Thursday, May 22, 2014

Books I Have Known

Not much blogging lately for three reasons: paid work, including the Grateful Dead manuscript; book-reviewin' for Truthdig; and Facebook--so many kitty cats, so little time!

Let me focus on the first two reasons and draw the curtain of charity before the third.

The Dead MS is in production. Now I'm working on the photos (and permissions), chit-chatting with the publisher's lawyer about legal concerns, reviewing cover concepts, etc. This week, I also had a chance to discuss some of the content with Joe Hagan, who's in town to research his biography of Jann Wenner. The publication of that book will coincide with Rolling Stone's 50th anniversary in 2017. From all indications, it's going to be fabulous. It was also a pleasure to visit with Joe, whom I met in the most serendipitous manner--a story for another day, when the kitty-cat traffic is less intense.

In related book news, it appears that Toby Gleason will publish an anthology of his father's writings and private papers. For my money, Ralph J. Gleason was one of the coolest cats on the Bay Area scene during the 60s and 70s. In addition to mentoring Jann and co-founding Rolling Stone, Gleason wrote for Ramparts, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Down Beat magazine; wrote all of Lenny Bruce's liner notes; championed the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane; and was the only music journalist on President Nixon's Enemies List. Very excited about that project, too, and glad I could help conceptualize it.

The Truthdig reviews are an intermittent pleasure enhanced by carefully chosen assignments. The last review was of Matt Taibbi's The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. That one was picked up by AlterNet, and when I last checked, only the New York Times review had drawn a larger online audience. The one before that was Dean Starkman's The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism. And the one before that was Curtis White's The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers. To my surprise, that review won the 2013 National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. All of my Truthdig reviews can be found here.

OK, enough about that. Back to serious kitty biz.


Monday, March 03, 2014

Terrapin Redux

Lots to report since my last post, including another visit to the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the usual good time, and I took away a dozen or more gems for the Dead book. I also had a chance to visit with Rosie McGee and Rhoney Stanley, who attended the conference for the first time. Both have memoirs out (Rosie's Dancing with the Dead and Rhoney's Owsley and Me), which I reviewed at Nick Meriwether's request for Dead Studies.

Another benchmark: I submitted my manuscript to St. Martin's Press this weekend. I also met my editor, Marc Resnick, for the first time. The book is now scheduled for publication in Winter 2015--about this time next year.

Marc was in the Bay Area for a book party at Terrapin Crossroads last night. The book is Alan Paul's One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band, which will debut in the top ten this week. I had a chance to meet Alan as well as Jay Blakesberg, who took photographs, and Benjy Eisen, the Rolling Stone contributor who's working with Bill Kreutzmann on his memoir.

This was no ordinary book event. Alan plays guitar, too, and he joined Mark Karan (RatDog) and the house band, American Jubilee, for a set of blues numbers and "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad." Everyone had a great time, and we all wish Alan (and Marc) continued success with the book.


Monday, July 01, 2013

Terrapin Crossroads

I've now visited Terrapin Crossroads three times for no-cover bar music. I heard the Terrapin Family Band twice (with slightly different lineups) and the Terrapin All Stars with Stu Allen once. These bands, and this venue, are a significant if pleasantly understated contribution to the Bay Area music scene. I've also seen Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Mumford and Sons recently at the Greek Theater, and they were all awesome. But I recommend Terrapin Crossroads and these bands to anyone who enjoys professional, soulful music without the hassle that often goes along with shows at larger venues.

On my first trip, I heard the Terrapin Family Band with Brian and Grahame Lesh. They started with the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" from the Some Girls album of 1978. It was an interesting choice, especially for a band made up of guys in their twenties. They also played several bluegrass numbers, including the Stanley Brothers' "Long Journey Home," and ended with a superb version of The Band's "The Weight." There were about 50 people in the bar, and we spotted Phil Lesh sitting at a cafe table near the soundboard, working on a plate of pasta, singing along, laughing, and clearly enjoying himself.

This week, the Terrapin All Stars with Stu Allen featured Naturally, the 1972 album by J.J. Cale that included "After Midnight," which they killed. Each number opened out to a jam that built slowly to a climax; then the band tucked it all back in, usually under Allen's restrained vocals. That style worked especially well on "Bringing It Back from Mexico," which combined a swampy blues sound with vintage hippie lyrics about smuggling weed. ("I think I'll get me some to go/Bringing it back from Mexico.")

