• Expelling Monkeys On Lion Rock

    Expelling Monkeys On Lion Rock

    One of the things I love most about Hong Kong is how easy it is, despite being one of the...
  • In Praise Of (Some) Drummers

    In Praise Of (Some) Drummers

    Not long after I started hanging out with a gang I first heard a song that would become one of...
  • On My Way To See The World

    On My Way To See The World

    It’s been over two years since I started to write this piece, and I’m trying to remember what, if anything,...

Expelling Monkeys On Lion Rock

Expelling Monkeys On Lion Rock

One of the things I love most about Hong Kong is how easy it is, despite being one of the most densely populated places on earth, to lose yourself in a mountain wilderness without even leaving the city limits.

Because much of Hong Kong is too steep to build on, large parts of it remain as parkland or open space while its famous skyscrapers hug the shoreline. From the building where I, it’s a 10 or 15 minute walk into densely forested mountains, which is where I tend to spend a great deal of my time when I’m here.

But today I decided to go farther afield, and walked down to where my street deadends at the Harbour. I took the little ferry across to Kwun Tong, then rode the subway a few stops to Wong Tai Sin station, within walking distance of the trailhead to Lion Rock.

Does the rock really look like a lion? San Francisco area residents who can see the “sleeping lady” formed by Mt. Tamalpais (and I used to be one) would have no trouble; if anything, the lion is even more distinct. But what I mainly went through my mind was “Holy ****, I’m going to walk over that?”

It looked far higher than its approximately 1,600 feet, probably because of its steepness and the fact that I was looking up from not much above sea level. I had my doubts as to whether I could manage it in an afternoon, but it being a holiday (Easter Monday), the park at the base of the mountain was crammed with fellow climbers who displayed no such trepidation.

Hundreds of less ambitious families sat happily barbecuing in the smoggy sunshine, but I strode purposefully past them, only to be stopped short by a sign at the trail’s entrance warning of “wild dogs and monkeys.”

Dogs I wasn’t so worried about, but my limited experience with monkeys – having only seen them once in the wild, and then from some distance – left me more nervous. I knew the drill: don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises, don’t look the monkeys in the eye (they will take it as a challenge to fight), don’t even carry a plastic bag, as monkeys will attack you in hopes that it contains food.

This is what the trail looked like before I got to the hard part.

If confronted by a monkey, the sign concluded, tell a park employee (as if one will be on call anywhere you look in hundreds of miles of precipitous wilderness). Above all, it said, “Do not attempt to expel the monkey yourself.”

A strange turn of phrase, but one that resonated. I’ve been practicing t’ai chi for 41 years (if I’d practiced more faithfully, I might be starting to get good at it, but as matters stand, that will probably require at least another 41 years), and one of its classic moves is known as “repulse monkey.”

Although I’ve done the move many thousands of times, I was in no mood to practice it on an actual monkey. If you wonder why, try googling “human vs. monkey.” They’re smarter, faster, and stronger than us, especially when it comes to unarmed combat. Also, the repulse monkey move takes place more or less at waist level, far above the height of the average monkey. It could easily become a matter of me trying to mesmerize him with my smoothly flowing hands while he sunk his teeth into my unprotected ankles.

I sighed and set forth up the mountain, hoping the holiday crowds would keep any and all wild creatures at bay. All the way to the top, it seemed to be working. Although it was rough going, much the trail consisting of steep stone steps painstakingly hand-placed by what must have been a small army of laborers, I passed and was passed by people ranging in age from pre-schoolers to senior citizens in their 80s.

Once atop the craggy peak and having taken in its fairly mind-boggling 360° views, I consulted my phone, only to have it tell me I needed to climb back down the same way I’d come. I had no interest in doing so; my journey to the top had actually been a last-minute added attraction. My main intention had been to cross the mountains and wind up at the Tai Wai subway station in the New Territories.

I eventually found a trail that promised to lead me in the right direction, but while it was marked on the map to look like any other trail, when I was about halfway down the mountain, it turned into something else altogether.

Getting up here was the easy bit. Getting down, not so much.

It dwindled to little more than a dirt path, maybe 12 inches wide, and so steep that a rope had been strung from tree to tree alongside it, a rope which proved absolutely essential if one wished to stay upright. I clung fervently to it, trying to take pleasure in the knowledge that my arms as well as my legs were getting a good workout.

But after a half-mile or so of this, it was getting more than slightly tedious. Try as I might, I couldn’t see where the rope ended or where the hillside might level off. Nor was I sure whether the trail would eventually lead me out of the forest, or might instead leave me stranded at the bottom of a canyon with nightfall coming on.

On the bright side, I’d been so preoccupied with staying on my feet that I’d forgotten all about dogs and monkeys. Until, that is, I heard a high-pitched cry behind me. It could have been – probably was – a bird, but I’d never heard one quite like it before. I tried to remember what wild monkeys sounded like, but my mind was suddenly a blank.

More to the point, whoever or whatever was doing the calling was following close behind me, perhaps even gaining on me. I’d never known a bird do that. Was it a monkey sentry, then, signaling his pack to let them know an idiot gweilo was coming down the mountain and would soon be ripe for an ambush?

It was impossible to move any faster than I already was, so I could only hope for the best. Even my best repulse monkey moves would be of no use since they would require letting go of the rope that was the only thing keeping me from plummeting to my doom.

Now they tell me. This was posted at the bottom of the trail I’d just come down. No such warning at the top.

I endured at least another half hour of this before I finally spotted the end of the rope. Though the slope didn’t level off as much as I would have liked, it looked manageable. Better still, whatever it was that had been following me, though still audible, had fallen farther behind and seemed to be losing interest.

Just one last handful of rope and then … WHOOPS … my feet came out from under me and I went sliding toward the edge. I was confronted with two unpalatable choices: let go of the rope and fall a few hundred feet, or land on one foot in a way that would require a deeper kneebend than seemed anatomically possible.

I’ve seen both professional and amateur football (soccer) players crippled or even permanently disabled by just such an impact, but with little more than a nanosecond to decide between the “fall off the mountain” and the “shatter your knee” options, I instinctively or intuitively went for the latter.

It didn’t feel great. In fact it was terrifying, because I didn’t think I’d be able to stand back up again. But after a few minutes sitting in the dirt contemplating my fate, I gingerly pulled myself to my feet and found everything still working, if a little stiff and sore.

Arriving in Tai Wai. The highest point of those mountains is where I’ve just come from. NBD, right? P.S. You have to look from the other side if you want to see the lion.

So while I’d feared having to use it to fend off wild monkeys, t’ai chi had saved me in quite a different and unexpected way. Poor student that I might be, without the flexibility afforded by years of practice, I could never have bent my leg like that and stood up again.

I still had to cover a few more miles to the train station, and when I got there, found that my much-anticipated seat would not be forthcoming, since the train being jammed with a standing-room-only crowd returning from holiday visits to Shenzhen and Guangzhou. It was midnight before I got home, but instead of climbing into the elevator and heading for bed, I went down to the nearby park and did an hour’s worth of t’ai chi. You never know when you might run into some monkeys that need expelling.

In Praise Of (Some) Drummers

In Praise Of (Some) Drummers

Not long after I started hanging out with a gang I first heard a song that would become one of our unofficial anthems. It still gives me chills today.

“It Will Stand” by the Showmen sounded like it had been recorded on a tin can microphone by a bunch of barely sober high school kids like ourselves (they were actually a black doo-wop group five or ten years older, but we had no way of knowing that at the time). As ragged and raw as the production and the performance were, the singer’s first words, delivered in a quavering voice on the verge of cracking and breaking from unbridled emotion, made the hair stand up on the back of your neck, and stay there at attention for the song’s entire, glorious 2 minutes and 22 seconds.

“You take some music…” he began, and the boys and I would drop whatever we were doing to cluster together and loudly sing along. Rock and roll would stand, the song promised, would “be here forever and ever, ain’t gonna fade, never no never.” I believed it as devoutly as anything I’d ever heard in my life.

It wasn’t just about music. Even more it was about the gang, and in those moments I was sure our little band of bravado-spewing 13 and 14-year olds would be hanging out, doing crimes, and singing with semi-bold abandon for the rest of our lives. It’s been 50 years, at least, since I’ve seen any of those guys; I suspect most if not all of them are dead by now. But it was a pretty heady feeling at the time.

I don’t know how it is for kids nowadays, but in the early 1960s, we had an all too brief period of almost unbridled freedom. It lasted from when your parents were no longer able to drag you indoors when the streetlights came on until the time — a couple of years, at best — when they could legitimately start nagging you about getting a job.

I fell in with the gang on the first half-decent day of spring. They were down by the creek, setting things on fire with a stolen can of lighter fluid. They called themselves the Rebels then, but within a month became the Nomads, and in midsummer, the Saints. By then the streets, the fields, and the playgrounds were ours. The parents couldn’t find us and the cops (most of the time) couldn’t catch us.

Our numbers mushroomed as summer wound down, until that heady night at the beginning of September. All the gangs from different neighborhoods spontaneously fell in together, and 50, 75, maybe even a hundred of us roamed from one end of town to the other, blocking traffic and terrifying the bourgeoisie, even if we didn’t know what it was or how to spell it. The cops, totally outnumbered, just stood back and watched.

Like most teenagers, we had a soundtrack, most of it straight-up greaser music. The spring belonged to Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Gary (U.S.) Bonds’s “Quarter To Three” kicked off the summer, and the fall was all about Dion’s “Runaround Sue.” For slow songs we had stuff like “Angel Baby” and “There’s A Moon Out Tonight,” and somewhere in between fell the sinister switchblade rhythms of “Stand By Me” that we’d snap our fingers to as we shuffled and swaggered down the street.

As much as we loved music — and it was a good time to be in love with music — gang life fell short of my ideal, which was to have an all-singing-and-dancing crew like the Jets or the Sharks in West Side Story, which I’d watched four times the week it came out. I was somewhat let down to find that no one in our crew of steel and autoworkers’ kids had the training or the inclination to stage choreographed rumbles or run singing up and down fire escapes.

The closest we came — not that close at all — was at dances, when Chubby Checker would shout “Get up, it’s Pony Time!” “Boogety boogety boogety shoo!” the boys would shout back, and fall into a circle where they’d stomp along to the song like so many not especially graceful stallions.

We didn’t have any such routine for “It Will Stand;” we just milled around as we sang and punched the air at particularly poignant passages. But I listened to it so many times, studied and analyzed the lyrics as if they were my sole textbook for how to live. The line that still stuck with me the most then and now was the one that compared drumbeats to heartbeats. That, it seemed, was the very essence of rock and roll, and for at the least the next couple of decades, that was all I needed to know about it.

Though I’d been plinking around on the piano since I was a kid, and got my first guitar in the mid-60s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I got serious about being in a band. Even then I was a hopelessly rank amateur, churning out a mishmash of punk, folk and thrash that never would have amounted to anything if I hadn’t made a very lucky — or inspired; you decide — choice when it came to picking a drummer.

My understanding of how drums worked hadn’t progressed since the “It Will Stand” days; if anything it had deteriorated. Now that I was “punk,” I thought all a drummer needed to do was make a lot of noise and create chaos. Syncopated heartbeats might be nice, I reckoned, but hardly essential.

But I was about to learn, a lot, as I watched the 12-year-old who joined my band in 1985 grow one of the best drummers in the world. (Anytime he hears me say that, he’ll cock his head, lift an eyebrow, and intone with a pained expression, “One of?”)

He’s definitely the best I’ve played with. But there have been are a couple others, maybe not in the same league as Grammy-winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tre Cool, but not as far down the scale as you might think. With Will Kneitel and Adam Siegel, both of whom played with my second band, the Potatomen, I got that same feeling I’d had with Tre: the beat was always right where it needed to be, so effortless and flawless that I never needed to question or worry about it. If anything went out of sync or came crashing to an awkward halt, it was almost invariably going to be, not them, losing the plot.

Even at 12 Tre already had the beat.

In working with them I gained a deeper understanding of how drumming worked. You’d think I would have already had the equivalent of a Ph.D. course from the five and a half years I spent playing with Tre, but he was too much a force of nature for me to be able to break down what he was doing into its component parts and analyze them. I might as well have tried to make schematic drawings of a tornado or a hurricane.

Through those years and since, I’ve been given the opportunity to observe many brilliant drummers, often at close range. There was Dave Mello from Operation Ivy, Heather Dunn from Tiger Trap, Jason from Neurosis, Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, Mikey Erg of the Ergs and at least 57 other bands… Then there’s Aaron Cometbus and Ringo Starr, which might sound like an odd pairing, but as I was writing this, the similarity leapt off the page at me.

