29 October 2006

Bono ≠ Billie Joe

An excerpt from Marc Spitz's new Green Day biography appears in today's Chronicle, and it looks pretty good. I met Marc a couple months ago at a Rancid show in New York, and was impressed with his enthusiasm not just for the band, but for the East Bay scene they came out of. Although Marc wasn't around during those days, he seems to have taken good advice and talked to a lot of the right people; among those quoted, in addition to family members, are Operation Ivy's Jesse Michaels, Jello Biafra, Tim Armstrong, and (Dr.) Frank Portman. About the only factual error I noted was the now almost ubiquitous misspelling of MRR honcho and Gilman Street co-founder Tim Yohannan's name. People, it's NOT "Yohannon," no matter how many times you've seen it written that way. But apparently that's how it's going to go down in history.

But I would have to take issue with Marc on one thing, admittedly one that's just a matter of differing opinions. In the Chronicle excerpt, he hangs his narrative on Green Day's recent collaboration with U2. Identifying Green Day as part of his own 30-something Gen X demographic, Marc claims this made him "proud," and cemented Green Day's position as "a similarly important band."

Well, far be it from me to deny him his generational pride, or to quarrel with him about the merits of U2. I can't stand them, but I'm well aware that millions of people think they're great. Like them or not, though, they're a band from another era and another ethos who had absolutely nothing to do with the scene that Green Day comes from. The idea that appearing on stage or U2 confers any kind of validation rubs me the wrong way. If anything, I'd say the opposite was true.

Okay, it was for a good cause, and I don't mean to criticize that aspect. But to suggest that Green Day have "arrived" because they're now deemed "worthy" of appearing as equals with yesteryear's rock heroes obscures the point: Green Day are far and away the biggest and most important rock and roll band on the planet. They don't need U2. If anything, the opposite is true.

Maybe Green Day took a studied, ego-free decision to work with U2 because they knew it would help raise more money for the cause than if the two bands had done something separately. In that case, I take my hat off to them, and withdraw my criticism. But it kind of reminded of a time at the beginning of the 90s when Green Day were beginning to break out of the Gilman ghetto and were offered a spot opening for Bad Religion on an upcoming tour.

I argued against it. "You don't need those guys," I said (bear in mind that Bad Religion were one of my favorite bands). "You're big enough to be headlining shows on your own now. Bad Religion should be opening for you, at least in Northern California, anyway."

I was probably being a little hasty and/or chauvinistic; at the time Bad Religion were still selling way more records than Green Day. But as much as I liked Bad Religion, there was no doubt in my mind that Green Day were a far better band. I didn't like the image that was being conveyed, that Green Day were somehow acquiring legitimacy by opening for them.

If it were a co-headlining tour, where Green Day and Bad Religion were treated as equals, I wouldn't have had a problem with it, but there was a distinct attitude coming from the Bad Religion camp of "We're doing you guys a favor." I thought this could have been my imagination until I came across an account in Ben Myers' unauthorized Green Day biography that has Bad Religion's Jay Bentley grousing about how "we took you guys out on the road all the time" and how it was "horse shit" that Green Day, now that they were massive, wouldn't offer them an opening spot.

You know, now that I think about it, having Bad Religion for an opening act on a current Green Day tour wouldn't be such a bad idea. It would certainly be an improvement over most if not all of the opening acts they've had in recent years. But it should be because Bad Religion are a great punk rock band, not because of any favors - real or imagined - from 15 years ago. And - a dark thought just crossed my mind - please, PLEASE don't let Green Day ever stoop to touring with U2. I wouldn't even care which band opened; it's just too awful a concept to contemplate.

Progress Report

The radio (BBC, anyway, and maybe NPR) has lately been reminiscing about the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising, both of which happened 50 years ago this autumn. The rather sobering fact is that I remember both of these events.

