Saturday, August 31, 2019

Katharine Gun and "Official Secrets"

When I was editorial director at PoliPoint Press, Norman Solomon told me about Katharine Gun's remarkable story. A translator working for a British intelligence agency, she leaked top-secret information after learning that the United States illegally monitored the UN offices of six countries on the Security Council. At the time, the United States was seeking UN authorization for the invasion of Iraq.

We published Marcia Mitchell's book about her, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, in 2008. Now the film version, Official Secrets, has arrived, and Jon Schwarz's article in The Intercept calls it "the best movie ever made about how the Iraq War happened."

Friday, August 16, 2019

Media Roundup: Manson, Arnautoff, McWilliams & Ramparts

Three projects I'm involved with came to fruition this week. Though the topics are very different, all three are connected to my teaching and research interests.

The project with the longest gestation period was a documentary film called Manson: Music From An Unsound Mind. It explores the musical aspirations that brought Charles Manson to Los Angeles with disastrous results. Before that, Manson lived in San Francisco, and the film includes some of my comments about the San Francisco counterculture. I watched the film on iTunes, but it's available on many other platforms.

The same crew (Prism Films) is also releasing a documentary about Altamont. I'm not sure about the release date but wouldn't be surprised if it lands in December, which is the concert's 50th anniversary. We did both interviews here at the house on the same day.

I also talked with Robert Scheer about Carey McWilliams and Ramparts magazine on his KCRW podcast. Over the years, Bob and I have talked extensively about Ramparts and his work there; this time it was especially gratifying to blend those reflections with some discussion of McWilliams and his achievement, especially but not only at The Nation magazine.

Finally, my continuing interest in Victor Arnautoff's murals at George Washington High School led to an interview with Christoph Droesser, who produced a piece for Swiss radio and a front-page article for Frankfurter Allgemeine. I continue to follow the larger story with interest and am glad the San Francisco school board has reconsidered its decision to destroy those murals. I learned about the issue from my colleague, Bob Cherny, who wrote a 2017 book about Arnautoff. I was alarmed by the board's claim that the murals glorified slavery and genocide. The opposite is true, but the claim seemed to justify the destruction. To my knowledge, no one has actually withdrawn that claim. We'll see where that goes from here.

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son"

I finally got around to John Fogerty's memoir, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music (2015). As an El Cerrito native, I found the first part especially interesting. Fogerty is adamant about his El Cerrito (not Berkeley or San Francisco!) roots, and his memories range over familiar terrain: Harding Elementary School, Indian Rock, Sunset View Cemetery, Portola Junior High School, the El Cerrito Boys Club, Ortman's Ice Cream Parlor, El Cerrito High School, Contra Costa College, etc. He even names a teacher I knew from Portola who was also a customer on my Oakland Tribune paper route. (Fogerty delivered the Berkeley Gazette, where his father was a Linotype operator.) Well after he became a star, Fogerty worked out of a studio on Key Route in Albany.

Even more unexpected was Fogerty's connection to Winters, one of my favorite small towns, about 13 miles west of Davis. His family spent many summers on Putah Creek before it was dammed to create Lake Berryesa. That creek later inspired "Green River."

As for his musical influences, Fogerty is equally specific. Most notable for me are the R&B radio stations, especially KWBR (later KDIA), which broadcast out of Oakland. The folk festivals at UC Berkeley, where Fogerty met Lightnin' Hopkins and Pete Seeger, also left their mark. At the Oakland Auditorium, he saw James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Duane Eddy, and Ray Charles from the front row.

Fogerty learned about Fantasy Records, then based in San Francisco, from a public television special hosted by Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic at the San Francisco Chronicle who also wrote for Ramparts and cofounded Rolling Stone magazine. Fogerty's longstanding beef with Fantasy (and his bandmates) takes up a good deal of the book. I found it interesting that Gleason, a vice president at Fantasy, evidently sided with Saul Zaentz, Fantasy's owner and Fogerty's nemesis. Lawyer Al Bendich, who famously defended Lenny Bruce in his San Francisco obscenity trial, also worked for Fantasy and plays one of the heavies.

