Penelope Houston back with an education 

click to enlarge Penelope Houston - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Penelope Houston

It sounds like a pitch for a new Amy Sedaris sitcom: To get over a recent divorce, a former punk rocker and art school student from the late 1970s returns to college to finish her bachelor of arts degree. And hilarity ensues.

But San Francisco’s Penelope Houston experienced the scenario. And the only way she could promote her new eight-years-in-the-making solo effort “On Market Street” — plus a reissue of her eponymous 1983 debut with the Avengers — was by taking the current semester off from San Francisco State University.

She plays Cafe Du Nord solo this week, and with a reunited Avengers on May 18.

Houston, 53, admits to hilarious moments over four years of classes, which began with general subjects such as math, speech, biology and astronomy.

“I had to jump through all those hoops because I didn’t take them the first time,” says the ex-San Francisco Art Institute student. “All I took the first time around was art, because I was an idealistic little teenager thinking, ‘Why do I need this stuff?’”

So she reluctantly started from freshman-year scratch.

A few classmates recognized the striking blonde: “They were like, ‘Oh, my God! You’re in the Avengers?!’” she says. “But actually, more of my professors said that to me, and it was good to be able to use it. Like, ‘OK, you gave me this crappy grade, but at least you know who I am — I could write a song about you!’”

It paid off. Houston’s stunning self-portrait adorns the cover of “Market,” and there’s an exhibit of her silk-screen-and-collage works at the public library’s main branch, where she has maintained a day job for years.

Houston wishes she had more zany yarns, but she was serious about academia: “The best thing about going back to school was the figure-painting class I took, because once a week, every Friday, I spent seven hours just sitting there with my oil paints, furiously trying to get something down that I could look at later,” she says. “That was the kick in the pants that I needed. Deadlines make me really knuckle down and face the task at hand.”

They helped Houston compose the rootsy “Market,” with its post-breakup observations virtually torn from her journals in “Missouri Lounge,” “Meet Me In France” and the title cut.

“You know that saying, ‘Youth is wasted on the young?’ Sometimes I think college education is also wasted on the young,” she says. “Because going back as an adult, you have a much better chance of absorbing stuff.”

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Tom Lanham

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