Back when I was editor in chief at my college paper, I used to listen to Michael Krasny for inspiration before I had to do an important interview. Wednesday night, I got to see Michael Krasny in person for the first time, and he told a dick joke.
Okay, he said nice things about Amy Tan, too — and so did a lot of other people, since she was receiving Litquake’s third annual Barbary Coast Award. The award, according to the program, is given “for contributions to the Bay Area literary community”. (Previous recipients were Armistead Maupin and Tobias Wolff.) By the way, the joke in question involved Tan’s husband, a hot tub, and Krasny’s theory as to how Tan is always so calm and serene. Whatever you construct in your head is probably pretty accurate.
The demographics of the crowd at the Herbst Theatre that night were a bit surprising — reminiscent of when I went to see the most recent live taping of Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. In other words, 40ish, liberal, affluent white folks. Not so much with the Asians. This meant when the lion dancers — lion dancers! — came out for the opening number, much of the crowd oohed and aahed while I sat there remembering all the wedding banquets I’ve attended for relatives whose attachments to the family tree I never quite grasped.
I admit it. I’ve only ever read one Amy Tan book, and it was The Joy Luck Club, which I read only once — for school, not to explore my roots. I’ve never cried at the movie. I can’t even say I’ve ever been a fan of hers, but I’ve never been an un-fan either. Somehow, on Wednesday night, being surrounded by her fans, friends and colleagues, I found her endearing. I had no idea she was so out there.
Emcee Ben Fong-Torres assured us the evening would not be “as serious as a tribute but not as harsh as a roast,” then put on sunglasses with attached sideburns and busted out with an Elvis impression, complete with Tan-specific lyrics. I initially thought this might be appalling but turned out rather impressive — which was kind of my impression of him the whole evening. He was witty, warm and kept the corny jokes to a minimum (I have frequently cringed at his quips during the Chinese New Year parade’s TV broadcast). He even said he’d known Tan “before she became Chinese again.” Oh snap.
Highlights of the acts to follow:
- Author Andrew Sean Greer stripped off his formal jacket and button-up shirt to reveal a sparkly silver vest, then performed a peppy song about how his experience during a study session in college was a life-changing one (“Amy Tan made me a gay gay gay man”).
- Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, who had starred in the opera adaptation of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, choked up while thanking Tan for helping her through her recent bout with cancer, then sang “Hey Ame,” to the tune of “Hey Jude.”
- Pascal Horn, a West Indies-born, Paris-based countertenor had one of those voices that doesn’t even sound like a human voice — more like this crazy awesome, room-filling instrument. Horn’s “My Funny Valentine” prompted the first partial standing ovation of the night.
- Author Rabih Alameddine pretended to have a minor diva fit at not being asked to sing, then riffed on that theme, saying he wasn’t going to talk about Tan’s generosity, patience, or constant preparedness.
- The aforementioned Michael Krasny, who tried to tell Chinese mother jokes (substituting Chinese for Jewish). These probably would’ve gone over better had they not immediately followed the TMI comment about Tan’s husband, although it did provide fodder for other performers.
- On stage for most of the evening was Los Train Wreck, self-described as “San Francisco’s best show-up-and-jam band.”
- Author Sam Barry told the crowd somewhat titillatingly that “I think we can all agree that we want to be whipped by Amy Tan.” Barry, a member of Los Train Wreck, also belongs to the Rock Bottom Remainders, the author-populated band with which Tan often performs while donning dominatrix gear.
- There was even a taped segment from a plastic flower-covered Dame Edna, who called herself “the trendsetter’s daughter,” said she had recently found out she was part Chinese, and referred to Tan’s husband as “that darling Portuguese accountant.” (Otherwise known as tax attorney Lou DeMattei.)
The climax of the evening was accompanied by cheers, but not whoops and hollers or a standing ovation, perhaps due to the low-key, calm nature of both presenter and presentee. Armistead Maupin — who had married his husband, Christopher Turner in Tan and DeMattei’s backyard — presented the Barbary Coast Award to a somewhat abashed-looking Tan, wearing not black leather and spikes, but a crinkly brown dress. And carrying a remarkably calm Yorkshire terrier tucked under her arm.
“Every single one of you just touched my heart,” she said, dog in one hand and award in the other. (She’d turned down Maupin’s offer to hold the dog.) “…I think it’s true: Armistead said to me backstage, ‘We can just rerun this when it’s our funeral.’ You all have been amazing. I thank everyone. I know it’s been a huge amount of work with the Litquake people. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
The finale just embodied the entire evening — lots of warm-hearted oddness. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds performed the final two numbers, with nearly every speaker and performer crowding the stage to sing along. Tan herself re-emerged from the wings (sans dog) to accompany McGuinn on the tambourine. Who knew authors had such rhythm? Who knew Amy Tan dressed like a dominatrix, liked to sit in a hot tub naked, and was so endearingly strange?