Not that they sound at all alike; in fact, what distinguishes Aaron and Ringo is that they each have an unmistakable and unique personal style, one which couldn’t be neatly slotted into any given band the way more metronomically inclined drummers can. Both Mikey Erg and Tre, for example, while absolutely vital to the sound of their own bands, could mount the throne behind almost any kind of band playing any kind of music and quickly sound like they’d been playing that way all their lives.

Aaron or Ringo, on the other hand, are not guys you’d call if you were looking for session musicians, even if you could afford them (Aaron’s fee might be a bit lower than Ringo’s, but only if he really likes your band). They’re the kind of musicians you build a band around, and you won’t succeed in doing that unless you’re able to accommodate yourself to rhythms the technique snobs might disparage as sloppy, but aficionados will recognize as deeply, quirkily soulful.

Despite being absolutely vital to a band’s existence, drummers are not universally loved. Some people see them as a necessary evil, to be kept chained up in the basement until they’re needed (a running joke among the Lookouts when Tre was in his most rambunctious teenage years). There are more jokes (mean-spirited but sometimes pretty funny) about drummers than about all other musicians combined.

Only lead guitarists, with their propensity for drowning out and overpowering the rest of the band with pointless solos, attract anywhere near as much abuse, but you can always turn down the guitarist’s amp or simply unplug him. No such remedy exists for an unruly drummer.

That might be why, even if it’s not fair, drummers get too little credit when things go well, and too much blame when they go terribly wrong. Anyone who plays music soon learns how essential it is to get along with your drummer, and how quickly your band is likely to fall apart if he or she quits. You can look for a replacement, but even if you’re lucky enough to find that rare gem who fits in with you, it will never be the same band again: you’ll all have to learn a whole different way of playing, not just with the new drummer, but with each other.

Just as a bassist serves as a bridge and conduit between the melodic and the rhythmic, the drummer operates as intermediary between the cerebral and the mystical, the prosaic and profound, the logical and the intuitive. You can rationally construct and order most elements of a song, but not the beat that gives it life.

For that you need to tap into something beyond words, beyond reason. Coming to understand that was what finally moved me beyond my teenage drumbeat/heartbeat analysis. Any half-competent drummer is tuned in to the beat of the planet, but to achieve greatness you’re going to have to go farther out than that and move as one with the universe itself.

Sure, tune out if you want, if you think I’m sounding like a sprout-munching hippie, but yeah, to me it seems not just likely but obvious that the planets, the solar systems, the galaxies stretching from here to wherever the hell they go are part of a single organism through which life courses just as it does through the cells and neurons and sub-atomic structures of our individual bodies.

And it’s all in motion, all at once, as chaotic on the surface as a Keith Moon or John Bonham solo, yet beneath it all flowing and breathing in perfectly effortless order. Some — okay, a lot of — drummers would laugh at the suggestion, but look closely at them when they’re in the zone, when the music goes beyond entertainment into total fusion of the mind, body, and spirit, and you’re liable to see the face of a Buddha, a Zen master, a prophet incapable of expressing anything other than absolute truth.

But just as the dao that can be told is not the eternal dao, if I could put all this into words that made perfect sense, you’d be missing the most important part of the story. Suffice it to say that drummers, including but not limited to my favorites that I’ve named here, are amazing, awesome, and sources of constant wonder. So much so that it’s really not that hard to forgive them for everything else.

On My Way To See The World

On My Way To See The World

It’s been over two years since I started to write this piece, and I’m trying to remember what, if anything, has changed.

On one hand, very little; on the other, almost everything. But let me back up a bit and apologize to my readers for being, to put it mildly, less than faithful in keeping up with this blog. I could offer a panoply of excuses, most of them self-serving or nonsensical, but the unvarnished truth is that both my mind and body have been elsewhere.

Those of you who follow me on social media will know I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. I typed the initial words of this article – long since deleted – at the beginning of September, 2015. It was meant to be the start of a series detailing my trip around the world.

I was somewhere in Greenland at the time, and my intention was to post a story every day or two as I traveled onward through Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, then across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway to China, followed by a week or so in Japan before flying back to the USA.

  Climbing a mountain near Sisimiut, Greenland.

Instead I went for hikes, or watched icebergs float by, or scrolled through Facebook or Twitter, and never got beyond the first paragraph. I posted photos, maybe with a one or two line description, of wonders I saw along the way, but never got back to writing regularly.

I was still awash in words of my own creation, it’s true. As I made my way across Europe and Asia emails were flying back and forth with edits and rewrites of my about-to-be-published book, How To Ru(i)n A Record Label. One particular panic-stricken day, the book was all but set to go to the printer, waiting only on a last-minute fact check about Stikky’s Where’s My Lunchpail? album.

The information was obscure enough that all my internet searches came up blank. I was beside myself, worrying that I might have to choose between delaying publication (meaning there’d be no books at the East Coast and West Coast book launches), or risk going into print with a minor but glaring error (get one fact wrong when you’re writing nonfiction and people understandably seize upon it as evidence that anything else you say is suspect).

Thankfully Mikey Erg, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a record collection to match, saved the day. He dug up the album in question and read back the liner notes to me, thus settling the issue and the book went happily to the printer (albeit with an unnoticed typo in one of the picture captions, but who wants to perfect, right?).

This unfolded as I was sailing down the railway tracks between Beijing and Shanghai at 180 mph, during the second week of my first-ever visit to China. Though I had another 13 days to go – and after that a week which would include my birthday in Japan – the end of my journey was looming large.

           Outside the Kremlin.

Visiting China had been the main point of this trip. All the other countries had been added as a rather elaborate afterthought. I didn’t regret stopping in any of them and will certainly revisit them if I get the chance, but China had been in the works for literally 40 years, ever since I entered the Asian Studies program at UC Berkeley in 1975.

My plan had been to go to China, which was just then opening up to the West, as soon as I graduated, possibly never coming back. With what would have been a reasonable fluency in Chinese and a Berkeley degree, the opportunities would have been almost limitless, but drugs and alcohol had other plans for me. I dropped out in my junior year and gradually forgot almost as much as I had learned.

I wouldn’t want to complain about the direction my life took instead – it’s been quite an adventure, one that got even better once I said goodbye to the drugs and booze – but what could have been came home to me the second I stumbled bleary-eyed off the train into the massive plaza in front of Beijing Station.

I’d been frantically brushing up on my Chinese for months, and redoubled my efforts during the long train ride across Russia, but I was hopelessly overwhelmed. It was like being a two-year-old again: here and there I could recognize a word, but my ability to communicate hardly went beyond pointing and miming.

Back at Berkeley in the 70s, I’d reached a point in my classes where everything – reading, discussion, writing – was done in Chinese. I wasn’t the best student, thanks to my unfortunate habit of smoking pot before class – at 8 am – in the belief it would help me learn more easily. It might have, but all too often it was a case it was a case of in one ear and out the other. Still, I was a good mid-level student, and could easily hold my own in class discussions.

All that seems to have gone out the window since I left school (when I re-enrolled at Berkeley many years later, I didn’t even try to resume my Chinese studies), and though I’ve been studying and practicing at least an hour a day and am currently on my fourth visit to China, I don’t know if it will ever return. Maybe that will be a lesson to somebody, but probably not…

What I set out to write about, though, was not China – I plan to do that in a future post – but travel in general. On the day I returned from my round-the-world trip, my super stopped me before I’d got in the front door to give me the news that my building had been sold and was going to be torn down. I’d been happy living there in what was once the Italian section of East Williamsburg; left to my own devices, I might have stayed in that apartment for the rest of my life. But finding a similar place in the neighborhood would have at least doubled my rent, and with the old Italian families rapidly being replaced by affluent hipsters and loud, drunken postgraduates, it hardly seemed worth trying.

 Tianmen, Beijing.

Instead I indulged a long-held fantasy by getting rid of half my possessions, putting what remained into storage, and setting off on a year of near-constant travel, about equally divided between Asia and Europe, along with a few whirls around the United States to promote my book.

I don’t know what it says about me – that I’ve reached a point of acceptance and serenity, or that I’ve abandoned most of my standards – but I was happy with every place I went and could have stayed indefinitely in most of them. I went so far as to investigate the possibilities of taking up Spanish or Italian citizenship (Chinese, too, but short of marriage to a local, that’s next to impossible).

All this time I’d been on a waiting list for a co-op apartment in Queens, and I was lying awake at 3 am in Beijing when a phone call came to tell me my number had come up. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to put down roots again in New York – or anywhere in the United States, given the way things are going these days – but as much as I was enjoying my travels, having no home was beginning to wear on me a bit.

Every few months I’d stop in Brooklyn to visit my storage space, maybe exchange summer clothes for winter ones or look for items I’d forgotten I needed, but it wasn’t the same as having a place where, as Robert Frost put it, when you go there, they have to let you in. So I took the place in Queens, dropped off all my belongings, and promptly hit the road again. Since officially becoming a Queensian (not a real word, I suspect, but you get the idea), I’ve barely spent half my time there, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

It’s not that I don’t like my new home – I love it, in fact; it’s by far my favorite place I’ve lived in New York City – but I’m at a point in life where age and mortality are closing in on me (more about that in a future post, too) and the number of places I want to see and experience is in danger of outstripping the time and resources available.

It’s also that I’ve arrived at one of those points that periodically crops up in my life where, whether I’ve intended it or not, everything I’ve been doing for the past however many years recedes in importance and interest, and the world jerks its thumb in an indeterminate direction, telling me in a loud, unmistakable voice, “Next!”

The last time this happened was when I started my trek down from Spy Rock to resume my education and build Lookout Records. I haven’t totally turned my back on that adventure or the many wonderful people I met during that time, but just as when I said goodbye to my greaser and my hippie years, there’s an sense that something else out there awaits me.

Hopefully it will involve more writing, definitely (if I have anything to say about it) more travel, and ideally will lead to my finding a new way or ways to be of some use to the world. What exact shape that might take still remains to be seen, but surprises are (usually) fun, aren’t they?

Journey Through The Heartland

Journey Through The Heartland

I don’t like to drive. I don’t own a car, and often go six months or a year without getting behind the wheel of one. Yet I just finished driving almost 3,000 miles around the Midwest of America, and it was worth every minute of it.

The reason for this trip, at least in theory, was to tell people about my still relatively new book, How to Ru(i)n A Record Label, and maybe even to sell a few copies of it, but I’m finding that, book or no book, I enjoy traveling, meeting people, telling stories, and answering their questions.

The new book. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you'll consider doing so.

The new book. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll consider doing so.

When I wrote my first book, Spy Rock Memories, I took the more conventional approach, appearing in bookstores as authors usually do, and reading several excerpts from it. It seemed to go over well enough—at least many people complimented me on it, and they bought quite a few books—but I’ve always found the standard “book signing” format a little boring and frustrating.

Most authors only read one or two excerpts—imagine going to see your favorite band and having them play only one or two songs—and the whole thing seemed geared to getting past the audience engagement as quickly as possible and shifting to the real focus: selling books.

Obviously I’m happy when people buy my books, but I’m even happier when they ask questions or make comments that indicate they’ve read them or have an interest in the subject matter they cover. Many writers understandably complain about the burden of solitude, since the greatest part of their work is, by nature, done alone.

I felt similarly when I started writing, and contrasted the lonely wait for some—any—feedback from my readers with the instantaneous and often rapturous reaction enjoyed by bands who take their songs out on the road. But now I’m discovering that going out to meet and interact with the public around my books can be just as satisfying—sometimes even more so, since as yet (hope I’m not tempting fate), nobody has spit at me or thrown things, both of which happened more often than I would have liked when I was touring with bands.

Another thing that’s happened this year is that I’ve all but given up on simply reading from my books. Once again using the band analogy, how much would you enjoy watching a lead singer perform with her or his face buried in a notebook? If people make the effort to come see me, I want to see them, too, and so nowadays I almost exclusively tell stories, some lifted directly from the book, others only vaguely, if at all pertaining to it.

I do read a little excerpt from the final chapter. I originally resisted doing that because I didn’t want to give away the ending, but once I realized that almost everyone knew the ending anyway, I found that that excerpt invariably got a great reaction, and now I’ve done it so many time I can practically recite it by heart.

The Mass and Larry chat show, Indianapolis. Photo by Leah.

           The Mass and Larry chat show, Indianapolis. Photo by Leah.

Everything else is totally off the cuff, and if you knew how shy and tongue-tied I was as a child and for much of my adult life, you’d be as astounded as I’ve been. My main problem now is not coming up with things to say, but knowing when to rein it in, getting a sense for when the audience has heard enough for one sitting, because left solely up to me, the stories would keep on flowing far into the night.

