27 May 2006

Demon Math

This Michigan sociology instructor is up in arms because the governor is proposing a law that requires all high school graduates to pass four years of English, three years of math, three years of science, and two years of foreign language. According to him, this amounts to "demonising" teenagers, and will result in far fewer of them being able to obtain high school diplomas.

The latter may be true, but if the law passes, a high school diploma may, for the first time since the 1950s, actually have some value. Granted, there are many teenagers (this teenager would have been among them) who would insist that any forced study of English, science, or (especially) math constitutes a form of satanic ritual abuse, but teenagers have seldom been the best judges of what they should learn (or eat, or drink, or wear, among other things), which is why, presumably, we have parents and adults.

I didn't always enjoy my school days - in fact, I spent most of them complaining - but I can't honestly think of any ways in which being required to study English, math, science and foreign languages did me the slightest bit of harm. Yes, it did cut into my beer drinking and hanging around on street corners time, but I was able to more than make up for that in my post-graduation years.

The protesting sociologist reasons that studying such highbrow concepts as the three Rs is an attempt to "force" all students into a college-bound track, and is especially concerned that "urban youth," specifically those from Detroit, will be harmed. By "Detroit," of course, he means "black," since there can't be more than a handful of white students left in Detroit's public education system. Apart from his (presumably unconscious) racism in assuming that black children are incapable of mastering English and math, he fulminates against educating students for jobs that don't exist because of "our corporate-profit dominated economy." Um, hello, Mr Teacher, but isn't it just possible that any kind of economy, corporate-profit dominated or not, is more likely to thrive with a literate and numerate population?

He's also worried that teachers will be blamed should they fail to motivate students to "care about their least favourite courses." As they should be; it is, after all, their job. And a big improvement over handing out meaningless feel-good diplomas to generation after generation of dysfunctional illiterates.

26 May 2006

All The Times This Would Have Come In So Handy...

Apparently scientists are not far off from creating a working model of Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak. Their prototype has the disadvantage of not allowing the wearer to see out, so it's not much use for spying, but could still prove enormously useful for those times when you just want to curl up in a corner and disappear.

Gimme Shelter

There's a pub next door, in between my building and the Tube station. It's been there forever, well, maybe not forever, but at least since the century before last. For many years it was a neighbourhood pub, but by the 90s it had begun to deteriorate into what the less charitable referred to as "a grotty old dive for old men and alcoholics."

I actually rather liked it, though I only ever went in to watch the football, because it was the kind of place where you could be social or sit completely on your own with a "Fuck off" sign plastered across your forehead and nobody was much bothered either way. But once I stopped drinking, it seemed to lose a lot of its admittedly elusive charm, and I began watching my football in cleaner, more upmarket pubs, preferably those that didn't allow smoking.

Somewhere in the years since I stopped going there, the pub, like almost every other pub in Notting Hill, was subjected to a makeover. The old men were turfed out, as were the television screens, and hey presto, we had yet another über-trendy, multi-culti pub of the month, the kind you read about in heinous publications like Time Out, and which are generallly to be avoided at all cost.

It's not all bad; although the crowd it attracts is noisy, rowdy, and probably riddled with drug dealers and similarly dodgy characters, it does add a bit of life to the area (fortunately my flat faces away from it, so unlike my neighbours I don't have to listen to it), and makes late-night walks home from the station feel a little safer. This past year or so, the crowd seems to have gotten a bit older - late 20s to mid 30s as opposed to teens and early 20s - and the music steadily more retro. Every Sunday night they have a DJ who features music meant to make you think you're in the Notting Hill of old, when rude boys and Rastas peddled their wares in the All Saints Road and the 101ers were in residence at the old Elgin in Ladbroke Grove. Most of the crowd grooving to the ancient tuneage couldn't have been much more than infants when the songs were new, but they seem to enjoy them all the same.

Tonight, though, wasn't even Sunday, but instead of the usual Friday night electro-dub or whatever they're calling it this week, the whole block was echoing with the sound of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." (Yes, as predicted here yesterday, the council needed only to turn the heat back on in our building to transform the weather back to almost-summer conditions, and the pub had thrown open all its doors and run speakers out into the packed beer garden.) It was the second time this week that hearing music from the 60s left me feeling more enthralled than annoyed, but I also marvelled a bit at the concept: here's a song - more than a song, really; it was the title of an album, a film, and shorthand for the end-of-the-60s apocalypse zeitgeist - that's going on 40 years old, and here's a pub jammed with people, few if any of whom have yet seen 40, jamming away as if it came out yesterday.

I almost wanted to buttonhole a few of the people and ask them what "Gimme Shelter" meant to them; was it just a catchy riff, or a crazy nostalgia trip, letting them goof on the grandiose and pretentious posturings of their parents' generation? Or had it taken on a whole new meaning for the kids of today, with its cries about love and war and life lived on a knife edge?

The first time I heard the song was in 1969, in Dennie's apartment above Mark's, the old beatnik coffee house on East William Street in Ann Arbor. We'd just been out to dinner at the Cottage Inn, the ersatz Italian joint up the block where a year or two earlier Jan and I met Allen Ginsberg and he tried to pick one or both of us up, though it was hard to tell exactly what he had in mind. It was mostly a crowd of Dennie's friends from college, and I hardly knew any of them, so I thought it might help if I ate a tab of acid before we went. This didn't help my appetite or my social skills at all, and I sat there growing more catatonic by the moment, afraid that at any moment the sight of spaghetti wriggling like so many albino worms in pools of blood-like tomato sauce would cause me to vomit all over the table.

Dennie, who'd gone out of his way to organise this dinner to give his friends a chance to meet me, was annoyed that I turned into a slightly green space cadet, but took me back to his apartment anyway, laid me down on a pile of coats in the bedroom, and went out to carry on with the party in the living room. I lay there writhing in misery and terror, feeling as though I were on the verge of drowning, when it occurred to me that the problem might be that instead of being too high, I wasn't high enough. On the chance that this might be the case, I swallowed two more tabs of the strawberry acid, and lay back waiting either to die, freak out and lose my mind completely, or be rocketed into the next dimension.

The plan worked. I'd been struggling along as though I were just below the surface of a sea of treacle, but as the new acid kicked in, it was though I burst up into the fresh air, with all my fears and neuroses and pathologies left sinking behind me. It was precisely at that moment that someone in the next room put on the new Rolling Stones album, the first song of which was, of course, "Gimme Shelter."

From 20 feet away, but as if from another world, I listened as the record played all the way through and then started again, and it sounded to me like an epic of Biblical proportions, one that contained the entire story of humanity, its downfall and ultimate redemption. I think they played the entire album three times in a row, by which time it was 4 or 5 in the morning and both my personality and my world had been thoroughly deconstructed and only tentatively reassembled. I tried to explain all this to Dennie when the crowd finally left and he came into bed, but he just smiled that enigmatic smile of his that could have meant, "Yes, Larry, I know just what you mean" or, "I have no idea what you're babbling about, nor do I have the slightest interest in finding out." It was always hard to tell with him.

By the end of the year, another life-changing musical encounter, this time involving ten hits of acid, saw me quit my job, sell or give away all my possessions, and head off with Dennie for California in a beat-up old Volkswagen bus. I came back to Michigan a few times when things got too rough or confusing out west, but essentially from then on I was a California boy, and that's where I found the shelter and the comfort that seemed always to have been missing back where I was born. Anyway, that's my "Gimme Shelter" story, and if any of the youngsters rocking out in the bar tonight end up having similarly life-changing experiences as a result, I can only wish them Godspeed and watch out for the yellow acid.

Good News For Potheads

Although I'm a bit dubious about any news emanating from something called the "David Geffen School of Medicine," this report seems to indicate that there's no link between smoking marijuana and lung cancer, no matter how much of the stuff you smoke. In fact, pot may even help protect you against cancer because its active ingredient, THC, kills old cells, the ones which are most likely to turn cancerous.

The report didn't mention marijuana's effect on brain cells, whether it killed them outright or lulled them into a state of suspended animation, but based on the latest evidence, it would appear that potheads can look forward to a long, healthy life of babbling incoherently, muttering non sequiturs and in general being incredibly annoying to everyone except themselves. Hooray.

The Limits Of Democracy

There are those absolutists - and I acknowledge that I have been one at times - who under any and all circumstances, for any given situation, have a single, all-purpose solution: democracy, the rule of law, the will of the people. However they phrase it, it always comes off sounding like the sort of thing only a fascist or racist or unreconstructed colonialist could oppose.