The Suez business, it's true, made little sense to my 8, almost 9 year-old self, but I was intrigued enough by the headlines to ask my dad what it was about. The images of Hungarian rebels being routed by Soviet tanks came through loud and clear, however, and though the story was undoubtedly pumped up by the resolutely anti-communist nuns at my school, I burned with indignation and outrage, demanding that my parents explain why President Eisenhower hadn't sent our army to the rescue. 1956 was my year for finding out that life was often unfair, and that it was not at all unheard of for the good guys to lose badly.

I've always tended to trace my bad attitude about society, authority and life in general to that year, though I realize now that it had much earlier origins, probably dating back to age 3 or 4. I know that by the time I started kindergarten in 1952, I was already pretty much convinced that I was getting a bum deal; the only difference was that I hadn't yet got it into my head that there was anything I could do about it.

But I'll spare you the child psychology lesson; the real point of bringing up my recollections of 1956 was that I have such recollections at all. It seems like only yesterday that I was marveling that 40 years had passed since major events like the Vietnam War or (okay, not of quite the same magnitude, I know) my high school graduation. Now I'm starting to remember things that happened half a bloody century ago!

In case you hadn't already known or guessed, yesterday was my birthday, and being still confined to my little room by a non-functioning foot, it served as a perfect day for plowing through boxes of old photos, journals, books and memories. I wasn't exactly wallowing in the past, though I know I leave myself open to such accusations. But as I'm sure I've mentioned a couple times, I'm in the midst of winnowing out whatever is worthwhile from about 40 years worth of keepsakes and memorabilia and dumping the rest.

The first thing that popped up this morning was an old passport, issued around this time of year in 1977. I was immediately startled to see that in my photo I didn't look remotely punk, even though this would have been taken at a time when I was becoming a leather-clad, dyed and spiked-hair, coke-snorting regular at the Mabuhay Gardens. On the contrary, the picture looking back at me was that of a very normal looking fellow with a conservative, slightly floppy haircut in its natural color, wearing a hippie-cum-lumberjack flannel shirt and a slightly knowing smile.

Not a bad looking guy, either, I would have thought, if I hadn't known it was me, and that at the time that picture was taken, I was at one of the lowest points of my life, at least emotionally. This was confirmed moments later when the next item I unearthed turned out to be the set of journals I'd kept from 1976 to 1979. I more or less recognized the handwriting, but apart from that, I had a hard time identifying with them, as they seemed to have been written by The Most Miserable Man Alive. If not the most miserable, certainly someone whose primary activity in life was feeling sorry for himself. When, that is, he wasn't busy blaming everything and everyone else in the world for his never-ending troubles.

I keep saying "he" because it really is hard to accept that this pathetic creature really could have been me. Or so I say now, but really, as I was reading, I was well aware who was being talked about, because my eyes kept tearing up at the pain this guy so clearly felt. When, that is, they weren't watering with laughter at the sheer bombast and self-importance intermingled with the self-pity and self-loathing. "You were on drugs and/or booze pretty much the entire time," I kept reminding myself when wondering how someone, anyone - let alone me - could be so thoroughly oblivious and obnoxious, but even still, I was a complete and utter lunatic. It's a wonder anyone could have spent ten minutes in the same room with me, let alone attempt to conduct a serious relationship, which several people were unwise enough to do.

From the complexity of my love life - real or attempted, it wasn't always clear - it might almost seem as though I possessed a certain charisma, but then so does a train wreck, which is what my life mostly closely resembled. People came and went - mostly went, true - with dizzying rapidity, and most of the time I barely noticed, so caught up was I in endless self-regard. On one hand, I was obsessed with love and falling in love, and even more obsessed with persuading some supremely desirable but absolutely unattainable (apparently I was unable to see that the two went hand in hand) person to give me their unquestioning and total devotion (at which point, of course, I would lose all interest in them). On the other hand, I spent at least half my time lamenting about how hideously old and ugly and deformed I was, and urging myself to accept the obvious fact that I was washed up, over the hill, doomed to a lonely and ascetic old decrepitude. I had, after all, been feeling this way ever since I was 25, and now I was nearly 30! The idea that I was still alive was almost indecent in itself.

