My Bizarre Valentine 

Scouring Oakland's oddities on the loneliest day of the year.

Yeah, another Valentine's Day snuck up to kick us all in the ass. Shop windows flaunt blowout sales of heart-shaped trinkets and red balloons. At Luka's Taproom, a pernicious combination of Michael Jackson music and Midori cocktails vaults everyone to improbable heights of bliss. Even the scrappy youngsters haunting 12th Street BART appear to have booty calls lined up for the evening, as they're all dangling teddy bears and synthetic roses. If you've got a honey, you're bracing for the most awkward and staged night of the year; if you've got no one, you're pretending to be smugly above the fray. It helps that the weather sucks, an Arctic wind buffeting trash through the streets of downtown Oakland.

Of course, Valentine's Day wouldn't be complete without a string of options for the unhitched and broken-hearted. On that tip, the East Bay has plenty to offer. It starts with the "What It Do" hip-hop party at Mingles, which advertises a special Valentine's performance by cheeky East Bay rapper Little Larry. Indeed, it's hard to find a more septic vision of romance than the one Larry proffers on his song "Sexual Relations": I'm trying to hit something, bust a nut and cut/Come back, do the same thing, hittin' that butt. For something slightly more subtle, there's always the Sexicon: Art and Language of Erotica exhibit at Berkeley's Living Room Gallery, which includes such impieties as a mock American Apparel ad and a photorealistic portrait of what appears to be a vagina with teeth. There's even a guy outside wearing red, boner-flaunting spandex shorts -- obviously he took the "sleazy does it" dress code a little too seriously.

But maybe smutty rappers, Vagina Dentata, and red spandex don't really do it for you. You'd rather be among people who'll put a gothic spin on the pleasures of the flesh -- and flesh itself, for that matter. In that case, it's time to head over to 21 Grand for a "Valentine's Day Massacre" featuring weird Surrealist paintings, organ players in mutant costumes, and, of all things, a ghoulish doo-wop band.

Tucked inside a dingy Oakland warehouse that's also home to Smythe's Accordion Center, the latest 21 Grand incarnation is an icy, post-industrial space that's exactly the opposite of the meat-market environments you'll find at Luka's or Mingles. For V-Day, the stage is blocked off by a large video screen showing clips from vintage B-movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. There's a table in back laden with wine, beer, and a big bowl of potato chips; gallery walls are decorated with dreamlike paintings and photographs depicting bodies in grotesque, frightening poses -- one called Speed Queen shows a woman collapsed in a washtub with her legs splayed over the washing machine. Gauzy music rattles from the club's stereo, an echoey skool-wap skool-wap vocal vamp over muted horns and accordion. People mill around in various stages of dishevelment; many wear rumpled fedoras and thrift-store coats with fake bloodstains. One dude sports a pair of plaid legwarmers. A woman in a black sacklike dress sits by herself reading a book.

The live performances are not only stranger than you imagine, but almost stranger than you can imagine. First up is Spider Compass and the Good Crime Band, an act comprising either two organ players dressed in pink-headed bird costumes, or one organ player with four legs and a two-headed bird suit. You can see that Mr. Plaid Legwarmers is trapped in that bird somewhere, though whether he's playing the organ is a point of contention -- after all, it's entirely possible that the bird-thing tried to swallow him but couldn't digest his legs. Spider Compass plays a distorted morgue bassline addled with drum 'n' bass effects and a lot of honking sounds -- music that would classify as tame on the avant-garde Richter scale. Rest assured, it's far eclipsed by the next act.

In real life, her name is Susan, slight and pretty, with a teal skirt and a ponytail. Onstage, though, she transforms into Frothfingers, a strange animal with a lumpy snout and a paint-spattered coverall suit, like an emaciated polar bear with its skin turned inside out. Like Spider Compass, she plays electric organ, splicing her melodies with hazy studio effects and grinding sounds that most closely resemble a chainsaw, or possibly Alvin and the Chipmunks being strangled. The video screen behind her shows a spackled wall with its paint sloughing off; since the interior layers of that wall are the same color as Frothfingers' costume, it looks as though she was peeled right from the mise-en-scène. She appears to be clamping a microphone under her neck or between her teeth, and squawking into it. Maybe chewing on it.

Throughout the first couple acts, members of the ghoul doo-wop band are scuttling in and out of the club's bathroom, painting their faces. One cherubic woman in a pleated skirt advises everyone to stick around for the next performer, another atonal psychedelic weirdo named Bran...(Pos). "He's very dashing," she promises. And, in his own scuzzed-up, boho-ish, warehouse-dwelling way, the dude is, indeed, dashing. But let's face it -- there's only so much avant-garde noise the untrained ear can handle. Toward the end of Frothfingers' set, a mod chick enters the warehouse trailing a red Valentine's balloon; in this setting it seems garish and out-of-place, if not outright perverse. Especially considering the cheeseball inscription across the front: Forever.


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