In the first weeks after How To Ru(i)n A Record Label came out, I did appearances in Baltimore, Oakland, Fort Worth, London, Austin, Santa Rosa, Eureka, Portland, Seattle, Richland (WA), Bend (OR), and Chico (CA). All of them were great, but the one in Oakland, at 1-2-3-4-Go Records, was especially fraught with emotion, because my mother, who has steadfastly supported me in my writing, had just died, and also because so many of the people who played vital parts in the events chronicled in HTRARL were there to listen to me.

In the space of less than 24 hours, I went from accepting accolades and congratulations to delivering a eulogy at my mother’s funeral to attending a first birthday party for the daughter of my longtime friend and musical and business partner, Patrick Hynes. I can’t imagine what I could have done to add to the rollercoaster of emotions and gratitude I experienced that day short of getting married or blasted into outer space.

After that I took a few weeks off (and also got started in earnest on my third book, which I hope will be done in the next year or two), but by mid-March it was time to get on the road again. This time I headed toward my ancestral homeland, the Midwest, beginning and ending in Michigan, where I was born.

Despite spending most of my childhood and teenage years only a few miles away, I’d never known about or visited Dearborn Music, which has been there since 1956, but it was a brilliant place to kick off the tour. Apparently they’d never hosted a book event before, but you’d never have known it, and a really good crowd—some of whom had attended the same high school as me, albeit a few decades later—made me feel right at home. Thanks especially to store owner Rick LeAnnais and to Detroit-area local Chris Grebinski-Policicchio, who put us in touch.

illinois spring crop

         Springtime on the Illinois state line.

Then it was off to Cleveland, where Mac’s Backs, a longtime stalwart bookseller, organized an event in the B-Side, the basement bar of the Grog Shop, where so many Lookout bands have played over the years. I was a little worried about what kind of atmosphere I could expect in a bar, but once again, the audience was great, and visiting Cleveland also gave me a chance to relive (and recount) some memories of the amazing events of the previous year, when I watched Lookout alumni Green Day being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ryan Eilbeck, one of the multi-talented twins behind the incredible Ohio band Delay, now has a day (and sometimes evening) job managing Used Kids Records in Columbus, and he welcomed me to their stage (every record store should have one!) to tell stories about not just Lookout, but also the time in 1971 when my gang of hippie no-accounts was literally run out of town by the Columbus police after we pulled a snatch-and-grab operation at a local supermarket.

Next up was Cincinnati, where my old friend Mass Giorgini had set up an event at an arts-and-culture space called Chase Public. This was a classy event from start to finish—I actually had poets Sarah Hanselmann and Francis Pospisil opening for me—with an all-but-packed house. It was also the first day of truly springlike weather, with the trees outside in full flower, and Cincinnati looking really quite good in the sunshine. Extra props to the excellent Sidewinder coffee shop just around the corner!

            Me holding forth at Chase Public.

                Me holding forth at Chase Public.

Mass Giorgini joined me on stage for part of this event, serving as interlocutor/interviewer, almost as if we were on late-night television. He’d reprise that role two nights later in Indianapolis, at Indy Reads Books, which featured big comfy chairs and mood lighting—definitely one of the most elegant and literary of our events. In between, I spoke at Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette, Indiana, longtime home of Mass’s studio, Sonic Iguana, and where, until recently, he was an assistant professor.

Then it was off to Springfield, Illinois (insert Abraham Lincoln and/or Simpsons reference), where Luke from the Copyrights had helped set up an appearance at the very inaccurately named Dumb Records. The weather was freezing, but the crowd was exceptionally warm, and this would turn out to be one of my favorite events of the whole tour. So many people came up to thank for coming to Springfield, while I was saying, “No, thank you for being here and giving me the chance to talk to such a receptive and knowledgeable audience.”

The next night was another highlight: a kid named Dillon Dunnagan wrote to me on Facebook asking if I’d consider coming to St. Louis, and when he had trouble finding a suitable venue, Matt Dauphin stepped in to offer the 4 Hands Brewing Company Think Space. A huge crowd turned out, possibly the largest of the tour. It was also the liveliest, not to mention rowdiest, possibly because of the free beer 4 Hands were liberally passing out.

But though by the end questions were being shouted rather than asked, everyone was incredibly nice, and they bought more books, records, and t-shirts than the next three events combined. They were thrusting $20 bills at me and telling me to “keep the change;” at first I protested, but eventually I realizing there was no point arguing. It’s harder than I thought to convince a mildly intoxicated person not to give you free money.

One of the few not-so-fun aspects of my trip: driving through Chicago.

      One of the few not-so-fun aspects of my trip: driving through Chicago.

Next came Chicago, where I was the guest of the excellent Quimby’s, probably that city’s best bookstore. Everything about this event was wonderful except getting there; navigating Saturday night traffic in Wicker Park helped remind me why I normally eschew driving cars, and why my mental health has improved greatly as a result.

Sunday—Easter Sunday—was spent in Iowa City, guest of the band Lipstick Homicide, whose standout performance on The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore gained them a slot opening for Green Day in New York City, and their lovably eccentric label boss, Servo Jeffersen, of Bloated Kat Records.

This night saw the smallest crowd of the tour—I had no idea that people might want to do other things besides watch punk rock bands and authors on Easter Sunday night; I mean, how many chocolate eggs can you eat, anyway?—but it was no less warm (inside, not outside; the frigid weather outside reminded me of Alaska or Greenland). I especially enjoyed meeting the parents of two Lipstick Homicide members; Rachel’s mom was right up there in the pit for most of their show.

Made it to St. Louis! Somehow I was expecting the arch to be gold, not silver.

    Made it to St. Louis! Somehow I was expecting the arch to be gold, not silver.

I’d never traveled through northeastern Iowa before; Servo told me it would be a beautiful ride, and he wasn’t lying. I wish I’d had time to stop and look around Dubuque, a town I’d never given much thought to before, except as an emblem of middle-of-nowhereness, but which looked really intriguing in the (finally returned) sunlight of spring.

Next to last stop was Milwaukee, at Rush Mor Records, where a big crowd turned out, including my old friend Stuart, who unaccountably migrated to Wisconsin from London (actually Croydon, but let’s not split hairs) almost two decades earlier. Once the tour manager for the electrop UK sensations Bis, he now runs a toy shop, which may not be as great as leap as you’d think. He’d lost his cherry-red hair color (the hair itself was still marvelously intact, but none of his cheeky accent or love for Chelsea Football Club.

Then I finally had a day off, most of which was spent catching up on much-needed sleep, followed by another day where I was free to wander around my old stomping grounds from the MC5-Stooges-White Panther Party era, Ann Arbor. Most of my audience that night would be University of Michigan students, one of whom, Zachary Gelfand (a temporarily exiled New Yorker), had set up the event.

I wound up talking more about Ann Arbor history, including my adventures with Diana Oughton, the onetime girlfriend of President Obama’s alleged “terrorist buddy” Bill Ayers, who would later go on to blow up herself and two other young people while making bombs for the Weathermen in 1970’s infamous Greenwich Village townhouse explosion.

Doesn't Cincinnati look lovely in the spring?

           Doesn’t Cincinnati look lovely in the spring?

I was surprised at how little today’s young Ann Arborites knew about their city’s countercultural history, but gratified by how receptive they were to learning about it. As a result, I’ll be headed back that way this summer to talk about it some more, in an event organized by my old friend (and recent City Council candidate) Jaime Magiera.


And that was it. The next morning I was on my way, in a driving rainstorm, back to Brooklyn. Fortunately, the rain was the only thing doing the driving from this point on, as an airplane would do the work from here on out. It was good to get home—although it won’t be home for much longer; I got the news just before setting out that my house has been sold and will soon be demolished to make way for yet another luxury apartment building which of course I’d never be able to afford to live in.

But in the meantime, I’ll savor the New York spring for a few days, then head out for dates in San Diego, Los Angeles, and—I’m especially looking forward to this one—Gilman Street in Berkeley, pretty much sacred ground for everything that happens in How To Ru(i)n A Record Label. Following that, a series of dates in the United Kingdom. If you live in any of those places, I hope to see you real soon. And if not—as I often write when autographing my books—thanks for reading!

Green Day In The Hall Of Fame

Green Day In The Hall Of Fame

When David Hayes and I were starting Lookout Records and getting ready to put out records by bands like Operation Ivy, Isocracy, Crimpshrine, and Sweet Children, it was hard to see ourselves or the bands we worked with as anything other than perennial outsiders.

In those days, the mere mention of Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner could have me frothing at the mouth; his magazine seemed to epitomize the world of corporate dinosaur rock we had to set out to upend. Now, a bit shy of three decades later, the guy was standing 20 feet in front of me making a speech, and I was sitting quietly, politely listening.

Next to me was John Kiffmeyer, aka Al Sobrante, who in 1994 ignited a blazing row because I’d softened my stance enough to let a Rolling Stone reporter interview me. He too, was on his best behavior, as were fellow OG (Original Gilman) stalwarts like Aaron Cometbus and Tim “Lint” Armstrong. Once upon a time we might have been hurling insults or ice cubes in Wenner’s direction, but tonight we were here to watch our friends be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It was back in December when Billie Joe texted to ask if I remembered when Lookout had released the first Green Day EP, 1,000 Hours. After chatting for a bit, he suddenly said, “Hey, can you keep a secret?”

“Of course I can,” I said indignantly, though I knew that hadn’t always been the case (I’ve been getting a lot better at it in recent years).

Sweet Children. Al’s shirt is repping Mudlflap, the zine his wife Greta published in the late 80s/early 90s.

That was how I first heard the news that Green Day had been voted into the Hall of Fame. But I almost wished I hadn’t; Billie made me promise not to tell anyone until the official announcement was made a week later.

Ever since they were nominated, I’d been predicting they’d get in. The Hall of Fame would lose all credibility, I said, if they didn’t. Now I wanted to call everybody and say, “I told you so,” but … I couldn’t.

I kept my word—and the secret—but it made for a very long week. When the news finally broke, people began congratulating me (hey, I’m not the one who’s getting inducted, I had to remind them), and reporters called to quiz me about the role I’d played in the band’s early days.

It’s tricky fielding inquiries like that, because while I’m something more than a footnote—I released the first two Green Day albums and gave Tre Cool his start as a drummer—I’d never want to be seen as claiming credit for the band’s success, at least 99% of which came from their own hard work and talent.

Things got more awkward when people asked if (or assumed) I’d be in Cleveland for the ceremony. Some even suggested I should be the one making the induction speech, but I honestly had no idea whether I’d even be invited. One thing you learn when your friends get very famous is that everyone wants a piece of them. Make a habit of calling them for guest list slots or other special favors and you risk becoming just one more annoying face in a maddening crowd.

As March approached, I still hadn’t heard anything, so I assumed I’d be watching the event on TV (or not, since, as I learned, it was on HBO, which I don’t have). Then, just as I’d all but given of hope of going, Pat Magnarella, Green Day’s manager, got in touch to formally invite me.

Pat also told me (another secret I’d have to keep!) the band would be playing an unannounced show at Cleveland’s House of Blues two days before the ceremony. “It’ll be fun,” he said, but gave no other hint about what to expect.

On the day of the show I started getting emails asking if I could confirm the rumor that John Kiffmeyer/Al Sobrante was going to re-unite with the band for the first time in almost 25 years to play a Sweet Children set. This, however, was one secret nobody had told about, so I could truthfully answer that I had no idea.

I didn’t even know if Al, who I hadn’t seen in years, was in town. So like nearly everyone else in the packed House of Blues, I had to wait until he came nonchalantly wandering out onto the stage before I knew it was actually going to happen.

There weren’t many of us in the crowd who’d seen Al playing with Sweet Children/Green Day between 1988 and 1990, but for those of us who had, it was an eerie, hilarious, and heartwarming time machine ride back to those days when you could say or do almost anything on stage because … why not?

Goofing around after the show.

Goofing around after the show.

It wasn’t like anyone was out to be a rock star or have a “career” in music. The fact that a dozen of your friends were willing to come hear you play was more than enough. Al, who’d cut his chops as the drummer and chief mouthpiece for Isocracy, was the dominant force in Sweet Children’s early days, if only because at that point, Mike and Billie literally were not much more than children.

They were barely 16 when Al joined the band, so for the first couple years he booked the shows, drove the van, gave the interviews, and, I suspect, schooled the two younger kids in how to relate to the public in general and fans in particular.

It had been 17 years since Al last played with a band—or played drums at all—but he instantly reverted to form. Some people, myself included, thought he’d actually gotten better during his long hiatus.

In the Gilman days Al was never one for sitting quietly behind his kit waiting for the next song to start. If he had something to say (and he usually did), he’d say it. If he thought people weren’t paying close enough attention, he’d step up to the front of the stage and commandeer Mike’s or Billie’s microphone.