I would go on feeling much the same way for many years afterward, and, if I'm perfectly honest, I'd have to acknowledge that such doubts and self-hatred haven't completely left me even now. For instance, a couple times in recent years I've been filmed for VH1 specials about Green Day, and in both cases, I've refused to watch the shows because I was afraid of what I'd look like on TV. Ironically, just last night, someone on the Pop Punk Mesage Board posted a Youtube link to one of the shows, and I decided to have a look at it. Apart from being surprised that so much of it was about Green Day and so little about me, I have to admit it wasn't bad at all. I mean, it was a good story, well presented, and made me feel good about Green Day all over again, but like any true narcissist, of course, I was mostly interested in how I would look in it.

And the answer was, not bad, not bad at all. Okay, definitely not a kid anymore, but who wants to look at a 59 year-old kid anyway? To me the amazing thing was that I could look at myself not only without cringing, but with even a bit of self-approval and appreciation. Something I could never have done 30 years ago, when I was only half this age. Interesting. Well, to me, anyway, but as we've already seen, I'm completely self-obsessed. So I won't blame the rest of you if you've skipped over this whole section.

As for the progress referred to in the header, I originally meant to tell you about my foot, which might be marginally less interesting to you than my old photos or neurosis-steeped journals. Nevertheless, after quite a rough week, with a fair bit of pain, yesterday marked a turn for the better. For the first time I was able to move my toe around without pain, and could also walk around the room with only minor discomfort. I haven't been outside in a couple days, which is frustrating, because yesterday and today have seen some absolutely fabulous weather, maybe some of the last we'll see in this corner of the Northern Hemisphere until spring. But lying around with my feet up, as recommended by the doctor, seems to be doing the trick. I'm beginning to believe I may walk again after all!

Apart from that, thanks to all of you for the phone calls, emails, myspace messages, etc. wishing me a happy birthday. For a while there they were coming through so thick and fast that I was worried I wouldn't have sufficient time to do my usual birthday brooding.

But never fear, I got done just about everything I'd hoped to, and what I thought might be brooding turned out to be something a good deal more positive. In fact, the header for this article originally read "(Lack Of) Progress Report" but I had to go back and correct it, because for once I could unhesitatingly say yes, you know, I actually have made a little progress. Maybe even more than a little. The fact that that miserable wretch from the 1970s now seems like a tragicomic stranger is a pretty big deal in itself. And my foot's getting better, too? Excellent birthday all round, I'd say.

24 October 2006


I thought that being confined to bed and/or this tiny room for a few weeks while my foot recovered would give me a great opportunity to do some serious blogging.

After all, there's not a whole lot else to do here. No TV, no stereo, no DVDs, though I finally borrowed the original Star Wars trilogy that I had given to my nephew for Christmas last year and watched it on my laptop. It was sensational, even better than I remembered from decades ago. But that was about it. I had three P.G. Wodehouse novels, an AM-FM radio, and an internet connection. Considering the ridiculous amount of time I normally spend on the internet anyway, I figured, now that I didn't need to make excuses or feel guilty about wasting time that I could be using more productively, I'd stay online about 20 hours a day and produce the blog equivalent of a three-volume novel.

Well, I was on the internet a lot, though not as much as I expected, because it was too uncomfortable to sit up, and trying to type while lying down, I discovered, can be downright painful. But not a word of blogworthy content found its way onto my screen. I did a fair bit of posting on the Pop Punk Message Board, read newspapers from around the globe, checked all my friends's blogs several times a day for new entries, and thought of a thousand and one things I really needed to tell the world about here, but it was as though my typing fingers had gone mute. Even now it's taking a supreme effort of the will to stay up writing instead of going to bed.

