On The Lower Frequencies

Reviewed: On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City
Author: Erick Lyle
Paperback, 224 pages
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, 2008

Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City—a collection of articles, interviews and musings taken from various sources, particularly Lyle’s ‘zines Turd-Filled Donut and Scam—traces the broad trends of San Francisco street life and city politics through the frustratingly narrow and often noxious view of a lowly activist punk. Lyle succeeds in making the political personal, showing how the day-to-day lives of the city’s poor and displaced are impeded by the forces at City Hall and a constant influx of newly moneyed interests, and how, in a city as crowded and multilayered as San Francisco, the struggles of the past renew themselves time and again, with new parties taking up the same battles as their predecessors, only with the stakes consistently raised. An Irish boy growing up in the Mission District during the fifties and sixties becomes resentful of the growing numbers of working Latinos in the neighborhood, while a scandal unfolds involving the attempted railroading of Latino youth activists over the shooting of a corrupt cop. Cut to decades later, and that young Irish boy has grown up to become a top ranking police officer himself. As he helps push the working Latinos out of his old neighborhood making way for an influx of new, white dot-commers, he receives resentment from those he once resented as new arrivals. When Lyle presents stories like these, the secret histories of his subtitle, and stands back a bit, the book pulls the reader in. There is no getting around the fact that San Francisco history is as enthralling as any major American city, and with its smaller scale, that history has an intimacy; the drama comes down from Mount Olympian heights and sits squarely at street level. It’s a history we can imagine being witness to, instead of some grand Gotham opera we’re forced to watch from the cheap seats.

However, there is also no denying that Lyle is an aggravating writer. It seems unfair to accuse someone of navel gazing when their book, essentially, is a memoir, but for all the time Lyle gives to writing about the abandoned buildings that line mid-town Market Street, or the piss-soaked, graffiti’d alleyways of the Mission, the backdrop that pervades the book most is Lyle himself. This becomes especially grating as Lyle reminds the reader how committed he and his band of saintly fellow squatters are to humanitarian causes, when really the impetus for most of their activism seems to be the expression of their own, well, expression. When Lyle muses that he feels personally responsible for the war in Iraq because he hasn’t been successful in using his artistic protests to stop it, he sums up—unintentionally—just how self-centered he is. The issue is not the war—or the reasons for it, or the civilian casualties on the ground (however much he reiterates all of these points, summing them up in the refrain “FUCK AMERICA!”)—but himself, and the importance of his (non)connection to it all. But that’s war: so often incomprehensible to those both in it, and observing it, that it is bound to pull out awkward reactions from people.

When it comes to the crust-punk ethos, entitlement is the larger driving force, an entitlement that is as deeply ingrained as that found in the trust-fund, dot-com yuppies.

Less forgivable is Lyle’s attitude to his fellow city dwellers. On The Lower Frequencies traces the periods between the rise of the dot-com bubble to a few years before the collapse of the entire American economy, and Lyle remains throughout the same obnoxious, entitled anarchist who sees any sort of private ownership as one and the same with the worst examples of gentrification, and who views anyone who’s not in the punk scene (or else homeless, or some kind of non-assimilationist, and thus exotic, person of color—a phrase uses frequently) as just another vacuous yuppie/hipster/capitalist pig. He hurls blunt insults and accusations in capitals throughout, FUCK THIS and FUCK THAT. Of course, rudeness and blunt force are tenets of punk, especially the lefty crust punk subculture Lyle embodies, and while that can engage and incite in a three-minute song, it becomes harder to bear when maintained throughout a three-hundred page book. This tone does become somewhat enlightening, however, in revealing that when it comes to the crust-punk ethos, entitlement is the larger driving force, an entitlement that is as deeply ingrained as that found in the most spoiled of trust-fund, dot-com yuppies.

As the pieces in On the Lower Frequencies were written over the course of two decades, it follows that Lyle went through changes of his own. Anyone who follows politics, let alone who follows it as closely as he does (and in this regard you cannot slight him—he keeps extremely aware of both local and national issues) comes to question some of their own beliefs. However, in Lyle’s case it never goes beyond the surface. He begins to ask himself “what are we for, instead of just against?” But he never finds much of an answer beyond giving out free food and trying to open up space to the public for cultural, communal expression. Which would be fine, if the understanding he’d arrived at is that there is no such thing as a real utopia worth fighting for, and that big questions rarely come with big answers, and that one’s energies are better put to use helping their neighbors than trying to save the entire goddamn world. But he doesn’t even get there. By the end of the book, he’s lamenting the fact that he and his friends have failed to change the world through their silly costume-party protests and illegal drive-by generator shows, as well as ending several pieces with groan-inducing entreaties that such a cataclysmic change might soon be at hand.

The truth is, of course, that it isn’t. There is nobility in fighting a losing battle in the name of one’s principles. But that nobility gets strained very thin when it comes at you so fervently, laced with ad hominem attacks. Erick Lyle has a talent for uncovering provincial history, and he clearly has a finger on the pulse of San Francisco street life. But for the most part, as presented in his writings, he’s just another one of the crust punks that brace you in the park or along Haight Street. There’s a good reason they get ignored.

Last edited: February 8, 2011

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