Younger Green Day fans didn’t know what to make of it when Al pulled that stunt in Cleveland, but those of us familiar with his shtick were in stitches when he audibly shushed Billie as if he were still dealing with a self-effacing 16-year-old instead of one of the biggest rock stars in the world.

“I had to dig deep,” he told me after the show, “to channel the old Al Sobrante.” But channel him he did.

Whether in the guise of Sweet Children or Green Day (combining the two performances, Billie and Mike must have put in almost three and a half hours onstage), the band was on top form, showing no sign of the world-weariness and disarray that seemed to be overtaking them on their last tour. Billie Joe especially was a revelation, looking younger, healthier, and more energetic than he had in years.

Both he and Mike sported shorter, punkier haircuts that hearkened back to a simpler, less showy time. As Green Day the band delivered the kind of set you might see at Madison Square Garden, but scaled down for a club not that much bigger than Gilman. As Sweet Children, they might as well have been at Gilman, performing songs that hadn’t been heard live since before some of the audience members were born.

I’d been yapping at the band for years to play “Dry Ice,” and tonight they finally did. Realizing that they’d run through almost all my favorite early rarities, I tweeted: “‘Dry Ice’ at last. Now they just need to play ‘Rest’ and I can go home happy.” They didn’t, but I went home happy anyway. Though I must have seen Sweet Children/Green Day a couple hundred times over the years, this was easily one of the best.

Friday was an off day for those of us who were merely there to watch, while the bands and tech crews were busy with rehearsals and preparations for the main event on Saturday night. My friend Alex and I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which I remembered from the 1970s as being pretty spiffy, and which seems to have spiffed itself up even further since then.

It was an incredibly beautiful spring day, and while it’s hard to find fault with spring anywhere, there’s something ineffably unique about spring in the Midwest, especially to those of us who grew up there. My hometown of Detroit is just the other side of Lake Erie, and while we were taught to think of Cleveland as a slightly backward little brother of a city, things seem to be looking up for what was once rudely dubbed “the Mistake on the Lake.”

Detroit could learn a few lessons from Cleveland, which, like all the Rust Belt cities, has been through some tough times. I was able to get everywhere via convenient, affordable trains and buses, and the locals were consistently helpful and friendly, going out of their way to wish me an enjoyable time in their city.

I stayed at a hotel directly across the street from the Public Auditorium, the site of the induction ceremony and a magnificent city block-sized throwback to the days when “public” was not a dirty word, when it was taken for granted that government could and should build institutions and structures that enhanced the quality of civic life.

From my window I could see Lake Erie and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself, an ultra-modern building that’s not half bad-looking. It feels slightly out of place in the proletarian surroundings of downtown Cleveland, but seems to be settling in nicely as a centerpiece and anchor for the new, developing city.

I thought it would be at least

“I thought it would be at least another year or two.”

I wound up getting only a brief glimpse at the inside of it. It was 11 pm on Friday night when I was handed a VIP laminate and told it would get me into a reception and party at the museum.

“Is there food?” I asked. I’d sort of forgotten to eat anything since lunchtime.

“Um, probably, but you’d better hurry. It ends at midnight.”

By the time I’d walked there and slithered in through a side door (I failed to notice the red-carpeted entrance), I had half an hour to eat as much free food as I could and/or take a lightning-quick tour.

It was okay. If I were as sentimental about rock and roll as some people my age, I could have spent hours—days, even—wallowing in nostalgia. But I’m not. Besides, in order to see everything I could before midnight, I had to limit myself to about 30 seconds per exhibit.

ZZ Topp's beards in the Hall of Fame. When the Lookouts were just starting out, Big Frank (Tre's dad) used to tell us we should be more like ZZ Topp and get on a good label like Warner Brothers.

ZZ Topp’s beards in the Hall of Fame. When the Lookouts were just starting out, Big Frank (Tre’s dad) used to tell us we should be more like ZZ Topp and get on a good label like Warner Brothers.

By the time I got back, the hotel was overflowing with celebrities and “industry” types, to the point where a crew of bouncers was checking IDs to make sure you were actually staying there. Longtime Green Day crew member Kenny Butler told me Tre was in the downstairs bar with his parents (my old neighbors from Spy Rock!), so I went in to say hi.

I’d seen Tre’s mom at a wedding last summer, but it had been almost 20 years since I’d last talked with “Big Frank,” as we sometimes called him. But he’d already gone upstairs to bed. “I reckon he’s gotta be up with the chickens,” I said. When we lived in the country, we used to almost semi-seriously talk that way.

Tre’s mom was still there, as was his wife Sara and her parents. Tre, almost invariably the life of the party, was slightly more subdued than usual. Sometimes it’s hard to get him to stay still long enough to exchange a few sentences, but tonight we sat talking and laughing for hours.

On the way up to my room I ran into Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. I’d always pictured him as some fire-breathing, chomping-at-the-bit radical, but walked away saying, “I can’t believe how Hollywood that guy is!” He kind of reminded me of that old Rolling Stones song, “Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man.” In a good way, of course.

It was already past three a.m., and if I had any sense, I would have gone straight to bed. Instead I stayed up a couple more hours editing and uploading photos, under the assumption that the world couldn’t possibly wait any longer to see them. You’re welcome, world.

Because of that, I got up way too late the next day. Deciding my tie wasn’t a good match with my shirt color, I went in search of a thrift store where I could buy a new one. I’ve never spent more than a buck or two on a tie, including the Christian Dior silk number I was trying to replace. It had served me well for the past 20 years, but in addition to the color issue, it was looking a little frayed.

"I'd like to thank the Ford Motor Company for creating the Econoline van."

“I’d like to thank the Ford Motor Company for creating the Econoline van.”

I failed completely. If thrift shops exist in downtown Cleveland, they escaped my notice. Suddenly realizing it was way past time to get ready for the induction ceremony, I headed back to the hotel, stopping by the auditorium on the way to ask a guard which entrance I was supposed to use.

He looked at me dubiously. “Let me see your credentials,” he said.

“Oh, I haven’t got them with me, they’re at the hotel,” I told him. He looked even more dubious, and told me to get out of the way so some fancy lady in an evening gown could get past me and onto the red carpet.

That’s when I remembered that before going shopping I’d been down on the waterfront doing t’ai chi, and was no doubt looking a little disheveled in my tattered hoodie and sweat pants. Probably not the kind of image the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was looking for.

It turned out there were two red carpets. The one I was standing in front of was for “talent and celebrities,” a category I was pretty sure didn’t include me. The other, smaller one was at the back of the building. Once I had changed into a coat and tie and convinced myself that my shirt wasn’t such a bad match after all, that’s where I headed.

I was almost there when I heard someone calling my name. It was Big Frank, Tre’s dad. He, his wife, and Sara’s parents were going in through yet another entrance, but I hung around talking to them for as long as I could, and got inside just in time to be late for dinner.

The Hall of Fame had laid on an opulent spread for us, but girls were walking around with signs that read “SHOW TIME,” which meant we were supposed to stop eating (I hadn’t even started yet) and take our seats upstairs.

I gobbled up as much food as I could, figuring I had a long night ahead of me, then went in search of our table. It turned out to be all the way up at the front, toward the right hand side of the stage. An all but perfect view, I thought, until I found out that half the inductions would take place on the other side.

It meant I had to crane my neck to see Miley Cyrus inducting Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, but our side got Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson (the latter accepting on behalf of her late husband, Lou Reed), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and, of course Green Day.

I’d seen the Butterfield Blues Band once, in the spring of 1968, playing a free show with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead at the bandshell in Central Park. They were surprisingly good—I’m not normally a fan of that style of music—but hadn’t given them much thought since then except when I discovered that keyboardist Mark Naftalin was the father of Davy Normal, the 16-year-old artist who drew the cover for the first Lookouts LP back in 1986.

I wondered if Davy was in the audience, a question Naftalin answered seconds later in his acceptance speech by thanking “my son, the artist David Normal, who has flown out from California to be here tonight.”

Davy, er, David has come a long way since his days of doing free album covers for unknown punk rock bands, and has a major exhibit coming up at the British Library in London. Later that night, he and Tre Cool got together and reminisced about their childhood days at Camp Winnarainbow.

Now that we’d entered the blues-rock portion of the evening, featuring sets by the remnants of the Butterfield Band (mainstays Mike Bloomfield and Butterfield himself died decades ago) and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble, it felt like an opportune time for a bathroom break. Encountering Aaron Cometbus on my way back, I griped, “Man, I didn’t like this kind of music very much in the 60s and 70s, and it hasn’t improved with age.”

"We come from a place called Gilman Street."

“We come from a place called Gilman Street.”

Petty complaints notwithstanding, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the evening as a whole. I’d been afraid it would tend to drag, especially when some of the inductees got a little, shall we say, long-winded with their acceptance speeches. Even when the teleprompter started counting down the seconds and flashing “Please wrap it up,” nobody paid much attention to it.

70s soul singer Bill Withers talked for quite a while, too, but nobody was telling him to wrap it up. Droll and garrulous, he reminded me of the old-timers who used to work with my dad at the Detroit Main Post Office. They always had a story to tell you, usually one with no discernible end or beginning, where every sentence became either a punch line or the setup for one.

“Man, this has got to the largest AA meeting in the Western Hemisphere,” he blurted. Considering how many celebrities and performers were nursing glasses of water instead of the free-flowing wine, he probably had a point.

Being inducted by Stevie Wonder was “like a lion opening the door for a kitty cat,” he said, and wrapped up his remarks with, “Stevie Wonder knows my name and the brother just put me in the Hall of Fame.

As good a talker as Withers turned out to be, he wasn’t interested in singing, and let Stevie Wonder and John Legend deliver stunning renditions of his two biggest hits. Stevie proved to be no slouch in the humor department, either; a few bars into “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he stopped the song and told the band to start over. “I’m in the wrong key,” he said. “I wasn’t looking at the music.”

Green Day got the loudest reception of the night—including quite a few Beatlemania-style shrieks from the balconies—and played the loudest, too. They were the youngest of all the inductees, and the only ones to have done some of their most important work in this century.

Though Green Day have won a ton of awards over the years, the Hall of Fame is a different order of magnitude. All three members later confessed to having been somewhere between nervous and terrified when they walked onto the stage, but sitting in the audience, you’d never have guessed it.

“They don’t let drummers read teleprompters,” claimed Tre, then proceeded to speak, as did Mike and Billie, straight from memory and the heart. He talked about the days when Green Day were touring in a yellow Econoline van, playing back yards and basements, and silkscreening t-shirts on Billie Joe’s guitar case.

“I didn’t think back then we’d be here now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he said, paused for effect before adding, “I thought it would be at least another year or two.”

Turns out my tie wasn’t such a bad match after all. With American Idiot director Michael Mayer.

Turns out my tie wasn’t such a bad match after all. With American Idiot director Michael Mayer.                              (Photo by Eileen Pretzel)

It was vintage Tre, and reminded me of the time I’d congratulated him on becoming one of the best drummers in the world. He’d looked at me as if I were an idiot, and retorted, “One of?”

Not everyone can get away with that kind of braggadocio, but you’d expect nothing less of Tre. It’s not just that he really is that great of a drummer; he can also, when it’s called for, get serious, and even downright humble. No one could accuse him of irreverence as he cited and thanked the drummers who had inspired him, a list that combined world-famous names like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts with some (John Wright of No Means No, Al Schvitz of MDC) only a handful of people in the hall would recognize.

Aaron Cometbus got a nod, too, as did “my good buddy and drummer extraordinaire” John Kiffmeyer. It’s embarrassing to admit, but by this point I was kind of hoping Tre, or at least one member of the band, would give me a shout-out too. As it turned out, all three did.

Not just shout-outs, either; each went into some detail about what they were thanking me for. Tre told how I’d given him his punk rock name (“I fought him as hard as I could on that, but I’m fucking stuck with it now”). Mike praised me for creating Lookout Records “for all the right reasons” and the bands I’d given a home to.

Billie continued in that vein, name-checking the likes of Sewer Trout and Nasal Sex and paying tribute to the band’s origins (“We come from this place called Gilman Street”). By now I was in tears, and barely noticed or cared that a cameraman had his lens trained on me in search of a reaction shot.

Immediately afterward, the band picked up their instruments and played three songs; the backdrop, a montage of old Gilman and East Bay flyers, let us know Green Day’s hearts and minds had never strayed too terribly far from home. The show could have ended on a high note then and there, but there was still plenty more to come.

I’d briefly met Ringo Starr some 13 years ago, and once saw John Lennon and Yoko Ono performing, but tonight would be my first time seeing any of the Beatles on stage together.

