How I See San Francisco: Dean Mermell
During different points of his life, Dean Mermell has been a glass sculptor, a filmmaker, and a musician. Now, he wears the hat of event producer of the annual Flower Piano at San Francisco Botanical Gardens. Also known for his arts organization, Sunset Piano, Dean has been musically inclined since his early days of entertaining in San Francisco. Here, Dean shares his thoughts on San Francisco, the city's vibrant cultural scene, and pianos.
What does a typical day in San Francisco look like for you?
I have the luxury of working at home, so I’m either editing a film project in my studio or programming musicians for a piano event. My neighborhood, Bernal Heights, still feels like old San Francisco in some ways, and everything I need is walkable, including a great grocery store, some really good restaurants, and a couple of beautiful parks.
What should every visitor to San Francisco do at least once?
I’m not a typical tourist, so after a day or two of museums, cable car riding, and stuffing myself with pasta, I’d be looking more in the direction of the seedy underbelly of San Francisco. Seek out the poetry scene in North Beach, still thriving and radiating out from City Lights. If you stop into the right bars, you’ll find something cool happening by your second (or third) drink.
Which neighborhood, other than your own, do you like to explore?
North Beach is still quietly hanging on to the old Beat vibe. I love to let myself get lost in Golden Gate Park, which I can still do after years of going there.
What do you love about working with pianos?
A piano is a 600 pound beast of a contraption that is just a Rube Goldberg music-making machine. What I love is to take this thing out of its comfortable living room environment and plop it into a totally different context, like a garden or a cliff overlooking the ocean or an area in the city where homeless folks can enjoy playing it or listening. A piano was not designed to be in these places, so it produces wonder when it shows up there.
What makes Flower Piano so special?
Flower Piano is all the best things about people being together. On a good day it’s like fairyland, or being in the song "Strawberry Fields Forever." People who may never have noticed each other under different circumstances are smiling at each other. The feeling you get when you leave one person who’s been playing Chopin and start to enter the sound field of someone else playing Dave Brubeck produces an odd effect. I often like to stand in the middle between two musicians with one entering each ear and let it tweak my brain. Like Jack Kerouac said, the only truth is music.
What was your favorite experience playing last summer?
I needed to rehearse for a performance I was scheduled to do with my pal Steffanos X. Together, we were this duo called Tom Jonesing and we were going to play later that day. So, I found a relatively out-of-the-way piano where nobody was hanging out and just started going through our songs. I got really into it and hadn’t noticed I was surrounded by people, and once I stopped they all broke into applause. It freaked me out a little, but it was beautiful.
Where do you indulge your artistic side in San Francisco?
I go to friends’ art openings, and I try to help make cool events happen, too.
What's your favorite annual event that happens in San Francisco?
Where and what would you choose for your last meal in San Francisco?
Probably the meat loaf and mashed potatoes at The Blue Plate. At the counter.
Which restaurant is still on your list to dine at in San Francisco?
It's not exactly in San Francisco, but I still haven’t been to Chez Panisse. Somebody please take me there!
Where do you like to view sunrise and sunset?
Any final advice for visitors coming to San Francisco?
Dress in layers. Walk. Don’t throw money at dumb things. Support local music and art.