Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review of Gleason Books

The book reviews continue. This week my thoughts on the two Ralph J. Gleason volumes from Yale University Press appeared on Beyond Chron, the alternative news site based in San Francisco. I have only one more review in progress, and that's for an academic journal. Then I'll turn to writing an article on Hunter Thompson's literary formation in San Francisco, 1960-67.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Something Witchy

I noodled out two books reviews connected to what David Talbot calls San Francisco's "season of the witch." The first review appeared on Truthdig and considers Jeffrey Toobin's American Heiress, the Patty Hearst story. The second review is of Joel Selvin's Altamont. It will run in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. It's my first review for the Chronicle, which my family read during my misspent youth. (This despite the fact that my brothers and I delivered the Oakland Tribune in the afternoon.)

Both books slow walk readers through iconic stories that seem to reveal the failure of Bay Area utopianism, 1960s style. It's true that Altamont and the Hearst affair demonstrate a great deal of fecklessness in the counterculture and contemporary revolutionary politics. And when taken together with the Zebra killings, Jonestown, and other atrocities, there's no denying the witchiness. But still, it's a little too easy to link the utopianism with the witchiness and then reject both of them. Or at any rate, I'd like to hear that argument before jumping to that conclusion. And that argument would have to consider what mainstream American politics was up to during that period. I won't rehearse the details here, but it wasn't a pretty picture.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Ralph J. Gleason

The second Bay Area Book Festival has me reflecting on my little spot in the publishing world. Since the early 1980s, I've sold, acquired, taught, edited, written, reviewed, and otherwise sponsored books on topics ranging from computer engineering to the Grateful Dead. I started with a sales territory in West Texas and New Mexico; now it's mostly writing, reviewing, and events, but I also help prospective authors place their books with the right publisher.

Two of those books--both on Ralph J. Gleason--just came out. That ball started rolling after I realized that Toby Gleason and I shared a Facebook friend. I asked Toby if he had ever considered producing an anthology of his father's key work. Long story short, that book (and a companion) just came out from Yale University Press.

The New Yorker was on the case. It posted a complimentary piece by Richard Brody and used the photograph above.

Baron Wolman, whom I interviewed for my book on the Grateful Dead, made the photograph. Today he told me he took it at a Mills College conference on rock and roll in 1967. That very day, Jann Wenner asked him to work at a new (and as yet unnamed) magazine. That magazine, of course, was Rolling Stone.

Update: My friend Michael Kramer tells me that Phil Spector and Tom Donahue were at that conference, too. Also that he's writing an article about it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Kepler's Books

I had the honor of appearing at Kepler's Books last week. That's the Menlo Park store that Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter, and David Nelson haunted during their misspent youths. If memory serves, it's also where Jerry met his first wife, Sara Ruppenthal.

The staff and I were pleased that nearly 100 people attended the talk. I invited my students at San Francisco State University, so the audience ranged from newbies to savvy veterans.

Before the event, Paul Freeman interviewed me for the San Jose Mercury News. His article no doubt boosted the turnout at Kepler's. Paul also posted the transcript on his website, PopCultureClassics.com. I liked the article very much, but the full transcript gave me extra room to rave.

For more on Kepler's and its history, make sure you watch Paperback Dreams, which also features Cody's Books of Berkeley. That was an important bookstore for me. Its erstwhile owner, Andy Ross, is now my agent.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Kathy Olmsted's "Right Out of California"

I just finished reading Kathryn Olmsted's Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism. I first learned about it from Gabriel Thompson's enthusiastic Truthdig review. A few quick thoughts on this crisp and expert account.

First, there's the primacy of California agribusiness, which Kathy casts as the state's political crucible. We all know about John Steinbeck, and some of us know about Carey McWilliams, but Kathy argues that the farm labor conflicts of that period actually led to the formation of modern conservatism. Specifically, those conflicts gave rise to the Associated Farmers, a powerful player in state politics. The AF's anticommunist activities, in turn, reached far beyond the fields and eventually touched Hollywood, the University of California, and other key institutions. Along the way, Kathy links the farm labor story to the LAPD Red Squads, Upton Sinclair's 1934 gubernatorial bid, the criminal syndicalism trials of Caroline Decker and Pat Chambers, and the rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

For me, the real pleasure of this book is watching California conservatism come into sharp focus. I already knew a fair amount about the key episodes, but I hadn't seen the larger pattern they formed. Much of this patterning hinges on Kathy's cast of characters. I learned a lot about Caroline Decker, for example, and Kathy is keen to point out the contributions other women made to the labor struggles of that decade. That Decker's Sacramento prosecutors benefited from AF funding and Red Squad testimony pulls together several important threads.

Kathy also has a lot to say about race. For example, she discusses John Steinbeck's decision to substitute white men for minorities (and women) when fictionalizing the actual events behind The Grapes of Wrath. I teach that book and film a lot, and I've never doubted that their tremendous success reflected a painful truth: Americans cared about California farm labor abuses only when white Americans became its victims. Steinbeck probably understood that very well; either way, his decision is an important one to acknowledge in the classroom. Likewise, I appreciated Kathy's account of Langston Hughes's sojourn in Carmel. The local press reports of his visit display the racial hysteria that the Associated Farmers stoked at every turn.