But this one-size-fits-all prescription ignores the troublesome fact that democracy, as wonderful as it's been for some countries, hasn't worked out so well for many others. Most African countries, on gaining their independence from Europe, started out as Western-style democracies and rather quickly degenerated into totalitarian chiefdoms, one-party states, or in the worst cases like Somalia and Sierra Leone, a complete collapse of civil authority and a lapse into outright savagery. Zimbabwe, once one of the richest and most successful African states, tragically appears to be headed in the same direction, its democratic mechanisms and regular elections notwithstanding.

Then you've got the democratically elected president of Iran threatening to do a Hitler on the Middle East, and of course there's neighbouring Iraq, which doesn't seem to have benefitted in the slightest from all that democracy so expensively and bloodily imported by the Americans and British. It doesn't get so much attention up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but Australia has been regularly having to bail out, with both cash and troops, failed states in the South Pacific. Fij, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and now East Timor have all shown themselves incapable of managing their own affairs, leaving their citizens to suffer from chronic insecurity and acute bouts of violence and anarchy which only the Australians seem able to bring under control. But even in Australia's own Northern Territory, culturally and geographically closer to New Guinea than to Sydney, a similar phenomenon is unfolding. Pressed by well-intentioned if not well-thought out liberalism to grant autonomy and self-government to Aboriginal communities, the government now finds itself having to contend with Third World-style chaos and deprivation.

The uncomfortable question begins to arise: are some people simply not ready for democracy? It's hardly such a radical notion; after all, it's only been in the last few centuries that democracy has been able to take hold and flourish anywhere, and its path hasn't always been smooth. It's been less than 60 years since Japan and Germany became fully self-governing states, and then only when it was forced upon them by overwhelming military power and the deaths of millions. So if we can accept that highly educated and sophisticated populations like the Japanese and Germans can fall victim to tyrants making a mockery of democratic principles, why is it so difficult to believe that largely illiterate populations, often only a generation or two removed from a nomadic or tribal life, in some cases not much more removed from practices like headhunting, cannibalism and slavery, might have similar difficulties?

It's the race thing, of course, that stops people being honest about the situation. Most of the world's failed or failing states are inhabited by black or brown people, and that's a rather inconvenient fact for the cultural relativists who refuse to believe that there is anything intrinsically valuable about Western cultures or values as opposed to those of other societies. To suggest that some cultures are "backward" is usually considered straight-out racist; even the euphemisms of "undeveloped" or "underdeveloped" seem to be falling out of favour. Today, all countries that aren't already rich and successful are "developing," even if they clearly aren't, even if they're undeniably headed into penury and starvation and brutal oppression as, for example, Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

The myth of democracy as panacea provides a convenient excuse for Western governments and individuals not to get involved. Instead we contribute to Oxfam or campaign to abolish Third World debt so its tyrants can start with a clean slate on their next round of shopping for Rolls Royces and armaments. It's true that the West sowed the seeds of many of the world's current troubles when it embarked on its wave of empire-building, but it's equally true that abruptly handing everything back to the natives and pretending that everything's okay because "We're all democracies now" has been just as disastrous, if not more so.

Solutions? They're neither obvious nor easy, but to continue down the present route guarantees only more hardship for the peoples of the developing world (see, I'm doing it now, too) and continued and greater blowback for Europe and North America as they struggle to cope with waves of refugees fleeing the corrupt, incompetent and failed states to the south. Pretending it's not happening will only make things worse.

Living In La-La Land

I spent the first week of October, 2001 in the Hotel Chelsea on W. 23rd Street. From my window I could see the clouds of smoke still rising from what had been the World Trade Center, and when the wind shifted in the right direction, I could smell it. New Yorkers, normally the most unflappable people in the world, were edgy and anxious, and it wasn't at all unusual to see someone suddenly start crying for no visible reason.

Still, I kept marvelling at the way most people held up under the strain, indeed seemed to grow stronger and more responsible. You have to remember that in those first weeks after the attack, no one knew whether it had been a one-off or if we could expect more bombs or airplanes or who knew what else to come crashing down on us. I remember riding in from JFK on the subway, past the miles of American flags that had blossomed from the semi-detached duplexes of outer Queens, the way people were quieter and more tentative than usual, the way their eyes swivelled toward anyone that got on the train, inquiring eyes that almost visibly asked, "Are you one of those bomb-wielding terrorists or are you one of us?"

Once past that initial screening, each new passenger tentatively became "one of us," and tried to cement that position by showing even greater vigilance toward those who got on at the next stop. Writing about it now makes it sound extremely tense and paranoid, but actually it wasn't. If anything, if felt safe and comfortable and secure, almost as though you were a child again, and you had not just your parents, but a whole carload of sensible, reliable adults looking after you.

And that's the way it felt nearly everywhere I went that week. Yeah, of course there were people wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, and making a big deal about American-this and New York-that, but behind the occasional histrionics was mostly a quiet, solid determination that said, "We're going to get through this, and we're going to help each other, and we're going to be responsible for what happens to us and our city." It was all so incredibly, well, grownup was the word that kept coming to mind.

Another thing that kept coming to mind was: it would have been best, of course, if 9/11 never happened, but if it had to happen, thank God it was in a city full of grownups rather than one populated by children and perpetual adolescents like, say, San Francisco. I tried to imagine how Bay Area people would react to a similar attack, and I just couldn't picture, for example, hundreds of firemen and policemen rushing to their deaths in an attempt to save people. No, I figured it more like the cops and firemen getting on the phone to their union reps, demanding, "Hey, does it say in our contract that we have to go into burning buildings?"

And I imagined the union reps replying, "You know, I'd like to give you an answer right now, but I really need to talk to our lawyers first, gotta cover my own ass here too, you know. How about I give you a call back after the weekend?" Meanwhile the hippies and radicals would be protesting with signs that read, "Bush Is The Real Terrorist" and city officials would be claiming that they shouldn't have to clear up the mess since it was obviously the federal government's fault that those poor oppressed Muslims had felt it necessary to blow up a couple buildings.

Granted, I generally expect the worst of San Francisco, and hopefully if the city ever does have to contend with a terrorist attack or natural disaster, I'll be proved wrong and the citizens and local authorities will rise to the occasion and acquit themselves as admirably as New Yorkers did in 2001. But this report seems only to confirm my doubts on that score. The city government, always prepared to offer advice on what needs to be done about Nicaragua or Darfur or East Patgonia, and never shying away from a debate over whether to supply the homeless with gold-plated shopping carts or the more economical but less attractive silver ones, isn't so well equipped to deal with the more mundane aspects of running a city. Picking up the trash, policing the streets, maintaining an infrastructure that won't collapse in the next earthquake, man, that stuff is kind of boring and negative, you know what I'm saying?

Of course some people find that gormless attitude to be part of San Francisco's "charm." I did too, to be honest, back when I was stoned most of the time, and if it's true, as the proverb goes, that God takes care of drunkards, fools and little children, San Francisco should be well looked after. So party on, dudes!

24 May 2006

An Autumnal Night

About three weeks ago, after a three-day warm spell, the authorities turned off the heat in our building for the season. Ever since, those of us who own portable space heaters have been running up huge electric bills, while those of us who don't have been trundling around the house in bulky sweaters and sleeping in our winter thermals. This morning, apparently in response to a barrage of complaints, the heat came back on, which will probably have the dual effect of adding £100 to our annual service charges and causing a sudden surge of tropical warmth to blanket the British Isles.

No sign of that happening yet, however. Our weather has been what BBC announcers call with oracular orotundity, their lips lovingly caressing the pear-shaped syllables, "autumnal." Not merely in the sense that it has been cold and wet and windy and horrible, but that it seems to be getting worse as the days descend inexorably into winter. Which creates an odd effect, since we are actually less than a month away from the summer solstice, the days are continuing to lengthen, and the trees, shrubs and hedges across London have just burst into full, voluptuous leaf.

So it's as though image and reality are headed in opposite directions, hardly the first time this has happened, but disconcerting nonetheless. I was tempted to stay indoors all day today and savour the warmth emanating from our reawakened radiators while doing laundry and packing for my imminent relocation to the hopefully more summery environs of New York City. But I was too restless for that, and so instead it was off into the driving rain, waiting on sodden, windblown platforms for trains that could barely be bothered to turn up on a day like this, and when they did, crawled timidly along as if they were afraid of sliding off the tracks. Everything and everybody looked wet and miserable; commuters crammed into standing room only spaces reeking of damp wool and soaked trainers, with barely room to reach up and brush away the residual raindrops falling from hair and hatbrims across their weary faces.