Another of my favorite speakers: the sharp-dressed Elvin Bishop of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Another of my favorite speakers: the sharp-dressed Elvin Bishop of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

I was a teenager when the Beatles arrived in America, and for most of my adolescence and young adulthood they’d loomed over all as the Biggest Band Ever. The night I first saw Sweet Children playing for five bewildered high schoolers in that candlelit cabin atop Sherwood Road, the first thought that popped into my mind was, “These guys could be the new Beatles.”

My next thought was to question my own sanity, but I didn’t let that stop me from offering them a record deal on the spot. I didn’t yet understand that because of the fragmentation of the music industry and the disappearance of monolithic rock and roll culture, there would never be a “new Beatles,” but Green Day came as close to it as anybody could.

And now here they were, Billie, Mike, and Tre (and Jason White) playing Beatles songs with the Beatles. First with Tre and Ringo installed on side-by-side drum sets, then with Paul stepping in for a grand finale that featured everyone—Miley Cyrus, Stevie Wonder, Peter Wolf from the J. Geils Band, Dave Grohl from Nirvana, John Legend, even Paul Shaffer from the Letterman show—singing “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

Normally I steer clear of my fellow graybeards and baby boomers for fear they’ll start banging on about how everything was better “back in our day,” or how “these kids don’t know anything about real music.” But suddenly I was at the front of the stage, in the center of a scrum of 60 and 70-somethings, singing along as if it were 1964 all over again.

Never in a million years could 16-year-old me have envisioned this sight. The same must have been true for 16-year-old Billie and Mike when that weird guy on from the mountain asked them to make a record, or 12-year-old Tre, when that same weirdo asked if he’d ever thought about trying to play the drums. Tim Armstrong said it way back in the 90s, and it keeps becoming ever more true: “No premonition could have seen this.”

The afterparty started out a little chaotically. We arrived to find almost nobody being let in. American Idiot director Michael Mayer, Warner Brothers execs, even some Green Day family members, stood milling around at the entrance to an empty room because our names supposedly weren’t on the list.

I thought it was nice of Green Day to let this guy play a couple numbers with them.

I thought it was nice of Green Day to let this guy play a couple numbers with them.

Arguments and pleas for reason went nowhere until Silvio from The Sopranos—er, I mean Steven Van Zandt—showed up, growled, “What’s going on here?” and led the whole pack of us past a slackjawed security guard.

I never found half the people I wanted to talk to; others were hemmed in by such a press of well-wishers that I gave up trying to fight my way through the crowd. I did spend some time talking with Tre and Sara, as well as with Mike and his wife Brittney, who after a year-long battle with cancer is recovering fabulously.

None of the Big Three—Jason White, Jeff Matika, and Jason Freese—seemed to be anywhere in sight, but luckily I’d run into all of them at various other points during the weekend. Jason White, who also underwent cancer treatment recently, might still be feeling a little shaky, but it didn’t stop him from putting in a full shift with the band on both Thursday and Saturday nights. It was great to see him on the mend.

I was hoping to run into Ringo Starr to thank him for some life-changing advice he offered me back in 2001, but it never happened. Nor did I get a chance to talk to Joan Jett, and therein lies a story that needs to be told, no matter how long this piece has already gotten.

Back around 1981, during one of Joan’s first solo tours, she played a show in Ann Arbor. Everybody I knew was there to see our longtime friends the Cult Heroes, one of the bigger local bands at the time, as well as a new band featuring Dennis Thompson from the MC5.

It never occurred to us that the Cult Heroes wouldn’t be headlining, so we were mightily pissed off when they were forced to cut their set short to allow more time for the touring band. Insult was added to injury when we were kicked out of the backstage dressing rooms, which we were used to treating as our private hangout space.

So we went on the floor and mercilessly heckled Joan Jett through her entire set. It was ugly, and probably a little misogynistic (it was the early 80s; apart from that, I have no excuse).

Fast forward to the summer of 2010, when I met Joan Jett backstage at a Green Day show. I was talking to her and Billie when Tre butted in. “Hey Larry,” he said, “didn’t you see Joan and her band back in the old days?”

No, I insisted, I was pretty sure I’d never seen her play, either solo or with the Runaways. I honestly believed I was telling the truth. Somehow I had blocked the whole incident out of my memory, but apparently I’d once told Tre and Kain about it at Lookouts practice, and he hadn’t forgotten.

Tre asked a second and third time, and I continued to deny it. Joan walked away, and only then did I remember what he was talking about. I’ve been waiting ever since then for another chance to apologize to her, and thought it might come this weekend. Unfortunately it didn’t, so Joan, if you’re reading this, I’m truly sorry for being such an obnoxious jerk in 1981.

I did run into Blackhearts guitarist Ricky Byrd, who was re-telling the story that had gotten such a big cheer during his acceptance speech. He’d told how his 13-year-old daughter was unimpressed with her dad’s rock and roll accomplishments unless they meant she could meet Iggy Azalea (Al Sobrante’s 14-year-old son, meanwhile, was on a quest to get a selfie with Miley Cyrus).

“In my world,” an indignant Ricky said, “there’s only one Iggy you want to meet.”

There was no need to specify which Iggy he was talking about, and it was even less necessary when repeating the line to us at the party, but for some reason, he felt compelled to add, “Iggy Pop.”

Kids these days, I thought. That whole “Pop” thing didn’t come along until later. Back in Ann Arbor he was Iggy Stooge.

In a hurry to catch my train to the airport the next morning, I barged out of the elevator without looking and nearly knocked over Peter Wolf, still sporting that trademark fedora of his. He stayed on his feet, spilling not a drop of the large coffee he was carrying, but even as I apologized, I caught myself thinking, “Dude, I saw you guys open for the Rolling Stones in 1981 and you played way too long.”

Apart from the plane ride back to New York, that pretty much wrapped up the weekend. I was still smiling when we landed at LaGuardia, and even the crowded bus and train ride home couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. More than two weeks later, I’m still quietly glowing: even the notoriously hard-to-please Aaron Cometbus characterized our time in Cleveland as a “surprisingly sweet” affair.

Aaron and I have known Green Day for considerably more than half their lives, and we’ve watched them climb from Gilman Street to the upper echelons of the rock and roll pantheon without losing—in fact maybe gaining more of—the grace, humility, and love that have guided them through the minefields of an industry and profession seldom noted for any of those qualities.

At the beginning of the 1960s, just when music was starting to become one of the most important things in my life, a group called The Showmen had a minor hit called “It Will Stand.” Rock and roll, the song claimed, would stand forever and ever (“ain’t gonna fade, never no never”).

It never came close to cracking the Top 10, but for my gang it was like the greaser national anthem. We’d punch the air and sing along with all the force and fury a bunch of 13 and 14-year-olds could muster, certain that if there was one thing we could count on in this crazy, mixed-up world, it was the staying power of rock and roll.

As profound as those lyrics felt to us, they must sound naive and a little silly to today’s 13 and 14-year-olds, who tend to think of rock and roll as old people’s music, the kind of stuff their parents listened to—or that you go to museums like the Hall of Fame to learn about.

But for 50 years or so, rock and roll in all its permutations—doo-wop, rockabilly, acid rock, glam, punk, and many more—was among the most vital forces on the planet. Though many of its creators are gone, and many more will shuffle off the stage in the not too distant future, the music itself will stand, long after any of us are around to analyze, categorize, or wax nostalgic and romantic about it.

In 1988 I was fortunate enough to hear three kids playing songs that I instantly knew the rest of the world needed to hear. I feel deeply honored to have played some small part in helping that happen. All I have left to add is thank you: to Green Day, to Gilman Street and the East Bay, to all of us who found each other and banded together to create a scene, a culture, and a music that transformed our lives and will continue to reverberate through the ages.

Going To Humboldt

Going To Humboldt

One of my big regrets about the Potatomen – yes, I’ve had a few – was that we never finished a song we started back in 1994 or so called “Going To Humboldt.”

And when I say “we” I probably should say “I,” because I was the one who fell down most badly on the job. We had a great, monumental riff that might still be echoing down through the ages if we’d ever committed it to vinyl, and although the song structure was never finalized, it was the sort of thing we could and often did jam on for hours. The main thing the band was waiting on was for me to finish writing the words and to make the sometimes arbitrary distinctions that divided verse from chorus and chorus from bridge, which tended to be my main job, and which I was often painfully slow at.

So slow, in fact, that maybe a dozen potentially great songs are now lost forever, because even if I finally came up with the words, I’d have forgotten how to play the music, and so, I’m certain, would any members of the band, past or present. As a result, “Going To Humboldt” will remain a “You had to be there” moment, as in fact, the actual act of going to Humboldt most often was.

It can also be a hopelessly vague or misleading concept, and not just because of the mind-zapping powers of the region’s most famous agricultural product. Those of you familiar with Humboldt County will know that it’s an awfully big place, larger than a couple of states, and the coastal regions of Northern Humboldt differ so drastically in climate and terrain from the heavily forested mountains to the south and east that they might almost be on different continents.

So where exactly are you headed when you tell someone you are “going to Humboldt?” In the case of our band, it was as much a state of mind as a geographical destination. Basically it meant heading up Highway 101 until the city lights of Berkeley and San Francisco were a distant memory and the forests and mountains and quirky little towns conspired to tell us that we had arrived back in our true spiritual home.

Poster for the event sponsored by The Book Juggler in Willits.

Poster for the event sponsored by The Book Juggler in Willits.

Our drummer was the only true Humboldter (Humboldtian?) among us, having grown up just north of Garberville, but I had spent much of the previous decade on Spy Rock, which, if you’re thinking in terms of bioregion or indigenous culture, has more in common with Southern Humboldt than it does with the rest of Mendocino County.

Our third member, Patrick Hynes, he of the lilting, haunting guitar and bass lines so immediately specific to the Potatomen, was East Bay born-and-bred, but he too embraced the Humboldt mystique with the avidity of a native. It was his plangent guitar tones that brought to life one of the saddest and most heartfelt songs on our first album, which was an ode to Eureka, a town that at the time seemed fated to live forever under the foul shroud of its pulp mill-poisoned present and the dark cloud of its brutal, Indian-slaughtering past.

Within short order we had also come up with songs about Arcata and Ferndale, covered the Brent’s TV song about Trinidad, and even given, in “The Train Song,” a namecheck to obscure little Blue Lake. I mention this not to big up the Potatomen, but to show that my connection to the North Coast, the Redwood Empire, the Emerald Triangle, whatever you want to call it, runs deep, and no matter how long I stay away, is not easily severed.

But through the haze of memory a quiet voice keeps calling me
Back to the only home I’ve ever known

That’s what I sang in the song “Arcata,” which ends by predicting that I’d eventually be:

Back to stay there
Beneath the clouds of gray
On the shores of that fog-shrouded bay

It could still happen. A million miles from Brooklyn in some regards and right around the corner in others; if I could make the transformation from Spy Rock wilderness to first London and then New York City, who’s to say I couldn’t once again feel at home strolling across the Plaza or queuing up for coffee at Los Bagels?

No, I’m not packing my bags for Humboldt just yet, nor am I planning to bail on Brooklyn, but I am still luxuriating in the afterglow of the past couple weeks spent touring my old Northern California stomping grounds, copies of Spy Rock Memories in hand. It would be too grandiose to call it a “book tour,” as my mother and other partisans insisted on doing, since I only did two official “readings” and a handful of interviews. But I also busied myself paying visits to many of the region’s far-flung bookstores to ask if they’d be interested in carrying Spy Rock Memories, and in doing so, took advantage of the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and spectacle of one of the most beautiful and, some might argue, bizarre places on earth.

US Out Of Humboldt County, the bumper stickers used to proclaim in the 80s, and while you don’t see too many of those anymore, there are parts of the Emerald Triangle where you’d be hard pressed to find evidence that you were still within the jurisdiction of the United States of America or the State of California. The Triangle is its own land, and its own reality, and while the shopping districts of the bigger “cities” and the artsy-craftsy boutiques of the tourist meccas might look deceptively normal, you don’t need to venture far off the beaten track or, for that matter, the pavement, to learn that much of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties remains largely ungoverned and, perhaps, ungovernable.

My trip began to take shape when I was asked by the excellent Book Juggler, a linchpin of the Willits cultural community, to do a reading at the local library. The library?  This was heady stuff for someone who, back in the early days of Lookout magazine, was accustomed to being run out of town on a fairly routine basis. I don’t know who originally said it, but it was Jerry Garcia who I first heard explaining that, “like old whores and old buildings,” his band had, by hanging around long enough, actually become respectable. Could time be working a similar magic on me?

Larry Livermore holding forth with his (unplugged) electric typewriter at the Ukiah Denny's. Photo by R.D. Deines for the New Settler Interview, spring 1986.

