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.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

RIP Kevin Starr

I just learned that Kevin Starr passed away. Hours ago, I was reading Jason Sexton's interview with him in the current issue of BOOM. I was reminded, once again, of Kevin's huge contribution to our understanding of California history and culture.

Kevin helped me early on, just as he helped so many others. At the time, I was trying to place a biography of Carey McWilliams, my first such book project, with a publishing house. I didn't know Kevin except by reputation, but I decided to send him the proposal blind. One day I returned to my office to hear his booming voice on my telephone messages. He said he loved the proposal and had forwarded it with his recommendation to Jim Clark, publisher at the University of California Press. Who does that?

After the book came out, I was invited to give the Bonnie Cashin Lecture at UCLA. I began by recounting an anxiety dream that I had while writing the book. I went to a USC professor's cocktail party dressed in basketball shorts, but as I walked across the living room and sat down, I realized I had somehow acquired slacks and a blazer. I drifted into the backyard, and I saw Kevin (in silhouette) addressing me from the roof of a Mission-style home on the other side of the fence.

Only when the lecture was published did I learn that Gary Strong, the UCLA librarian, had persuaded Kevin to write the foreword. In it, Kevin mentioned the dream several times, all in good humor.

I won't rehearse my other contacts with Kevin or the various ways he influenced me or my work. But I'm honored to be part of a team of scholars that will assess Kevin's achievement. That's no small task, and I'm sure I'm not the only member who wants to do it right.

RIP Kevin. I won't forget you, your work, or your generosity.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Warren J. Hinckle III, 1938-2016

On Wednesday, August 24, I learned that Warren Hinckle's death was imminent. The former editor of Ramparts magazine had been ailing for some time. Occasionally I was asked how he might be contacted. (He was notorious for not returning telephone calls or opening his mail.) One of those queries led to his oral history at the University of California, Berkeley, but more often than not he wasn't well enough to be interviewed. So I wasn't surprised by the news of Warren's demise. I shared that information with one other person, Bob Scheer. Within hours, David Talbot wrote a Facebook post that essentially served as an obituary. Warren died the next day.

In my Truthdig article and when speaking to the press, I tried to put across how extraordinary Ramparts magazine was under Warren's direction. And I made sure to note that Warren made American journalistic history at least twice: once for leading Ramparts, and then again for pairing Hunter S. Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman, thereby birthing Gonzo journalism. Warren published their article on the Kentucky Derby in 1970; after Scanlan's tanked, Jann Wenner recruited the two for Rolling Stone, which was founded by Jann and Ralph J. Gleason, both Ramparts alumni.

I learned a lot about Warren's post-Ramparts life by reading the coverage and going to his vigil and rosary. But as colorful as that life was, his work at Ramparts was his most significant professional contribution. His showmanship, combined with Bob Scheer's political smarts and Dugald Stermer's flair for design, was the key to Ramparts' success. Bob went on to a long career at the Los Angeles Times and now Truthdig, and Dugald taught and continued to produce important work. But that combination (Hinckle, Scheer, and Stermer) was greater than the sum of its parts.


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, 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.


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 In Dubious Battle. Steinbeck's 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.


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.


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.