Disgorged from the Underground, I pulled my hood up and splashed through the forlorn streets of Soho, strangely deserted for such an early hour. Basement cafes did a roaring business, though, with people huddled at tiny tables, some reading, some shouting, some staring profoundly into space, all looking hunkered down for a long winter's night. I listened to a friend talking, something about some bad drug experience or his mother dropping him on his head as a baby, and went into a bit of a waking dream, where I was swimming through a green mist and suddenly emerged into the summer I was 16, with the sullen, sultry heat of a Michigan night pressing down on us as we clustered around the streetlamp like so many moths to the flame. Then, just like that, it was a few years later, only now it was winter, with slippery patches of ice blending almost invisibly into the blacktop as we roared up Allen Road on our way to the Chatterbox.

We were the Pompadour Gang, half a dozen or so of us, killing time while we waited to get drafted and sent to Vietnam. We spent our mornings styling our hair to gravity-defying heights, in some cases fully half a foot high (the best I ever managed was a still respectable four inches), our afternoons prowling the "coloured" shops in downtown Detroit for iridescent trousers in shades like gold, ruby red, and electric blue, matching thick and thin nylon socks to go with them, patent leather wingtips, 24 inch watch chains, double knit shirts and half or three quarter length leather coats to top off the ensemble. We listened only to the soul station, WCHB in Inkster, scorned any music or style that originated with white people, and were prepared to go to our graves as the last, and certainly most stylish representatives of the genus once known as the American Greaser.

The Chatterbox was our hangout, our club, our nerve center and last redoubt, but it was rapidly being taken over by the new kids, the mods, the garage rockers, even a few budding hippies. Sporting Beatles and Kinks-inspired poodle dos, they had the nerve to sneer, even laugh out loud at our magnificent pompadours, and though we were meaner and more prepared to fight, they weren't all as sissy as they looked, and wouldn't hesitate to fight back.

But tonight was our night, an all-soul night. There'd be no mods, no longhairs in phony Beatle boots to spoil our fun. Hopped up on beer, pills and codeine-laced cough syrup, we tore through town, barely able to contain our excitement. "Can't this piece of shit go any faster?" the Razz shouted, and Bob-O, already cruising at 55 in a 25, floored it. That same instant, some clown pulled out in front of us and we broadsided him. Everything got a bit vague after that, but somehow we still ended up at the Chatterbox. I was stumbling around and falling into people, and they kept telling me I looked like hell, but nothing penetrated until after the Chatterbox closed down at about 3 am and we wandered over to the police station to see what had become of Bob-O's car.

It sat there out back, the front end caved in, but what we mainly noticed was the three holes in the windshield where our heads had hit. They weren't big holes, not big enough for our heads to go all the way through, anyway. In fact they were just about the size and shape as our hairdos, and I instinctively clutched at my pompadour, realizing for the first time that night that it was a mess. Somehow that seemed a lot more important than the fact that I had come within inches of going through a windshield and probably dying. There was a purity to life in those days, a purity perhaps purchased at the price of great stupidity, but a purity nonetheless, of a sort I may never know again. My friend finished what he'd been saying and asked me what I thought; I opened my half-closed eyes and tried to focus on the still-crowded but now somewhat more sedate cafe before finally having to admit that I had been off in another land and another century. "It's just that you were speaking in such a hypnotic tone," I told him, "that I couldn't help drifting away. But, I mean, thanks, it felt like somewhere I really needed to go."

Then it was time to put on my still-wet jacket and hoodie and head back out into the darkened streets where they got even wetter. As I approached my building, a little shiver went through me, and I remembered coming home from Dublin around January of 1994, having just spent the coldest week of my life cooped up with a band called Huggy Bear in a flat with no heat apart from a desultory peat fire whose energy was barely capable of radiating beyond the confines of the fireplace. I opened the door to my building, and though the hallways were kept only at room temperature, if that, they offered a foretaste of the delicious, enveloping warmth that awaited me.

As I marched down the long passage, anticipating that warmth, promising myself that I would not set foot outdoors again until spring if at all possible, I chanted, in time with the sound of my soles slapping against the squishy floor tiles, "I love central heating, I love central heating." There were those who claimed that central heating and the softness of character it encouraged had ushered in the downfall of the British Empire, but just then I didn't care if the whole country had to be handed over to the barbarians as long as I could be warm again. And here it was the 24th of May, 2006, the barbarians have made considerable advances even if they're not completely in charge yet, and not much else has changed.

23 May 2006

I Go To The Pub And Talk Too Much

Down to Soho tonight, to a once obscure but now trendy and packed pub called the Glasshouse Stores to meet with two of the Zatopeks, Sebby and Sammie while they're on hiatus from their UK tour. Actually, their tour is all but over; they're just hanging around waiting to play two shows this weekend at Liverpool's Cavern Club. I realised on the way home that I never got around to asking them how the past week's shows went, and then realised in turn that I had spent an inordinate amount of the evening talking about myself.

I hate it when I do that. I could make the excuse that Sammie kept asking me questions about Lookout Records and some of the old East Bay bands (and was even kind enough to compliment my band), but just because someone asks doesn't mean you have to tell them everything you know in voluminous detail. At times I felt more like was appearing on a chat show - the cute little leather couches heightened the impression - than having a conversation with friends.

It's not that I don't think I have some interesting stories to tell. It would be hard to live as long as I have and not have a few. But I never wanted to become one of those characters who's forever banging on about, "Back in my day, sonny..." Maybe that's why I lost interest in my memoir, which is about 500 pages of just such stories and has been sitting in a box under my bed for the past year. A couple of times I've thought about digging it out from the dust and old socks and reworking it in a more novelised format (or alternatively, depositing in the shiny new recycling bins they've installed at the end of our block), but I always end up deciding, "Naw, too much effort."

In the back of my mind, I guess I'm thinking it's a bit grandiose of me to assume people, at least apart from a few fanatical pop punk fans, would be that interested in the minutiae of my somewhat muddled life, and another part of me keeps suggesting that it's too soon to be spending so much time looking back at the past. But then on the other hand, I argue, isn't it my job as a historian of sorts to set down, while I still have a reasonably accurate memory of it, some account of my meanderings through the underbelly of American culture? I guess what spooks me is that way too many baby boomers have already done just that, even if I'd like to believe that very few of them have seen what I've seen and are still coherent enough to talk about it. But hey, we all like to think that our experiences our special and different, don't we, while literary scholars claim that all of human existence can be winnowed down to a handful of essential themes and stories, and biologists not only claim, but can prove, that humankind's breathtaking diversity really amounts to little more than minor variations on a genetic pattern only slightly more complex than the handful of notes and scales that provide the world with all its songs and symphonies.

Um, yes, what was I saying? That I wish I'd talked a little less and listened a lot more at the pub tonight. Yet another lesson for a lifetime.

22 May 2006


I'm about halfway through the "Rabbit" novels by John Updike, and already I'm beginning to regret that within a couple weeks the story is going to end, and the marvellous characters they contain are going to vanish from the world just as surely as the flesh-and-blood creatures who inhabit my "real" life. I'd always shied away from Updike, probably out of some class-borne prejudice; he was, in my imaginings, one of those chroniclers of the privileged and well-to-do. Harvard-educated and a New Yorker alumnus as well, what could he possibly know about the gritty facts of life as lived by the likes of myself and my more "authentic" cronies?

As often turns out to be the case, I couldn't have been more wrong. Although a couple Updike novels I'd read earlier did seem to dwell more on the suburban country club set, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and his sometimes squalid, often befuddled existence come straight out of the blue collar Rust Belt world I grew up in. Since Updike himself has described his area of interest as "the American small town, Protestant middle class," and comes across as someone who is thoroughly a product of that environment, I found it remarkable that he'd been able to produce such a precisely nuanced view of sullen, frustrated working class life. Granted, by volume three of the Rabbit chronicles, his protagonist has landed with an insensate thud in the midst of the upwardly mobile middle classes about whom Updike more typically writes, but that transformation also reveals Updike's deft touch at dealing simultaneously with small, personal stories and the great sweeping panorama of social and cultural change in mid to late 20th century America.