It's the longest I've gone without posting anything here since I started this blog, and I guess - no, I don't guess, I know - that I feel guilty about it. Why, I don't know. It's not as if any of you out there have paid me to do this, and I haven't had any anguished letters or calls from people distraught over the lack of news or opinions from chez Livermore. I guess I just have the inbuilt tendency to set myself tasks and then torment myself if I don't religiously carry them out regardless of whether or not they have a point. A legacy of Catholic school, I suspect.

But before I digress further, a progress report: yesterday - day 12 of the post-surgery process - was my first day walking without crutches, which rather surprised me, since I'd been expecting to be laid up a lot longer than that. I thought I'd be mostly confined to bed for about four weeks, but by last Thursday, day 9, I made my first venture out on my own, hobbling three arduous blocks on crutches up to Shattuck and University for a much longed-for burrito. I had to stop every hundred feet or so to rest - using crutches gives your arms a serious workout, for those of you who haven't had the experience - and had to move very slowly and carefully so as not to be trampled or knocked over by rowdy groups of high school students to whom I might as well have been invisible.

It was a crash course in being old and infirm. Before she died, I used to take Olivia out to do shopping or to the doctor, and I'd learned to be patient with how slowly she moved, how cautious she was about crossing streets, refusing to start out unless the light had only just turned green. But now I could see what it must have been like to be her, and maybe what it will be like for me someday, though hopefully when I'm a lot older than I am now.

But for now I'm very optimistic about making a full recovery and being able to run around again at least as well and as quickly as I used to. It might be a while yet - today, withoug my crutches, it was all I could manage to half walk/half shuffle to the end of my block and back. Any further than that and I've got to drive - something else I wasn't supposed to be able to do for a few weeks, but which has been no trouble at all for a few days now.

Tomorrow is the day I get my stitches out, and hopefully some advice from the doctor about just how far I can push myself without risk of damaging my new big toe. I've even - no doubt in a fit of delirious optimism - considered flying out to Gainesville this weekend for the amazing punk rock fest. Saturday happens to be my birthday, and I can't think of many better ways to celebrate, especially since many of my East Coast friends will be there as well.

But practically speaking, the idea is probably sheer madness. Getting there would be no problem - BART to the airport, and a rental car to get me around Gainesville - but so far I'm not able even to wear a shoe on my bad foot. Can you imagine being in a jampacked punk rock club and trying - hoping against hope, really - to make sure nobody will step on it? So unless the doctor tells me tomorrow that I can start wearing a normal shoe again this week, the trip is out of the question. But just in case, I've got a room reserved in G-ville...

What else? I've been devoting much of my time here to sorting out and throwing out much of the cultural detritus that's been accumulating in this room for the past 12 years. It's my intention to sever my last remaining ties to Berkeley as soon as my foot's back to normal, and that means getting rid of, or finding a good home for, hundreds of records, CDs, zines and other assorted memorabilia. Some of it's probably eBay-able, like a test pressing for the Operation Ivy LP or the first pressing of Jawbreaker's Unfun LP on blue vinyl, but so much more of my stuff falls into the t00-good-to-thr0w-away-too-useless-to-keep category that I despair at the thought of sitting here for weeks or months running several hundred online auctions.

I've already found someone who wants my old copies of Maximum Rocknroll, but even that's not simple: the reason I've hung onto them as long as I have is that they contain columns I wrote back in the late 80s and early 90s that I don't have computerized copies of. Eventuallly I want to put some or all of my old columns up on my long-delayed website, so I've been typing them into the computer. An interesting experience, and a slightly traumatic one.

It's not just the tedium and the risk of repetitive strain injury (how data entry clerks do this eight hours a day for years on end, I'll never know), but the unsettling realization that the Lawrence Livermore who wrote those late-80s columns was precisely the kind of left-wing hippie wackjob I'm constantly inveighing against these days. At one point I considered just dumping all the magazines and forgetting I'd ever written those columns. Ben Weasel said he'd had a similar experience, and ended up deciding that, "Out of five years I had maybe 4 columns worth reprinting." But, he added, "What the heck, it was cheaper than a writing class and probably more instructive."

