Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dylan-Garcia Redux

Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that I wrote a short letter to The New York Review of Books a few months ago. It challenged Dan Chiasson's claim that Bob Dylan's foundering career in the 1980s was related to his decision to work with Jerry Garcia, one of several "minor talents" whom Dylan characteristically overestimated. I concluded that while there's no disputing taste, the Dylan-Garcia combination wasn't a case of a major talent mistakenly working with a minor one.

Before making a mountain out of a molehill, let's admire the genius of Chiasson's dismissal. It not only allows him to attribute Dylan's shortcomings to others, but it also makes Dylan's mistake resemble a virtue: namely, excessive generosity. If only Dylan had correctly assessed Garcia's talent deficit, the 1980s would have been another monument to Dylan's greatness.

Anyone paying attention, of course, will recall that Garcia and the Dead were thriving at this time, that Dylan needed them and not vice versa, and that Dylan praised Garcia's talent accurately and beautifully in his 1995 eulogy. But Chiasson would probably maintain that this assessment was just Dylan being Dylan again. Thoughtful critics would avoid his excessive generosity and consign Garcia to the minor leagues.

After sending off my email and posting it here, I turned my gaze to other matters. But while reading the current issue of NYROB yesterday, I saw an exchange in the Letters department that I have to mention.

"I find it ridiculous that [Chiasson] stigmatizes Jerry Garcia and Tom Petty as 'minor talents,'" writes Rick Holmes. "Dylan also collaborated with Roy Orbison and George Harrison in the 1980s. Perhaps Chiasson also considers them insignificant." And so on.

Here's Chiasson's reply.

I'm glad that Jerry Garcia and Tom Petty have such passionate and knowledgeable defenders, and there's no disputing taste. I think they are minor in relation to Dylan, though compared with other radio acts of that era--ZZ Top and Wang Chung, for example--they do seem like great geniuses.

OK, let's pause for a moment here. Jerry Garcia was a radio act of this era? Also, ZZ Top and Wang Chung? Is Chiasson completely ignorant of Garcia's work, or does he only assume that we are? Notice, too, the sarcasm in the crack about "great geniuses," a phrase that isn't synonymous with "major talents." The slippage reinforces the original insult, but I also sense some anxiety here, a kind of critical "tell," even if the reference is primarily or exclusively to Petty and not to Garcia.

Back to Chiasson's reply.

"Roy Orbison and George Harrison are indisputably major, but when was the last time you cranked a Traveling Wilburys tune? That was a lifeless, sleepwalking ensemble, and you know who I blame? Tom Petty."

Too bad Holmes gave Chiasson so much room to maneuver. First, he let the Garcia part slide and worked the Tom Petty angle. That made it easier for Chiasson to dismiss his objection, I think. Second, Holmes introduced Orbison and Harrison for no apparent reason. That permitted Chiasson to concede a symbolic point while sticking to his original judgment.

I lost a bit more respect for Chiasson, in part because I detect an attempt to disguise what my dissertation director called "contempt prior to investigation," which he regarded as an intellectual sin. Nothing Chiasson wrote in the article or reply suggests he knows anything about Garcia. And the diction in this reply seems designed to
compensate for this weakness. Indeed, it's very much of a piece with the original dismissal--clever but not wise.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Can't Wait Until That "Deal" Comes Round? The Kreutzmann Memoir

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead by Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen. (The hoi polloi will have their chance next month.) I ingested 100 pages at the first sitting. Given Bill's vocation, is it any wonder that the book has great tempo?

Bill never did many interviews, and I've heard him complain about the accuracy of the ones that did appear. So I knew I was missing a lot of his basic information while I was writing No Simple Highway. I tried to contact him, of course, but he was saving the good stuff for his own book. And now we have it. I know quite a lot more about his youth, including a random (or was it?) introduction to Aldous Huxley while Bill was attending an Arizona boarding school. (Fanatical readers of the blog will recall that I start No Simple Highway with Huxley's first mescaline trip, which was the basis for his 1954 book, The Doors of Perception.) I also know where Bill lived, whom he married and had children with, and which memories survived three decades of continual touring and partying.

