Friday, November 30, 2007

I'm No Rube

This blog's focus on California culture risks a serious misunderstanding: namely, that I'm not a man of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. By way of evidence, I offer the following fact; I just returned from my fourth trip this year to Tennessee. Need I go on? Didn't think so.

On this trip to Nashville, I made it to two clubs--the Station Inn for bluegrass and 3rd & Lindsley for funk. I've now hit the Station Inn twice, both on weeknights. "Straight-up bluegrass" is the proprietor's terse description of the house band on Tuesdays, a loose-knit group of gifted sidemen having fun. The cover is $5, pitchers cost the same. The band usually plays "Devil in Disguise" by the Flying Burrito Brothers and asks if anyone remembers them. Last time our host hollered, "We knew them before they could fly!" Decent-sized audience, good energy, not crowded. Hog heaven.

We also saw The Wooten Brothers & Friends, who play at 3rd & Lindsley on Wednesday nights. At one point, Regi Wooten's solo took him out to a front table, where he laid his guitar down flat and transformed it into a percussion instrument, much to the crowd's delight. The power cut out twice during their show, leaving us completely in the dark for a few moments, but nobody left, and the second time the audience kept the song ("Papa Was a Rolling Stone") going during the blackout. Again, $5 cover; not sure what the drinks cost because my host picked up the check. He also filled me in on the Wooten brothers generally; evidently, Victor Wooten was voted best bass player of the year three times running by Bass Player Magazine. (No one else had ever won it twice.) He plays with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and has his own group, too.

I also spent an hour or so downtown looking for a decent hat. In Nevada City last summer, I saw a great photograph of Buffalo Bill Cody, who was looking good. His hat was especially fly, so I figured this was my big chance to find one like his. No dice, but when I left the last store, I noticed the very same photograph of Buffalo Bill in the display window. When I mentioned that to the salesman, he gave me the story: It was a standard Tom Mix with a pencil-rolled brim. The crown, he said, looked like Bill sat on it by mistake. And the rakish angle, I'm sure, was a matter of superior personal style. The salesman didn't offer to pencil roll a brim for me; evidently, it takes two hours of painstaking work. To be fair, they didn't have my size anyway.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

House of Prime Rib


After cranking out my Willie Brown post, I realized I had to stop by the House of Prime Rib on Van Ness. It's like a time capsule, the San Francisco equivalent of the Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. It's easy to imagine old-school politicians in the back room plotting their next move against House speaker Jim Wright.

Naturally, I ordered a bourbon Manhattan, which is part of my literary patrimony now. Carey McWilliams drank it because H.L. Mencken did. I adopted it after Wilson Carey McWilliams told me that little fact at the Rutgers faculty club. For our first round at lunch (speaking of old school), I ordered a vodka tonic. Then he told me the story, and when the waiter returned for round two, I made mine a bourbon Manhattan. "H.L. Mencken thanks you," he said.

My critics will say that these two acts of commemoration--drinking a bourbon Manhattan while sitting at the House of Prime Rib--hopelessly confounds the Los Angeles of Carey McWilliams and the San Francisco of Phil Burton. To those critics, I offer the Walt Whitman defense: I am vast, I contain multitudes.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ulin on Bukowski


David Ulin, book review editor of the Los Angeles Times, takes a hard look at Charles Bukowski's poetry and legacy today. His critical review of the latest posthumously published volume, The Pleasures of the Damned, also touches on John Fante, one of Bukowski's heroes and author of Ask the Dust, which David calls a superlative novel. By contrast, Bukowksi is "a hit-or-miss talent, capable of his own brand of small epiphany but often stultifyingly banal."

In his view, Bukowski's current sacred-cow status in Los Angeles's literary scene is built on his generosity to young writers and a garrison mentality born of uncertainty and feelings of insignificance among local writers. David believes that the city has outgrown that mentality--and Bukowski.

I share David's assessment of Bukowksi's talent but am happy I included Post Office (and Fante's Full of Life) in my course on Los Angeles this semester. As David notes, both men were "trying to articulate a vision of Los Angeles as an urban landscape, not exotic but mundane, where we not so much reinvent ourselves as remain unreconciled." For our purposes, it makes sense to acknowledge that effort, even if the results were uneven.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Christine Pelosi's Campaign Boot Camp


I attended a book party last night for Christine Pelosi's Campaign Boot Camp at The Crossroads Cafe, the Delancey Street Foundation bookstore and cafe in San Francisco. Wonderful time. Among the celebrants were Paul Pelosi (pere), Chronicle columnist Phil Matier, and Neil MacFarquhar, a New York Times national correspondent and author of The Sand Cafe.

I visited with Christine's fiance, film producer Peter Kaufman, whom I met last summer at a North Beach restaurant with our children. But until last night, I didn't realize that Peter had worked on such films as Henry and June, Rising Sun, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nor did I realize that his father is Philip Kaufman, whose credits also include The Right Stuff, The Outlaw Josey Wales, etc. Glad I asked.

Did I mention that Campaign Boot Camp is a PoliPointPress book?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Willie Brown and SF State


I came upon this news item in the San Francisco Chronicle: Willie Brown is setting up a leadership center at San Francisco State University, his alma mater and my current (part-time) employer. According to the story, the center's focus on local politics will make it virtually unique.

Most of what I know about Willie Brown I learned from the James Richardson (no relation) bio, which the University of California Press published in 1996. The year before, UC Press also published one of my favorite political biographies, Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton. That one made a big impression on me. It must have been tough to write because Burton's character never really develops over the course of the book; he always was who he was, a ferocious political battler. As a character, he's a bit like Achilles, if you can imagine Achilles drinking tumblers of vodka and yelling at people at the House of Prime Rib.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Judith Freeman's The Long Embrace


Fanatical readers of this blog will recall my earlier mentions of Judith Freeman's new book about Raymond and Cissy Chandler. I bring it up again because a review ran in the San Francisco Chronicle today. A more positive review also appeared in the Los Angeles Times ; check this one quickly before the LA Times pulls it down, as per their practice.

I have two reasons to be especially interested: We routinely read The Big Sleep in my SF State courses, and Freeman gave the Bonnie Cashin Lecture at UCLA Library, now published as "The Real Long Goodbye" (2006). My McWilliams lecture will appear in that same series.