Which is kind of how I feel about it now. Tonight I typed a copy of something from the spring of 1988 where I was threatening to single-handedly bring down the government because Ronald Reagan was supposedly leading us into a new Vietnam in Central America. Apparently I'd just come back from one of those impromptu marches down Market Street and was mightily fired up. What Reagan had done on this particular occasion was to order some US troops into Honduras, something which today I honestly have no memory of. I think I'm pretty safe in saying that it didn't lead to the wholesale machine-gunning and napalming of Honduran peasants that I was predicting at the time.

But having this kind of political/ideological argument with myself is considerably more troubling than having it with the woolly-minded troglodytes or teenage anarchists I usually find it so much fun to ridicule. For one thing, it's me saying all those wacky things, and despite all evidence that it's not wise to do so, I still have a certain regrettable tendency to take seriously what I think and say. But even more disturbing is the thought that popped into my head last night while arguing with my brother, who still subscribes to pretty much the same ideas he and I both had in 1987. Or, for that matter, 1967.

If I had been so spectacularly wrong back then, I thought, who's to say I couldn't be just as spectacularly wrong today? Will I be reading old blogs in the year 2027 and rolling my eyes at what a hopeless nutcase I was back in the oughties? Entirely possible, maybe even likely, given my past track record.

At that point I quickly resolved to give up writing about politics, and maybe to stop having opinions altogether. Don't know how interesting that would be, but at the same time, how interesting can it be for me to go banging on about the same old themes for decade after decade, even if it's from completely opposite sides of the issue? That's another thing I learned from going through my old columns - not just the MRR ones, but also Punk Planet and Hit List - that much of the stuff I write about today, thinking it's a pressing, urgent issue that needs to be brought to the attention of the public immediately, is stuff that I've already been saying, often repeatedly, for 25 years or more now.

Ah well, who I am kidding? I'm probably not going to shut up, even if I should, but at least maybe I'll change the subject a little. Or maybe by reading enough of my old columns, I'll even be converted back in the direction of my bleeding heart pinko former self. I know at one point, where the 1988 L. Livermore was denouncing the cynical sellouts of his generation who no longer cared enough to get out into the streets and protest injustice, I found myself saying "Ouch, this guy has got my number all right." Naff as he was, he was so damned sincere that I didn't even feel like traveling back in time to punch him in the nose.

Anyway, that's what's been going on lately. Thanks for all your kind wishes and even more so for the tangible help, in the form of rides and food, etc., that some of you have offered. A few weeks more and I should be back to my ten-toed, tap-dancing, street-fighting self, but in the meantime, as you can no doubt tell from the foregoing, I've got a fair bit of time on my hands.

10 October 2006

Under The Knife

Today I had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and take the BART to Oakland to get my foot operated on. Just as I was leaving for the train, I remembered either writing or telling someone about my long-standing belief that "something bad happens every time you go to Oakland" that I adhered to through from the 1960s well into the 1980s. And actually, I never completely abandoned that philosophy; it's just that by the 80s I'd been to Oakland a sufficient number of times without something bad happening that I was able to overlook the many other times when it had.

Still, I found myself wishing that my operation had been scheduled for Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley than a storefront "Surgery Center" backing on to the parking lot at Macarthur BART. If nothing else, the odds on my being mugged on the way to being surgically sliced and diced would have been considerably lowered. Though given Berkeley's strict affirmative action policies, I might have been wheeled into an operating room staffed by a multicultural array of homeless people wielding scalpels plucked from dumpsters and stored in stolen shopping carts.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to the "Surgery Center" when I refer to it as a "storefront;" for one thing it was considerably bigger, and now that I think of it, could have had a previous incarnation as a funeral parlor. Which causes me to wonder why they didn't reserve one wing for its original purpose, since I presume any surgery center produces its fair share of potential clients. Probably a bit demoralizing for the patients, though.