If you don't believe Kathy's account on this score, I'd be happy to share the transcript of Carey McWilliams's closed-door testimony before the Committee on Un-American Activities in California. Much of that colloquy consisted of Jack Tenney quizzing McWilliams about his views on miscegenation. (McWilliams had recently written Brothers Under the Skin.) The committee never published McWilliams's testimony, but it did publish a characterization of it: his views on miscegenation, it turns out, were consistent with the Communist Party line. California legalized interracial marriage a few years later.

This has turned into a long post, so let me give you the short version: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in California history or modern conservatism.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Rolling Stone on Fare Thee Well

Will Hermes of Rolling Stone just gave it up for Fare Thee Well--and the 2015 books that chronicled the Long, Strange Trip. Was delighted to see No Simple Highway in such good company. In the course of writing it, I came to know David Gans, Blair Jackson, David Browne, Benjy Eisen, David Dodd, and Jesse Jarnow--all of whom appear in this piece. Fanatical readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that we've all supported each other, in one way or another, all along the way. That includes Dennis McNally, who was a big help to me when On Highway 61 was still a gleam in his eye.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Fare Thee Well, 2015

Eleven months ago, the "core four" members of the Grateful Dead announced their final concerts in Chicago. Four days later, No Simple Highway appeared. The timing was coincidental; we always wanted a 2015 publication date to tap interest in the Dead's 50th anniversary, but the publisher also wanted more space between my book and Bill Kreutzmann's. (We shared the same editor and publicity team.) So mine was moved up to January, and Bill & Benjy Eisen's came out in the spring. David Browne's So Many Roads also dropped in spring, and now we have strong additions by Dennis McNally (Jerry on Jerry) and Blair Jackson & David Gans (This Is All a Dream We Dreamed).

We're finishing the year with the paperback version of No Simple Highway, and I'm especially gratified that Jeremy Varon, New School history professor and editor of The Sixties, has published a brand new and very positive review of the book. Man, it feels good when someone reads carefully, not to mention approvingly.

If this was a good year for the growing Grateful Dead bookshelf, the national response to Fare Thee Well was the strongest indication yet that the Dead's project was uniquely successful. According to Billboard, the Chicago shows ranked first among the music industry's highest-grossing concerts, and the Santa Clara shows ranked third. No one familiar with the Dead's project was surprised by the fact that their community is still large, engaged, and incredibly supportive. But I'm glad the rest of the country (and the media) also witnessed that energy and support.

No Simple Highway argues that the Dead's project has to be evaluated on its own terms. That's standard practice for all thoughtful criticism; you judge artists by how well they achieve what they set out to do. From the beginning, the Dead sought to get people high through music and to build community. By that measure, their achievement can't be denied.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Robotic California

Lots of talk now about robots and artificial intelligence. My interest was piqued by Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots, which I reviewed for Truthdig. Ford and others are raising the prospect of a jobless future as a result of accelerating automation. Most economists are dubious; automation isn't new, and past predictions of joblessness due to mechanization haven't panned out.

Some of my early training was in labor economics, so I'm following this discussion with interest. Martin Ford's prediction also reflects a Silicon Valley mindset that falls into my California culture basket. And because I teach humanities, I also want to understand what these authors say or imply about what makes us human.

In my Truthdig review of Ford's book, I note a series of conflations that don't add up for me. The key one is between computation and consciousness. If the latter doesn't reduce to the former, then increases in computing power won't necessarily produce machine consciousness. Ford never addresses that distinction, but many AI experts take it seriously.

Another conflation has to do with higher education. For Ford, higher ed means disseminating information more efficiently. I think it's more about transformation than information, which has never been cheaper or more abundant. The challenge now is to determine what information we can safely ignore. That used to be called "expertise" or "wisdom," neither of which lends itself to automation.

Finally, Ford's discussion conflates news with journalism. He predicts that robots will take over large portions of everyday news writing, which is another way of saying that not all news is journalism. I'm pretty sure we'll always have news; the question is, will we support journalism in the digital age? This isn't rocket science; lots of countries are already doing this quite well. But we've been trying to invent the ever elusive new "business model" for what should be regarded as a public good.

For me, the robotics conversation furnishes another example of why the humanities are indispensable, and I'm looking forward to reviewing two new books on this topic. More soon.

Monday, July 27, 2015

No Simple Highway on "The Tony Basilio Show"

I had a substantial and relaxed chat about the Grateful Dead and No Simple Highway with radio host Tony Basilio a while back. That interview is now up at Tony's site. He posed some thoughtful, open-ended questions that allowed us to go a bit deeper than usual. Delighted with the way it turned out. Many thanks, Tony.

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Making It Happen at the Bank

Forbes magazine has taken a keen interest in the Grateful Dead and their enterprise over the years, but Fare Thee Well takes the cake. Why? It probably has something to do with the $52 million in ticket sales, plus the largest pay-per-view audience (400,000 viewers) for a musical event ever. As the Forbes article notes, that turnout dwarfs the second biggest PPV musical event, a Backstreet Boys concert that drew 150,000 paying viewers.

That's serious coin, but consider this other fact: Last night, while attending a Willie Nelson & Alison Krauss concert at the Greek Theatre, I noticed Phil and Jill Lesh strolling to their seats in the section next to ours. No one made any sort of fuss, and they were buttonholed by friends only when they headed backstage during intermission. It's hard to imagine another musician who helps generate that much revenue moving as freely through a crowd as Phil.

Those two facts--record-breaking rock concerts and no fuss over the musicians--don't seem to go together, but I'm glad they do.

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