Larry Livermore holding forth with his (unplugged) electric typewriter at the Ukiah Denny’s. Photo by R.D. Deines for the New Settler Interview, spring 1986.

Let’s not rush to judgment. When I arrived at the Willits Library, I found a reasonably-sized group – I think “crowd” might slightly be overstating the case – waiting for me, including a few old friends, most notably Holly Ferretta, whose family you’ll find mentioned in the Spy Rock Memories segment about home schooling, and Beth Bosk and R.D Deines, who’ve been publishing Mendocino’s iconic New Settler Interview for nearly three decades. Way back in the spring of 1986, Beth interviewed me for the magazine and R.D. snapped the photo of me that has, more than any other, defined my public image ever since.

I read several selections from the book, spoke at some length (didn’t catch anyone yawning, though), and took a few questions. I was well received, though Beth Bosk did take some slight umbrage at my suggestion that Big Timber, which used to run roughshod over the North State, had been replaced by a new 900 lb gorilla, namely Big Marijuana.

Some version of this discussion would continue wherever I went for the next couple of weeks, with almost everyone agreeing that the near-complete takeover of the local economy by marijuana cultivation and sales had led to some unforeseen problems. The only dispute seemed to be whether those problems were manageable ones that could be solved by, depending who you talked to, either a stern crackdown on the industrial-scale growing operations that have all but supplanted the family-scaled farms of yore, or complete legalization (accompanied by regulation and taxation) of the cannabis crop.

As it stands now, Mendocino and Humboldt are getting the worst of both worlds: billions of dollars flow in (and back out again, since many of the biggest grow-ops are controlled by agri-business interests from other cities and states), leading to a huge increase in crime and an ever-greater demand for public services; at the same time, both counties are effectively broke, barely able to meet existing obligations, let alone take on new ones, because probably 90% of their economic activity goes untaxed and unaccounted for.

But let’s not focus unduly on the negative. I was here to sell books and cultivate literary interactions, not to rail against the grim state of local politics, and in that I’d say I was largely successful. Stores now carrying Spy Rock Memories include, in addition to The Book Juggler, the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino,  the Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah, King Range Books in Garberville, Northtown Books and People’s Records in Arcata, and Eureka Books and the Eureka Co-op in, yes, Eureka. I guess I can count myself lucky that independent booksellers remain a thriving presence – there were a number of others that I was unable to get to before I ran out of books – and that they are so receptive to books about local places and people.

If there was any disappointment, it was that I didn’t get to put books on sale in Laytonville itself. There is a bookstore there – like most North Coast communities, even a town of barely a thousand people is able to support one – but the hours it kept made it impossible for me to connect with the owner. And, to be honest, given some of my past adventures with the Laytonville citizenry, most often in response to things I had written in Lookout magazine, I still can’t help feeling a little nervous whenever I publish something new.

The Redwood Summer poster, artwork by "M," concept and slogans by yours truly.

Redwood Summer poster, artwork by “M,” concept and slogans by yours truly.

I envy Bruce Anderson, who’s long been saying more inflammatory things that I ever dreamed of in his Anderson Valley Advertiser and yet can stroll blithely around beautiful downtown Boonville with scarcely a care in the world (granted, it wasn’t always thus; threats of violence, lawsuits, even a couple of jail terms have dogged his journalistic journey almost from its beginning in the mid-1980s). I visited Bruce and his longstanding comrade-in-arms, Mark “The Major” Scaramella, at the AVA offices one Sunday night. They were busily putting together that week’s issue (the Major still uses the old manual paste-up method that I thought had all but vanished in the wake of full-fledged computerization), but they set their work aside and made time for a lengthy chat, during the course of which I noticed a copy of the original Redwood Summer poster hanging on the office wall.

That poster, created by the AVA’s onetime editorial cartoonist, the mysterious “M,” along with some input from myself, is actually quite hard to find. There’s a copy of it in some university library I located online, but they wanted a bunch of money just to let me download the image. Bruce volunteered to let me take his copy, but it looked so perfect thumbtacked to his wall that I decided to settle for a photo of it.

I spent a night in Fort Bragg, which during superheated summer days on Spy Rock, used to beckon as a cool gray refuge, with its own cinema multiplex and some decent restaurants enough to justify a two-hour trip over mostly dirt roads. But while the movie theater is still in business, the town itself felt a little more Twin Peaks-y than it did back in the day, and apart from the bars, most businesses were shuttered well before dark. The highlight was a stroll (except for one shopping cart-pushing tweaker, I might have been the town’s only pedestrian) down to the forlorn but picturesque Noyo Harbor, where a raccoon, accompanied by a posse of feral cats, greeted passersby by standing on two legs alongside the road and eagerly beating his paws together in apparent anticipation of a treat that, at least from me, was not forthcoming. I had enough dealings with raccoons during my years in the mountains. They are not generally nice creatures.

The highlight of my trip, though, had to be the semi-urban triumvirate of Ferndale, Eureka and Arcata. Ferndale, an astoundingly well-preserved Victorian village, could be seen as a little creepy, especially late at night or when sitting in its hillside cemetery, which is where I was when I wrote the song “Toytown,” about what I imagined it would be like to grow up in an exquisitely beautiful but in many ways lifeless village populated mainly by elderly Republicans and tourists (I was wrong on the first count, it seems; Ferndale, I was informed, voted for Obama in the recent elections).

Ferndale is also home to the brilliant Lost Coast Outpost, Humboldt County’s most vibrant and reliable news source, notwithstanding the presence of a daily newspaper in Eureka, the Times-Standard, which in one form or another has been around since the mid-19th century. In 1860, then known as the Humboldt Times, it distinguished itself by editorializing, in the wake of a shocking massacre on Indian Island:

For the past four years we have advocated two—and only two—alternatives for ridding our country of Indians: either remove them to some reservation or kill them. The loss of life and destruction of property by the Indians for ten years past has not failed to convince every sensitive man that the two races cannot live together, and the recent desperate and bloody demonstrations on Indian Island and elsewhere is proof that the time has arrived that either the pale face or the savage must yield the ground.

In other words, by being so careless as to get themselves massacred (this particular massacre involved between 200 and 300 individuals, nearly all of them women, children, or the elderly) the Indians had somehow proven that they needed to be, um, massacred. I’d like to be able to tell you that over the course of the last century and a half, the Times-Standard has moderated its stance on this and other issues, and in fact it has, though as far as I know it has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for Eureka’s bloody past.

Noyo Harbor, Fort Bragg.

Noyo Harbor, Fort Bragg.

I mentioned this to Lynette Mullen, who I met at Eureka’s once-monthly (and not to be missed if you’re anywhere in the area) Arts Alive festivities, and who keeps a fascinating blog on North Coast history. She has a special interest in uncovering and preserving stories of the horrendous treatment experienced by local Indian tribes. While I knew about some but not all the massacres she had compiled accounts of, I was completely unaware of the practice of killing Indian adults so that their children could be sold into slavery. I told her that I and many friends had long suspected Eureka might have something of a curse on it dating back to those bloody days, and although hers was a more scholarly approach than mine, she observed that we were not alone in thinking along those lines.

Back in Ferndale, I had the honor of appearing on Larry Trask’s radio show. The best-known DJ on KHUM, Humboldt’s largest commercial radio station, Larry grilled me for the better part of two hours on Spy Rock Memories and a dozen related issues. By “grilled” I don’t mean to suggest anything even slightly unpleasant or intrusive; in fact, it was one of the best interviews I’d ever participated in (the other being a few weeks ago with Diane Farris on New Jersey’s WFMU). Larry had read the book, knew his stuff, asked excellent questions, and the only thing that worried me was how his listeners, who are normally used to hearing music during the afternoon, would take to us going on a lengthy talk binge. No one, as far as I know, called in to complain, though.

A week earlier I’d done an interview on KMUD, the Garberville station where I myself used to work, and which I mention extensively in Spy Rock Memories because it played such a vital part in helping me learn what it means to live in and become part of a community. I was a guest on the Monday Morning Magazine, a time slot held down for many years by Michael Brennan, and in which I’d sometimes appeared, more often informally than formally, during my KMUD years.

Michael was in the front row at my reading at Northtown Books in Arcata, which got off to a rollicking start: almost in the very instant I opened my mouth to speak, an earthquake rumbled through the store. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in the story I was preparing to tell, but it barely fazed me, and I shrugged it off as little more than maybe a 2.5 on the Richter Scale, a shaker that could be easily topped by a fully loaded logging truck passing by. But the more knowledgeable and experienced locals insisted it had to be about a 4.5, and they turned out to be exactly right.

No damage was done, however, and I wasn’t about to be scared off that easily in any event, so we went on for a couple more hours. Late that night, as I was about to go to bed, I tuned into Arcata’s college station, KHSU in time to hear the Potatomen play “Empty Inside,” followed by the quintessential Crimpshrine song “Summertime,” the one that sings of going “back to Mendo one more time.” It was a song I’d placed on my Spy Rock Memories playlist, but hadn’t yet got around to playing at any of my appearances.

Hearing it over the Humboldt airwaves again (thanks, Julie!) nearly a quarter of a century after the fact capped off a perfect day in that most perfect of places, and left me convinced that yes, you can go home again, even if it’s only for a little while. Headed south toward San Francisco and my flight back to New York, I passed Southern Humboldt’s biggest social and musical event of the year, Reggae On The River, and while I’d never been the biggest of reggae fans (to put it mildly) I listened to KMUD’s live broadcast from the site and marveled at the realization that some of this stuff was actually quite good. If it weren’t for the clouds of pot smoke that, astronauts report, can be observed from outer space, I’d be tempted to attend next year’s ROTR myself.

So that’s my journey to Humboldt. I could go on for quite a few more hours and quite a few thousand more words, but I fear I’ve already tried my readers’ patience. Thank you to all who made my journey back to the promised land such a wonderful and rewarding experience, and I look forward to seeing you again real soon.

Weed And The Beeb

Weed And The Beeb

I should start by saying that I don’t know Justin Bieber. Never met the kid, never seen him perform, don’t really know his music that well.

But if even I have heard stories about the teenage sensation’s alleged flirtation (or full-fledged infatuation) with marijuana, chances are there’s something to the tales.

It could be, of course, that the marijuana rumors are part of a carefully contrived media manipulation, a product of the same strategy that’s seen him trading his sweet-faced choirboy look for that of an Odd Future gangbanger wannabe.

19 is an awkward age. Poor fashion choices, dubious companions, even full-fledged self-sabotage are predictable pitfalls for anyone at that point in life, multi-millionaire pop star or McDonald’s fry cook alike.

But while there’s no proof that the Beeb’s goofy, diva-like, and potentially career-destroying behavior of late are the product of a too-close acquaintance with the devil weed, when even your own manager is suggesting you go to rehab, chances are you’ve got a problem.

Next question, and it’s an obvious one: so what? There must a million 19-year-old potheads in North America. Does it matter if one of them happens to be richer and more famous than the rest of them put together?

If Bieber winds up wrecking his fabulously successful career, isn’t that what child stars typically do? If the gigs dry up and he has to resort to tell-all memoirs, Lifetime movies, or hawking reverse mortgages on late night TV, he’ll still get by.

“Oh my god!” I can hear you protesting, “It’s only pot. Don’t get carried away.”

Yeah, only pot. Why, in many states, it’s officially “medicine,” which must mean it’s good for you, right?

I started smoking pot when I was about Bieber’s age, and I once thought that, too. In fact for more than 20 years of my life I would have sworn that marijuana made me smarter, wiser, more moral, and probably even more handsome. In reality, as most people who knew me during that time will happily tell you, it made me an obnoxious dingbat.

That seems to be the effect it has on most of its users. The problem is—a big problem—is that the more stoned you get, the more likely you are to believe the complete opposite.

It’s only logical: why would people spend tons of money and (at least in some jurisdictions) even risk arrest to take a drug that made them look and act dumber than they already were? Unless, of course, one of the chief effects of the drug were to stand reality on its head and translate bleary-eyed dumbfoundedness into a half-assed approximation of cosmic insight and understanding?

Marijuana users hate it when you point out that the “high” they experience is a form of temporary derangement if not clinical insanity. What they’re even less likely to appreciate—or be aware of—is that the derangement isn’t necessarily temporary.

That’s not to say it’s permanent—serious long-term research needs to be done—but the mind-altering effects of marijuana last long after you stop toking down on the joints or bong hits. Days? Weeks? Months? How about years?

I’m not necessarily the ideal guinea pig, but that’s how long it took in my case: somewhere between three or four years before the inverted perceptions of my dope years felt fully restored to their former levels of functionality.

