Friday, March 12, 2010

The Grateful Dead

I guess it was inevitable. I teach a class that focuses on utopian and dystopian representations of California, so how could I avoid the Grateful Dead?

A while back I met David Gans, host of "The Grateful Dead Hour" (syndicated) and "Dead to the World" (KPFA). That started me pondering the band and its story. Since then, I've been reading the books, listening to the CDs, watching the films, visiting the website, and generally immersing myself in that world.

One of the attractions, I think, is the sheer volume of material and its multi-sensory appeal. You can read, watch, and listen forever. When the Grateful Dead archive opens at UC Santa Cruz (scheduled for next year), I may find myself on its doorstep. Maybe people will bring their sleeping bags and line up outside.

Both Ramparts and the Dead emerged from the same Palo Alto-San Francisco axis, so the points of contact are certainly there. But the Grateful Dead saga is an even fuller articulation of the utopian-dystopian aspect of California culture.

If you'd like a little taste of that, check out Festival Express (2004). It's a documentary about a Canadian tour in 1970 that included the Dead, Janis Joplin, and The Band. A private train, the Festival Express, transported them from gig to gig. As the Amazon description puts it, "In five days' time, the festival played in three Canadian cities with the entire conglomeration traveling, playing, and getting smashed together the whole way."

The screen grab above is from one of my favorite scenes. It shows a very wasted Rick Danko, Janis, and Jerry singing "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos." Given what I've read about Garcia, he probably couldn't have been happier traveling, playing, and partying with other musicians around the clock. Every once in a while they got off the train to do a concert.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Ramparts Book Review

Elbert Ventura has written a very good review of A Bomb in Every Issue for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. By very good, I don't mean it was (only) positive; I mean I learned something about Ramparts. Very insightful.

For those of you keeping score at home, Ventura is managing editor of the Progressive Policy Institute. Before joining PPI, he was a research fellow at Media Matters for America. The review indicates a fairly detailed knowledge of the lefty organs of the 1960s, but my little Internet search suggests that he's a young man. Here's a brief bio.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Richmond, Ken Alder, and The White Bus

Looks like I'll be moving back to the East Bay soon--Richmond, to be precise, a couple of miles away from where I grew up. Which puts me in mind of a novel by Ken Alder, a friend from elementary school.

Ken is perhaps best known now as a historian of science and the author of The Measure of All Things, which considers the history of the meter. The book inspired a long article in The New Yorker that year.

But well before Ken became a historian, he wrote a young adult novel called The White Bus (1987). Here's the review from Publishers Weekly:
San Francisco's Martin Luther King Jr. High School is a windowless prison attended predominantly by black students. Ira Allen decides to enroll there, along with his black friend Marc. His parents, who expect Ira to attend a prestigious prep school, are infuriated, which seems to be part of Ira's intention. Deriving its title from the nickname the kids at King give Ira's bus (because it transports kids from the overwhelmingly white suburbs), this promising first novel is the story of Ira's first year at King. Predictably, Ira learns a lot about different kinds of "smarts"; falls in love with a black girl; learns to "talk black." Alder's humor and genuine insights save the book from its stereotypical characters, from the doctrine-spouting Marxist "bloods" who regularly shake down their classmates, to the hip English teacher who sleeps with his students. Wavering between an account of a teenage rite de passage and an earnest statement on integration, the narrative displays a lively intensity that helps to compensate for its flaws.

But those who know Ken's history will recognize the autobiographical element. We lived in the El Cerrito hills. Kids from Richmond were bussed to our elementary school; for high school, the hill kids were bussed to John F. Kennedy High School on Cutting Blvd. in Richmond. So don't let the San Francisco setting fool you. It's all about life in the EC--and Richmond.