Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review of H.W. Brands's New Reagan Bio

I reviewed H.W. Brands's new biography of Ronald Reagan for Truthdig this weekend. There's a lot to like in this bio, especially in the presentation. But as someone who teaches and writes about California topics, I was struck by some important omissions. To be fair, Rick Perlstein's Invisible Bridge, which I reviewed for The National Memo, also passed over some of this material.

Brands's portrait of Reagan resembles the one offered by Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan in both Sacramento and the White House. I interviewed Lou for my biography of Carey McWilliams and came away with huge respect--not only for the Reagan bios, but also for his work on the LAPD before, during, and after the Rodney King riots. Although Lou and I almost certainly differ in our assessment of Reagan and his legacy, much of what I know about Reagan I learned from Lou.

Lou also told me a story about his first book, which looked at Reagan and Jesse (Big Daddy) Unruh, the key Democrat in the state legislature and Reagan's opponent in the 1970 gubernatorial race. If memory serves, Lou wrote to several dozen public figures asking for interviews and general guidance. He heard back from precisely two: William F. Buckley and Carey McWilliams. Those two had a lot in common despite their different political orientations, and Lou felt, as I do, that it's important not to let ideological differences blot out such similarities.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dead Heads in the Ritz-Carlton?

A New York Times article headline says it all: "Grateful Dead Fans Replace VW Vans With Jets and the Ritz-Carlton." The big idea is that once-broke Dead Heads are now doing quite well, thank you.

I don't have a problem with the story as written, but the only thing that makes it news is a hoary media stereotype: namely, that all Dead Heads were vagabond hippies indulging in their peculiar form of hedonistic poverty.

Yes, many Dead Heads fit this description, but as sociologist Rebecca Adams has shown, the Dead Head community was always more diverse than this stereotype suggested. Very early on, the Dead's record label found that about 70 percent of their audience went to college, and the band received rave reviews in elite campus newspapers. Is it any surprise that many Dead Heads had successful careers? Or that a fraction of them are willing to spring for the VIP treatment when the core four play together for the last time this summer?


Monday, May 11, 2015

Jerry Garcia's Middle Finger

Just discovered this blog today, courtesy of David Browne and Tales of the Golden Road on Facebook. Was DELIGHTED to read the following review of No Simple Highway.

Richardson, Peter. 2015. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. New York: St. Martin's Press.
--Essential, canonical source. Loved this book, a great, rich read, a beautiful set of three long narratives through the themes of ecstasy, mobility and community--exceptionally well conceived and executed. I learned a lot about the San Francisco avant-garde scene, and Wally Hedrick in particular, that I did not know--this is bedrock cultural material for Garcia. I learned a few new things about the Dead, in part via Richardson's work at the amazing GD Archives at UC Santa Cruz, but also just by novelly composing materials that I thought I already should have known ... It struck me in Richardson's hands as a fresh angle that cast some very interesting light, beautifully rendered, well-written stories. I hope this book gets read by more than Deadheads, but by anyone who is interested in digging a little more deeply into postwar American culture.

Man, I hope that "canonical" thing catches on.


Friday, May 08, 2015

The Dead and the Aesthetics of Effortlessness

David Browne has a nice piece on the Dead in The Daily Beast. David is certainly right that much of the Dead's coolness had to do with their authenticity and integrity. As I say in No Simple Highway, they gave mainstream culture a wide berth and showed that hippies could flourish on their own preferred terms.

In many ways, the Dead defined or embodied cool here in the Bay Area when I was growing up, especially until 1975 or so. Another source of their cool, I would say, was their studied nonchalance--or sprezzatura, as the Renaissance Italians called it. Then and now, Californians like to make difficult things look effortless. (If you need to put another face on that, try Joe DiMaggio.)

When I moved to NYC in my twenties, I learned that studied nonchalance didn't have the same cachet there. Quite the opposite: The whole point was to be serious, dramatize your effort, and win the Most Industrious award. Those who didn't were considered lightweight, flakey, etc.

If you're not attuned to the aesthetic of effortlessness, or if you aren't familiar with how hard it is to perform a difficult task at a certain level, you might be tempted to take things at face value and diminish the achievement. I think that's still happening with the Dead, in part because they consistently downplayed their effort. But you don't last three decades in the music business unless you're committed to your project. In short, my advice is to enjoy the sprezzatura, but don't let it fool you.


Thursday, May 07, 2015

Dylan-Garcia Redux Again

Well, I suppose it had to be said ... repeatedly. Having read my objections here to Dan Chiasson's cavalier dismissal of Jerry Garcia in The New York Review of Books, an editor at Guernica asked me to write up a short article, which ran today. We'll see what, if anything comes of it. Yes, it's a trifle, but as I point out in the article, it's part of a longstanding pattern when it comes to Garcia and the Dead. The fact that Garcia and Hunter were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year, two decades after the Dead dissolved, is another part of that pattern.