Interestingly, Fogerty didn't identify with the San Francisco counterculture. He wasn't a creature of the drug culture, he avoided Dead-style jamming and improvisation, and he didn't appreciate the casual approach to live performance, especially extended tuning before the set actually started. He's a self-described control freak, and the studio has long been his domain. From the outset, he thought long and hard not only about the music, but also about the finished record.

The memoir loses shape and direction toward the end, when it becomes more of a family album. But the wealth of local detail, the deep dive into musical influences, and Fogerty's amazing run as a singer/songwriter made this a very worthwhile read for me.

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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Victor Arnautoff's Murals

I've been brooding over the San Francisco school board's unanimous decision to destroy Victor Arnautoff's murals. What kind of educator would call for the destruction of historically significant art? The Chronicle article lays out some of the facts.

Based on the coverage I've seen in the nation's key newspapers, the school board's decision is widely regarded as backward. That's not how San Francisco sees itself, and the school board's public comments trade vigorously in the rhetoric of progress. But it's hard to claim the high ground when you willfully destroy radical art that belongs to everybody. For me, this disgraceful decision reveals the Bay Area's ignorance of (or indifference to) its own radical history.

The silver lining, perhaps, is that my colleague Bob Cherny has added his voice to the debate. Bob wrote a book about Arnautoff that appeared in 2017. He has tried to reason with the board and is widely quoted in the coverage.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Jane Ciabattari on LitHub

Once again, Jane Ciabattari brings her three-dot expertise to her coverage of the Bay Area Book Festival coverage for LitHub. I'm especially grateful for the shout-out:

Down Allston Street, Miriam Pawel, author of The Browns of California, a joint biography of governors Pat Brown and his son Jerry, shared stories with the eldest Pat Brown granddaughter, Kathleen Kelly, a Superior Court judge, and her father Joe Kelly, who was married to Jerry’s sister Cynthia. Moderator Peter Richardson coaxed out memories of the deep divide between the austere, Jesuit-trained Jerry and his gregarious father Pat. Jerry once took his father on a silent religious retreat, the story goes, but Pat couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Many thanks, Jane, for your continuing support.


Sunday, May 05, 2019

Bay Area Book Festival 2019

Another beautiful day in Berkeley for the Bay Area Book Festival. The session I moderated on the Brown family (Jerry, Pat, etc.) went swimmingly, thanks to Miriam Pawel, Joe Kelly, and Kathleen Kelly. Joe was married to Jerry's sister Cynthia; Kathleen is their oldest child and a Superior Court judge. Their insights and stories went over very well, and Miriam was on point and delightful as usual. The estimated attendance was 300, including some of my students from San Francisco State University.

Afterwards, I strolled the exhibits and was interviewed by a camera crew--not sure what that was about. I also chatted in the green room, met some cool authors, heard about some interesting new books, and bought one called Foucault in California by Simeon Wade, published by Heyday. It's about Foucault's 1975 acid trip in Death Valley. I read the foreword and will return to that as soon as I finish Eve Babitz's Slow Days, Fast Company.

In short, my favorite kind of day.


Wednesday, May 01, 2019

More C-Mac Love

Today I learned that The Nation podcast, "Start Making Sense," will post their interview with me about Carey McWilliams. I really like the way it came out. You can find it here. Many thanks to host Jon Wiener and his team for the good work.

I also had a chance to speak about Carey McWilliams at the California Historical Society last night. It was a quick spin through his many accomplishments, but more and more, I'm also addressing why his work doesn't command more attention--especially given the tributes he has received from Kevin Starr, Mike Davis, Patricia Limerick, and many other experts. Truly, he's the most important American author that most people have never heard of.

