Sunday, February 11, 2018

Ransoming Pagan Babies

The San Francisco Chronicle ran my review of Ransoming Pagan Babies: The Selected Writings of Warren Hinckle. I worked hard to keep it under 800 words; there's certainly more to say about Warren, his work, and his influence.

Maybe we can fill in some of those gaps at the Bay Area Book Festival. I'll moderate a panel that features this book and Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? The panelists will be Robert Scheer, Steve Wasserman, and Ron Turner. Bob worked with Warren at Ramparts magazine, Steve published (and co-edited) Ransoming Pagan Babies, and Ron Turner published Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson? at Last Gasp Books.

The festival will be held April 28-29 in downtown Berkeley.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Michael Wolff and Hunter S. Thompson

I just finished reading Michael Tomasky's review of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury in the New York Review of Books. This paragraph struck me:

However, there is one sense in which he doesn’t play by the usual rules. Wolff doesn’t do “fairness.” He comes to his conclusions, and he lets you know them. He doesn’t tell the other side. No New York Times or Washington Post reporter could have written this book. They follow rules that demand more “balance,” rules under which they might have been more likely to get all the small things absolutely right but would have diluted the larger truth. And so, free from that stricture of straight news reporting, Fire and Fury has performed a great public service: it has forced mainstream Washington to confront and discuss the core issue of this presidency, which is the president’s fitness for office.

Compare this to Hunter S. Thompson's remarks when Richard Nixon died in 1994:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism--which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place ... You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

In Thompson's case, this wasn't clear hindsight; his book on the 1972 campaign matches Tomasky's description quite well. And seven years before that, he told Angus Cameron, "Facts are lies when they're added up." Compare that to Tomasky on getting "all the small things absolutely right" and diluting the larger truth.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Wilentz Review of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Bio

I think Sean Wilentz's review of a new Schlesinger bio is letting its subject off easy when it comes to his 1950s anticommunism.

Wilentz concedes that Schlesinger's "actions in the early 1950s were not impeccable." Parenthetically, he mentions Schlesinger's campaign against an unnamed book editor (Angus Cameron), says it was disgraceful, and says that Schlesinger later regretted it. I would say that the campaign was despicable. It led right-wingers to label Little, Brown and Company a communist front, and it forced Cameron to resign as editor-in-chief. Cameron's crimes were turning down George Orwell's Animal Farm and publishing Howard Fast's Spartacus. (He also published The Joy of Cooking and Catcher in the Rye.) It took Cameron almost a decade to land an equivalent editorial position at Random House, where he specialized in cookbooks.

The Cameron episode wasn't unique. In his New York Post column, Schlesinger called Carey McWilliams and his colleagues "typhoid Marys of the left"--they weren't communists, but they spread the disease. At the time, McWilliams was editor of The Nation and one of Cameron's authors at Little, Brown.

Wilentz writes: "The rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy soon thereafter led to unjust charges that Schlesinger ... had abetted the rise of the Red Scare." But as Wilentz certainly knows, McCarthy was a latecomer. The probes, purges, and blacklists began in the late 1940s. Schlesinger's attacks did real and lasting damage when they were made.

In short, the claim that Schlesinger aided the Red Scare is just, and "not impeccable" doesn't begin to capture the damage that aid inflicted on real people's lives and careers. It may be true that Schlesinger was "alarmed by the witch hunts" and denounced red-hunters. But if he couldn't imagine the damage his attacks would have at the time, he was naive. Ironically, that's how he described McWilliams on the subject of international affairs.


Friday, December 22, 2017

Cal and Rolling Stone

I wrote a piece for California magazine about the link between UC Berkeley and Rolling Stone magazine. I finished it months ago, and I hoped it would coincide with the magazine's 50th anniversary, but its actual publication date arrived closer to the sale of Wenner Media's controlling stake in the magazine.

This piece gave me a chance to chat with Jann Wenner, Joe Hagan, Greil Marcus, Charles Perry, Jon Carroll, David Weir, Jason Fine, and Tessa Stuart. I also relished my interview with Denise Kaufman, to whom Jann was engaged. Unfortunately, that material didn't make the final cut--not because it wasn't interesting or germane, but because the article was running long, and Denise didn't actually write for the magazine. I argued that her story was the straw that stirred the drink, but no dice. Denise was very gracious about it, and I hope to do something else with that material.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Rolling Stone and Ramparts

A few years ago, I entertained the idea of writing a book about Rolling Stone magazine. I contacted Jann Wenner, who said he was working with someone else. That turned out to be Joe Hagan, whom I came to know. He interviewed me for his book (Sticky Fingers), we occasionally chatted about its progress, and he asked me to read it in manuscript. The book was timed to coincide with the magazine's 50th anniversary, which was also the occasion for Alex Gibney's documentary film for HBO. These works have sparked several interesting conversations--not just about Jann and the magazine, but about the San Francisco counterculture and its legacy.

A week before that anniversary, an outfit called The Conversation asked me to lash together 1,000 words on the link between Ramparts and Rolling Stone. Here's the piece, which I was happy to do. I also have a forthcoming article for California magazine that traces the links between Rolling Stone and the University of California, Berkeley, where Jann and many of the early writers and editors studied. I'll post that when it appears.