The Rabbit novels are - perhaps in an oblique sense - almost Proustian in scope, not in terms of density or detail, but in the way images, fragmented memories and seemingly mundane or innocuous dialogue combine to evoke the sense, the sound, the smell, the feeling of a place, a world, a way of life that the passage of time has rendered unreachable but no less vivid - indeed, perhaps all the more vivid - because of it. As a writer, I have to admit that I'm awestruck, inspired, and on the verge of despair at the prospect of never being able to produce anything remotely so brilliant.

You Know the Weather's Rubbish When...

...people from Scotland start complaining about it.

Ran into my friend George tonight, and before I could say a word, he started right in with, "This weather's bloody awful, isn't it?" For years - centuries, probably - this has been as common a greeting as "Hello" or "How are you?" among English people, but George is from Glasgow, and even though he's been in London for years, he's always maintained his Glaswegian ways and accent.

And while English people complain incessantly about the weather, it's rare to hear a Scotsman say a cross word about it. I can think of two possible reasons for this: a) that English weather, terrible as it is, is balmy and Mediterranean compared with Scotland; and b) acknowledging that they were the least bit discomfited or inconvenienced by freezing temperatures or howling gales or torrential downpours would deprive the Scots of the opportunity to sneer at soft Southerners and poncey Englishmen who don't know how easy they've got it.

Perhaps they complain about the weather in their own country, but I've spent a few weeks in Scotland and never noticed it. On the contrary, I've heard Scottish people say with perfectly straight faces, "Lovely day, isn't it?" as an Arctic gale whipped horizontal sheets of freezing rain across my face. "Bit of rain never hurt anyone," they'd add, "just makes the flowers grow all the brighter." I think I even recall one day in Scotland when it didn't rain, which prompted the closest thing to a complaint about the weather I'd heard from a Scotsman until George's outburst today: "If this keeps up, the country's going to dry up and blow away."

When I was newer here, I once remarked that while the American national pastime was supposed to be baseball (or, in an alternate view, making money), the English national pastime seemed to be complaining, most notably about the weather. Danny, my journalist friend, immediately corrected me. "English people don't complain," he said. "Americans complain. Complaining implies that you expect something to be done about the problem. English people know nothing is ever going to be done, so they just moan. If it weren't for moaning about the weather, half the conversations in this country might never get started."

20 May 2006

Feels Like A Sunday In Some Ways

I don't know how many of you will recognise the header as part of a mid-60s Donovan lyric, which starts out, "It's Saturday night, it feels like a Sunday in some ways." It's kind of like that here today, even it's really only Saturday afternoon, though seeming to verge on evening already because of the relentlessly gloomy clouds that seem to have settled in for the duration (of what? the day? weekend? month? summer?), along with cold, gusty winds and fitful bursts of rain. Yes, it's droughting again, and this week the water companies/government (although they've been privatised, they're essentially the same thing except when it comes to claiming profits (private companies and their shareholders only) or taking responsibility (nobody; who were you expecting?) are promising to sail great ships up the Thames loaded with fresh drinking water from God knows where. Perhaps they'll also tow in icebergs from the north coast of Greenland or Iceland, setting off another incarnation of the Cod War. Nobody (apart from myself and pretty much everybody else I've talked to) seems to have thought of the seemingly more obvious solution of stringing a pipeline up to Yorkshire or Scotland or any of the other northern provinces where they have water coming out of their ears and probably any other available orifice. They can send us their rubbish weather, no doubt they can spare a bit of water as well.

But I want to stop myself before I slip off into full-fledged rant-mode. The other night, after getting home from the Zatopeks / Punchpuppet / Griswalds show, I rather foolishly or fanatically sat up until 5 am composing a diatribe about the numbers of people who routinely don't pay to ride on trains and buses and compared it to the bad old days of New York City, when public transport became essentially a free-fire zone for anti-social elements of all stripes. I got myself worked up into a full-on self-righteous snit, only to hit "save" and see my couple hours work disappear forever into the ether. Well, perhaps it turned up somewhere on some other virtual world, but nowhere that I seem able to access. And that's not the worst of it; I had already written most of the post you're (hopefully) reading now only to have my browser freeze up on me, once more swallowing alive all my fervid jottings.

So now I'm trying to reconstruct from memory what I'd already written, and in the process forgetting most of what I was originally intending to write about, other than that it's Saturday, yes, and feels like a Sunday in that aimless, "I really ought to get out and do something but there's nothing to do and the weather's crap anyway" sort of way. Which isn't completely true; I'm going to wrap up in my winter clothes (British version, not American snow-and-ice Antarctic expedition variety) and brave the elements before terminal melancholy sets in and I start recycling Smiths or Potatomen lyrics into attempts at meaningful prose. My room's a mess, but it's a mess that will wait for me to come home and glower at it again. More later.

17 May 2006

Champions League Final


I don't understand it. I hate Arsenal. I think I always have, and not even for a good reason; it's just that pure, delicious, irrational hate that I've always reserved for bullies, cheats, and the rich, popular and successful.

Which makes me wonder why, even before tonight's Champions League Final was underway, I was cheering wildly for Arsenal to win. Could I be that chauvinistic that I'd prefer to see any English team beat any European team? Well, yes, apparently, but having said that, Arsenal played heroically, down to ten men and a second-string goalkeeper, against a Barcelona side that's arguably the best in the world.

Certainly they were technically superior, so much so that they were able to mount attack after attack while Arsenal defended desperately, taking their few chances from fast breaks or the very occasional Barcelona slip-up. But Arsenal could have won it, and it wouldn't have been undeserved if they had. An absolutely riveting game, though, and my respect for Arsenal (and yes, even Arsène Wenger) has gone up considerably.

15 May 2006

Some Of My Yesterdays

I went into a semi-popular (i.e., cheap) restaurant on one of the more colourful back streets of Soho, and asked to be seated in the dimly lit, nearly deserted room at the rear because the brightly lit front room, buzzing with energy and excitable, edgy people, is also the room where smoking is allowed.

The non-smoking room contained, counting myself, just three customers, one seated in each corner, as far as possible from each other (if you're wondering about the fourth corner, there wasn't one; that was where the hallway led into the lively but polluted room). Before I could ruminate more than a minute or two on 21st century anomie and alienation, or the fact that given the choice, the average English person will sit as far as possible from any other average English person, my train of thought was derailed by the unexpected sounds of "Penny Lane" by the Beatles.

I say unexpected because this restaurant normally features a soundtrack of cheerfully inane Europop, which can barely be heard anyway because of the boisterous crowds of poppy Europeans who socialise there. But in the morgue-like back room, seated beneath a speaker, I could hear every note and nuance of the song, one which I hadn't heard in years and hadn't really appreciated since about 1966, well, 1968 at the latest.

It faded away, and was replaced by another Beatles track, "Yesterday," which came out when I was still in high school, and which I hated for its soppy sentimentality for about the first three years, then gradually learned to appreciate, and eventually grew to love enough to include in my repertoire during my brief and unremarkable career as a restaurant and saloon piano player, circa 1985.

I wonder if this is going to be a full-fledged Beatles fest, I thought to myself, but no; the next song was by the Doors, and things looked even grimmer: another one of those dripping-with-hokey-sentiment tributes to the 60s. See, I'm normally not a big fan of oldies in general, being a firm adherent to the "nostalgia isn't what it used to be" school of thought, but while I can tolerate, even enjoy a brief set of Happy Days-style 50s pop, and go all moon-eyed and maudlin at the sound of some authentic greaser doo-wop, I draw the line at any romanticisation or idealisation of the 60s. A crap time by and for crappy people, I always say, eager to puncture the delusions of folks who've been sold a bill of goods by propagandists, fantasists, and still-stoned 60-year-old hippies and yippies.

Then the Animals' "House Of The Rising Sun" came on, and I remembered the thrill of being shown and then mastering those guitar chords, at the time the most elaborate thing I'd ever learned to play (okay, okay, so 40 years later I still haven't got much fancier), and how at Gilman the Lookouts used to butcher the same song by speeding up each verse until by the end I was just pounding on my guitar and screaming. Then the swirly little organ bit at the end gave way to "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison, and suddenly it was June of 1967, and I was marvelling at how the maples and elms lining the Gothic Victorian streets of Ypsilanti had so suddenly burst from tenuous buds into the lush, voluptuous fullness of summer as I made my way down the hill from the graveyard where I'd often spend the night.