Yesterday I dropped in for brunch and heard the Terrapin Family Band. Once again, the band drew a set of strong and compatible songs from different sources and periods. Not all of them were famous; one was the Deep Dark Woods' "Two Time Loser"; another was Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." They also played "Long Black Veil" "Long Journey Home," and Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel." The execution was flawless, with no nonsense or chatter, but I really appreciated their ability to simultaneously curate and put their own stamp on songs that predate them by decades. It's gratifying to see younger people exploring and continuing musical traditions that, in this case at least, mean a lot to me and my generation.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Art of the Dead

I just got my copy of Philip Cushway's Art of the Dead (reading line: A Celebration of the Artists Behind the American Rock Poster Movement). It includes short pieces by Steven Heller, Peter Coyote, Greil Marcus, and Mickey Hart. Quotes from the artists and others are sprinkled throughout the full-color reproductions of the posters.

Art of the Dead features the "Big Five"--Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and Wes Wilson--but it also includes information about (and work by) ten other artists. It compares the posters to 19th-century Japanese woodblocks and poster art from the Belle Epoque with examples from each.

I've been looking forward to this book's arrival. I wish it had even more discussion, but I've already learned a lot and will continue to scour it. I'm persuaded by its claim that the Dead's iconography was a big part of the band's appeal, and it documents a special form of mutual appreciation between the poster artists and the band, much of it based on the band's evocative name. It also suggests a link, at least in some cases, between the poster art and the light shows that were also emerging from San Francisco's fertile avant-garde arts scene.

Cushway recalls hanging out with Rick Griffin in New York in 1989. Griffin asked if Cushway wanted to check out the Dead show that night in New Jersey. Cushway writes, "I said I would, although I was initially reticent (sic)--it was a hot day, we had no tickets, and from experience I knew what an incredible hassle this could end up being." But he didn't realize whom he was with; they ended up sitting on stage. "Later that day, when Jerry Garcia came to meet us backstage, it dawned on me. In Garcia's eyes, he was a fan and Rick was the star."

Love it.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mother Jones's Mitt Romney Story

Lots of talk, of course, about Mitt Romney's 47% speech, and now the inside-baseball stories are starting to come out. The New York Times has a piece on Mother Jones, and the Washington Post has another on how the magazine landed the story.

Although Ramparts magazine, from which Mother Jones sprang, isn't mentioned, I recalled Adam Hochschild's comment about its formula for success: "Find an expose that major newspapers are afraid to touch, publish it with a big enough splash that they can't afford to ignore it ... and then publicize it in a way that plays the press off against each other."

I was surprised that the Times thought its own readers would need that much background information on Mother Jones, which has been around since the mid-1970s. Interesting, too, that the article quotes Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos and our author at PoliPointPress.

Nicholas Lemann's remark about Mother Jones is also instructive. Lemann, dean of Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, said it helped that "Mother Jones seems to live in a zone where it’s respected. It’s obviously ideological. But it’s respected."

I don't want to get too fussy about this quote, which was almost certainly part of some larger point. And yes, it's important to note that Mother Jones is respected. But I really do wonder who's NOT ideological in Lemann's sense. Only news organizations that maximize profit for shareholders? Or that subset plus the BBC and minus Fox News? In far too many discussions of the media, the ideology of the modern media corporation doesn't count as an ideology at all.


West of Eden

I've been dipping in and out of a book I received from PM Press earlier this year called West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California.

The title maps directly onto the main theme of my California Culture course at San Francisco State University. But the connections go well beyond that. Three of the book's editors--Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, and Cal Winslow--served on the steering committee of the California Studies Association during my tenure there. And the volume is dedicated to the late Jeff Lustig, who founded that organization, contributed a chapter to the book, and died this summer. (As the book's dedication notes, Jeff was the "dean of California Studies.") The blurbs are from Rebecca Solnit, Dick Walker, Mike Davis, and Peter Linebaugh. So yes, lots of contact points for me here.

West of Eden covers a lot of ground, but I wanted to mention one felicity that surfaced for me last week. My Grateful Dead research recently led me to the topic of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the subject of a David Bernstein book published by UC Press in 2008. That book included a great deal of material on the center's co-founder, Ramon Sender, who also helped Stewart Brand organize the Trips Festival. That's an important chapter in the Dead's history, but most of the Dead literature passes quickly over its avant-garde element, including the Tape Music Center's contribution. As Stewart Brand later said, the Trips Festival was the beginning of the Grateful Dead and the end of almost everything else--except light shows, which were also featured there.

