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Annotated Songs: Grace Cathedral Hill
Somber in San Francisco
GRACE CATHEDRAL HILL1
Grace Cathedral hill2
All wrapped in bones of setting sun3
All dust and stone and moribund4
I paid twenty-five cents to light a little white candle5
For a New Year's Day
I sat and watched it burn away
Then turned and weaved through slow decay
We were both a little hungry so we went to get a hot dog6
Down the Hyde Street Pier
The light was slight and disappeared
The air it stunk of fish and beer
We heard a Superman trumpet
Play the National Anthem7
And the world may be long for you
But he'll never belong to you
But on a motorbike8
When all the city lights
Blind your eyes tonight9
Are you feeling better now?10
Are you feeling better now?
Are you feeling better now?
Some way to greet the year:
Your eyes all bright and brimmed with tears11
The pilgrims, pills, and tourists here
All sing "Fifty-three bucks to buy a brand new halo."12
I'm sweet on a green-eyed girl13
All fiery Irish clip and curl
All brine and piss and vinegar14
I paid twenty-five cents to light a little white candle15
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This song was written in 2001 — in February of 2001 to be exact. I know this because it happens that, at that time, Carson (of Slowpoke fame) was doing this weird practice of minutely journaling every moment of her day for a week, and it happened to be the week that I wrote this song. There’s a couple mentions of the song in her journal; I guess I played it a few times for her during the course of the week. Back then, I didn’t really have a home recording setup, so I would often resort to just playing a song over and over till it was lodged in my memory. No demo exists of the song; I would’ve just taught it to the band during rehearsals. The title is a deliberate crib of The Red House Painters’ song “Grace Cathedral Park” which was (and remains) one of my most favorite songs of all time. The song itself is a pretty straightforward account of the activities of a single day during a trip I took to San Francisco around New Years, 2000-2001, to visit Carson and help her move to Portland.
I think I’d only been to San Francisco a few times prior to this trip. I hadn’t made it to Grace Cathedral, even though, because of the RHP song, it was lodged pretty doggedly in my imagination. I think this was the trip that I convinced Carson to accompany me up the hill to visit the cathedral. It was New Year’s Day, 2001.
This reads as “All wrapped in th’ bones of a setting sun” in the original lyric sheet; I think I sneak a “th’” into the line when I sing it live, but the articles are all gone in the recording. Never quite scanned. I liked the lazier swing of the line without them.
Oh, how sad we were, all the time, back then. Everything felt very bleak and very sad. We were so broke, all my friends and me, and it seemed like we had few prospects. I was working at a pizza place in Portland; Carson was cocktail waitressing in the Bay. Our circumstances lent themselves to particularly morose lyric-writing, as evidenced here.
I did this, in a chapel in the cathedral. Lit a white candle and dropped my quarter in the little box.
Incidentally (and I have told this story many times), Carson worked briefly as a hot dog vendor on the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. Famously, she nearly set the pier on fire when, as customers were approaching, she absently flicked a cigarette to the ground. A cart patron — a little kid, I seem to remember — saw the smoke billowing up from the wooden beams of the pier and hollered FIRE! Carson, in a moment of inspiration, grabbed the bucket of hot dog water from the cart and extinguished the inferno, just as the fire brigade was arriving. She was proclaimed a hero; she had her picture taken with the fire fighters and the kid. I haven’t seen this photo, but I imagine it exists somewhere. In my mind I see it: there is still a little tendril of smoke coming up from the pier, just behind the hot dog cart, and there’s twenty-something Carson, with her baggy cargo pants and tanktop, grinning alongside a half dozen beefy firefighters in their helmets and suspenders. And right in front is this cherubic kid, this smiling boy, and in his right hand is a hot dog all slathered with mustard.
I’m not sure if this is a faded memory, or if it’s a real thing — but I *think* there was a busker, a trumpet player, down there on the pier as we were wandering, looking for a hot dog, and he was playing The Star Spangled Banner and he was dressed in a Superman costume. I’ve never received any kind of affirmation from San Franciscans that this was, in fact, a thing — that in the early aughts, there was a guy who would loiter the Hyde Street Pier playing songs on his trumpet, one of those songs being the National Anthem, while dressed as Superman. Perhaps one of you could disabuse me of this hallucination.
This was before Carson and I were a couple. When we were just friends, with our own separate hardluck stories about love affairs gone wrong and crushes unrequited. She was infatuated with this guy who lived in her warehouse who had a motorcycle and he would ride her around the city on the back of it.
This song is not so much about me, about my trip to San Francisco as the year 2000 tipped over into the year 2001, but about Carson and her relationship to this city, this city that she loved so much but was also so ready to leave. It’s also a pretty great portrait of our friendship at the time. We were always together, we were always happiest together.
Another half-borrowed line, this one from The Innocence Mission. Their 1999 record “Birds of My Neighborhood” was one that both Carson and I loved and listened to a lot around that time. I don’t know if I consciously cribbed the line from them, or if it just found its way in without me realizing it, but it must’ve been halfway birthed from the last line of chorus of “You Are The Light”: Are you feeling better than before? Now that I think about it (and I’m listening to “You Are The Light” now and remembering this time), I imagine that my inclusion of this line might’ve been a very intentional call back to The Innocence Mission, as a kind of bond Carson and I shared in that record. Are you feeling better now?
Because, oh, we were so sad. And I think we were both just constantly trying to make the other feel better.
No idea, really, where this notion came from. Fifty three bucks for a halo. I think I just thought it sounded nice. There were lots of pills then, though. Always pills.
This was a friend of Carson’s — a coworker, I think — that I was crushed out on. But I think I’d only every met her once or twice, and I don’t think I would see her again after this trip. The infatuation was brief and it left as soon as it came, as so often they did then.
It bugs me, to this day, that this is a slant rhyme, that vinegar and curl are supposed to rhyme here and they don’t, but I was so deadset on those particular words, that particular pattern. Apparently there was no dissuading…myself.
And then we packed up and left; we drove through the night from San Francisco to Portland, myself and our friend Nathan in his truck and Carson in her Honda Civic. We arrived at dawn in Portland and moved her into this warehouse where we were all living, a warehouse that had formerly been a poultry slaughter house, where at night, if you listened closely, you could hear the ghosts of those chickens, rattling their chicken chains.