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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Fare Thee Well

Catching up: David Ulin turned his gaze to Fare Thee Well just before the Chicago shows. His LA Times piece ran in the Chicago Tribune as well. Lots to think about, but I'm especially glad he mentioned No Simple Highway--and quoted the blog! Interesting, too, that he mentioned the Dead in connection with what Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America. That was part of the argument in No Simple Highway.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Big Show

I'm preparing for the Santa Clara show tonight with the so-called "core four" of the Grateful Dead. Should be a blast. I've been following the run-up, of course, including a New Yorker podcast that made many good points, but it also reminded me that many smart people don't really understand the Dead or their achievement. Like many rock critics of yore, some of these commentators can't see what's in plain sight, in part because of what my dissertation director used to call "a hardening of the categories." Let me explain.

Most critics listen to the Dead's albums or live tapes, pass judgment on what they hear, and think their work is done. That's fine, especially if they're aware that the Dead improvised fearlessly for decades, and that the live performances (which were their calling card) could be uneven. But that approach also misses something important, for the Dead also had a larger project that distinguished them from their peers and helps account for their durable success.

How to describe that project? It's a long story, but the headline version is that their concerts expanded the social space for the experience of total rapture; their tours furnished fans with the opportunity for adventure; and those fans could experience that ecstasy and adventure in a large, vibrant, and cohesive community. As I've been trying to say since No Simple Highway came out, many people want some ecstasy, adventure, and community in their lives.

Yes, the Dead have a great songbook, but so do many other musicians. The question is, did the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or any other contemporary artist you can think of foster so much community for so long? Now, two decades after the band dissolved, that community will have a few more chances to commune. And that experience is really what this excitement is all about.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Dead in the Age of Reagan

When I pitched the proposal for No Simple Highway, it didn't include anything about what historian Sean Wilentz has called the Age of Reagan. I was well along with the manuscript, in fact, before I realized Ronald Reagan was the perfect foil for the Dead's project.

When discussing the Dead and American politics, it's easy to screw up, but a few facts are very clear. In California, Ronald Reagan ran against hippies, and as president, he intensified the War on Drugs. Neither move was meant to please the Dead Head community. The Dead rarely made political statements, but Jerry Garcia made an exception for Reagan. He didn't like Reagan's movies, he didn't like his politics, and he didn't like his vision of America. Some readers (and reviewers) obviously don't like those facts, which they attribute to my view of Reagan. But that doesn't alter the historical record, which I double-checked with other experts, including Dennis McNally.

Were Reagan and the Dead embroiled in a vicious and protracted blood-feud? No, of course not. But when trying to understand the band's only top-ten single and transition to the mega-Dead period, you have to consider the context. Consider, too, the personal attacks from George Will, William F. Buckley, and Mike Barnicle when Jerry Garcia died. I challenge anyone to read those attacks and argue that they weren't political. Whether or not the Dead (and their fans) were overtly political, you can't tell their story coherently without considering the social and political energies that were swirling around them. Anyway, much more of that in the book as well as a related article I wrote.

Today, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article on just this topic. It quotes Dennis and me along with others to understand the Dead's late-career success in the Age of Reagan. It's difficult to capture nuances in this kind of short article, but it might lead out to a fruitful discussion.

Note: I think the photograph above misquotes Reagan. The correct quote, I believe, is as follows: "For those of you who don't know what a hippie is, he's a fellow who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah."