Camus vs. Harry Potter

Camus vs. Harry Potter

Like many aspiring members of New York’s chattering class (I’ve got the chattering down; it’s the class I still struggle with), I’m a supporter of WNYC, the local public radio station, and as a membership perk, I also receive an annual subscription to that apotheosis of left-liberal literary journalism, The New Yorker.  There was a time, I’ll admit, when I found The New Yorker a bit much to take.  Too dense, perhaps, a little full of itself?  Or, perhaps I lacked the depth or patience to appreciate it?

Whatever the reason, my thinking has changed, perhaps as a result of living in New York, more likely from getting older, and I have become one of those people I used to taunt and skewer for their pretentiousness, a devoted, dedicated, cover-t0-cover reader.

When I have time, that is.  I’m that unlikely individual who often complains that his subway rides are too short, because it’s on the subway that I do most of my reading.  Apart from an occasional one-page Shouts And Murmurs or an item from Talk Of The Town, it’s a rare New Yorker feature that can be consumed between Williamsburg and Manhattan, even if the train is late in arriving and I’m riding all the way to 8th Avenue.

The unfortunate result is that I always have a stack of two, three, sometimes five or even ten New Yorkers sitting on the kitchen table waiting for me to do some catch-up reading.  At points it gets ridiculous: it was snowing heavily the day I finished the issue with the midsummer beach-themed cover, and we were homing in on Valentine’s Day when I tackled October’s coverage of the Presidential election.

Few publications had so vociferously and persistently ridiculed and vilified Mitt Romney; since I believed this to be a fundamental duty of any reputable media outlet, I wasn’t about to miss anything The New Yorker had written about him.  I was chagrined to find a thoughtful and insightful Nicholas Lemann piece about the now all but forgotten candidate that had me on the verge of thinking maybe Romney wasn’t so bad after all.  I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t read it before voting, because I get a lot more enjoyment out of casting my ballot when it’s unambiguous.

Then I moved on to a profile of J.K. Rowling, an author I admire greatly because, well, all right, because I enjoyed the Harry Potter series greatly, but also because of her success in turning a generation of children into voracious readers when, in the age of ubiquitous electronic media, you wouldn’t have thought that possible.  And the more I read about her, the more I liked her and the more I enjoyed the article.

Until, that is, I ran into this clunker, this sour note, this sad fart of an ill-considered opinion from one Alan Taylor, editor of the Scottish Review of Books.  Taylor “despaired of Rowling’s ‘tin ear’ and said of her readers, ‘They were giving their childhood to this woman! They were starting at seven, and by the time they were sixteen they were still reading bloody Harry Potter—sixteen-year-olds, wearing wizard outfits, who should have been shagging behind the bike shed and smoking marijuana and reading Camus.'”

What a truly ugly—and idiotic—statement.  I hadn’t heard of this Taylor fellow before, so I looked him up.  Seems to be about my age, seems to be embittered that life has been or is about to begin passing him by, and can’t pass up an opportunity to try to impose his time-tattered, threadbare values on a generation younger, smarter and better-looking than his own.

Let’s be honest: any of us who’ve reached a certain age has also acquired certain ideas, ones we’re sure would greatly improve the quality of, well, practically everything, if only the nincompoops in charge could be compelled to put them into effect.

Foremost among such ideas tend to be those beginning with “When I was your age” and consisting almost entirely of prescriptions for how today’s young people could more profitably and pleasurably comport themselves.  Whether it’s urging them to study hard and pick a good university, or to acquire a couple of STDs and a drug habit before considering themselves “done” with high school, it’s inevitably reads like the sour-grapes wisdom of people who didn’t get to do everything they wanted when they were young, and so are now demanding that the next generation carry on where they left off.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone my age, but in my defense, I’m at least conscious of the tendency, and try to rein it in.  Not so this Taylor character, who, not content with rubbishing the joy brought to literally hundreds of millions of readers by the Harry Potter series, suggests that that joy should be replaced by the tedious clichés of his own pseudo-rebellious youth.

Was there once something to be said for “shagging behind the bike shed, smoking marijuana and reading Camus”?  No doubt.  After all, Taylor (and I) grew up in a time when, at least for a while, there wasn’t a lot else going on.

But we live in a bolder, brighter world today, one that presents infinitely more options to young people, whether they be of a rebellious bent or (and I think this is what really gets to curmudgeonly aging baby boomers like Taylor) they’re actually rather happy with their friends, families, schools and life prospects.  Obviously shagging is never going out of style, but the furtive and often disappointing and destructive liaisons behind Taylor’s beloved bike sheds are as often as not being replaced by open and loving relationships that don’t have to be hidden away or hastily conducted.

Marijuana?  Well, I tried it.  In abundance, as did most people I knew.  Some of us managed to get through it all right, even after we were sure we’d seen God and been assigned a special mission that just happened to be incomprensible to parents, teachers, authority figures and, truth be told, ourselves.  Many of us didn’t do so well: a great number of damaged individuals, incapable of carrying a coherent thought from one end of a sentence to the other, can be seen picking their way disconsolately through the garbage cans—figuratively or literally—of Main Street America.

And Camus?  Come on, it’s the 21st century.  Yes, it seemed very daring and radical back in the day to slog through a bunch of French gobbledygook in hopes of appearing “intellectual,” but seriously, who needs that crap today?

Certainly not kids who enjoy their lives and don’t confuse angst with authenticity.  Sure, kids will always find ways to screw up as well as ways to pursue ecstasy (I don’t mean the drug, though I suppose for some it will work that way) and enlightenment.  But let’s let them find their own ways, and stop trying to shoehorn them into the corny scenarios just because they seemed exciting to us half a century ago.

And for the record: I read Harry Potter in my 50s, Camus in my 40s.  I learned far, far more from Harry Potter.

Calling Out The Merchants Of Death

Calling Out The Merchants Of Death

There comes a time when insanity and injustice becomes so rampant that it reeks to high heaven.  To remain silent in the face of it is to become complicit.

Such is the case with the collective meltdown of the American psyche evidenced by the latest mass shooting(s) (I hesitate even to name a specific one because chances are that by the time I post this, there will have been another one – or two, or three).

We Americans as a whole tend to be be more tolerant of differences than we’re given credit for, managing to (for the most part) coexist peacefully with neighbors holding diametrically opposed religious, political or social views.  Most of the time, this is something to take pride in, something that helps define the unique qualities of what it is to be American.

But this 21st century version of the old hippie “You do your thing and I’ll do mine” ethos, while fundamentally sound, has its limitations.  At some point it stops being a blessing and turns into the curse now besetting out nation: whether through benign tolerance or malign neglect, we have abdicated our moral responsibility and allowed—indeed, virtually encouraged—evil to flourish.

When we were a frontier nation, when large numbers of our people hunted for survival and lived in far-flung homesteads where they could not always count on the government to protect them against animal or human interlopers, then of course it made sense to have a relatively relaxed attitude toward gun ownership.  Today, with 82% of our population living in cities or suburbs, only a maniac seriously believes that unlimited access to high-powered weaponry and ammunition is either desirable or necessary.

Scratch that: there are other interest groups who remain avid supporters of the firearms industry: the merchants who share in the profits, which easily reach into the several billions, the lobbyists—like the National Rifle Association’s chief liar-for-hire Wayne LaPierre, who pulls down in the neighborhood of a million bucks a year for his Goebbels-like exculpations of mass murder, and the bought-and-sold politicians who, in Congress and the Supreme Court, have successfully resisted even the most moderate adjustments to our wildly inadequate gun laws, and have gone even further to weaken our existing ones.

The time has come to stop wringing our hands and saying “Isn’t it awful?” on the near-weekly occasions when innocent and broken young bodies are once more hauled out en masse to the charnel house.  These savage killings are not something that just “happens,” the way tornadoes do in Kansas or hurricanes in Florida.  They are not simply a matter of bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

No, they are a wholly predictable and more or less inevitable outcome of policies and actions embarked upon, whether innocently or not so, by our neighbors and maybe even our friends, people who live and work in our communities, who we may see at church or at the ball game or even at a rally for our favorite political candidate.  They may from all appearances be perfectly nice, genial people, helpful, honest, the salt of the earth, but it’s time to stop mincing words: every time children (or people of any age) die in another senseless shooting, these “nice” folks have hands that are dripping with blood.

What’s more all-American than Walmart, for example?  They have a widespread reputation for low prices, family values (they won’t even sell records containing “dirty” words), but they will sell you weapons and ammo capable of murdering everyone on your street in about 30 seconds.

What about the “good old boys” of the NRA?  Many of them are very simply guys (or ladies) who like to hunt, and share an interest in the firearms necessary for hunting, and all the best to them.  But when they (and of course it’s nowhere near all of them) almost violently oppose ANY restrictions on how, where, when and why guns can be sold, then they are saying, in effect, “Yeah, tough luck about all the dead six-year-olds, but my ‘freedom’ is more important.”

Your “freedom” to do exactly what?  Almost nobody is seriously proposing that guns be banned or greatly curtailed.  The proposed laws that induce apoplectic fits in the NRA honchos are typically nothing more radical than the notion that someone should have to identify himself when buying a weapon, to pass a background check, to be responsible for the safekeeping of the weapons they already own.  These do not seem like radical infringements on anyone’s freedom.  At least not when compared with a mother’s or father’s freedom to cherish a living child rather than a mangled corpse.

Yes, these are harsh words, but they need to be spoken: you, Wayne LaPierre, you, stockholders and executives and, yes, even customers of vast weapons emporiums like Walmart, have blood on your hands.  Granted, no single action that we take as individuals or even as a society can solve all problems or resolve all injustices, but that does not mean we shouldn’t do what we can, however little or much that should be.

So if you’re an NRA member and you don’t support the mass murder of small children, let the NRA know you’re not paying any further dues until they moderate their stance and begin working with the government to develop sane laws that protect gun ownership but don’t put the rest of the society at risk to do so.  If you’re a Walmart shopper, let them know they won’t be seeing any more of your business until they stop trafficking in murder.

What would a reasonable gun policy look like?  And how do we avoid getting bogged down for years in Talmudic squabbles over what constitutes an “assault” rifle (ghoulish lobbyists and politicians relish these definitional fights because they can spin them into millions of dollars of legal fees and endless delays and obstructions, during which time hundreds or thousands more will die waiting for justice to be served)?

Here’s some basics:

1. All guns, and I mean ALL guns will have to be registered, with the owner having identified him or herself, passed a background check, and furnished the regulating agency with the address at which the weapon is being kept.  The weapon can not be sold or transferred to anyone else without the same procedures being followed.

2. As long as a weapon is registered in your name, YOU are fully responsible for any damage it does.  If you leave it lying around the house and one of your kids or a neighbor’s kid gets hold of it and kills himself or someone else, YOU’RE going to jail.  This also means, obviously, that you keep it under lock and key AT ALL TIMES when you’re not using it.

3. With that in mind, anyone owning any kind of firearm needs to have a liability insurance policy safeguarding against damage done by that gun—the same as you presumably have on your car, which is probably less likely to end up seriously injuring or killing someone.  We’re probably talking about a million dollars coverage here, which is not unusual for an auto insurance policy.  What price would you put on another human life, and do you have enough in the bank to pay it?

4.  You can buy all the ammunition you want, but you’ve got to show ID and your gun registration, and fill out a form showing where the ammo will be kept (if not on the same premises as your gun(s).  Also, the price of ammo should be dramatically increased, partly to cover the administrative costs of this program, but also because any “normal” use of weapons (whether hunting, target shooting or self-defense) does not require military-size caches of bullets or shells.  Even a hunter who’s a really poor shot is not going to use more than a few dozen bullets (and if he does, maybe the cost of ammo will inspire him to take some lessons and become a better shot).

5.  Oh yeah, speaking of courses, any gun owner will have to pass a basic competency exam on the use and care of firearms, not unlike what anyone is expected to undergo before driving an automobile.

There are other things that can be done—we can certainly have that debate about how large an ammo clip is “necessary” before a defensive weapon turns into an offensive one, but these five proposals, if enacted, would go a long way toward bringing America into the 21st century and at least beginning to put an end to our national madness.  You’ll notice that none of them, in any way, interferes with an individual’s right to hunt, target shoot, or keep a weapon in his or her home for self-defense.

If you still protest that there is something un-American about requiring people to be responsible and accountable for their weapons, then I respectfully submit that it may in fact be you who is un-American.  “Freedom” is only one half of the equation that makes America what it is, and it was never meant to be utterly untrammeled freedom, freedom that concerns itself only with our own immediate desires and remains oblivious to the needs and desires of others.

A look at our history—or at common sense—tells us that we cannot enjoy freedom in a vacuum, and that even if you could, it would not be the sort of freedom any sane person would relish.  In the wake of the Connecticut school tragedy, I have literally heard people say that the deaths of 20 small children, while unfortunate, was a “relatively small” price to pay for what they considered the “freedom” of unlimited and unregulated gun ownership.  Such an notion literally sickens me, and I think—in fact am quite sure—that a large majority of Americans feels the same way.  It’s time that make ourselves heard, time that we demand an end to this senseless and shameful slaughter.

The Moral Case For Not Voting

The Moral Case For Not Voting

Twice in my adult life I chose not to vote in a general election, and on a third occasion, I almost didn’t vote, only doing so with great reluctance at the last minute.

Each time my reason for not voting (or, in the latter case, almost not voting), was the same: I had become convinced that both candidates were bad, or that there was not sufficient difference between them to make it worth my while to take a side.

And each time I was completely, terribly wrong.  In 1968 I refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey; the winner, Richard Nixon, presided over a pointless extension of the Vietnam War that cost 28,000 American lives and probably hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives.  He also mired the White House in such a cesspool of corruption and chicanery that the reputation of America’s system of government has still not fully recovered.

The next time I chose not to vote was when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter.  As a longtime California resident, I knew all the havoc that Reagan had wreaked on that state, knew how his sunny smile masked a callous indifference to human rights and liberties and a dogged determination to dismantle the New Deal, that bit of social engineering cobbled together as a response to the Great Depression that transformed and bettered the lives of millions of Americans.

But I just didn’t like Jimmy Carter, and in my stubbornness and youthful certitude, refused to consider that Reagan might be (as he proved to be) infinitely worse.

In the year 2000, I felt similarly about Al Gore, only dragging myself to the polls at the last minute, with extreme reluctance, because even in my muddle-headed state at the time, I had an inkling that George Bush might spell serious trouble.

We know how that turned out.  Bush became the worst president of the modern era, possibly the worst ever.  It was only because the government he inherited was in relatively good shape, the budget balanced, the economy thriving, that the damage he inflicted was not even worse.

But Bush’s wildly incompetent mismanagement and malfeasance—on a scale, I think history buffs would agree—comparable to that of the latter-day Roman emperors—took our country close to the brink of collapse.  And because of the globally interconnected age we live in, it would have taken a large part of the world with it.

We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.  In fact, even after the gradual stabilization that has taken place during the past four years, I still wouldn’t rate our chances of avoiding an economic and societal meltdown at much better than 50-50.  Bush’s bankrupting the national treasury to pay for giant tax cuts for millionaires and two insanely expensive and pointless wars was, again, on a par with the follies the sealed the fate of ancient Rome.

And that is precisely why this year’s election is so vital.  In a normal year, in a year when our finances and our social structure were on a sound footing, we could afford four or maybe even eight years of a cynical, mercenary buffoon like Mitt Romney.  We’ve had presidents like him before—Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover come to mind—and survived.

But our position is far more precarious now, very likely as precarious as it’s ever been.  Romney’s plan to apply the Bain Capital model to government—ruthless downsizing and outsourcing, looting the national pension system (aka Social Security and Medicare), and skimming off huge profits for a handful of the best-connected—would be stupid and brutal at any time, but in an economy as fragile as ours, it would be fatal.

I can’t say that strongly enough: if Mitt Romney gets his hands on our government, I think it’s unlikely that our system as we’ve known it will survive.  It’s not just political rhetoric to point out that his so-called economic plan is a poisonous fantasy; any rational economist will acknowledge that it is mathematically impossible to accomplish his goals without massively impoverishing the working and middle classes and/or massively expanding an already almost unmanageable debt.

What does this mean for the average American?  Very possibly a total wipe-out.  It’s not just a matter of losing your health insurance—Romney has already promised millions of you will do that—or getting stuck with lower pay and poorer working conditions.

I’m talking about total collapse, where your money—unless, of course, you were smart enough to stash a few hundred million in offshore accounts—could become literally worthless, where a government stripped of its resources and income by the avarice of Romney and their ilk will no longer be able to provide you with the most fundamental of services.

Yes, I know that sound dramatic and alarmist, and I hope and pray that I’m wrong.  But I’ve been following and studying politics and economics and history on at least an avocational level for some 50 years now.  I’m no professor, no certified expert, but I can hold my own on these subjects, and everything I’ve learned leads me to believe that yes, the situation is indeed that dire.

I’m voting for Barack Obama.  In fact, I already have, and I urge every single American who cares at all about the future of this country and this planet to do the same.  You don’t have to agree with everything he says or does—I certainly don’t—and you don’t even have to like the guy.  But it’s the least you can do, the bare minimum, to help save our country from falling into the hands of people who, whether from greed, megalomania, or sheer, bloody ignorance, might very well destroy it.