Forty years ago, I mused, well thirty-nine, anyway; once I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to live that long. In the whole restaurant, there might not have been another person who was alive forty years ago, and here's me, for whom forty years doesn't come even close to a lifespan; now it's just an interval, a seemingly almost brief one, separating me from what should have been the halcyon days of my youth. In "Brown Eyed Girl," Van Morrison, who can't be more than a couple years older than me, was already lamenting over the lost innocence of yesteryear in 1967, and that's how I, 19-going-on-20 at the time, read it too. I was in the throes of my first doomed love affair and was already looking sadly but longingly toward a past which had largely lacked for love of any kind, doomed or otherwise.

Anticipating the Smiths by a couple decades, I was already singing "Oh what a terrible mess I've made of my life" when I'd hardly begun living it. And that, it seems, is what underpins my distaste for nostalgia. I slag off the 60s not because they were an utter and complete waste (though come on, the costumes and rhetoric were tacky beyond belief), but because deep down I feared that I had utterly and completely wasted them. They were, after all, the years I was a teenager and young adult, the years that annoying adults were always telling me to enjoy because, blah blah, they're the best years of your life, and you'll never have another chance to do the things you can now, etc., etc., and all I saw was work and school and cops and the army and Vietnam and drugs and impending old age and death.

Anyone who's ever read a self-help book has probably been advised at some point to learn to forgive their parents for past transgressions, whether real or imagined. "They did the best they could with what they knew at the time," is a typical formulation, and one which has gradually become a near-mantra for me, not just with respect to my parents, but to nearly everyone who seemingly wronged me at one time or another. Sitting in that restaurant, wondering if it was really that bad to enjoy a medley of hits from my mid t0 late teens, wondering if those years had really been as barren and unhappy and wasted as I'd always made them out to be, something finally clicked.

If I could forgive my parents, and siblings, and estranged friends and even bitter enemies on the grounds that they had done the best they could with what they knew at the time, shouldn't I be at least willing to consider cutting myself a similar degree of slack? No, my 1960s weren't exactly The Wonder Years or The Love Generation, there was little in the way of romance and lots of running from the law, but all that fear and lust and anger and frustration notwithstanding, I was intensely, fanatically alive, and the world all around me beat with that same manic intensity, like a great thumping heart that called me on to greater feats of madness while simultaneously scaring the living bejeebers out of me.

Would I want to live like that again? Could I? I'm not sure I'd like to find out. There's a pleasure in calmness today that I once would have brutally scorned. But regret is poisonous, and to let it seep into my life the way I've too often done renders calmness all but impossible. You still won't see me making excuses for bell bottoms or patchouli oil, but perhaps I've got to look a bit more closely, maybe even a bit more gently, at the 1960s and the way I spent them. Best years of my life and all that crap... Or so I've been told.

10 May 2006

Telegraph: The Cows Going Home

Sad news: Cody's Books, one of the long-time linchpins of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, is closing. Tom Bates, Berkeley's 60s-retro-style mayor, tries to put the blame anywhere but where it belongs when he says:
It's a terrible blow for us. Cody's is an institution. But they've been struggling for years. It's just part of the changing times we live in. With the Internet and all the other innovations, these (stores) have all taken a hit.
Bates goes on to posit that people feel comfortable in Berkeley's nouveau Fourth Street shopping district on the city's far west side, a suburban-style mini-mall accessible mainly by car, where Cody's will continue to operate another store, but Dave Yetter, from Moe's Books down the block, puts his finger far more accurately and honestly on the problem:
The Berkeley City Council left Telegraph to go to seed with a lack of upkeep and lack of interest. After dark, nobody's here, nowhere.
That's not completely true: there are always beggars, and bums sleeping in doorways, and people willing to sell you drugs (or an unreasonable facsimile thereof), and a fair sprinkling of potential muggers, but thanks to Berkeley's ideological bias against imposing any kind of behavioral standards on "the poor" and "the oppressed," very few people in a position to use the cafes, bookstores and specialty shops that once made Telegraph Avenue one of the most colorful and interesting districts in the Bay Area. Now - especially after dark - it's a depressing and sometimes dangerous slum, a collection point and dumping ground for the human and cultural refuse of the "revolution."

07 May 2006

End Of The Season

Off to Craven Cottage today for the last game of the 2005-2006 season. The last match is always a bittersweet occasion, because while it means summer is nearly here, it also means no football for the next three months, though that's not exactly true this year; there's still the Champions League final, the UEFA Cup final and the FA cup final, and not too long after that, the biggest, most momentous sporting event on the planet (Olympics? You're having a laugh), the World Cup. For those of you who don't follow football, refer to your Harry Potter books. You know the Quidditch World Cup? This is even bigger than that.

This year I've got three teams to cheer for, England, the USA and Australia, and that's not even counting everybody's favourite underdog, Trinidad and Tobago. Togo and/or the Ivory Coast might surprise some people, too. Of course England will always be my first choice, not because I feel like being unpatriotic toward my native country, but a) because I'm infinitely more familiar with the England players from having seen them week in and week out for many years now; and b) because it matters so incredibly much to the English people, whereas all but a relative handful of Americans barely know or care that their country's team is in the finals.

But thanks to the dual misfortunes of Wayne Rooney's broken foot and Sven Boring Eriksson's tenacious pursuit of mediocrity, it's unlikely that England will go far in this year's tournament. Sven will put out his poster boys, David Beckham and Michael Owen, who will look pretty for the cameras and conduct themselves like gentlemen while striving not to get their uniforms dirty, and after we bow out in the group stages or the quarterfinals, Sven will tell the media that he's "pleased with our performance " before collecting his £5 million pay packet and shuffling off to fleece another bunch of suckers his next management post. I have a sneaky feeling - and if I were a betting man, I'd put money on it - that the USA may go farther than England this year, and wouldn't be a source of national humiliation on this side of the Atlantic if it's the USA that puts England out of the Cup?

Two USA players, who also happen to play for Fulham, featured in today's season finale, a closely fought 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough, which was also the last league match for the next England manager (he'll take over after Sven loses the World Cup), Steve McClaren. Given that under McClaren Middlesbrough finished two places below a less than sterling Fulham squad, and that McClaren has been Sven's understudy for some time now, I think we can safely look forward to four more years of mediocrity.

It was an especially emotional occasion for me because it was my last match seated in Section W, Seat F2 of the Riverside Stand, where I've spend the last eight seasons, not counting the two when we were exiled to Loftus Road during the aborted attempt to raze the beloved old Cottage and replace it with a new stadium. As I believe I noted earlier, I've given up my season ticket because I don't expect to be in London enough to put it to good use. In each of the last two seasons I've missed six of the 19 games while away in Australia or the USA, and this coming season I expect to be away even more. The seat didn't go to waste; my seatmate, a delightful Fulham-born-and-bred geezer who's coming to nearly every match for 60 of his 70s years, would use my ticket to bring along his grandson. Now I've decided to let him have the ticket permanently, and while I'll miss him almost as much as I'll miss the football, at least I'll know it's in good hands.

"You can always buy another season ticket if you change your mind," people keep telling me, but what they don't realise is that it might be years, if ever, before I could get a seat anywhere near that good. When I first bought it, Fulham matches typically drew about 10 to 12 thousand, barely filling half the stadium, and you could pretty much sit (or stand) anywhere you wanted. That was when we were in the Second Division; as a Premiership team, we now have an all-seater stadium, most matches are sold out, and the section where I've been sitting, almost directly behind the dugouts, is the most in demand of all.

On my way home tonight I tallied up how much I've spent on football these past eight years, not just on season tickets, but on travelling to away matches all over England, on programmes, fanzines, home and away kits, hats, etc., and it adds up to an horrendous amount. Do I regret any of it? Not a penny. Being a football fan in England today is a very expensive proposition, but for me it's always provided value for money. Even the crappy games - and being a Fulham fan, I've seen plenty - produce such an array of emotions that it's like living a mini-lifetime in 90 minutes.

Although my season ticket is gone now, I won't be giving up on Fulham. I still expect to see every game I can whenever I'm in England next season. But the way things are looking, that might not amount to more than a couple months. And true to form, London begins to look lovelier the closer I come to leaving it (though not at this particular moment, as a gang of druggies and/or drug dealers seems to have been loudly roaming the corridors of my building starting at about midnight, something that hasn't happened in a while). But today, after the match, I walked through Bishop Park along the Thames, then across the Putney Bridge, and all along the way, the nascent leaves covered the trees with the most exquisite shades of green, and the faintest of breezes carried a hint and promise of summer warmth and passion down from a cloud-tangled sky.