“But wait!” I can hear legions of dopers protest. “Just because you had a problem with marijuana doesn’t mean everybody else does. I mean, look at all the great art and philosophy that came out of the baby boom generation when they started smoking weed en masse in the 1960s!”

To which I can only respond: yeah, just look at it.

One of the most pernicious impacts of marijuana is the illusion that the universe revolves around the user, and that said user is uniquely qualified to understand and explain this to lesser mortals not under its influence. It’s not hard to see why this could be particularly problematic in the case of a 19 year old, who by dint of age and hormones alone, is already convinced he knows everything.

Add to the mix the fact that said teenager is one of the richest and most famous entertainers in the world, surrounded by yea-sayers willing, for the sake of inclusion in the magic circle, to tell him endlessly how brilliant he is. Should it be surprising when the young man has trouble keeping himself, shall we say, grounded?

Is this why the wheels seem to be coming off the well-oiled Bieber juggernaut? After years of scarcely putting a foot wrong, the boy wunderkind suddenly can’t seem to do anything right. As a former pothead myself, I can only say, “Been there, done that.”

Of course no one, let alone millions of kids, ever looked up to me as a role model the way countless teens and tweens to with the Beeb. Granted, he could argue that he never signed up for that when he set out to be a superstar. He’s perfectly entitled to make his life about nothing but, as Ice Cube memorably put it, “bitches and money.”

But before heading down that road, he might also want to take Dr. Dre’s advice under consideration, advice that, even if Dre later changed his tune, holds truer than ever today:

I still express, yo, I don’t smoke weed or a sess

Cuz it’s known to give a brother brain damage

And brain damage on the mic don’t manage nuthin’

But makin’ a sucker and you equal

Don’t be another sequel

Cars, Bikes, and People

Cars, Bikes, and People

I’m waiting, with a dozen other people, to cross Metropolitan Avenue. Mothers escorting kids home from school, hipsters languidly examining their iPhones, get-up-and-goers champing at the bit to get to the other side of the street, down the subway stairs, and onto the L train.

People are easing into the street and poking their heads into traffic long before the light shows any sign of changing, but nobody tries to cross. Even when the “walk” signal flashes to life, they wait, because they know at least a few cars or trucks are bound to ignore the red. Sure enough, we all take a couple steps back as a fully loaded semi roars past. In the driver’s defense, at the speed he was going it might have been more dangerous to slam on the brakes. Besides, there may have been a flicker of amber left in the signal when he entered the intersection.

He’s followed by a gray SUV that doesn’t even slow down, though the light’s been fully red for a few seconds now. It barrels around the corner and through the crowd as though we were so many bowling pins just crying to be sent flying.

Everybody jumps and scatters, nobody gets hit, let alone killed or injured. And, because this sort of thing is so commonplace, nobody utters more than a sigh or soft grumble in protest.

Then something marvelous happens. Actually, it didn’t, but it could have. Across the street, also waiting for traffic to clear, is an NYPD cruiser. You know how they say there’s never a cop around when you want one? This time there was, and the crime had taken place right under his nose.

I silently cheered at the prospect of seeing Mr. SUV Man hauled to the side of the road and, I hoped, taken away in chains. But the cop didn’t bat an eye, and the SUV dude drove off, probably not even vaguely aware how his casual haste had put a dozen people’s lives at risk. I wondered if the cop might have been more responsive if, instead of a reckless driver, he’d spied someone writing graffiti or smoking a joint.

But even at the height of Rudy Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on petty crime and antisocial behavior, little attention was paid to careless, reckless, or even downright homicidal drivers, though they kill and injure as many people as “real” criminals, if not more.

The sad truth is that there’s an enormous double standard: mayhem, even of the murderous variety, is seldom considered a crime when committed by car or truck drivers unless it involves multiple fatalities and/or brazen drunkenness, and not always then.

If you ran through Times Square wielding a chain saw or a firearm, your chances of avoiding prison would be slim to nonexistent. Pull the same stunt with a speeding two-ton automobile, even if you put two or three people in the hospital or the morgue, it will most likely it will be deemed an unfortunate “accident.”

The public has developed an enormous blind spot when it comes to the car, which was never more obvious than when Mayor Bloomberg’s long-awaited bike sharing program began installing its first stations. Greenwich Villagers squealed like stuck pigs, as did denizens Brooklyn’s statelier sectors. “We’re not against bikes,” they cried, “but they’re just not appropriate for historic neighborhoods like ours.”

The streets are too narrow, they argued; there’s barely enough room even without bike stations. The more candid among them cut right to the chase: “It’s too hard to find parking as it is.”

A rack holding 15 or 20 bicycles and occupying what might have been two or three parking spaces is seen as freakishly unnatural. Yet nobody questions the same block’s several dozen parking spaces and one or more lanes devoted exclusively to cars and their owners.

Five people and four smogmobiles occupy the space that could contain a bus carrying 50 to 60 passengers, or 100 pedestrians. But apparently bicycles are the real cause of congestion!

Five people and four smogmobiles occupy space that could contain a 60-passenger bus or 100 pedestrians. But apparently bicycles are the real cause of congestion!

 “I drive from Brooklyn to the Village three or four times a week,” fumed one resident. “Where am I supposed to park with Bloomberg plopping his stupid bikes all over the place?”

But hang on here. What are you doing driving from Brooklyn to the Village anyway? Unless you’re crippled, transporting your aged mother to her mahjong club, or engaged in a business that involves hauling a lot of parts or samples, get on the subway with everyone else.

Every car that enters the city produces pollution and ancillary expenses hundreds of times greater than those generated by someone who walks, bikes, or uses public transit. The individual driver may enjoy a more convenient trip, but the costs of his comfort have to be borne by all of us.

What’s especially maddening is that much of the time it won’t even be convenient for the driver. He’ll wind up circling the block for an hour before he finds a parking place, or get hopelessly stuck in the traffic that he himself helped create. Maybe he’ll get dinged or sideswiped by an oversized van or an errant cyclist, or collect a $200 ticket because he misread the street sweeping signs.

You know what, buddy? Tough luck. We the taxpayers of New York City do not owe you a gold-plated parking place, or an unobstructed route for your smog-belching chariot. You want convenience and comfort, get your chauffeur to drive you in the limo.

Maybe getting behind the wheel of a car does something to a guy’s brain chemistry. One minute he’s good old Joe who lives down the block, the next he’s some high and mighty muckamuck, expecting the peasantry to scatter like frightened geese in advance of his advancing carriage.

It can be frustrating if you’re walking through town and get stuck behind someone who’s exasperatingly slow, but do you scream at the top of your lungs, “GET THE BLANKETY-BLANK OUT OF MY BLANKETY-BLANK WAY”? While there are exceptions, no, for the most part you do not. But put many a New Yorker behind the wheel and he’ll be pounding on his horn and yelling his head off if a traffic light has the temerity to turn red in front of him.

Standing in line at the bank? Would you elbow your way to the front of the queue, implicitly threatening to clobber anyone who doesn’t let you pass? Check out drivers who think they have the inalienable right to enter the Holland Tunnel right NOW, regardless of how long all those other schmucks have been waiting.

But I’m not here to deliver a single-minded anti-automobile diatribe, There are times and places when cars are necessary in New York City. Those times and places just happen to be a lot fewer than most car owners seem to think.

Bike riders don’t get a free pass, either. As much as I’ve always loved bikes, I’ve all but given up riding mine, partly because I no longer enjoy the combination of aggression and vigilance necessary to survive the streets of New York City.

But it’s also because I don’t want to be identified with the significant minority of—I can’t think of a nicer or more subtle word to describe them—assholes who seem to feel being on a bike gives them the right to run roughshod over anybody or anything in their path.

I’ve had two close calls while walking recently, one on the Queensborough Bridge, the other on 2nd Avenue, where I came within inches of being injured—or worse—by sociopathic bicyclists. One was speeding downhill at somewhere between 30 and 40 mph on a crowded and narrow footpath, the other had run a red light going the wrong way on a one way street, and tore through a group of us in the crosswalk as if we were contemptible idiots for even thinking about trying to walk where she was planning on riding.

Sure, you say, there will always be jerks like that, but aren’t the vast majority of cyclists law-abiding and respectful of their fellow citizens. Um, no. A majority? Maybe. Vast? Not even close.

I’m not talking about people who bend or break laws that were written for cars and don’t make much sense for bikes. Almost everybody does that. But the reckless, smug, almost psychotically self-absorbed cyclists I’m referring to make up as much as 20 to 30% of the two-wheeled population.

I have some insight into this mindset, because I was once a pretty obnoxious cyclist myself. Maybe not at Critical Mass levels, though I did participate in some of their early rides in Berkeley and San Francisco. But I was definitely one of those clowns who came to believe that anything hindering his progress from Point A to Point B, be it cars, pedestrians, or, last and least, traffic laws, was of trivial or no importance.

This attitude eventually softened and all but disappeared once I left the vortex of narcissism that is the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides, riding with that cavalier arrogance in London or New York seemed more likely to end badly. Maybe even fatally.

Even so, New York today is far more bicycle-friendly today than when I moved here—or, for that matter, than at any time since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Mayor Bloomberg deserves much of the credit for this, and he might have accomplished even more were it not for the curiously reactionary stance of Governor Cuomo. Cuomo, admirably progressive on most issues, is straight out of the 1950s when it comes to transportation policy.

Bloomberg’s bike share program aroused laughter and derision when first proposed, but though delayed and bedeviled by technical glitches, it’s off the ground and running relatively smoothly, something that would have been almost unimaginable in the bad old days of rampant crime, declining population, and collapsing infrastructure.

Unfortunately, a few poorly thought out details stand in the way of Mike’s Bikes becoming the full-fledged transportation alternative they ought to be. One of them is cost. The annual fee of $95 is reasonable enough, I guess, but daily and weekly rates are outrageous: including tax, it’s almost 11 bucks a day, 27 bucks for a week. You’re better off buying an unlimited MetroCard. By contrast, the highly successful London bike share program charges just £2 ($3.20) for 24 hours.

Another problem is that the New York program, at least thus far, only covers a relatively tiny sector of the city: basically Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Astoria, which probably harbor more bicyclists per square inch than anywhere else in the city, are barely served (Williamsburg) or completely ignored (the other three).

This, combined with the 30-minute limit (45 minutes for annual members) on an individual bike, makes the program useless for many of those who would be most likely to use it. An example: say I’m in lower Manhattan and have an errand to run in Greenpoint. It’s the sort of trip that would be ideal for a bike, except that unless I’m Lance Armstrong, there’s no way I can pedal to Greenpoint, take care of my business, and return the bike to Manhattan in time to avoid paying an overtime penalty.

Hopefully bike stations will eventually come to the 80% of New York City currently left out of the system, but until that happens, and until the daily fee is reduced to something more affordable for ordinary New Yorkers, Mike’s Bikes will remain mostly a tourist toy and plaything for the privileged.

So I won’t be giving up my MetroCard just yet, and will continue to do most of my non-subway travel on foot. But speaking of which, it wouldn’t do to finish up this rant—er, thoughtful and reasoned rumination—without noting that pedestrians, salt of the New York City earth that they may be, have faults as well.

They inflict by far the least environmental damage, thus giving them an unshakable claim on the “greener than thou” cred that bicyclists are forever misappropriating. But they too have their ways of being a pain in the ass, and yes, I know this because I too, at least in the past, have been guilty of it.

Crossing the street with complete disregard for traffic signals—or traffic—is one thing. Let’s be honest: it’s what New Yorkers do. But doing it with insolent and unnecessary slowness, almost as if you’re reveling in holding up progress for all the drivers fuming in their cars as they sit though several light changes without managing to get across a single intersection? Maybe it’s funny in a sick sort of way, but it’s really not very nice.

What about pushing the walk button so that traffic will have to stop even though by the time it does you’ve long since jaywalked across? Would people really DO that? I’m here to shamefacedly admit that there was a time when I and others I knew did just that.

Thankfully I outgrew such petulant and counterproductive tactics. I realized that creating still more stop-and-go traffic helped no one, and that frustrated and exasperated drivers are far less likely to be thoughtful and careful ones.

In fact, I’ve gone to the opposite extreme: now, if it’s just as easy to walk behind rather than in front of a car, I’ll signal to the driver to go ahead even if I have the legal right of way.

It’s not a question of having learned to love or even accept the vast numbers of cars that still, in my opinion, overpopulate our streets. But I finally got it through my thick skull that regardless of their chosen means of transportation, we’re ultimately dealing with individual human beings who deserve respect and consideration. Like nearly every aspect of life in the big city, it comes down to one of those honey-or-vinegar things.

Traffic and transportation are still major sources of stress, inefficiency, waste, and environmental depredation, yet a little at a time, slowly but surely, I think we’re making progress. Next time you’re gliding down what once would have been an unimaginably tranquil Broadway on one of Mayor Mike’s shiny blue bikes, pause to reflect on what things used to be like, and maybe even give a little thanks for how much better they are today.