I also learned that almost immediately after the Trips Festival, Sender moved to Lou Gottlieb's Morning Star ranch in Sonoma County. There they started a kind of commune, which the book describes in some detail. (The book also includes an interview with Sender, who mentions his visit to Rancho Olompali shortly after the Dead lived there.) Brand went on to produce the Whole Earth Catalog, which raised the profile of such communes and sought to give their residents (and other readers) the tools they needed to flourish.

The back-to-the-land movement coincided with the Dead's move to Marin County and the huge success of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were also living in Marin and hanging out with the Dead. The Dead, in turn, began downplaying the experimental music associated with their Haight period and started producing albums like American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There's much more to say about this book, and I'll probably post about it again as I get to know it better. Just wanted to celebrate those happy accidents that cluster around my favorite research projects.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

Bear House

I took a small contingent by 6024 Ascot in Montclair today. Turns out the house, which was owned by Owsley Stanley, can be had for a mere $1.4 million. Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that Stanley was the Bay Area's top producer of fine LSD in the 1960s as well as the Dead's sound engineer. He frequently housed members of the Grateful Dead here circa 1972.

These photographs don't do justice to this unique property. The home, which dates to the 1920s, began as a log cabin that's still intact, including untrimmed bark on the inside rafters. The master bathroom, with its mind-blowing tile work, is one of the coolest rooms I've ever come upon. The front courtyard and second-story balcony overlooking the pool announce "Party!"

Not everything works in this place. In fact, it's a little like a Grateful Dead concert: funky, uneven, full of peak moments. Check it out, I say.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

RNC Redux

You may have seen the story out of the Republican National Convention. Two RNC attendees were ejected after throwing nuts at a black CNN camerawoman and saying "this is how we feed the animals."

Atrocious but not unprecedented. The story put me immediately in mind of Belva Davis's memoir, which we published at PoliPointPress. Belva covered the RNC in 1964 at the Cow Palace and was treated to similar indignities. Very similar, in fact. Here's what she told KALW's Holly Kernan:

It was a mean-spirited crowd up in the galleries where we were. And we did all right the first day because they were behaving for the cameras. But then, there was a speech by former President Eisenhower that was like lighting a match, in which he talked ... the words he said could have been interpreted as being racist. And after that, all hell broke loose. Reporters were being, I mean really big-name reporters, were being taken and arrested, really – one of the leading reporters was arrested on that night. So, we watched all this from up high, and finally we heard somebody from down below yell, “What are you N-word people doing up there?” And he screamed it in sort of a chant. And the next thing we knew, there’s a mob of people screaming all kinds of things. Up there, isolated where we were in semi-darkness, we felt threatened. We started down the stairs and garbage started being thrown at us. I didn’t really get nervous until I could feel a bottle whiz by my head. It crashed against the concrete, and my knees started to shake as we were walking down the ramp to get out of the Cow Palace.

Louis said to me, “If you cry, I will break your leg.” Just like that! And I looked at him, I was shocked! Straightened my back, and we both kept eyes straight ahead and got down to the bottom. And then we looked at each other because we saw uniformed officers, but coming from the South, we knew that was no safe passage. And we knew we still had the outside to the parking lot to go. We were both terrified. We were at a political convention, or you know, one of the two organizations pledged to protect the rights of American citizens and feeling that our lives were in danger. But that’s the way it was that year. It was an experience that made me sure that I wanted to go into the news business because they were the only ones who seemed to be able to shine light on these people. And I wanted to do that.

More power to Belva, but it seems like we can do better than this.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Season of the Witch

I just finished reading David Talbot's Season of the Witch, which the good folks at Free Press sent along at my request. I received it too late to pitch a review, and I see that the New York Times Book Review has already covered it. (I still may use the book in my class at San Francisco State.) I'll return to that review in a moment, but first let me say that after some initial misgivings, I found Talbot's account of San Francisco's roller-coaster ride through the 60s, 70s, and 80s both informative and entertaining.

My misgivings arose from the over-the-top style and what seemed to be a highly synthetic account of San Francisco (especially the Haight) in the 1960s. But as I got deeper into the book, I realized that the style was in many ways adequate to the topic. To be sure, there were cliches, false notes, and mixed metaphors, but the story Talbot tells is an extravagant one, and I came to enjoy and even admire his energetic phrase-making.