The Conversation, by the way, is like a wire service for academics writing for general audiences. They pushed out the article to news outlets, and the piece was picked up by Salon, the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and scores of smaller outlets. They also provided me with metrics--my own dashboard, in fact--that showed that Salon was by far the biggest pickup. About one-third of the total audience came from that one outlet.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Next Book Project: Hunter S. Thompson

Guided by my intrepid agent, Andy Ross, I accepted an offer from University of California Press to write a book about Hunter S. Thompson. It will focus on his literary formation (much of it in the Bay Area) and the birth of Gonzo journalism. Fanatical readers of this blog might recall that I published an article on this topic in Boom magazine last year.

Having studied Carey McWilliams, Ramparts magazine, and the Grateful Dead, I figure I have a running start on this one. Every time I included material on Thompson in my previous books, I had to tear myself away from his work--especially his correspondence--and return to my primary topic. That's a pretty good indication that I should follow up on this interest.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The History of Dodger Stadium

The Los Angeles Review of Books posted my review of Jerald Podair's City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles. Sports, history, urban politics ... this book has a little something for everyone. Robert Moses shut down the Dodgers' attempt to build a new stadium in Brooklyn, so the move to Los Angeles seemed to be the best option, but they had a hell of a time getting the green light for the stadium. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 15, 2017

SF State Now Flying Its Freak Flag

The communications folks at SF State have launched a series on the Summer of Love, with special emphasis on the role of the campus, alumni, etc. Was happy to help the reporters, including Jamie Oppenheimer. My advice to Jamie was to focus on the SF State alumni, such as Wes Wilson (poster artist), George Hunter and Dan Hicks (The Charlatans), Peter Coyote (actor), Rock Scully (Grateful Dead manager), and so on. I'm delighted it's coming out now.

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David Talbot & the Bay Area Book Festival

I got a little love from David Talbot yesterday. In his Sunday column for the San Francisco Chronicle, I credited Cherilyn Parsons for creating the Bay Area Book Festival, and David was kind enough to mention my books on the Grateful Dead and Ramparts magazine.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Amir Bar-Lev's "Long Strange Trip"

I saw Amir Bar-Lev's Long Strange Trip last night at the Castro Theatre. I want to write a longer post after I've had a chance to review and absorb it, but I also want to get a couple of things down quickly.

The film, especially the first half, is visually rich, with tons of footage and photographs I've never seen before. The music is polished up very nicely. The narration is sophisticated. (I won't rehearse the details here, but the Frankenstein motif is both funny and effective.)

The band's basic story comes through, but without many of the standard story elements and characters. There's nothing on Olompali, Woodstock, Festival Express, Rock Scully, Danny Rifkin, the poster artists, Carolyn Garcia, Bill Walton, or even band members Tom Constanten and Vince Welnick. This is a very partial list, but even these missing items are striking.

Also, there are relatively few talking heads outside of the band members themselves. Offhand, I can recall Dennis McNally, Alan Trist, Joe Smith, Sam Cutler, Steve Parish, Trixie Garcia, John Perry Barlow, Steve Silberman, Brigid Meier, Nick Paumgarten, and Al Franken. I'm sure I'm forgetting people, but for a four-hour movie, the cast is remarkably lean, and the story is by no means replete. This isn't a criticism, by the way. To the contrary, I'm impressed that Amir could put across the story and its emotional impacts without genuflecting in the usual places.

I was less impressed by the second half of the film. Although the narration and commentary are admirable, the material itself poses a formidable challenge. How do you tell the Dead's story without allowing Jerry Garcia's addiction to hijack it? The film's decisions on this point reflect the general consensus, which is to say that it doesn't break any new ground in our understanding of Garcia's decline. And perhaps for that reason, the narrative is bound to bog down. The second half is tragic and full of rich paradoxes--the young artist committed to fun and freedom who's finally constrained and burdened by the community he helped to create. But the material simply isn't as interesting as the events that precede it. For this reason, I think, the better books spend more time on the story to 1975 than on the final two decades of touring and recording.

Let me quickly add that my own book was faulted for a weak second half. Like this film, No Simple Highway wasn't an attempt to tell the whole story, soup to nuts. In my view, Dennis McNally had already done that, but I thought there was still some interpretive work to do. I emphasized the band's deep and remarkably stable commitments to ecstasy, mobility, and community--which I argue account for the band's durable success. Although I was clear about my purpose, some reviewers failed to note (or remember) it.

By organizing the last section of my book around community, I consciously shifted the focus from Garcia's personal challenges to what was happening around him. That included the formation of the Dead Head community, which the film also treats at length. But in the 1980s, the band also revamped its ticketing operation and taping policy and hired Dennis as its publicist; David Gans began his syndicated radio program; and Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon started the fanzine. I didn't ignore Garcia's decline, but those changes (and others) grew and consolidated the Dead community, broadly defined. Others will decide whether or not my strategy worked, but my point here is to highlight the basic narrative challenge.

Many viewers might give Amir points for telling the basic story straight and well. I predict others will feel a certain loss of narrative ingenuity and power in the second half of the film.

That's it for now. Something tells me I will be returning to this one.