Now there are those of you—some of you are even my good friends—who will cling to nostrums like “A pox on both their houses” or “No matter who you vote for, the government wins.”  I say to you, in the strongest possible terms, please consider that it may be time, at least for now, to put aside that kind of thinking.

In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay condemning British pacifists who refused to participate in the war effort to defend Britain against a Nazi invasion.  He said, in no uncertain words, that under the conditions existing at that time, pacifism was “objectively pro-Fascist.”  You could not remain aloof from the struggle, he argued, as long as there was no realistic option to either a British or a Nazi triumph.

Similarly you can not remain aloof from the present struggle to prevent the devastation that Mitt Romney and his backers would unleash on this country.  You can trumpet your third parties or your principled abstinence from electoral politics as some sort of moral stance, but in fact—and this is, as Orwell put it, “elementary common sense”—you are voting for Mitt Romney just as effectively as any Tea Party fanatic or theocracy-fancying fundamentalist.

You can’t wriggle out of this one.  The Greens aren’t going to win this election.  Nor are the Libertarians, nor a coalition of anarcho-syndicalist communes.  Beginning November 7, this country will either be in the hands of fanatics, criminals and crazy people, or it will remain in the hands of those who have demonstrated at least some degree of sanity and some degree of responsibility to the people who elected them.

So what is the moral case for not voting?  This year, there is none.  Not just for yourselves, but for your children, for the future of this flawed but still inspiring experiment in democracy, please, I beg of you, drag yourself to the polls.  Regardless of whether you do so with a song in your heart or with one hand firmly holding your nose, it’s the least you can do.  I believe—as passionately as I’ve ever believed anything—that this is one time when failing to act is a luxury none of us can afford.

Waving, Not Drowning

Waving, Not Drowning

When I first started considering moving to the East Coast of America, the weather was  certainly something I considered.  I was mainly concerned whether, after 40 years spent in California and England, I was ready to face the rigors of a full-on Northern Hemisphere winter.  I could still remember that wretched February day in February 1967, when I struggled across the Diag in Ann Arbor into the teeth of an Arctic gale, cursing every step of the way.

In the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone With The Wind, I declared then and there, with as firm a resolve as I’d ever applied to anything in my then relatively young life, that I would never, ever be that cold again.  And with a few notable exceptions, like getting stranded in blizzards atop Spy Rock, I pretty much lived up to that ambition.

But times change, and so did I.  Besides, New York City, surrounded by the moderating influence of the sea, doesn’t get as cold as Detroit, and the worst part of its winters is maybe a month shorter.  Now that I’ve spent six years there, I have to admit it’s really not bad.  I’ve even come to appreciate all four of the seasons in a way I never imagined possible.

One factor I didn’t give a lot of thought to, though, was hurricanes.  I was familiar enough with history and climatology to know that they occasionally strike New York, but given that the last major one was in 1938, I didn’t feel I had to spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for the next one.

There’s a part of me, a very childish part, obviously, that revels in disaster, that secretly hopes the tornado or the hurricane or the blizzard will come our way, just for the excitement.  It’s shameful to admit, especially when you consider that this “excitement” often comes at the cost of lives lost or drastically upended, and I guess what I really hope for is that I’ll get to experience the drama without any damage to myself or others.

And, I’ve found, when the weather map shows that disaster is actually headed my way, I quickly change my tune, as I did last year when it briefly looked like Hurricane Irene might make a direct hit on Brooklyn.  I barricaded myself in my house, filled the requisite bottles, pans and bathtub with fresh water, and put in a stock of candles and canned food.

When I woke the following morning with the power still on, my house still intact, and little harm done to my block apart from a potted palm blown over across the street, I was greatly relieved, but also slightly disappointed.  I mean, it could have been a little worse without really hurting anyone, couldn’t it?

Maybe I’m finally growing up a little, because this year I didn’t for a minute hope that Hurricane Sandy would come our way.  In fact, I actively cheered for it to turn out to sea as northbound hurricanes normally do.  Irene had provided enough of a scare, and a graphic illustration of how much suffering even a hurricane downgraded to a tropical storm can cause, as illustrated by the havoc wreaked on the people of New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Besides—and wouldn’t you know I had a selfish motive as well—I was hoping to get out of town to attend the annual convention of the Guang Ping Yang T’ai Chi Association and to visit my mom in California.  In the end, I made the decision, call it cowardly or call it prudent, to beat it out of town just ahead of Sandy.  I caught one of the last NJ Transit trains out of Penn Station and one of the last planes out of Newark, and followed the unfolding disaster mostly via Twitter.

On board the California Zephyr en route to the Sierra Nevada.

Phone service was patchy to nonexistent, so I couldn’t check in with friends I’d left behind, and though they’re now all accounted for, quite a few are still without power or heat, and some are struggling to deal with major damage to their homes or workplaces.  Seeing the ruins of places like the Rockaways, Long Beach, Asbury Park, and the eastern shore of Staten Island, where only months ago I was strolling in the sunshine, is absolutely heartbreaking.

At the GPYTCA conference.

So yeah, I feel guilty for not being there, guilty that my own neighborhood was once again spared any significant problems, and most guilty that I’m not there to join the thousands of New Yorkers who are heroically pitching in to help the afflicted and clean up the wreckage.

It’s also kind of embarrassing to have to tell the many people who combined birthday wishes (I spent my b-day making my escape from New York) with anxious inquiries about my well-being that I’ve been safely holed up in the Sierra Nevada doing t’ai chi and basking in the (admittedly slightly chilly) California sunshine.

Speaking of embarrassing, it’s also a little awkward having to explain to people why they haven’t seen an update to my blog in, oh, I don’t know, half a year or so.  I’ll try to explain as best as I can what I’ve been up to, but I still can’t help feeling I’ve fallen down on the job, even if it’s a job I don’t get paid for except by the occasional “well done” or “Livermore, you’re an idiot.”

This past year has been mostly consumed by two projects that you may or may not have heard about.  The first, which should have been done long ago, but still isn’t quite, is preparing the manuscript of Spy Rock Memories for publication.  I’m working with a real solid editor, and the process has been thoroughly enjoyable, but also painfully slow, in large part because I decided that whole sections of the book needed to be completely rewritten.

Where I spent the hurricane.

But I’m through with the hardest part (I hope), and right now we’re just giving the text a final going-over.  With any luck, the book should be out next spring, only a year late.  Which also leaves me a year behind on starting my next book, the subject of which will have to remain secret for now, but which I’m very excited about.

Oh, and among the other details to be worked out: a decision on whether to change the title.  I’d be happy to hear from any of my readers on this question: do you think it should be Spy Rock Memories or Spy Rock Road?

My other project was a compilation record that Billie Joe Armstrong asked me to put together for his Adeline Records label.  Billie’s often expressed an interest in the pop punk and punk rock bands I’ve told him about, especially those who’ve been part of the scene centered around the annual Insubordination Fest and the infamous Pop Punk Message Board.

I hadn’t planned to get back into the record business, and probably won’t on any kind of permanent basis, but it was fun to do it once.  Although it was time-consuming, it turned out to be surprisingly easy and enjoyable.  Either bands these days are more together and dependable, or I’ve matured and learned a more about how to work with people.  Most likely a bit of both.

The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore, artwork by Patrick Hynes.

Even more enjoyable was the chance to work with Patrick Hynes again.  Patrick, as many of you will know, was one of my partners in Lookout Records, and was responsible for some of the iconic art by which people remember Lookout’s heyday.  I got him to reprise a 1991 Lookout magazine cover and update it for the 2010s; in tribute to The Thing That Ate Floyd, the 1988 compilation that David Hayes and I assembled, the new record was called The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore.

Nine months of work culminated with a series of record release parties in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, and then, after being constantly immersed in overseeing every aspect of production, everything went eerily quiet.  The reviews were great, the music was great, the shows were packed and amazing, and then the record slipped off into the ether.  I’d like to think it will go on to be a classic—many of the bands contributed what I consider among their best songs ever, and all the songs were original and exclusive to the comp—but who knows these days?  The record business, while still exciting and rewarding in its way, is nothing like it used to be, for better or worse.

Which reminds me, I still have a few copies of both the record and the CD, as well as some t-shirts featuring the Patrick Hynes artwork.  I’ve been meaning to set up a web store to offer them to the public, but that’s just one more thing that’s gone by the board during these months of staying indoors writing and editing and producing.