Many insiders have wondered what this book would reveal about the Dead and its members. Let's be clear: Bill pulls a couple of punches. In fact, he tells us so. "When I first started writing this book," he notes, "I imagined that I would go into a little more detail about the reasons why the Dead dissolved after the 2009 tour and why, for years, there were never even talks of reforming." I think I know at least one of those reasons, but the "little more detail" he mentions would have been welcome. On the other hand, that kind of dish probably would have thrown a monkey wrench into this year's anniversary concerts, so I'm willing to do without it, at least for now.

On balance, however, Bill's story is refreshingly forthright. He discusses his mother's suicide, for example, which I knew nothing about. He's also very clear that he didn't want Mickey Hart to rejoin the band in the 1970s: "I was not cool with that. At all." And though he never says so explicitly, he strongly suggests that Mickey's challenges during this time included heroin use. (Mickey has referred vaguely to the demons he was wrestling to the ground, and every band history mentions his dark period following Lenny Hart's criminal mischief as the band's manager.) Bill is equally honest about his own "opium habit" during a rough period of his life, not to mention the fact that the two drummers resumed their friendship and musical partnership. When I saw Mickey play with 7 Walkers a few years ago, their mutual delight was obviously genuine.

Another feature of the book is its emphasis on intense experience. That includes drug use but is by no means limited to it. Bill really liked to shoot at, blow up, and bang on things. He's also drawn to wilderness and the ocean; now living in Kauai, he's an avid surfer and diver. He's clearly focused on action, rhythm, sensation, and percussion, and I found myself enjoying his elemental nature--perhaps because my own is so verbal and cerebral. There doesn't seem to be a contemplative bone in his body, which, in the absence of flamboyant conflicts, regrets, or spectacular revelations, normally makes for a so-so memoir. Yet somehow this one came across for me ... and almost certainly will for many other readers.

For those who may have missed it earlier, here's my disclosure: Bill and Benjy's book was edited and marketed by the very same folks who handled my book.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bay Area Book Festival

I went to a fundraiser last night in Berkeley for the Bay Area Book Festival, for which I'm organizing some panels. (My official title is "senior literary advisor," but no need to stand on ceremony; "Herr Doktor Senior Advisor" will be fine.)

I'm not gonna sugarcoat it; I was a little starstruck. Among the guests were Joyce Carol Oates, Mark Danner, Adam & Arlie Hochschild, David Talbot, Peter Coyote, Lalita Tademy, Belva Davis, Orville Schell (who hosted), Markos & Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, Nion McEvoy, Gary Kamiya, Monika Bauerlein, Mark Schapiro, Leah Garcik, Steve Silberstein, and Alice Waters.

The book festival, which is cosponsored by UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Chronicle, is scheduled for June 6-7 in downtown Berkeley. Save the date; it's free, and it will be terrific.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Some Thoughts on David Browne's "So Many Roads"

I just finished reading Deal by Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen as well as So Many Roads by David Browne. It was a treat to hear the Dead's story told by their original drummer with few holds barred, but I'll say more about that effort in my next post. I have only a few minutes to compose this--I'm in Austin and returning to the Bay Area later this morning--and I want to comment on David's book while it's top of mind.

The first thing to note is how deeply reported So Many Roads is. After contacting David Lemieux about this project, David had access to the Dead's remaining members and inner circle. This was an extraordinary advantage that David made full use of. He brought forward a great deal of new material based on those interviews, and he contextualized that material in new and interesting ways. (For example, his interviews with Barbara Meier show how the Cuban missile crisis provided the backdrop for Jerry Garcia's "live for the moment" lifestyle.) Even aficionados will find plenty of new insights into the band and its experience.

David also chose a unique way to structure his book. Instead of offering a continuous narrative, which has been done many times before, he selected seventeen days that were either turning points for the band or somehow illustrated its development. He then back-filled important information to ensure the coverage was adequate. So, for example, his seventeen days don't include the one Jerry Garcia died, but he makes sure readers know about that event and its key details. That structure allows David to bring certain moments into sharp focus without sacrificing a broader view of the band's history.