Life As A Published Author b/w Greenland Dreaming

Life As A Published Author b/w Greenland Dreaming

It’s been over a week now since Spy Rock Memories was officially released. No one has come right out and asked me, “How has your life changed now that you’re a published author,” but in case they do, I’ve concocted an answer, one which most of you will have seen coming: not much at all, at least that I’ve noticed.

To be fair, this is far from the first time I’ve seen my name and/or my writing in print. I published 40 (and a half) issues of Lookout magazine, and wrote columns or articles for at least half a dozen other magazines.

I’ve also contributed essays or interviews to several books, but that doesn’t come close to the sensation of seeing your own book in print, and I’d like to thank Joe and Zach at Don Giovanni Records for taking a chance on me and making it all possible.

Zach in particular worked hand in hand with me on the editing process, which wound up taking a LOT longer than I imagined it could, but which I think was well worth it. Aaron Cometbus and Emily Rems also gave the text thorough goings-over, catching a fair few errors and glitches that Zach and I managed to miss.

Once it was finally out, a brief flurry of excitement—a few really thoughtful and nice reviews like this one and this one, some interviews, and a sudden spike in Twitter followers—was followed by a plummet back to normality. Not that there’s anything so terribly wrong with normal. And not that, given the checkered and turbulent course my life has taken pretty much ever since I started having a life, I’d be likely to notice the difference.

There’s still plenty—potentially, an open-ended amount—of work to do. When Jon Ginoli’s book was published, he set out on a personal odyssey that saw him crisscrossing the nation’s bookstores for the better part of the year that followed.

Whether or not that helped him sell more books, it sounded like a great adventure, the sort I’d look forward to if I ever had a book of my own. Other writers, Aaron Cometbus, for example, simply release their work into the wild, confident or at least in hopes that it will be able to fend for itself. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of personal appearances Aaron has made to market his writing and come up with a couple digits of change.

Surely there’s no one right way of doing it. It’s true of music, too: it’s an article of faith that you’ve got to tour relentlessly to sell records, but Operation Ivy broke up a week after releasing their one and only album, never played another show to promote it, yet went on to sell over a million copies and go down in punk rock history.

As a newcomer to the publishing world, I’m not sure how often that happens with books. Seldom, I suspect. And yet part of me wants to hope Spy Rock Memories reaches its audience by osmosis or old-fashioned word of mouth so that I can retreat into my study and start/continue plowing away at my next project(s).

I already have two of them, in fact, both already in progress. But I’m kind of hamstrung at the moment over the question of whether I can or should try to write two separate books at once. The result is that for the past couple of weeks, I haven’t written anything for either one.

For years people have been asking, expecting, demanding that I write my version of the history of Lookout Records. It seemed like the logical next step, and I had finally got started on doing just that. I even had an opening chapter ready to release here on the blog, just as I did with Spy Rock Memories.

But on a recent trip, during which I was fortunate enough to see Helen Mirren’s excellent, excellent play, The Audience, I was seized with an inspiration about how I could do something I’ve long wanted to do, but couldn’t quite get my head around: write about London.

I’d held back in the past because no matter how much time I’d spent in London, I was ultimately an outsider. I felt like I owed the place more respect than to come charging in with the attitude of, “Okay, London, I’ve been visiting you for 38 years and lived in you for 10, so I think I know what your deal is now…”

London is so vast and complex that even someone who’d spent his whole life there, and devoted that life to unraveling the skein of mystery, mundanity, intrigue, and banality that comprise the sum of its parts, would struggle to delve more deeply than its sufficiently fascinating surface.

But I think I’ve come up with an angle. It occurred to me while chatting at the interval with a blue-haired Home Counties lady of undoubtedly long-standing Tory lineage.

As we talked I marveled at how I, an American who’d grown up in a time and place where few people ventured more than a couple hundred miles from home and were content to remain blithely indifferent to any goings-on that unfolded on foreign shores, had come to know and love England with at least as great a passion as I’d ever known for my native land.

Part of it was due to the greatly increased mobility of the working and middle classes that came about in the latter part of the 20th century, but it was equally a function of the way I came to feel at home there. My sense of humor, for example, which frequently elicited blank stares or threats of violence from Americans, actually made sense to Londoners, and their droll, ironic or completely over-the-top excursions into absurdity resonated equally well with me.

In fact, one of the few remaining characteristics that brazenly marks me out as a non-Englishman is my unrestrained enthusiasm for the place and its people: no real English person, in the unlikely event of succumbing to such a patriotic upwelling, would publicly admit to it.

Anyway, that’s more or less what the book’s about, but I’ll say no more until I’ve actually written the thing. At the moment I’m stuck in the interim phases of getting ready to continue writing it, while meanwhile catching up with this long-neglected blog.

But there’s something else on my mind as well. As some of you will know, I’ve always had a fondness for hiking, a fondness that only grew during my years in England and my many journeys around London and the South East, through the Cotswolds, and across the moors in the company of the West Country Walking Society.

If all goes well this is one of the delightfully bleak landscapes I'll be clambering over in a couple months' time.

If all goes well this is one of the delightfully bleak landscapes I’ll be clambering over in a couple months’ time.

One of the only things better than just plain walking, in my opinion, is walking in places where few if any people have walked before. Given the absence of affordable space travel, I’m forced to seek out the ever-dwindling number of such spots here on planet Earth. One of them is Greenland.

I first visited there two years ago, and heard a few locals say that once you’ve touched Greenlandic soil, you have no choice but to return again and again. If that were true you’d think the world’s biggest island would have a population considerably larger than 55,000. Be that as it may, I know I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the place. In a couple months, I’ll be going back for my second visit, and I doubt it will be my last.

Last time I spent all but a couple days in the Arctic town of Ilulissat, at sea sailing alongside the Greenlandic coast, and in the historically unlovely capital, Nuuk. This year I plan to focus on South Greenland’s “banana belt,” where temperatures can sometimes compare favorably with those of a San Francisco winter (or summer, for that matter, not that there’s all that much difference).

It’s the area where Viking explorers first settled 1,000 years ago, seduced into a false and fatal confidence by the Medieval Warm Period, only to be frozen out 400 years later by the Little Ice Age and supplanted by the Inuit Greenlanders who today comprise more than 80% of the country’s population.

Even today, with global warming rapidly shrinking the Greenland ice cap and raising sea levels, the “banana belt” effect really only means that it’s now possible to grow small trees (no, not banana trees, silly!) and a handful of root crops. Most of the greenery you’ll see consists of grass and moss, which take on a dark, brooding color from the bluish-black stone that forms the backbone of the land.

But it was sufficiently green to inspire the Vikings, early masters of the real estate scam, to name their new home Greenland in hopes of luring settlers from nearby Iceland, which actually has a milder climate, far less ice, and in summer, at least, is greener than even Ireland’s Emerald Isle.

Both Iceland and Greenland are among the most beautiful places on earth, and, while they’re the closest of neighbors, are completely different from each other topographically, geologically, and culturally. Film companies looking for the perfect location for their next extraterrestrial sci-fi flick would do very well to choose either of them, but Greenland’s beauty is of a particularly other-worldly variety, compounded—or, some might say, augmented—by the harsh, unblinking and unforgiving stolidity of its precipitous and often impassable terrain.

It called out to me the first time I laid eyes on it, during a flight from London to San Francisco more than 20 years ago, and when I finally got there, did not disappoint. I’m looking forward to some astounding hikes, as well as some long internet-free (Greenland does in fact have the internet, but it’s so heart-stoppingly expensive that it might as well not) opportunities to work on my next big writing projects.

Before that, though, I’ll hopefully be coming to at least some of your towns and bookstores to talk about Spy Rock Memories, sign some books, and give you a chance, if you’ve already read it, to tell me what you thought about it. If you know a shop—or better yet, own one—get in touch and we’ll see if we can work something out. The only event definitely scheduled so far is July 12 at Brooklyn’s Book Thug Nation, but sometime either just before or after that, I hope to see a lot of you out on the West Coast, especially in the Emerald Triangle.

Spy Rock Memories: The Book

Spy Rock Memories: The Book

So I guess it’s now official: the book I’ve been working on for more years than I care to remember will finally be coming out this June on Don Giovanni, and if you thought Don Giovanni was a record label, well, yeah, they are, and a very good one, but they’re now branching out into publishing.  So hopefully you’ll buy my book, or else they might start thinking that publishing books wasn’t such a good idea after all, and in these days, we don’t need people thinking things like that.

spyrockcover2reworkSome of you have been reading a preliminary version of Spy Rock Memories here on the website as it was being written.  Out of consideration for my publishers, I’ve now taken all but the first chapter down, since I want to give them at least a fighting chance of being able to sell copies of the book.  Also, although the basic format and story line remains the same, every chapter has been substantially, and in some cases completely rewritten since it first appeared here.  Chapter 1, which you can still read here on the website, is the original, not the rewritten version.

I’m especially excited about the cover art, which was done by my niece, the wonderful, amazing, luminously talented Gabrielle Bell, who, though she was born in London, grew up on Spy Rock.  The house portrayed on the cover is where I lived, and where Gabrielle often visited as a child.  As crazy, maddening and bizarre as Spy Rock life could be, there must have been something in that mountain air or water (or maybe it was just the vibes, man), because out of that remote canyon, home to only an intrepid handful of back-to-the-landers, ranchers, outcasts and misfits, came at least two certified geniuses, Gabrielle being one and Grammy-winning drummer Tre Cool being another.

There were others, too, certifiable if not certified, and as those of you who’ve read some of the previews or have had the privilege to spend time on Spy Rock yourself will know, it’s an amazing and unique place, in some of the best and worst possible ways.  Living there was easily the most formative experience of my life, and I can say without hesitation that everything I’ve done since my arrival on Spy Rock at the beginning of the 1980s has been colored, shaped, and, really, made possible by what went on in those mountains up on the back of beyond.

As I’ve heard many writers say, there comes a point with any piece of work where you just want it to be done and out before the public so you can move on to the next project, but at the same time, there’s a tendency to cling to it, to rewrite and re-think every aspect of it.  And even once it is done and on its way to the printer, it’s possible – even probable – that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh no, I totally forgot to write about ____”  Believe me, I’ve had more than a few of those moments.

I also had to give careful consideration to how much or how little information to reveal about people who were part of my story, whether as friends, neighbors, or family members, and who may not be as thrilled to be in a book as I was to write about them.  In the end, if I erred, it was on the side of caution.  So I did have to leave out some stories that would have certainly helped sell books and entertain the masses, but maybe don’t need to be in print for anyone and everyone to see.  In many cases, I don’t even give people’s names at all, which, if you’re familiar with Spy Rock culture (or the tale of the posse of pot growers who showed up on my driveway threatening to burn down my house if I kept writing about the area in my magazine), you’ll know is probably exactly how they’d like it.

Cover artist Gabrielle Bell and her brother Jethro on Spy Rock in the 1980s.

Cover artist Gabrielle Bell and her brother Jethro on Spy Rock in the 1980s.

Taking all that into account, though, I still think it’s a pretty good read.  Rolling Stone and other music-oriented media are naturally focusing on the Lookout Records and Green Day connection (it was, contrary to the Rolling Stone story, in the remote mountains of Mendocino County, not at Gilman Street, where I first met and saw Green Day), but although both those things play a significant part in the story, it’s not a music book per se.  In fact, the bulk of it focuses more on a hapless city slicker (that would be me) who bumbles his way into the wilderness without the faintest clue of how to survive there, and has to learn for the first time in his life to take care of and be responsible for himself.

I went to the mountains, as I note in the book, in search of something “real.”  There was plenty of that, to be sure, but I found a hefty dose of wildly improbable unreality as well, some of which I’m still trying to digest all these years and miles down the road.  It’s a sunny late-winter morning here in Brooklyn, somebody outside is pointlessly revving up his engine and the overly loud hum of the refrigerator and the various clicks and beeps and flashing lights of 21st century technology remind me just how far I’ve wandered from those solar-powered days where the loudest sounds on most mornings came from buzzing insects and the occasional pine cone dropping onto the roof.

Being wrapped up in writing about Spy Rock these past couple years has been like a form of time travel, enabling me to experience that life again, minus the life or sanity-threatening consequences that sometimes came with it.  It’s come in a way to haunt me, to make me desperately nostalgic for a time and a place that I can’t and probably wouldn’t want to go back to.  It’s been quite a journey, but I’m glad the time has come to move on.  I do hope you’ll read my book, because I’ve already started writing another one, and you wouldn’t want my publishers to be disappointed in me, would you?