Wednesday, September 19, 2012

West of Eden

I've been dipping in and out of a book I received from PM Press earlier this year called West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California.

The title maps directly onto the main theme of my California Culture course at San Francisco State University. But the connections go well beyond that. Three of the book's editors--Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, and Cal Winslow--served on the steering committee of the California Studies Association during my tenure there. And the volume is dedicated to the late Jeff Lustig, who founded that organization, contributed a chapter to the book, and died this summer. (As the book's dedication notes, Jeff was the "dean of California Studies.") The blurbs are from Rebecca Solnit, Dick Walker, Mike Davis, and Peter Linebaugh. So yes, lots of contact points for me here.

West of Eden covers a lot of ground, but I wanted to mention one felicity that surfaced for me last week. My Grateful Dead research recently led me to the topic of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the subject of a David Bernstein book published by UC Press in 2008. That book included a great deal of material on the center's co-founder, Ramon Sender, who also helped Stewart Brand organize the Trips Festival. That's an important chapter in the Dead's history, but most of the Dead literature passes quickly over its avant-garde element, including the Tape Music Center's contribution. As Stewart Brand later said, the Trips Festival was the beginning of the Grateful Dead and the end of almost everything else--except light shows, which were also featured there.

I also learned that almost immediately after the Trips Festival, Sender moved to Lou Gottlieb's Morning Star ranch in Sonoma County. There they started a kind of commune, which the book describes in some detail. (The book also includes an interview with Sender, who mentions his visit to Rancho Olompali shortly after the Dead lived there.) Brand went on to produce the Whole Earth Catalog, which raised the profile of such communes and sought to give their residents (and other readers) the tools they needed to flourish.

The back-to-the-land movement coincided with the Dead's move to Marin County and the huge success of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who were also living in Marin and hanging out with the Dead. The Dead, in turn, began downplaying the experimental music associated with their Haight period and started producing albums like American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There's much more to say about this book, and I'll probably post about it again as I get to know it better. Just wanted to celebrate those happy accidents that cluster around my favorite research projects.

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