I missed most of the summer and, with the cold weather starting to settle in now, most of the fall as well.  No doubt it will all pay off in the end, though in what form, it remains to be seen.  I’m at a stage in life where work seems to have become more important than it ever was before—though given my long career of procrastination and job-dodging, that wouldn’t be hard—and sometimes that makes me very tired.

But I console myself with the thought that I spent much of my earlier life goofing off, and that I should have expected the work would catch up with me sooner or later.  Besides, I always thought it was kind of backward to expect young people to work like dogs to save up enough so they could retire at an age when they no longer had the energy or ability to do many of the things they most wanted to.  So who knows, maybe I blundered into doing it the right way after all?

Year Without A Winter

Year Without A Winter

If you’d known me as a boy, you could be forgiven for never knowing quite what what to expect of me.  I had no idea either.

If you saw me hanging around the street corner with my gang, you might figure me for a moronic, mindless thug; apart from the fact that I was too scrawny and weak to do any real damage without some genuinely tough guys to back me up, you wouldn’t have been far from the truth.  Look a little deeper, though, and you would have also discovered a shy, sensitive geek who could sing every lyric from Carousel or My Fair Lady and conjugate Latin verbs till the cows came home.

I discovered this ability to pivot abruptly between (among?) personas when, barely 10 years old, I founded my neighborhood’s first street gang, the fearsomely named Night Raiders.  I don’t know where I got the idea; this was years before West Side Story imbued me with the desire to go pirouetting off fire escapes and stabbing people in back alleys.  But I managed to enlist every 8 through 10 year-old on the block, with the exception of my best friend Rob, who, older and wiser (11 going on 12), warned me I might be biting off something I wouldn’t want to chew.  He ended up becoming a priest, if that tells you anything.

The Night Raiders rampaged up and down Carter Street for the better part of a week before the other boys’ parents got wind of it and banned them from playing with me.  Upon discovering that being the leader of a one-man gang was less than thrilling, I converted the Night Raiders into the more respectable-sounding Meteorology Club, which got the neighborhood fatwa against me lifted, but bored the hell out of the boys, most of whom couldn’t pronounce “meteorology,” let alone tell you what it meant.

Sitting around my basement studying the nuances of weather systems and cloud patterns couldn’t compete with the heady excitement of tearing laundry off clotheslines and letting air out of people’s tires.  The Meteorology Club struggled from the start, and once again I was reduced to a one-man operation.  I mention this not only to illustrate how my sociopathic tendencies were, from the beginning, interlaced with nerdly ones, but also to explain the origins of my curious obsession with weather.

If it weren’t for that obsession, I might never have heard about The Year Without A Summer, but in fact I am unnervingly familiar with it.  If you missed out on it yourself, it happened in 1816, when volcanic eruptions and other uncertain factors subjected much of the Northern Hemisphere to dramatic climate fluctuations that included midsummer frosts and snowfalls.  Crops failed, and considerable suffering, illness and death ensued.

Most of us – especially if we’ve ever lived in England – have seen summers of such dubious quality that they might as well be termed nonexistent, but the harm done seldom extended beyond disappointing beach holidays and a vague, overarching angst and resentment.  But this year the situation has been the opposite.  With the official start of spring less than a week away, we’re on the verge of having passed through The Year Without A Winter.

Here in New York we had a freak snowstorm at Halloween when it was effectively still late summer, with trees in full leaf.  Apart from a minor, very short-lived snowfall in December, that was it.  For the rest of the “winter” temperature seldom fell below freezing.  Even in January there were times when no more than a light jacket or sweater was needed, and February and March have already seen several t-shirt and shorts days.  Daffodils and cherry blossoms were more than a month ahead of schedule, and if the current weather keeps up – which is what’s being predicted – we should see most of the city’s trees in leaf before April.

These tulips were actually blooming in July in Iceland (you think our seasons are screwed up?), but we'll be seeing similar sights in a matter of weeks here in New York if this weather carries on like it has.

As much as I enjoy spring and summer, and as little as I savor the ice, snow and cold of winter, it’s disturbing.  Not just because it feels unnatural – a number of locals, bearing in mind the so-called Mayan prophecy, have taken to calling it “end of days weather” – but because it’s disruptive to the seasonal rhythm of work and hibernation.

A few years ago Aaron Cometbus and I were meandering around Carroll Gardens in early April as I enthused about the oncoming spring.  Aaron demurred.  “It’s too soon,” he declared.  “You can’t really enjoy spring and summer until you’ve had enough time hiding out indoors to get your winter work done.”  Being a fan neither of winter nor work, I argued vehemently against this viewpoint, but I’ve since come around to his way of thinking.

So how do you get your “winter work” done when there’s little or no winter at all?  I’ve got a ton of indoor things in front of me: the final editing of Spy Rock Memories is already months behind schedule, and tying up the bits and pieces of The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore which, thankfully, is on schedule, but still demands considerable attention.  Both invigorating tasks, to be sure, but hard to keep your mind on when it’s sunny and 70 degrees outside in the first week of March.  In a normal year, it might make sense to drop everything and run outdoors to take advantage of the day on the grounds that it might be weeks or months before there’s another one like it.  But this year has seen day after day of stunning weather, leading to the temptation to put off all work until, oh, next December, maybe.

Not that I need excuses.  I’ve never had difficulty finding those, come rain, shine or foreshadowings of the apocalypse.  Putting things off to the last possible minute seems to be intrinsic to the human condition, or at least my human condition. For years – all my life, really – I’ve wondered why I do this, especially when the end result is so often a piece of work I’m less than fully satisfied with, and which I tell myself would have been so much better “if only I’d had more time.”

In 95% of those cases, I did have more time, sometimes tons of it, but chose instead to stare out the window, peruse internet message boards, or catch up on Law And Order reruns.  None of which I really enjoyed because I was too conscious of the what I needed – and, in my heart, wanted – to be doing instead.

I’ve read and heard many explanations for why I operate like this, but the one that makes the most sense is fear.  Yes, there’s the perhaps more obvious idea – often suggested to me by parents, teachers and bosses – that I was just plain lazy, but I think laziness is just shorthand for procrastination, and that both of them are ways of avoiding coming to grips with our fear of failure – or, if you want to get all woo-woo about it, fear of success.

As long as a task remains uncompleted, it can’t be judged a failure or success.  In fact, it can’t be judged at all, because, we tell ourselves, even a team trailing 18-0 could always pull out 19 runs in the bottom of the 9th.  This happens, if it happens at all, once or twicea century, but until we play those last three outs, nobody can prove it won’t happen.  Which makes it somewhat understandable why, when told it’s time to take the field, we respond with “What’s the hurry?”

So what are we talking about here?  Perfectionism?  Or the weather, which often serves as surreptitious metaphor for matters less salubrious?  As Oscar Wilde put it: “Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else.  And that makes me so nervous.”

Well, the weather is making me nervous, and not because it might be a harbinger of the global warming that supposedly will see millions of us coastal dwellers erecting dikes and/or donning aqualungs.  At my age chances are great I won’t be around when New York becomes New Venice.  From a purely selfish standpoint, I should welcome the city’s long-dreamed-of (by me, anyway) transition from intemperate to semi-tropical.

But pleasant as it’s been not having to hunker down in scarves and snowboots, there remains something unsettling about it, something that can’t be explained away by ignoring the calendar and celebrating spring in February.  Even if calendars had never been invented, our inbuilt conditioning would tell us something is out of kilter when flowers luxuriate under balmy zephyrs while the sun still hangs low in the wintry sky.  It reminds me of when California would go through a winter with little or no rain.  People unfamiliar with the natural rhythms of the seasons or, more to the point, where their drinking water came from, would exult over the succession of warm, sunny days in mid-January.  Those of us who lived closer to the land would fear the wilting crops and dying forests of a drought-year summer.

The East Coast gets rain all year round and is blessed with abundant sources of water upstate and upstream, so it’s hardly in danger of drying up and blowing away.  And this being mid-March, it’s still possible some morning could find us buried under a late-season blizzard.  But I doubt it.  Just as, while I know it’s possible, I doubt this unnaturally warm winter will be followed by an unbearably hot summer (that might only be because for me, “too hot” is a nebulous, almost nonexistent concept).  I look forward instead to a long, awesome summer whose main problem will be convincing myself to go indoors long enough to write something now and then.  Or perhaps it will finally be time to hook myself up with that solar-powered computer and just live on the beach.

In other news, this has been a very special week musically. Two artists I recently wrote about here and here came to town; both lived up to and surpassed my expectations.  John K. Samson was at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday; as much and as long as I’ve loved the Weakerthans, he has broken through to a whole new level on his own, with an even greater eloquence and ease of manner.  He played two encores and would have played several more if the crowd had had its way.  He performed his final song, the heartrending “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure,” without benefit of microphone or amplifier, counting on the audience, in the spirit of the Occupy mic check, to render it audible throughout the building by singing lustily but gently along.