David's coverage is fairly evenly distributed over the band's three decades, and most of what I learned about the Dead from this book was set in the 1980s and 1990s. And here I want to mention a challenge most authors must address in writing about the band. Having read Dennis McNally, Blair Jackson, and Robert Greenfield, I knew I didn't want to detail Jerry Garcia's health problems during this period. It has been done, it's not very uplifting, and it tends to take over the narrative.

I decided to focus on a different theme during that period--namely, the growth and consolidation of the Dead community. This included discussion of the Dead's mail-order ticketing program, David Gans's syndicated radio program, Blair's fanzine, the Dead's decision to allow taping, the growth of the Dead Head community on the WELL, and so on. I also discussed the Reagan presidency and how it (unintentionally) fueled the Dead community. I spent no little time on "Touch of Grey"--not only its success, but also its lyrics--to show that the Dead and their community survived the Age of Reagan and collectively celebrated that survival.

In contrast, David doesn't shrink from the challenge of Garcia's health problems, including the details of his addiction. That's certainly the more straightforward approach, and David brings new and interesting material to bear on it. This decision was only one of many, of course, and it by no means dominated my reading experience. In any case, I look forward to following this book's reception--not only on this point, but in general.

Do I need to add that I relished this book and recommend it highly? I should probably also mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I met David at the San Jose conference, enjoyed our time together, and am acknowledged in the book. If anything, I'm a little closer to the Kreutzmann project, if only because we shared a publisher, editor, and publicity team. But I'll get to that soon enough; mostly I wanted to recognize David's achievement while it's fresh in my mind.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Ramparts in the News

I recently attended an event at UC Berkeley with Karen Paget, author of Patriotic Betrayal. I plan to read that book next, and I've already seen the coverage (in The New Yorker and elsewhere). I'm following this discussion with interest, mostly because Ramparts magazine figures heavily in the story. Paget's story concerns the CIA's involvement with the National Students Association during the Cold War. Following a lead furnished by a whistle blower, Ramparts revealed that involvement and was subsequently targeted by the CIA. Such stories eventually led to Congressional hearings and more oversight of the U.S. intelligence community.

One review that caught my eye appeared in The Weekly Standard. It's by Gabriel Schoenfeld, who has argued elsewhere that New York Times editors and writers should be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for their stories on massive U.S. surveillance programs. He also wrote a book called Necessary Secrets, which "offers a gripping account of how our national security ... has been compromised by disclosure of classified information."

Schoenfeld's review performs a kind of ideological minuet. Much of that performance hinges on its diction, misdirection, and suggestion. The organizing logic is melodrama. The violence of the Second World War, which Schoenfeld mentions in the first sentence, justifies the CIA's overreach during the Cold War that followed. He also refers to the CIA's "Cold War liberals," suggesting that they dominated the agency during the 1950s. This would come as a surprise to Allen Dulles, the lifelong Republican whom President Eisenhower appointed director of the CIA in 1952. After Dulles choreographed coups in Iran and Guatemala as well as the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, President Kennedy pressured him to resign in 1961.

Schoenfeld concedes that "the CIA link to the NSA—and a number of other domestic and foreign organizations—continued well past the point of usefulness." He also notes that "CIA astigmatism should be condemned." Note the passive voice--who, exactly, would do that work, especially if journalists are prosecuted for stories on classified programs? The review says nothing about the CIA's illicit investigations of those journalists or its plans to target them. The diction, too, is designed to minimize the agency's culpability. The agency suffered from astigmatism, or slightly faulty vision. If it had the correct prescription, perhaps it wouldn't have tried to assassinate Fidel Castro eight times between 1960 and 1965. Or maybe it would have succeeded.

That's as far as Dr. Schoenfeld can go toward criticizing the agency during this period. He saves his real criticisms for Paget's "preposterous judgments" about the agency and its efforts. He cites exactly one but assures us that they are scattered throughout the book. I will withhold judgment on that, but the review's selection and emphasis suggest that Dr. Schoenfeld might not be a reliable guide on these points.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Dead Spin

I'm teaching my Grateful Dead course at OLLI again, this time at Sonoma State University, and Jonah Raskin covered the story for the Press Democrat this week. I'm looking forward to the first class on Tuesday. Guests this time will include Rosie McGee, David Gans, and David Dodd, co-editor of The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics.