I also realized that his selection and emphasis worked, at least for me, and that his original research was substantial. I really dug the material on Vincent Hallinan and his progeny, for example. His chapters on the Good Earth commune and other "heavy hippies" is a welcome addition to the usual accounts of the Diggers. His treatment of the Zebra killings of the 1970s fills in a lot of blank spaces for me. In a series of short, punchy chapters, he guides readers through more familiar material about Jim Jones, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and Dan White, but he also adds important details about the SFPD and its culture as well as conservative pol John Barbagelata, who was sounding the alarms about Jones and the threat he posed to the city. Talbot does a good job on Dianne Feinstein, whom he compares to Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie but also credits with safely navigating the city through one of its most difficult periods. And though I was initially skeptical about his claim that the San Francisco 49ers helped redeem the deeply troubled city in the 1980s, I have to admit that he marshals impressive evidence to support that claim.

So what does the New York Times review make of all this? Although Ellen Ullman's take on the book is more negative, I don't actually disagree with most of what she says. But I think she comes quite close to a reviewing no-no when she starts outlining the book she wanted to read (or write). That book, it turns out, would include more coverage of women activists, including "a bunch of really angry women marching through [COYOTE founder Margo] St. James’s Tenderloin turf."

David Talbot fired off a letter to the Times, which they ran. (Some would say this is an authorial no-no.) Here's the last part of Ullman's reply:
My objections to his book are literary and intellectual. And, yes, political. I cheered for the 49ers. But Talbot devotes two chapters — two — to their winning the Super Bowl, and not two pages to the women’s organizations that changed our political and social life. This is all you need to know about nits and tribes and equal weights.
Let me say again that I find a lot to agree with in Ullman's review. But her comment about the two chapters on the 49ers is misleading unless we already know that the book has 36 (short) chapters. Also, the evidence presented in the book suggests that many San Franciscans cared a lot more about the 49ers than about the women's organizations she has in mind. So no, I don't think that's all we need to know about nits and tribes and equal weights.

UPDATE: I heard from two friends about this post, both very knowledgeable and with different takes on the book. Randy Shaw, who has forgotten more about workaday San Francisco politics than I will ever know, sent me a critical review he posted on Beyond Chron. As executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, Randy is especially attuned to housing and redevelopment issues, which figure in his review.

I also heard from Duffy Jennings, the Chronicle reporter who covered the Patty Hearst kidnap, the Zodiac serial murders, the Moscone and Milk assassinations, the Dan White murder trial, and the riot that followed the White verdict. Duffy is mentioned in the book. Talbot notes that when Dianne Feinstein announced the murders of Moscone and Milk at City Hall, she stopped herself from breaking down by focusing on a familiar face--Duffy's. Anyone who has seen that footage will recall how gripping it is. Incredibly, Duffy ended up in my class at SF State a few years ago and graciously agreed to cover this material for a subsequent one. Duffy's comment on the book: "Even as a reporter immersed in many of these events at the time, I learned a lot from Talbot's work."

Subversives ... and Richard Aoki

My review of Seth Rosenfeld's book, Subversives, ran on Truthdig last week and received a fair amount of traffic. As it turns out, Sol Stern reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal. Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that Sol was on the staff at Ramparts and wrote many of its most important stories. He has since repudiated the magazine's politics, especially when it comes to Israel and the Black Panthers, and is now a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Some readers may find a comparison of the reviews instructive, especially when it comes to the importance of selection and emphasis. My review focuses heavily on what I take to be the book's central story: the relationship between Ronald Reagan and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. The book clearly invites that reading. For example, Reagan's name appears in the subtitle, and Seth concludes the book by detailing the FBI's stubborn refusal to release the files that document its relationship with Reagan. That Seth was able to land those documents through a series of lawsuits is a major part of his contribution.

Sol acknowledges that the Reagan-FBI story contains the book's "most significant historical revelations," but he devotes relatively little space to, and offers almost no details about, those revelations in his review. He's more interested in the book's treatment of Mario Savio and the radical nature of the student protests. That emphasis assorts well with a more general argument Sol has been making in various forums over the years.

Interestingly, Sol also passes on what has proven to be a very controversial aspect of the book: its claim that Richard Aoki, a former Black Panther, was also an FBI informer. Seth released that story separately through the Center for Investigative Reporting this week, and it got a lot of pickup. The story hit a nerve, especially among activists and academics interested in race and ethnicity, and some of the most vocal early responders were deeply skeptical or dismissive--reflexively so, in my opinion. One way to evaluate that opinion is to perform what Stanley Crouch used to call the flip test. If someone brought similar evidence against Reagan or Hoover, for example, would the claim be accepted or rejected?

Readers of a certain age may recall the 1978 New West piece on the Panthers by Kate Coleman and Paul Avery. That one was also sponsored by CIR and received a great deal of attention. (I discuss it in the Ramparts book.)