So it will be hard to leave, and I've always had difficulties with changes and goodbyes, the result being that I end up trying to live in two (or three) places at once and never feeling completely at home in any of them. I'm trying to change that now, and my goal is that by this time next year I'll have chosen the place I most want to call home. Right now the contest is largely between New York and Sydney, though London and Berkeley haven't been completely X'd out of the competition. Then again, I've always had this sneaking suspicion that I might end up in some small Midwestern town like, say, Ann Arbor, where I misspent my late teens and early 20s and a whole 40 miles from where I started out on the east side of Detroit. Stranger things have happened, and probably will continue to.

05 May 2006

King Dork-a-thon

I predicted it would become a classic, I can smugly say, but to be perfectly honest, I don't think I expected things to happen so fast and furiously for King Dork, published less than a month ago and already into its second printing. It's been consistently selling among the top few hundred books at Amazon. To put that in perspective, I know quite a few authors, but most of their books have tended to languish down around Number 10,000 or, for that matter, 100,000, so I'm pretty excited to be personally acquainted with a Recognised Literary Figure. If you've not been keeping up with developments, I suggest you hop over to Dr Frank's What's-It right now for a full recounting.

Speaking of hopping, I've been reading a collection of John Updike's Rabbit novels, which I had to buy at the Union Square Barnes & Noble after I was unable to find it at New York's humongous legend-in-its-own-mind Strand Books (a big disappointment: overpriced, too reliant on remainders and overstock, and, locals tell me, they offer only derisory amounts when they're buying your books). While there, I was thrilled to discover a big pile of King Dorks and even saw a) a girl reading one; and b) somebody's mother buying a copy. So enthralled was I, not to mention having to fight off the urge to buttonhole passersby and tell them, "I know that guy!" that I never even noticed that the same Barnes & Noble had a display for the comics journal Mome, which features some brilliant work by none other than my brilliant niece, Gabrielle Bell. Modest woman that she is, she's probably going to get annoyed at my constantly hype on her behalf, but the thing is, it's not hype. She really is that good, and even if she refuses to speak to me again on grounds that I'm embarrassing her, at least I'll have done my best to ensure that the whole world has been made aware of her genius.

Back to King Dork, though: the following is what I wrote about it for Punk Planet. Better you should buy the magazine, but if you can't find it or are just too cheap, I might as well post it here, since I don't it's likely to show up on the magazine's website. It goes like this:
Some will argue the point, but most people who were living in the East Bay in the early to mid-80s would agree that it wasn’t the best of times for punk rock.

A handful of true believers kept forming bands and putting on shows in obscure venues that seemed to close down as quickly as they opened, often because of violence, vandalism, and the resultant attention from the police. The few bands that consistently drew large crowds tended to be of the thrash or speedmetal variety, and their audiences were the most violence and vandalism-prone of all.

Supposedly punk was completely passé by then. Depending who you asked, it died after the Sex Pistols’ last show in 1978, or when the Mabuhay stopped doing shows in the early 80s, or when the scene was taken over by skinny-tied New Wavers with synthesizers. My brother, who’d been one of the first people I knew to discover punk back in 1976, sneered when I’d tell him about some gig I was going to.

“There’s always gonna be a few diehards trying to keep the scene alive,” he’d say, but one day in 1983 or 84 he agreed to come along with me to see if what I said was true, that the scene was as vibrant as ever, just more underground. The show we went to was so violent and so bloody that for once I ended up agreeing with him: if this was what punk had come to, I didn’t want any part of it, either.

Around that same time I stumbled across a new DJ on KALX, our local college radio station. During the late 70s, KALX had been at the forefront of the new music scene, but it had since grown largely unlistenable. Most of the DJs dismissed classic melodic punk as “kid stuff” and had moved on to the new speedmetal sound or to an early version of politically correct multiculturalism, which disdained “white boys with guitars” as the ultimate oppressors.

The typical KALX “voice” was ponderous, sententious, and unbearably condescending, which was why it came as such a surprise when I heard Dr. Frank for the first time. For one thing, he sounded as though he actually was in college whereas most of KALX’s other “personalities” could have been auditioning for the NPR Zombie Hour. His voice dripped with adolescent sarcasm and scorn as he relentlessly skewered the sacred cows of the day and made his amateurism on the mike a central feature of his on-air persona rather than trying to cover it up with false gravitas.

He’d make a mockery out of public service announcements, slip in snide comments about campus events or gigs or bands that he thought unworthy of being taken seriously, and most of all, played the kind of music I loved and which had been largely absent from KALX. My friend Richard, who was playing bass in the punk rock band I was trying to get started, had become a Dr. Frank fan, too, and one day at practice told me, “I went over to Berkeley and met that Frank kid. He’s really cool.”

Not too long afterward, I met “that Frank kid,” too, along with his fellow DJs Kenny Kaos and Jon Von, who together with Frank seemed determined to resurrect or maybe even re-invent the whole notion of poppy punk music. Not content simply to play the stuff on the radio, Frank and Jon Von started their own band, the Mr. T Experience, and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that with their first show in late 1985, they began laying the groundwork for the East Bay pop-punk sound that would eventually become famous around the world.

I was one of the early supporters of the Mr. T Experience, and as such was a member of a fairly exclusive club: at the first show I remember attending, I pretty much was the audience. But they soldiered on, built up a respectable fan base, and in 1986 impressed me immensely by putting out their own record. It gave me the inspiration to try the same thing, and I followed in Mr. T’s footsteps when I started making records of my own, right down to using the same pressing plant, printers, recording studio and engineer.

As it happened, the Mr. T Experience eventually wound up on the record label I co-founded in 1987, and their producer/engineer, Kevin Army, played a crucial role in many of the records we released. The Mr. T Experience, while not nearly as active as they once were, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary as a band, which means they’ve outlived nearly all of the bands they helped pave the way for.

Meanwhile, apparently not content with going down in punk rock history, Dr. Frank has taken up a new career, that of author. King Dork, his first novel, comes out this spring, and while it’s replete with the same iconoclastic spirit that’s always characterized Frank’s work, it’s of a whole other order. Even at its best, the Mr. T Experience was always going to be a semi-underground phenomenon: its style and vernacular located it firmly within the punk rock scene, however unfair that might have seemed at times.

But King Dork, while ostensibly the tale of a preternaturally bright adolescent misfit who clearly has a bit in common with the young (and not-so-young) Dr. Frank, taps into far more universal themes, and as such could (and should) reach an audience far larger and more diverse than any of his punk rock records ever did.

Young Tom Henderson, aka “Chi-Mo” and/or “King Dork,” is a tenth-grader at one of those industrial-grade suburban high schools ruled by “jabbering half-human/half-beast student replicants,” where Advanced Placement Humanities consists of making collages and sampling “Foods of the World,” and messianic baby boomers, aka “The Most Annoying Generation,” endeavor to pass on their grooviness and sensitivity to packs of feral, drug-addled and oblivious students.

He and his best (as in only) friend, thrown together through alphabetical happenstance, take refuge in their semi-imaginary band, which changes names, personnel, instrumentation, album titles and songs on a more or less weekly basis. Through hook and crook the boys get their hands on some instruments and play one tumultuous show that changes their lives forever.

That’s the centerpiece of a plot that also includes, in the narrator’s words, “half a dozen mysteries, some dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, mispronunciation skills, a mystery woman, a devil head, a blow job, and rock and roll.”

But hilarious and enthralling as young Tom’s adventures may be, King Dork’s most vital theme – and the one that should make it an enduring classic – is the challenge it lays down to baby boomer hegemony. “You stuck it to the old man, killed half of your brain cells and dumbed down the educational system: you are the greatest generation,” says Tom; he speaks for everyone who’s sick to death of the self-righteousness and sanctimony of those who would have us believe that all of modern history and culture are but a footnote to the 1960s.

He periodically enlivens his tale with sardonic asides aimed at the Groovy Generation, but turns his full wrath and fury on one of the boomers’ iconic texts, The Catcher In The Rye. It’s “every teacher’s favorite book,” it “changed their lives when they were young,” they “carried it with them everywhere they went,” he notes patronizingly, before adding, “I’ve been forced to read it like three hundred times, and don’t tell anyone, but I think it sucks.”