Afterwards I went to Slim's to watch the rough cut of a documentary film about KSAN, the San Francisco counterculture's signature radio station. Many familiar faces there, including Bonnie Simmons, Ben Fong-Torres, Terry McGovern, and Scoop Nisker.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kevin Starr: The Examiner Years

Boom California just published a piece I wrote about Kevin Starr's work as a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. This wasn't an easy one to write, but I think it's important. Especially if you've ever wondered why Harvey Milk's most famous speech portrayed Kevin as a bigot. Or why his eight-volume series, "Americans and the California Dream," skipped the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Some of these columns may surprise Kevin's fans. The tone is quite different from what we see in his books. This by itself isn't so surprising; writing a column for a Hearst newspaper isn't the same as writing books for Oxford University Press. Nevertheless, some of Kevin's opinions from those days haven't aged well. I also chart some of his moves after leaving the Examiner: his unsuccessful bid for San Francisco supervisor, his stint at the California State Library, and his academic appointment at USC.

The whole idea here is to better understand Kevin's evolution as a writer. The Examiner material isn't Kevin at his best, but it doesn't diminish his other contributions. I also think the best way to honor writers is to take what they write seriously.

On a more personal note, I think Kevin's role at the library helped make him the ultimate cheerleader for research on California. He didn't know me from Adam, but when I had a proposal for the Carey McWilliams bio, I sent it to him blind. One day I found a telephone message from him; he had forwarded the proposal to Jim Clark, director of the University of California Press, with his recommendation. That got me a meeting with Jim, which never would have happened otherwise. He was great on that kind of thing, which endeared him to many authors and would-be authors. That was above and beyond everything he did with his own writing.

Kevin also had a good sense of humor. I gave the Bonnie Cashin lecture at UCLA one year, and I began with a dream I had while working on the McWilliams bio. I won't try to summarize the dream here, but it was pretty funny, and Kevin appeared in it. He was shouting at me from a rooftop. When the lecture appeared as a pamphlet, I learned that UCLA's librarian, Gary Strong, had persuaded Kevin to write the foreword. Kevin began several paragraphs by referring to the dream and what he was probably shouting at me. It was only later I realized how weird that was--the author of the dream series appearing in my dream and commenting on it later.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Pet Peeve Department

It's hard to footnote books accurately, but I have no patience for authors who swipe my carefully sourced quotations without attribution and then screw them up. Today I found a beauty in Will Swift's 2014 book about the Nixons and their marriage. Swift quotes Carey McWilliams, who described Nixon in 1950 as "a dapper little man with an astonishing capacity for petty malice." But Swift doesn't mention McWilliams, and he attributes the quote to The New Republic, not The Nation, where it actually appeared.

It's possible but unlikely that Swift found the quote somewhere besides my writing. If you search on the quote, you find only my stuff and his.

Not the end of the world by any means. But it's made worse somehow by the fact that the book was published by a right-wing imprint (Threshold Editions). That's the outfit that signed Milo Yiannopoulos for a $250k advance and then canceled the deal. It also published The Embassy House, which had to be withdrawn in 2013 when U.S. officials refuted the author's eyewitness account of the Benghazi incident. Most of the major trade publishers have right-wing imprints now, and I've seen some really dreadful stuff from that quarter.

Swift's book, however, received a positive review in the New York Times, where conservative author Thomas Mallon called it fair-minded and thorough. That may well be true, but I wonder.


Friday, January 25, 2019

The Return of C-Mac

The University of California Press has published a paperback edition of my Carey McWilliams biography--this time with a fabulous foreword by Mike Davis. An advance copy of American Prophet appeared in my mailbox last week. The official publication date is March 5, but you can buy it here now.

My respect for McWilliams hasn't diminished a bit since I began the research more than 15 years ago. His brains, range, versatility, and classic prose style still floor me. And as I research Hunter Thompson's literary formation, McWilliams once again looms large. It was McWilliams, of course, who gave Thompson the idea for his story on the Hells Angels. After McWilliams ran it in The Nation, Thompson parlayed it into his first bestseller.

The good folks at Truthdig ran a Q&A on McWilliams and my longstanding interest in his achievement--often in the face of fierce resistance from formidable adversaries.

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