The Alibi, Albuquerque's alternative weekly, ran a positive review of No Simple Highway. Turns out I also attended one of the Santa Fe shows the reviewer mentions in the piece. In the early 1980s, I was a field representative for the college division of Harper & Row, Publishers. My territory was West Texas and the entire state of New Mexico. While calling on the University of New Mexico, I must have decided to catch a show over the weekend.

While researching my book at the Grateful Dead Archive, I learned that northern New Mexico was on the Dead's mind as early as the 1960s, when a newspaper item mentions their interest in moving to Santa Fe. And of course the region figured heavily in the back-to-the-land movement of the same period.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Nick Meriwether Does It Again

I came across this article in the Hartford Courant featuring Nicholas Meriwether, the founding director of the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Nick's advice and support were a critical part of my Grateful Dead research and writing. My three weeks in Santa Cruz were incredibly productive, mostly because Nick made sure I had everything I needed at my disposal. That included books from his private library as well as steady access to his encyclopedic knowledge of the Dead and their times. We also enjoyed the occasional pale ale when the daily work was done.

So Nick is an extraordinary resource. But his overall contribution--as author, researcher, organizer, fundraiser, publicist, and impresario--far exceeds the indispensable role archivists normally play in the humanities and other fields.

Let me put it this way: Some day, and that day may not be far off, people are going to be studying Nick.


Tuesday, March 03, 2015

KRCB Chat with Suzanne M. Lang

I had a great Friday two weeks ago. I taped an interview at KRCB with Suzanne M. Lang, did a bookstore event at Copperfield's in Sebastopol, and then managed to hear Jackie Greene perform a couple blocks away at the HopMonk Tavern. A scrumptious pale ale was icing on the cake.

The radio program aired on Sunday, and I really like the way it turned out. Suzanne was well prepared and asked great questions. We also had a chance to explore some themes and characters I haven't talked about much. For example, she asked about Ralph J. Gleason--perhaps in part because his son Toby hosted a jazz program at KRCB until recently.

Here's the link; you can judge for yourself how it turned out. It was supposed to be a 25-minute segment, but Suzanne decided to devote the entire hour to the Dead and the book. Very gratifying. Long live public radio!


Friday, February 27, 2015

Largehearted Boy Playlist for NO SIMPLE HIGHWAY

Largehearted Boy asked me to assemble a playlist to accompany No Simple Highway. Turns out that wasn't so easy, but here's what I came up with.

How to assemble a soundtrack for a cultural history of the Grateful Dead? Fill it with my favorite Dead songs, collect their most revered jams, or try to represent the various music streams that fed their huge repertoire? I could even feature the music that Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh spun at KMPX while that San Francisco radio station was pioneering free-format rock programming in the mid-1960s.

I finally decided to produce a soundtrack that highlights the Dead's origins. Well before the band existed, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were listening avidly to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which Folkways Records released in 1952. That idiosyncratic collection was a portal to what Greil Marcus called the Old, Weird America—a shadow world of obscure heroes, rogues, doomed love affairs, suicides, murderous exploits, and half-forgotten legends.

In that spirit, then, I begin with Noah Lewis's "New Minglewood Blues," which Smith included in his anthology, and which the Dead recorded and performed many times in concert. Lewis's song was only twelve years older than Garcia, but by the time he heard it, it already sounded ancient, not to mention very weird and very American.

As a youth, Garcia heard fiddler Scotty Stoneman stretch out a bluegrass number for twenty minutes during a live performance. That was the first time Garcia recalled getting high from music; he later said his hands hurt from applauding so much. I've included Stoneman's "Talkin' Fiddlin' Blues" to mark that turning point in Garcia's musical journey. From then on, the experience of total rapture he sought would require improvisation rather than recital.

Meanwhile, Garcia's fellow folkie, Robert Hunter, was reading James Joyce and trying to write fiction. That is, until he heard Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (1966) and realized rock music could be a fit vehicle for his literary aspirations. Thus, I include "Visions of Johanna." Dylan was another Harry Smith fan; later, he and Hunter would collaborate on Together Through Life (2009).