Apparently he’s not alone. During a recent family visit, my 16-year-old cousin saw my copy of King Dork, and wondered why the cover so closely resembled that of The Catcher In The Rye (it’s actually a defaced version of the original CITR cover). I explained, and asked if he’d ever been required to read The Catcher In The Rye, and he practically spat out, “Man, I hate that book.”

That night at dinner, he said, “Mom, Larry knows this guy who wrote a book that totally bags The Catcher In The Rye. Will you please buy it for me?” Frank is clearly onto something here; in fact, I can easily see teenagers carrying King Dork around everywhere they go and, a couple decades from now, holding it up to their own children as “this great book that changed my life.”

I wonder how Frank would feel if his book became an iconic text for a new generation, if one day kids are required to read it in school as an illustration of changing mores and values in the early 21st century. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that happens; the book is that good, and the only people I’d like to see read it more than the kids of today are the members of my own generation, the much (and deservedly) maligned baby boomers.

And maybe 50 years or so from now, some kid, sick of being required to read King Dork in his Advancement Placement English class, tired of being told by well-meaning teachers that “this is the book that helped define a generation,” will grow up to write his own anti-King Dork, challenging all the comfortable assumptions and preconceptions will by then have grown up around it. I suspect that for Frank, that will come as the greatest tribute of all.

London Redux

The weather finally got it together to produce a perfect almost-summer day in both New York and London, and I spent most of it suspended in mid-air somewhere between the two cities. But the sun was still shining (for me, anyway, if not for Tony Blair) when I landed at Heathrow at 6:30 Friday morning, where I and the human contents of 17 other jumbo jets (we're all doing our bit for global warming, but let me tell you, I still needed a jacket tonight) then got to spend two hours in the customs queue waiting for three harried agents to ask each and every one of us how long we were staying and what the purpose of our visit/stay was. Having been through this business upward of 50 or 100 times in recent years, it occurs to me that you can make up practically any story you want, so long as it's plausible and/or (preferably) interesting.

I also learned that if you're trying to do something marginally dodgy (like the time in 1992 when I was wheeling in a hand truck of several hundred Green Day records for the band's tour for which I rightfully should have paid double their list price in import duties), what seems to work best is if you inundate them with far more information than necessary (again going for the plausible and/or interesting factor). I think I was just getting started on the biographical data for all three members of Green Day (and possibly the original drummer too) when a weary customs official said, "Never mind," and waved me through, completely duty-free. Who knows, perhaps it was Green Day's ability to sell their merchandise at Stateside prices that first helped set them apart from the pack in the UK, and for that we can thank HM Revenue and Customs and my big mouth.

They were still counting the votes from Thursday's local elections when I landed, but the extent of Labour's dismal showing had already been widely reported, and by the time I got home (the two-hour customs queue followed by a slo-mo ride on a packed Piccadilly Line train that crawled along at half speed because the first warm (a blazing 24C/77F) day of the year had made the Tube tracks "unsafe." This happens like clockwork (one of the few things about the Tube that can be said to have anything in common with clockwork) every time we have a "heat wave" (i.e., above room temperature), but if you're wondering either a) why someone hasn't yet put two and two together and figured out that it gets warm (at least once or twice, anyway) every summer and that perhaps maybe something should be done to the tracks to prepare them for this eventuality; or b) how a nation incapable of running a Toonerville Trolley across its capital under any but the most temperate of conditions managed to march conquering armies across tropical colonies around the world, don't bother. That was then, this is now. From an imperial arrogance that took for granted that all the world could benefit from a bit of British paternalism and know-how to a genial, self-deprecating cluelessness in little more than a century. One might suggest that America has embarked on a similar downward trajectory except that it's hard to picture America ever being genial or self-deprecating about its brand of cluelessness.

Anyway, Tony Blair has responded to his election debacle, not to mention his Home Secretary's having been found to know next to nothing about either the convicted prisoners or illegal immigrants he's supposed to be in charge of and chubby John Prescott's penchant for touching up the help in rather crude and vulgar ways, by firing half his Cabinet. The only trouble is that he's already had to replace most of the original first-stringers due to previous scandals, and now that he's having to sack the second-stringers he replaced them with, he's stuck with promoting some of the rankest incompetents and nonentities to the highest posts in the land. For instance, the new Home Secretary, John Reid, has previously distinguished himself for little more than trying to scupper the (tobaco) smoking ban on grounds that it was oppressive to the working classes and for the cannabis that was recently found at his home. Apart from Gordon Brown, whose hopes of ever making it to Number 10 look to be steadily receding, and Jack Straw, and of course the egregious but hilarious Prescott, who I assume has some incriminating photos of Tony Blair - how else to explain his tenacious hold on office? - almost no one remains from the New Labour superstars of 1997.

The Conservatives got the most votes, followed by the Liberal Democrats, with Labour bringing up the rear, unless you count the British National Party, which is gaining in political power and respectability almost as fast as Labour is losing it. There hasn't even been as much hand-wringing as might have been expected over the far-right party's winning at least 13 local government seats, its best showing ever. Look for one or more of the major parties to suddenly "discover" that crime and immigration are major issues with the great unwashed and to attempt to adjust their policies accordingly without, of course, changing anything much at all.

Still, life goes on in the big city. A second consecutive semi-warm day saw half-dressed Brits congregating and passing out on the pavements outside pubs and beer gardens all across town, and there's a heady feeling that we'd better make the most of this taste of summer, since most of us know from bitter experience that two beautiful weeks in May are sometimes all we get before a deep dark depression moves in off the Irish Sea (they're moody, those Celts) and ushers in three months of rain. As for me, my time here is limited: a deal has been done, and the Larry Livermore road show relocates to New York City (well, Brooklyn, but that's close enough) on or around the first of June. I expect to be back in London - at least temporarily - this autumn, but one never knows, does one?

03 May 2006

God Forbid The Neighborhood Should Improve

We've already established, albeit in the face of some protesting voices, that much of Oakland, California is a pretty crappy place, beset with a soaring murder (up nearly 100% over the past year) and robbery (up 55%) rate in the past year, and this tends to keep rents marginally lower than in many other parts of the astronomically-priced Bay Area.

So it's entirely predictable that artists, punks and other similarly shifty characters would start showing up (they could also move to El Cerrito, which offers similar rents and public transport links, but doesn't confer the same hipster credentials), and even more predictable that the fusty old Bay Guardian would be viewing with alarm anything that challenges the status quo of crime-ridden slums, which its editors seem to believe are the rightful province of "the poor" and, of course, the ever popular "people of color."

The Guardian, published by and for largely white, aging baby boomers who still haven't been able to accept that the 1970s are over, has been one of the leading advocates of slum preservation throughout its existence, even while playing its own part in gentrification by moving its offices into the Mission District. That, of course is "different." The Guardianistas are not interlopers, they would no doubt insist; they are committed to being part of the "the community." In other words, exactly what every other artist, punk, hippie, hipster, or businessperson moving into the Mission has said at one time or another.

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy to see new people moving into the Mission. I never saw the point of those who thought San Francisco had an obligation to maintain a poverty-ridden, Spanish-speaking ghetto in the heart of the city. I'm similarly happy to see adventurous souls who are willing to put up with the dangers and unpleasantness of Oakland, because it's only through many more of them moving in that the city is ever going to change.

And no, all the change won't be better, and yes, at some point it may improve so much that many current residents won't be able to afford to live there anymore. So what's your alternative? Leave it a slum? Let's face it: based on most available evidence, the current residents haven't exactly been the greatest stewards of the land.

The best point, rather quickly glided over by the worried Guardian writer, was that, as one of the new gallery owners correctly pointed out about the lower Telegraph area, very few people live there now. It reminded me of a similar brouhaha about ten years back when we opened the Lookout Recordshop on a similarly bleak stretch of University Avenue in downtown Berkeley.

I wrote a half serious, half tongue-in-cheek article about how we hoped to enliven the neighborhood by making it an interesting and attractive place for new businesses and residents, only to be denounced in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll as an apostle of gentrification. When I tried to point out that many of the shopfronts in the area were vacant, and that almost no one lived there, I was shouted down, which prompted me to remind the writer that he had just moved his business into a warehouse in the Mission. "That's different!" he bellowed (see above), and slammed the phone down. I later learned that he had slammed it down so hard that he broke his hand, which should have provided some satisfaction, but he was otherwise a nice guy, and so it didn't.