Had they not known and loved those lyrics, or had John’s charisma and trust not been sufficient to carry them along, it could have been embarrassing, but instead it was transcendent and triumphant.  I once watched Billie Joe Armstrong, armed with only an acoustic guitar, hold 20,000 fans enraptured at Madison Square Garden, and thought that was a marvelous feat.  But acoustic guitar or not, he still had a multi-million dollar sound system to fall back on; to divest oneself of even that advantage, as John did, must take incredible courage and confidence.  It could have failed, but it didn’t, and the payoff was profound and terrific.

Then on Saturday Jesse Michaels and the Classics Of Love played a sold-out show at Death By Audio.  I almost didn’t go because of the venue’s policy of allowing indoor smoking (disgruntled patrons have renamed it Death By Asphyxiation).  But thanks to the request (or insistence; I don’t know the full story) of the performers and cooperation of DBA management, I was able to attend an entirely smoke-free event.  It was heavenly, and with any luck will cause both fans and management to realize, “Hey, we could have been doing this all along!”

The Classics played a short, fast and furious set that was as riveting and breathtaking as anything I’ve seen since Jesse’s days with Operation Ivy 25 years ago.  The lithe energy,  the impassioned leaps, the lilting, vulnerable vocals that danced between a rasp and a growl and held melody in thrall to a scream: it was as though Jesse had been reborn after years of wandering in the wilderness.  Offstage, he was personable, relaxed, even outgoing, a far remove from the years when his legions of admirers sometimes seemed to depress and even terrify him.  It added up to two of the best nights of music I’ve seen in years, and in the same half of one week.  If that’s how the year is shaping up, what the heck: it might as well be spring.





Canada’s Poet Laureate

Canada’s Poet Laureate

I seem to recall a time – maybe I’m imagining it, but probably not – when people earnestly argued over whether song lyrics constituted “real” poetry.  Most likely it was during the 1960s, when Bob Dylan’s visionary, amphetamine-fueled rants (I don’t have any inside info with regard to drug use, but they did go on a bit) seemed to blow away the dry-as-dust literary maunderings sold to us as poetry in textbooks and highbrow journals.

If the issue was ever resolved – as opposed to people getting bored with abstract definitions and moving on to more tangible discussions about how to overthrow the government or organize their polyamorous communes or whatever else it was that post-hippies used to get het up about – I don’t remember how it came out.  Like many young people, I arrived at a point where I began to be embarrassed over taking a folk singer so seriously and tried to find new outlets and postures through which I could show the world how cultured and sophisticated I was.  By the time I was in the 30s found myself even more embarrassed by that.

By then, fortunately, the world was awash in punk rock, which only idiots and journalists took seriously, and I no longer had the slightest impetus to trouble myself over what constituted true literature or art or poetry.  From time to time I’d get out the acoustic guitar, strum an old Dylan tune or two, and muse on the fact that certain of his lyrics had stuck with me throughout my life in a way that no academically certified “poem” ever had, but by the same token, most of his later work had become something of an embarrassment in itself, the sort of thing you’d expect Dad to produce upon re-uniting his garage band after all the kids have left home.

But eventually certain artists with roots in the punk scene, none more notable than John K. Samson, who’d started out with agit-pop rabble rousers Propaghandi, started catching my attention with lyrics that were powerful, poignant, and – at least in my view – undeniably poetic.  Having never been much of a Propagandhi fan, I first encountered Samson through his work with the Weakerthans, a long-running and much-loved Canadian combo who wowed me not only with their instrumental virtuosity and lilting, haunting melodies, but also with the way they could inveigle a normally rowdy punk rock audience into respectfully, even reverently singing – in some cases almost whispering – along with every single word of their songs.

In 2001 I interviewed Samson for Punk Planet, and we had a wide-ranging discussion, sometimes almost verging on argument, on a number of subjects, primarily but not exclusively political.  In addition to his performing and publishing careers – his “other” job is at Arbeiter Ring, a self-described left-leaning press – Samson is also a renowned activist with, for such a seemingly mild-mannered fellow, surprisingly strident views.  One question we touched upon briefly, and which I’ve periodically attempted to bring up again during our occasional meetings over the years, was the old “can song lyrics be poetry?” one, because I felt – increasingly so with each new album – that his work emphatically demonstrated that they could and were.

John K. Samson contemplating his Southern Manitoba prairies.

He demurred then (“I don’t think my songs can be defined as poetry, because they are coupled with music, and that gives an extra structure to them that poetry doesn’t have.  I personally think the most daring writing is poetry, because it’s just a blank canvas for words…”), and has continued to do so, while acknowledging that he considered some of Dylan’s work to be poetry.

Whether this is a literary point or simply a surfeit of modesty on his part, I can’t say.  I do know that at my very traditional Catholic school, with very traditional standards for just about everything, literature included, I was taught that the defining characteristics of poetry were “rhyme, meter and imagery,” all of which are richly imbued in Samson’s while, while much of what is formally recognized as modern poetry possesses few or none of them.

Another aspect of Samson’s writing that we talked about was his instantly recognizable sense of place, something missing from much modern writing.  Perhaps the internet’s ability to convince us that, no longer constrained by physicality, we are capable of being located both everywhere and nowhere, coupled with the ever greater homogenization of (in particular) Western society, has left us less likely to appreciate an evocation of a specific time and place that is anchored by the sights, sounds, smells and memories that only someone who has been there can fully recognize, but that anyone, even if they’ll never set foot on those streets or fields, can appreciate and aspire to.

Samson’s particular stomping grounds are the prairies of Manitoba and, especially, his native Winnipeg, a lovely but slightly forlorn city in the midst of the vast emptiness that is central Canada, from which, as his song “Longitudinal Centre” put its it, “the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.”  While taking me on a tour of his town some years ago, he told me how Winnipeg was once envisioned as “the Chicago of the North,” but that people eventually realized there was already a Chicago, and another, far less conveniently situated one, wasn’t really necessary.

Winnipeg has, nonetheless, soldiered on, producing, despite its isolation, a startling number of talented artists, musicians and visionaries, and while some members of his band have left for the bright lights of Toronto (which, like Vancouver, has always beckoned to and drawn away from the heartland many of Canada’s best and brightest), Samson has stayed put.  Not without ambivalence, granted: see his “One Great City” (subtitled “I Hate Winnipeg”), which consists mostly of chronicling the small and larger miseries of a hardscrabble town locked into longer and bleaker winters than anyone should have to endure while counterpointing and overriding them all with his heartfelt lament for those who laugh and “watch the North End die.”

The North End is also home to Samson’s “Pamphleteer,” a, one suspects, semi-autobiographical character who becomes, pace Karl Marx, “a spectre haunting Albert Street,” trying to foist upon passersby the tracts and leaflets that even he himself might no longer comprehend but cannot stop producing.  But as much as he can poetically characterize the bleak cityscape, Samson excels equally at capturing the sometimes seductive, sometimes terrifying emptiness of the vast open spaces surrounding Winnipeg.  When, for instance, he sings about “Southern Manitoba prairie’s pulling at the pants leg of your bad disguise,” I never fail to feel the warm, rambunctious breeze that traveled a thousand kilometers across Alberta and Saskatchewan to slap me gently but relentlessly in the face the first time I visited one early summer.

I have had to, more than once, go back and re-read those lyrics to confirm that they said absolutely nothing about a breeze or a wind, or dust or corn fields, or grain silos or stillness, and yet those few simple words manage to evoke all of those things for me with a realness and substance that might surpass the experience of actually being there.  That is the mark of a true poet, and what for me makes John K. Samson one of Canada’s national treasures.

Apparently – I did, admittedly, have to look this up – Canada already has a reigning poet laureate, but they’ll be missing a sure bet if they don’t eventually get around to naming Samson to that post, and I’ll be losing a bet (made, it’s true, only with myself) that he’ll eventually make it.  There’s time – Samson is not yet 40 – but meanwhile, I recommend investigating and cherishing his new solo record, Provincial (Anti, 2012).  Call it poetry, call it prose, call it simply some lovely words set to beautiful music: it’s a window into a world that you should very much like to know.

Scene Of The Crime

Scene Of The Crime

Between the time when Operation Ivy broke up in 1989 and Rancid formed in 1991, Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman formed several other bands.  One of them, Dance Hall Crashers, went on to enjoy considerable success, but without Armstrong and Freeman, whose involvement was brief.  Two others, Generator and Downfall, appeared and disappeared so quickly that if you didn’t live in the Bay Area and have some connection to the scene they inhabited, your chances of ever having seen or heard them would be slim indeed.