By the mid-1960s, the Dead were part of a vibrant San Francisco scene that included Jefferson Airplane. When they recruited Grace Slick from The Great Society, she brought along two songs, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," a touchstone for the San Francisco counterculture. Like the older San Francisco artists who introduced the teenaged Garcia to bohemianism, the local bands were highly collaborative. Garcia contributed to the Airplane's debut album, Surrealistic Pillow, and coined the title. The Dead also benefited indirectly from their commercial success. Aided by San Francisco music impresario Tom Donahue, Warner Bros. signed the Dead to their first record deal.

One of Hunter's early lyrics was "Dark Star," which became the Dead's most famous (and protean) jam. Many bands, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones, were going psychedelic; with this song, the Dead went galactic. And where Jefferson Airplane alluded to Lewis Carroll, Hunter raised the literary stakes by echoing T.S. Eliot. Hunter would soon cast himself as a western writer, but there was nothing especially western about this lyric, except that it featured a frontier—the final one, space.

The Dead's early, more experimental music didn't sell many albums. But they also had other challenges. In October 1967, most of them were arrested for drug possession in their home at 710 Ashbury. The following year, they moved to bucolic Marin County, where they hung out with David Crosby and his folkie friends. Meanwhile, Garcia taught himself to play pedal steel and provided the opening riff for "Teach Your Children." That song appeared on Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969), a huge critical and commercial success. Both bands appeared at Woodstock that summer. Insofar as the event drew on the contemporary urge to "get back to the garden," Woodstock was a powerful expression of the back-to-the-land movement at its peak.

The Dead's next album, Workingman's Dead, tapped that same back-to-the-land urge. It was packed with soulful acoustic music and vocal harmonies, and when the executives at Warner Bros. heard "Uncle John's Band," they also heard the cash registers ringing. The Dead toured Canada that summer on the so-called Festival Express and returned to the Bay Area to record American Beauty. Those two albums gave the Dead their first taste of commercial success and something to tour behind.

American Beauty included "Truckin'," another popular single. This one tapped the American fascination with the open road, which the band inherited from Jack Kerouac and On the Road. As their touring machine grew in the 1970s, more and more fans began to follow their annual migrations. Those tours modeled a new form of American wanderlust and expanded the social space for the expression and transmission of countercultural values.

On one of their live albums in the 1970s, the Dead included "Brown-Eyed Women." Set somewhere in Appalachia, the song details the challenges of moonshiners during the Great Depression. Hunter's lyric would have been right at home in Smith's anthology. Garcia once said that he related more to Dylan's lyrics, but that Hunter had the ability to evoke a whole world in a song. This one is a good example.

The Dead's touring machine rumbled through the 1970s, when critics wrote them off as a nostalgic act. After a creatively slack period in the early 1980s, the most serious challenge to their enterprise was Garcia's diabetic coma in 1986. When he pulled through and resumed touring, the Dead scored their first top-ten single with "Touch of Grey," which was accompanied by a creative music video. Hunter's lyric can be read as a complex response to the Age of Reagan, but mostly the song is an anthem to survival—Garcia's, the Dead's, and the Dead Head community's. When the band changed the chorus from "I will survive" to "We will survive," they gave their fans something to celebrate. They would survive Reagan, scourge of the hippies, as well as his militarized war on drugs.

The Dead disbanded when Garcia died of a heart attack in 1995. But the music lives on, largely through the continuous reinterpretation of the Dead songbook. Countless bands have covered the Dead, but I chose Los Lobos' version of "Bertha" as a token of that type. (I especially like the unlikely combination of an East Los Angeles bar band and San Francisco hippies.) The Dead's legacy will continue as long as new artists are drawn to their music. And as the overwhelming response to the Soldier Field shows in July demonstrates, the community is still going strong.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Nick Meriwether, Blogger

So glad to see this: Nicholas Meriwether is now blogging on the Dead's critical reception over at Very grateful for the shout-out in the first installment. Can't wait to see where he goes with this story, which tells us a lot about a distinctive strain of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

For the uninitiated, Nick is the founding director of the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz, not to mention a walking encyclopedia of the Dead, their music, and postwar American bohemianism in general.