Anyway, the Lookout Recordshop failed to prosper and the neighborhood is still bleak and filled with vacancies, so I suppose justice and progress have been well served. Or at least the bums still have plenty of doorways to sleep in, which always adds a bit of color and authenticity to a city's downtown, right? Let's hope the artists in downtown Oakland make a better go of it, though I'm not holding my breath.

02 May 2006

The Content Of Our Character

I don't normally have too much good to say about NPR, and inevitably end up comparing it unfavorably with the BBC and the Australia's ABC. But when it comes down to it, most of my objections to NPR are of the superficial variety. Specifically, I don't like a) the constant pledge drives coupled with the commercials masquerading as "underwriting announcements; b) the almost terminal smugness of many of its presenters, as in, "We're doing SUCH an important service to America here, so you should really appreciate how great we are;" c) the reluctance to say anything more controversial than, "Gosh, that President Bush isn't the brightest of fellows, is he, tee hee;" and d) the most maddening of all, the snippets of annoying and/or atonal music they insist on playing between each segment, apparently broadcast in the belief that Americans have the attention spans of hyperactive fleas and couldn't possibly sit there listening quietly to several bits of information in a row without going into cognitive overload.

The pledge drives and commercials probably can't be avoided as long as NPR can't rely on the kind of public funding the BBC and ABC enjoy, and as for the personality disorders of its staff, well, I don't know what can be done about that. Community radio, like community anything, exerts an inordinate attraction on those who have trouble functioning in a normal competitive environment, and Gresham's Law of People Who Are A Pain In The Ass (adapted from Gresham's Law of Monetary Value, generally rendered as "Bad money drives out good") dictates that those who are most constant and persistent in their annoyingness and boringness end up rising to the level of station managers and national on-air "personalities."

All that notwithstanding, when I'm in the USA and don't fancy the rabid red-meat entertainment of AM talk radio (something sadly missing from the ever-moderate British Isles), I have little choice but to tune into NPR. And eventually I end up conceding that despite my complaints, it's not all bad. In fact, I've heard a fair bit of good programming this week, most recently an interview this afternoon with Shelby Steele, who was saying, more articulately than I've thus far managed, pretty much exactly what I've been saying for a few years now: that the prime villains behind the alarming growth of the black underclass are misguided welfare and affirmative action programs.

Steele, promoting his new book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, also stated that in his opinion white racism is no longer a major issue, at least not to the extent that it could be used as a valid excuse for anyone failing to make the most of the opportunities available in contemporary American society. This was certainly not the case only a few decades ago, he readily acknowledges, but goes on to say that the cultural transformation that has taken place since the mid-60s is one with few parallels in human history.

In 1965, he said, racism was a tacitly and often openly woven into the fabric of everyday American life; today it is rightly seen as a social disease, something to be ashamed of and apologized for. This of course flies in the face of those who see intractable racism at work every time a black person fails at anything, but that attitude, often promulgated most militantly by whites with an ax to grind, does a huge disservice to blacks, because it tells them implicitly that without help from the Great White Father (i.e., the institutions, public and private, who hand out welfare and affirmative action places), they really don't have what it takes to make it on their own merits.

The greatest victims of this philosophy, Steele points out, are the gifted and talented young black people who normally would be competing with the best and brightest of their peers of all races for jobs and university places, but thanks to affirmative action, need only make a half-hearted effort. Of course it's not only the individuals thus affected who suffer; society as a whole misses out on what these young people would have accomplished had they been required to exert themselves to the fullest of their abilities.

Secondarily, of course, every black person who does rise to a position of prestige and responsibility does so under a cloud; no matter how hard he or she worked for that achievement, no matter how clever and well-educated he or she may be, there will always be grounds for suspicion that they were given a built-in advantage because of their skin color. Of course one could argue that whites have had just such an advantage for centuries, but a) that's rapidly ceasing to be the case; and b) while whites may have had an advantage in getting hired, few bosses are going to be afraid to criticize and/or fire them for fear of being called a racist if they turn out to be incompetent.

Steele reserved some of his harshest criticism for the welfare rights movement of the late 60s and early 70s, which, though it used poor, black single mothers as its shock troops, was primarily led by left-wing whites, many of them hoping to undermine "the system" by bankrupting it. Steele is not opposed to welfare per se - few human people are - but against the principle that handed out "free money" without requiring anything in return from its recipients. Nobody insisted that they try to find employment, acquire an education or job training, try to keep a family together, or even use the money to feed the children it was ostensibly intended for. As the title of Steele's new book implies, it was more a means of assuaging white guilt than effecting meaningful social change, unless massive increases in prison populations qualify under your definition of social change.

Someone inevitably phoned in to accuse Steele of selling out his fellow blacks, but as he pointed out, the viewpoints he's putting forth, widely derided as "conservative" or "right wing" are virtually identical to those of Martin Luther King and the early civil rights marchers. They weren't demanding special treatment or compensation or free money. What they wanted - and this is why their message touched the hearts of people of good will, regardless of race - was a fair chance to compete on an equal footing for all that America had to offer. True, there are those who quote Dr. King to prove all sorts of points, even diametrically opposed ones, but it's pretty hard to argue with his dream that one day people would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

But every time someone accuses someone like Shelby Steele (or, for that matter, any black person who breaks ranks with the prevailing ideology of welfare and affirmative action) of treachery or not being "truly black," one can almost imagine Martin Luther King rolling over in his grave. Was this what he marched for, went to jail for, ultimately died for? So that black people think only in lockstep and function as a class permanently dependent on the magnaminity and/or guilt of white America? I'm pretty damn sure not.

01 May 2006

Sunburned In Bushwick: The Video

Actually, I was under the impression that I was going to East Williamsburg, and wasn't told until I was back in the vicinity of Bedford Avenue that I had spent much of the day in the somewhat less salubrious (or so I am told) confines of Bushwick.

Perhaps I should have inferred from the rolls of razor wire topping the eight-foot-high fence surrounding the compound apartment building where Crystal and Co. were filming a three-minute rock video for Binghamton, NY band Nancy that we weren't in the best of neighborhoods, but really, it didn't seem bad at all, and when I was leaving, I noticed that razor wire notwithstanding, someone had left the gate wide open much of the afternoon without our having been stormed by the Visigoths.

Filming took place on the rooftop, enabling us to have a semi-spectacular (i.e., obscured by numerous high-rise housing projects) view of the Manhattan skyline and to acquire prodigious sunburns (I thought I had acquired immunity to the puny Northern sun during my summer in Australia, but apparently not).

Despite my many years in the music business, this was only, I think, the third time I'd been present for the filming of a video. The last time was probably at least ten years ago, and I'd forgotten how tedious it can be. Not, I'm sure, for the band members or the film crew, for whom the excitement of making and being a part of art must be absolutely fascinating, even intoxicating (the quart of Jack Daniels consumed by the band members in the course of the first half hour or so may have had something to do with that as well), but for audience and/or extras, it's not exactly like the three minutes of pure adrenaline and scantily clad women you see on MTV (though Phrank Martian, apparently co-leader of the Nancy enterprise, did repeately offer/threaten to strip down and add a bit of nudity to the proceedings).

Instead, it's repeated takes, often without rhyme or reason to the non-professionals among us, often of the same line or two of the song, frequently interrupted for minutes or hours by scripting discussions or band members gone missing in the bathroom. Those of us who were extras had plenty of time to get in character for our parts, which, perhaps fortuitously, required us to act bored, disinterested, jaded and oblivious. Since most of us are members of the Pop Punk Message Board, very little acting was required.

I had to leave about half an hour before filming was completed, but fortunately my absence was more than compensated for by the appearance on the scene of three chain-smoking Hasidic Jews in full regalia, who didn't take much persuading to jump into the action themselves, although I don't think they ended up playing instruments, which would have been a nice touch. I spent the rest of the evening helping someone move from Williamsburg to Greenpoint and sitting about philosophizing and pontificating, which seems to come naturally in those environs, not that I ever needed any geographical encouragement.

Another development of the day: it seems an opportunity has come up to move to New York this summer. Actually, even sooner; just about a month from now. It's only temporary, at least for now, but since I've been hankering to do just that for, oh, several years now, it's a very tempting offer. It's just that I wasn't ready for it to happen quite that soon. Isn't that always the way, though? A choice of too soon or never. Well, I have to decide within the next two and a half days, and I am leaning strongly in favour favor (if I'm going to move to New York, I have to start talking American again!) Stay tuned. If, of course, you're at all interested.