Both Operation Ivy and Rancid eventually achieved such iconic status that the in-between bands were almost completely overshadowed, but one of them, Downfall, has maintained a legendary if shadowy presence on the music scene for well over 20 years.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just that they were a great band, which they were.  It’s also that most of their music has only been available in the form of scratchy and tinny 8th-generation bootlegs, good enough to pique people’s curiosity, but not to satisfy it.  There’s a reason for that, too, and during my days at Lookout Records, questions to the effect of “When’s the Downfall record coming out?” (yes, for those of you who weren’t around in those days, there was a Downfall record; no, it was never released) became so frequent and inevitable that they became a running joke with Lookout staffers.  Not because they thought it was funny that so many people had ordered a record they never got, but because the question had become so utterly unanswerable.

Here’s the story as best as I can tell it: Downfall recorded an album (a 10″ LP was the original plan), the release date (it would have been Lookout 99) was announced, orders came flooding in, and then, well, nothing happened for a long time.  The cover art didn’t get drawn, the center labels (we were still doing everything on vinyl then) didn’t materialize, and somewhere in the middle of all the delays and uncertainty, Rancid started creating a lot of excitement for themselves.  Between doing a 7″ for us and their first album for Epitaph, Downfall seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

It wasn’t the first time a record had been delayed for unforeseen reasons, so Lookout employees, acting on the assumption that Downfall’s Get Ready For Action would be along sooner or later, issued credit slips to everyone who ordered it.  From time to time, all these years later, I still run into people either literally or figuratively brandishing one of those credit slips and demanding, “Where’s my record?”

But wait.  That wasn’t the end of the story.  Two, three, four – I don’t even know anymore – years after the original release had been scheduled, Tim and Matt announced that they were at last ready to release the record, but that first it had to be remixed.  Epitaph Records’ Brett Gurewitz took on this task and after some months handed back a topnotch product that sounded far more polished and professional than the hastily done original recording.  Everyone who heard it was excited, and since by this time both Operation Ivy and Rancid were far more well known than they’d been a few years earlier, it was assumed that the Downfall record would be nothing less than massive when it finally hit the stores.

Downfall at Gilman Street, October 1989, photo by Murray Bowles.

And yet… it never happened.  This time, the culprit, as near as anyone could tell, was Rancid’s breakthrough into the world of MTV and major label courtship.  Bear in mind that this was during the time, following in the wake of the runaway, game-changing success of Green Day and the Offspring, that punk rock finally made it through to the masses.  Madonna was backstage trying to sign Rancid to her new label, and she had plenty of competition.  In the midst of all this, getting Tim or Matt on the phone became far more difficult, and running into them at Gilman considerably less likely.  When I did talk to one or the other of them, I’d be assured that yeah, the Downfall record was still happening, but would have to wait until the current flurry of Rancid excitement settled down.  When might that be?  Oh, probably once the new Rancid album was released.

The new album turned out to be And Out Come The Wolves, the biggest Rancid record ever, and among the top 10 or so biggest punk rock records ever.  This did not help the excitement to “settle down,” instead launching Rancid into a nonstop round of touring and recording that was still going on when I left Lookout Records in 1997.  I assumed the people who took over Lookout after my departure would continue to push for the record to be released – it was really too big not to – and that eventually it would be, but it was no longer my job to worry about it.

I had my own personal copy to listen to – or did, until it got lost when I was moving house – and from time to time, when I ran into Tim or Matt, I’d ask them when it was going to happen, but eventually they got bored with answering or I got tired of asking, and that was more or less that.  By then bootleg copies had begun to emerge, but they were mostly of the original recording, not the Gurewitz remix, and since they’d all originated on some ancient cassette and been reproduced countless times, the quality was decidedly substandard.  And then of course, the new Lookout owners stopped paying royalties to most of their bands, the former members of Operation Ivy took back ownership of their records and severed all relations with Lookout, and any remaining chance of the Downfall release seeing daylight, at least on that label, vanished.

A couple of Downfall songs did make it into semi-wide release by way of compilations, and probably the best-known of them is “North Berkeley,” which appeared on Lookout’s Can Of Pork in 1992.  The lyrics, half-sung, half-rapped by Tim in what was to become his inimitable (though it didn’t stop people trying) and sometime impenetrable style, were the subject of some bemusement at the time, particularly the part that began, “North Berkeley, scene of the crime.”

What made it especially curious was the line that followed, or at least what a lot of people thought they heard: “There was a party, Adeline,” Adeline being a major thoroughfare on the the other side of town that didn’t go anywhere near North Berkeley.  Eventually someone suggested that it sounded more like “out of line,” but with Tim’s patented marbles-in-mouth enunciation, it was never possible to know for sure.  Anyway, the other part of the joke was that North Berkeley was about the least likely part of town for any crime scene to unfold.

West Berkeley, sure, South Berkeley, even more so, and South Campus provided easy pickings for muggers who preyed on clueless and often pie-eyed college students.  Even downtown, where I lived, could get a little rough, too, but North Berkeley?  That was where the rich folks and the professors and the people with maids and gardeners lived.  Well, maybe I exaggerate slightly about the maids and gardeners, but that was the way it looked to those of us from the other side of University Avenue.

Oh, but a couple years earlier, I’d moved into a room in a house on Berkeley Way.  Though still well within reach of downtown’s urban ills, including a tribe of squatters in the backyard cottage and a one-family ghetto across the street, it was a block north of University Avenue.  Its location led to an uproarious but eventually hilarious bustup with Tim or, as I was probably still calling him at the time, Lint.

We were talking about ideas for record cover art.  Tim wanted to use a big picture of a gun, and I was trying to persuade him not to.  This was in the heyday of gangster rap, remember, as well as the crack cocaine wars, and I thought it sent a bad message.

“Yo, you don’t understand, Larry,” Tim told me, “See, this is the reality of life on the streets down on my side of town.  You live in North Berkeley, that’s why you don’t get it.”

It’s true that Tim had recently moved into a room above a liquor store in one of the grittier parts of South Berkeley, but he’d spent most of his life in the very placid and tranquil suburb of Albany, which is even north of North Berkeley.  I pointed this out, adding that my $100 a month room one block past University was not likely to qualify me for membership in the early 90s version of the 1%, but he wasn’t having it, and stuck fast to his definition: “North Berkeley starts north of University, and you’re north of University.”  It’s not that often that someone can reduce me to an inarticulate mashup of laughter, outrage, and flabbergastedness, but Lint certainly managed it that day.

Eventually he got his gun on a record cover.  No one was murdered as a result, at least as far as I know, and the record sold in the hundreds of thousands.  Whether or not that disproved my original point remains open to discussion, but I suspect most people would feel it did.  Just as almost everyone would agree I’d been famously wrong when I’d tried to talk Lint out of naming his new band Rancid.

“Do you even know what the word ‘rancid’ means?” I asked during a fervent contretemps out front of Gilman.  “Foul, rotten, stinking, disgusting.  Is that what you want people to think of when they hear your band name?”

“Yo, Larry, that don’t matter, cuz we’ll give it a new meaning,” was his answer, and I guess he turned out to be right again.

The damndest thing is that I started out to write this article about crime in Berkeley – yes, even in North Berkeley – and how the old town isn’t what it used to be.  The Downfall reference was meant to be no more than a hook to hang it on, but somehow turned into the whole story, and now I’m out of space and time.  Which is probably for the best, because Bay Areans get mighty butthurt at the slightest suggestion that their little slice of Northern California is anything less than an enduring countercultural nirvana, and I really don’t have the energy to argue with them about it.

Besides, someone recently handed me a digital copy of the Downfall remix to replace the one I lost so many years ago, and I’ve been letting the music and the memories wash over me to the point where you know what?  I can’t, at least for now, get that fired up about the socio-cultural ramifications of Berkeley’s drug and idealism-addled admixture of benign tolerance and malign neglect (or maybe I’ve got that backward?).  But I will have to say that Downfall were a pretty decent band, and those were some interesting times to live through.


(It’s Not) Rocket Science

(It’s Not) Rocket Science

How do you run a successful indie record label in the year 2012? Ask as many scenesters, hipsters, music business “professionals” as you want; the answer you will hear most often, frequently punctuated by bitter laughter, is “You can’t.”

Ironically, I heard the same thing 25 years ago when – against all odds and defying common sense – I decided to start a record label.  Even more ironically, today’s naysayers will typically point to the 80s and 90s as some sort of golden age when anyone capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time could cobble together some shoestring operation that would quickly grow from selling 7″s out of your disheveled bedroom into a multi-million dollar monolith that could be flogged off to one of the major labels for an even bigger fortune as soon one of your “underground” artists broke through into mainstream success.

