to him, but not to anybody else.

At the coffeehouse, he would end cogent answers to questions with peculiar non sequiturs, including a date witht Paris Hilton next week and story of dining with a local musician.

“I told him, you’re coming to my house for dinner. He said, ‘I didn’t know black people ate with white people’. I said, shut the f--- up and eat your pasta,” blurted Dalcino.

“When he starts playing the keyboards, he’s like Mozart,” said Felis.

“He used to be smooth back in the day,” said Shock-G, “Now, he plays like he talks, but in his music I can still hear genius.”

Music has always been his safe house from a world that seems too foreign for his ailing psyche to handle.

“When I get into a zone, everything is easy for me because I don’t have to talk,” said Dalcino.

“Stan Getz told me, some night it’s s--t and other nights it’s magic and I could never get away from that. Music is a drug,” says Dalcino.

It’s the only drug in his medicine cabinet that makes him feel himself.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Ferrell's Umpteenth Sports Flick Clanks The Rim


In Will Ferrell’s quest to blanket the history of film with comedies on every single sport known to man, comes an afroed former disco singer with a basketball team.

“Semi-Pro”, Ferrell’s latest ode to sports buffoonery is far from some of the great comedies of the past few years because it lacks a clever premise for the jokes to percolate and, of course, anything funny.

The sad sack Flint Tropics of the American Basketball Association need to finish fourth to be part of the coming merger with the National Basketball Association. Ferrell’s Jackie Moon is owner/marketer/power forward for the Tropics by way of a bouncy disco tune “Love Me Sexy” that proves to be his best performance of the movie.

The problem with “Semi-Pro” is director Kent Alterman doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie he wanted to make--a slapstick comedy or a romantic comedy.

Most of the confusion is the pairing of Ferrell and the grizzled vet Ed Monix played by Woody Harrelson. Is this movie about Moon’s Tropics or Monix returning to Flint to reunite with his old girlfriend played by Maura Tierney? Three-fourths through the film yet another plotline emerges with the team’s underachieving star fulfilling his dream of playing in the NBA.

This confusion of a leading man runs against what a paying customer would expect from absorbing a major marketing campaign that started on Super Bowl Sunday and included cross-promotions with Bud Light and Gillette.

This comedy is about Will Ferrell’s character as much as the 90’s sitcom “Family Matters” was about Steve Urkel. Sadly, Ferrell is just a constant distraction from the lack of any discernible focus.

Like a cross-court pass that is telegraphed and stolen by a quicker defender, many of “Semi-Pro’s” featured bits have punch lines that are anticipated a mile away.

When the team meets for a game of poker at Moon’s house, a misspoken “Jive Turkey!” forces the color analyst to brandish a pistol. The weapon turns out to be unloaded, so they think. The characters each grab the gun and perform their own improvisations, including Moon hilariously feigning, “I shot myself in the wiener.” From the first improv, it’s clear that someone is going to be accidentally shot.

There are some shining performances in Semi-Pro, though. Benjamin, who plays the cocky, but talented hoopster, who goes by many names, including Coffee Black, in an obvious nod to the late 70’s star World B. Free, actually looks like he can act.

Andrew Daly plays the straight-laced Tropics play-by-play announcer Dick Pepperfield to the highest laughs in the film. His by-the-book description of the first alley-oop in basketball history is a great movie quote in the making.

Sadly, “Semi-Pro” is a movie reminiscent of recent comedies like "Superbad" and “The Brothers Solomon” that isn’t based on a funny script, but comedians leaning on the film’s “R” rating to allow them to say pour out explicative for the sake of shocking the audience.

You can go to any bar or stand on any corner and hear a mildly funny person stringing together a litany of curse words and get a chuckle. For the high price of admission something just a bit more creative is due.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Muslims Sense Prejudice In Clinton's Campaign Tactic


By Steven Tavares

When photos of Sen. Barack Obama wearing traditional garb of a Somali elder and turban, Muslims around the country saw what they feared: a presidential talking point disguised as a proxy against their religion.

In the days since the infamous photo appeared Feb. 25 on the website, “The Drudge Report” Muslims, including bloggers, have criticized the implication of Obama, who is Christian, being tied with extremist Islamic views.

“I don’t like it, but I knew it was coming,” said Nasir Mohammed, a 32-year-old mechanic from Fremont, “Bush dressed up in Chinese clothes and nobody said he was a communist.”

Matt Drudge, the conservative blogger, who also broke the Monica Lewinsky story in 1998, wrote on his website that the photo of Obama, taken during a visit to Kenya in 2006, was distributed by various staffers from the Hillary Clinton campaign.

On Obama’s campaign website, David Plouffe, the candidate’s campaign manager, described the tactic as “the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election”.

While the connotation that Obama is, in fact, Muslim was unsettling, some Muslims are more pragmatic.

Ahmad Helmand, a security guard from Hayward who immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan in the early 1980’s, believes that the Muslim world would look proudly to the United States if they voted someone of color or of a different faith than the majority of Americans.

“It doesn’t matter to me, because he said he’s Christian,” said Helmand, “If people want to believe he’s a terrorist, then so be, they’re probably racist anyway.”

A day after Drudge’s posting, conservative talk-show host, Bill Cunningham, introduced Sen. John McCain at rally for his campaign for the republican presidential nomination, by referring to Obama by his entire name, which includes his middle name Hussein.

McCain later apologized to the Obama campaigned, but the meme of the candidate with a middle eastern-sounding name wearing a turban has been set in the minds of many voters.

Juan R. I. Cole, the noted University of Michigan professor who specializes on middle east affairs, found the blatant use of Obama’s full name to be inappropriate.

On his website, he wrote, “Denigrating that name is a form of racial and religious bigotry of the most vile and debased sort. It is a prejudice against names deriving from Semitic languages,” said Cole.

He also noted that other famous Americans in history like World War II Gen. Omar Bradley and Benjamin Franklin also had derivations of middle eastern surnames.

“I don’t think people really care what a person’s name is as long as they have money in their pockets,” said Mohammed.