The fact that this actually did happen on occasion does nothing to diminish the reality that then, as now, most indie label owners never saw their pride and joy develop into more than an expensive hobby.  It was a rare (and usually naive) individual who went into the business expecting to make money.  If in 1987 you’d asked what sort of financial future I envisioned for Lookout Records, I would have said I was hoping, if things went very well indeed, not to lose too much money.  Breaking even or coming out slightly ahead was about as wild as my dreams dared to get.

Nowadays people get annoyed when I tell them that, especially since when doing so I’m usually trying to demonstrate that it can be dangerous and self-defeating to assume you know what is or isn’t possible.  “Yeah, it’s easy for you to talk,” I’m told.  “You happened to luck out by starting your label right when everybody was having to re-buy their entire music collection on CD and before digital downloads came along and all but destroyed the retail music business.”

That does, in retrospect, look extremely lucky, but more to the point, I think, is the fact that in 1987 I had no way of knowing any of this was going to happen.  I didn’t get involved in CDs until the beginning of the 90s (they weren’t “punk,” you know), and as for the digital revolution, well, when an early adopter tried to explain how this whole “internet” thing worked, I was left hopelessly befuddled.  “Okay,” I kept asking him, “you hook up two computers so they can talk to each other? But what’s the point? What would a computer have to talk about?”

Still think it was a lot easier to bumble one’s way to success back in those days?  You’re possibly right.  When I get interviewed, one of the inevitable questions is, “Do you ever think about starting another record label?”  My answer is always a resounding NO.  Not just because the last one nearly drove me off the deep end, but also because I too would be intimidated by the seemingly bleak outlook facing the music business today.

But does that mean it can’t or shouldn’t be attempted?  Quite the contrary.  If I were 30 or 40 years younger, there’s every chance I’d be launching some sort of indie music venture, and tackling it with every bit as much enthusiasm, idealism and naiveté as I did the last time around.  I can’t guarantee I’d be successful, but I’d give it a pretty good go.

“Aha!” you say. “You’re chickening out because you’re old and you’ve lost your passion.” Maybe that’s a little true, but it’s more a case of wanting to do other things now, like writing, and seeing the world.  Besides, and perhaps most importantly, there are others who’ve taken up the challenge, others who are every bit as idealistic and motivated, and probably a lot smarter than I was when I first got the idea I could somehow run a record label.  They’re doing all the things I would be trying to do if I were still in the business, signing the same bands, treating them openly and honestly, injecting a much-needed note of innovation and integrity into an industry that has seldom been noted for either.

I hesitate to start naming names, not because there aren’t many that deserve to be named, but because I would inevitably miss so many more.  That being said, I do want to give shout-outs to a couple of my favorite indie labels.  One is It’s Alive Records in Orange County.  Though the majority of their output comes in the form of vinyl records that I can’t even play because I don’t have a record player (I’m getting one soon, which will be nice, though I’m endlessly chagrined about having given away my 1970s Technics turntable a few years back on the assumption I wouldn’t be needing it anymore), they’re a source of endless inspiration, both for their honorable business practices and their sheer love of the same sort of music I myself love most.

Then there’s New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records.  Full disclosure: Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski, the guys who run it, are friends of mine, and I’d be inclined to support any enterprise of theirs, music-related or not.  But having watched their label grow for a few years now, I’m continually impressed by the way they’ve combined a well-run business with an artist-centered attitude, and in the process demonstrated that despite shifting formats, fragmenting markets, and wholesale disillusionment, it’s still possible, by following the same fundamental principles that have always underpinned a successful record label, to thrive and prosper.

One of the reasons Zach and Joe work so well with their artists is because they’re artists themselves: both have been in a variety of bands, perhaps none so notable as the much-loved but slightly star-crossed For Science.  Known originally as Skynet (a reference to some science fiction show or movie that everybody except me is familiar with, and which I could quickly look up if I didn’t want to maintain the illusion that I’m immune to popular culture), they dropped that name for fear of lawsuits, left science fiction behind, and went for straight-up science.

They were playing around New York quite a bit around the time I moved here, but I must admit I didn’t really “get” them.  Most of my friends were fans, some ravingly so, but every time I saw them it seemed as though one or more members would be drunk and/or otherwise impaired, and onstage chaos would ensue.  I remember once asking in all seriousness, “Why doesn’t somebody get those drunk guys off stage so the band can play?” not realizing that they were the band.

“Yeah, sometimes they’re a mess when they play live,” my friends would tell me, “but you have to hear their records.”  Which I never did, because, as you’ll remember, I didn’t have a record player.  Then one day a new lean, mean and sober version of For Science rolled into an afternoon show at the Cake Shop and I was not only amazed, but grudgingly had to admit, “Yeah, I guess maybe they’re not so bad after all.”  Shortly after that, the band imploded, thanks to a member’s LSD freakout (who does that in the 21st century?) and other murky circumstances that don’t need to be delved into here.

End of story, until quite recently, when a) I got a digital copy of two For Science albums; and b) it was rather abruptly announced that For Science were reuniting and would be playing the annual Don Giovanni showcase next weekend in Brooklyn (I say “rather abruptly” because I was somehow under the impression that certain members were never going to speak to each other again; once again, I was proved to be wrong, wrong, wrong). And the other news is that I’ve now listened to the digital albums a couple times and, whoa, my friends weren’t lying.  This band really is good.  Really, really good.  And though they’ll be sharing the stage with such luminaries as Screaming Females and Laura Stevenson and the Cans, chances are that For Science will end up stealing the show, either through the sheer exuberance of their fans welcoming them back to life, or because… well, who really knows what could happen?  It’s not the kind of band you’d want to make predictions about.

One prediction, however, that is a safe bet: you won’t want to miss this.  Last I heard, tickets weren’t sold out yet, but probably will be soon.

We Need A Gathering Instead

We Need A Gathering Instead

Classics Of Love at Barfly, London, 2009. Photo by Imelda Michalczyk

When Lookout Records, the label I co-founded and ran from 1987 to 1997, shut its doors a few weeks ago, I was besieged by journalists and bloggers, some earnestly inquiring into What Went Wrong or What It All Meant, others more interested in taking a gentle, nostalgic stroll down the boulevard of broken dreams.

Before my appearance on KQED, San Francisco’s NPR station, I was asked to put together a brief playlist of songs that epitomized the Lookout ethos and aesthetic.  They’d been planning on using Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge,” easily that band’s best-known song, thanks to the gently mocking yet affectionate cover version performed by Green Day at nearly every concert for the past 20 years.

I pointed out that not only would “Knowledge” bring down the wrath of the FCC, containing as it does one of the Seven Deadly Words radio stations are never allowed to broadcast, but that it wasn’t even Operation Ivy’s best song.  Or at least not the song that best summed up what that band was all about.

“The Crowd,” I suggested, would be a better choice, and that was in fact what they played.  I listened over the phone while waiting for the interviewer to turn his attention to me, anticipating the part where, following the first anthemic chorus, Jesse eases up ever so slightly to sing, with that subtle yet unmistakable catch in his voice, “Drink drink in the badlands…”

The whole song makes me want to jump up and down, grin maniacally, and throw myself around the room, but there’s something about that line, with its barely muted, infinitesimally constrained passion, that has never failed to send chills right through me.  David Hayes, my original partner in Lookout Records, put his finger on a similar phenomenon back in 1989 when we were listening to the rough mixes of the Op Ivy album.

There’s one song – “Bad Town” where Tim Armstrong sings lead.  It’s a great song, and totally stands on its own, but when it reaches the outro, there’s a 10-second – seriously, 10 seconds, no more – where Jesse adds a backing vocal that blasts the whole thing into the next dimension.

“Listen to what happens when Jesse comes in,” said David.  “It’s almost scary.”

It’s been almost 25 years since I first heard Jesse Michaels sing.  I’ve seen him with Operation Ivy, Big Rig, Common Rider, Classics Of Love, even doing birthday karaoke at El Cerrito’s Mel-O-Dee Inn, and I’ve never known a more naturally gifted performer.  His whisper-to-a-scream intensity can instantly electrify any piece of music it’s attached to.

When Operation Ivy broke up immediately upon releasing their first and only album, “Whatever happened to Jesse?” soon became the inevitable question in any discussion about the band.  It was widely known that Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman kept their partnership going through the short-lived Downfall and Generator before winding up in the very long-lived Rancid, and slightly less known yet easily ascertainable that drummer Dave Mello aligned himself with the virtuoso jazz-punks of Schlong.

But Jesse? He was reported to have become a monk, to have moved to Nicaragua, to be writing a book, constructing a new supergroup, or in rehab, or… feel free to add your own stories, because that’s what it seemed everybody was doing, while almost nobody knew what if any of it was true.

Over time I’ve learned little bits and pieces of what really happened, while remaining as befuddled as anyone about some of the other legends of Jesse’s Lost Years (I say that semi-facetiously; the only people they were actually lost to were the fans, waiting impatiently for Jesse’s return).

When he did re-appear, you could say he eased rather than thrust himself back into the limelight with the solid but low-profile Big Rig.  Then, after a similarly long interval, came Common Rider.  They were well-loved, but despite a couple superficial similarities to Operation Ivy – mainly in the use of ska and reggae beats – they too seemed almost deliberately low key.

“Too much attention unavoidably destroyed us” was Operation Ivy’s epitaph as delivered by Tim Armstrong and Rancid.  Perhaps – I may well be reading too much into this, of course – that outcome prompted Jesse, in his new musical incarnation, to exercise the caution that he had once claimed not to understand.

More years passed – if there’s a single definitive thing you can say about Jesse, it’s that he’s not one for rushing into things – before slowly, gradually, a new band, Classics Of Love, emerged.  Thanks to his history, Jesse couldn’t avoid being the most visible member, but this time it felt more like a band than “Jesse Michaels and…”

To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan when I first saw them three years ago in London.  The group – who had been performing on their own as Hard Girls before joining forces with Jesse – were undeniably and impressively solid, but Jesse was still nervously feeling his way into this new role, and a full-fledged musical bond had yet to be formed.  The highlight that night was a cover of  – what else? – Operation Ivy’s “The Crowd.”

But what a difference a little time makes: Classics Of Love are back with their debut full-length album, released February 14 on California’s Asian Man Records, and it’s a dazzling tour de force that marries intense melodic hardcore with Jesse’s signature vocals more successfully than anything I’ve heard since the heyday of Operation Ivy.

Not wishing to mislead anyone, let me hasten to point out that Classics Of Love do not resemble Operation Ivy in any obvious way (apart from being awesome).  The one similarity I can see, though, is the way Jesse’s voice has regained its full-throated and uninhibited power, and is driven and underpinned by a band that matches him note for note and beat for beat, a band that plays not behind but as one with him.

I don’t write a lot of record reviews these days, and haven’t had much interest in doing so.  This one’s worth making an exception for.  Like many of us, Jesse has spent his share of years in the wilderness.  It only makes it all the more special to welcome him home.


Studs Lonigan: Looking Back Into My Future

Studs Lonigan: Looking Back Into My Future

In the course of a search for Patrick Hamilton’s The Gorse Trilogy, I wandered into bookshops new and old across several miles of San Francisco, uncovering little more than blank stares and frustration.  I was all the more exasperated because I had already acquired, thanks to Aaron Cometbus, the middle volume of the trilogy, had read halfway through it with a gusto and élan few things in life remain capable of eliciting in me, only to set it down at San Francisco Airport coffee counter and walk off without it.

My quest took me on a meandering route from North Beach to the Mission.  It was an unnaturally warm and sunny day not long before Christmas, but by the time I passed the once-hellish, now pleasantly re-imagined Valencia Gardens project, the sun had slipped behind Twin Peaks and a wintry chill intruded into what had been a benign breeze.

It was time to duck into La Cumbre for a warming burrito, but as I crossed 16th Street, I noticed a sign that read “Used Books.”  Not just a sign, I reasoned; it had to be a sign.  A bookstore suddenly appears on a block I’ve walked down a thousand times over the past several decades?  Advertising that it specializes in “hard-to-find” and “out-of-print” volumes?  What could this mean but that my hunt was about to have a happy ending?

I walked in and instead of heading straight for the shelves, asked the proprietor how long the shop had been there.

“22 years.  People are always saying they never noticed us before.”

All those walks from the 16th Street BART to La Cumbre, the hours spent staring out the front window of Pancho Villa, long-ago trips to Epicenter and Blacklist Mail Order, and Forest Books had managed to remain invisible to me for over two decades?  I wondered if I was dealing with some ephemeral presence along the lines of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

Which made it all the more plausible that they would have the book I’d been searching for, but no, as it happened; he’d heard of Patrick Hamilton, sort of, but wasn’t really familiar with his work.  Resigning myself to finding the Hamilton book next time I was in England, I decided to take a quick spin through the aisles to see if they had anything else of interest.  I hadn’t made it ten steps before spotting a hardbound copy of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, and decided instantly that I had to have it.  I bounded up to the counter, almost as if I were afraid someone or something might snatch it away from me before I could pay for it.

The proprietor gave me an odd glance, followed by, “Whoa, how do you even know about this book?  You’re not old enough.”

Perhaps he flatters all his customers that way – I guessed he and I were about the same age – but as it happened, I not only knew the book, but had read it as a young teenager, some 50 years ago.  My first copy of Studs Lonigan had been a paperback, sold for 35 cents – now that I think about it, I almost certainly stole it; that’s how I rolled in those days – on one of those revolving racks you saw in every drugstore.

I’d never heard of the book before, but the cover showed a kid about my age, dressed up like a tough guy, his hair slicked up and back, hanging out on a street corner in a manner clearly meant to annoy the bourgeoisie.  I tore through those pages with a fervor others reserved for religious texts.  The author might have intended it as a cautionary tale for aspiring hoodlums, but I read it as a design and ideal for living.

It was a long book, the longest I’d ever read at that age, and for the first couple hundred pages, the life of young Lonigan was filled with exactly the sort of mischief and thrills I was looking to add to my own.  Opening on a warm evening in 1916 as Studs (“that dreadful name,” according to his mother, one of the few who insisted on calling him William or Bill) is graduating from eighth grade, it follows him through a dreamlike summer of roistering and rollicking with his gang on the streets of Chicago’s South Side.  I began reading it in 1961 as my eighth grade graduation gave way to a very similar summer on the streets of Downriver Detroit.

Studs and I were Catholic boys graduating from Catholic schools, retaining a visceral loyalty to the Church while ignoring or flouting nearly all its precepts.  Our gangs were made up of the children or grandchildren of immigrants, predominantly Irish, riven straight through by the Catholic obsession with guilt, suffering and doom.  We sinned repeatedly, felt terrible about it, and took it as given that we would pay harshly for our transgressions in the end.  An end, we assumed, which would probably not be long in coming.

Half a century later, re-reading Studs Lonigan as avidly as I had the first time, I was surprised – not just surprised, shocked – to see how closely his exploits and misadventures had mirrored and prefigured my own.  The initial intoxication of running wild in the streets gave way to the boredom and monotony of day after day and night after night in front of the pool hall or drugstore.  We groused that there was nothing to do but bragged that at least we weren’t like the punks and cake-eaters who scurried home after dark and tried to live up to the expectations of nuns and parents.

Some of the guys dropped out – waylaid by after-school jobs or girlfriends –to be replaced by more serious criminals and nutcases.  By the time I was 15 I was carrying a pistol and had earned the nickname “Drunk.”  Considering the drinking habits of the gang that gave it to me, I took it as one of my proudest accomplishments.

At 17 I’d graduated from the drugstore to a pool hall identical to the one Studs frequented toward the end of World War I, right down to the perennial poker game sequestered in the back room and the shady characters lurking around out front trying to sell boosted auto parts at pennies on the dollar.  I’d begun to pride myself at climbing – in retrospect, of course, it was more like descending – the criminal ladder faster than Studs had, but then I wasn’t as burdened by conscience as he’d been.

It might have taken me a year or two to finish the Studs Lonigan trilogy the first time, because after a whiz-bang beginning, Studs’ life began deteriorating so badly that it was painful to read about.  Not just because I’d come to care about him, but because I’d made his existence such a template for my own.

The fights, the hangovers, the arrests, the tentative attempts at love and the blithe, inevitable rejections; eventually it became difficult to tell where his life left off and mine began.  Re-reading it in 2012, I’m struck not only by how clearly I remember nearly every scene and bit of dialogue – I’m normally the kind of guy who can’t tell you what a movie or a book was about 20 minutes after I’ve finished it – but also how I could no longer be certain which of my memories came from my own life and which from his.

Long before I’d heard of Oscar Wilde, I was a dutiful subscriber to Miss Prism’s dictum, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means.”  So I wasn’t surprised when Studs ended unhappily, even though, in the final analysis, he wasn’t that bad at all, just foolish, stubborn, and proud.

All qualities I possessed in spades.  And by most standards, I was worse than Studs, with fewer redeeming qualities.  Yet for some reason, I haven’t ended unhappily – at least not yet – despite having spent the greater part of my life anticipating such an outcome.  As Studs himself might have observed, “Geez, it just ain’t fair how things work out sometimes.”