My theory that the Macarthur BART parking lot and environs would be relatively mugger-free at 5:45 in the morning proved correct. I don't like stereotyping, but it does seem as though muggers are not big on the early-bird-catches-the-worm ethos (or, if you're not keen on worms, the German variant, Morgenstunde hat Gold im Mund, "The morning hour has gold in its mouth"). So I made it safely to the waiting room where I did a lot of, erm, waiting. They'd told me to be there at 6 am for a 7:30 am operation, which allowed me time to read most of a three-month-old Time magazine purporting to explain why the Israelis and Arabs were mad at each other and leaf through a copy of Sunset offering guidance on "Fall Getaways," none of which I'm likely to be making, as I'll be in a supine position with my foot up in the air for the next month or two.

Apart from filling out a few forms and being giving a copy of the Surgery Center's "Privacy Statement" (yeah, as you can see, I'm so bothered about my medical privacy issues that I'm posting all about them on the internet), there was little else to do apart from submit to the real mugging: forking over the $1699 (surprised, as Patrick later observed, that they didn't make it $1699.95) that wasn't covered by my insurance. "We don't accept personal checks," I'd been told in advance, which made sense, I guess, since what are you going to do to a guy who bounces a check, take back his operation? But when they asked for not just my insurance card, but a photo ID, I wondered, "What? How likely is it that someone is going to sneak in here and get someone else's operation for him? I mean, it's not exactly like taking someone's exam for them in college..." But then I realized - slowly, as I obviously don't have the mind of a criminal - that it would be a fairly easy matter to borrow or purloin someone's insurance card for the purposes of free medical treatment. Say, for example, that mugger had been lurking outside of Macarthur BART. After robbing me and rifling through my possessions, he could have said, "Say, this fellow was due for a foot operation just over there; why don't I impersonate him and get my own foot operated on instead?"

After forking over the old credit card, things swung rather rapidly into action. I had to drink some bitter liquid to limit "gastric secretions," which I presume meant they didn't want me belching or farting while they were cutting me up, and then had a needle inserted into my hand, through which some fluid poured that first made my arm cold and then put me completely to sleep for the next three hours. None of this "count to 10" business, even; I was just out like that. I woke up with a big bandage on my foot, they fed me cranberry juice, crackers and Vicodin, and turned me over to the wonderful and famous Patrick Hynes, who interrupted his duties at Little Type long enough to come collect me and bring me back to El Cerrito where I am now safely holed up at my mother's house until I'm recovered sufficiently to be let loose on my own again. Thanks for all your (as yet unreceived) expressions of concern, but I'll be fine, really.

09 October 2006

In Which Larry Goes To Golden Gate Park And Is Captured By Deadheads

I caught the 1 California bus at the bottom of Nob Hill and found myself sandwiched in among a standing room only crowd of Chinese ladies carting their shopping home, 30-something moms with extraordinarily bulky and expensive strollers (some containing kids; others, inexplicably, not), and a smattering of the usual disgruntled types talking either to the air or themselves. My nearest neighbors, though, were a fresh-faced teenage trio having an earnest discussion about - no, not the scandalous price of illegal drugs these days or the best place to obtain a quick abortion without parental notification - the meaning of the Book of Genesis.

Specifically they were trying to decide whether God had created human beings as intrinsically flawed, therefore predestined to rebel and cock up the program, 0r if the serpent in the garden and the subsequent unleashing of sin upon the world had caught God unawares, therefore - possibly, anyway - calling into question his Godability, as one might put it. I was all set to butt in with my own thesis, something about rebellion being the soul's means of individuating itself and acquiring a personality, but realized I couldn't put it into words any more articulate than those already being used by the kids, and that I would no doubt come off as merely another San Francisco bus weirdo talking to the air and/or myself.

But it put me in a Biblical mood, and I wound up musing on the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not so much the Sodom and Gomorrah bit; it's well known that San Francisco fancies itself as a modern-day S&G, and I don't want to encourage any vainglorious musings of that sort. Fact is, there's nothing notably "wicked" or "evil" about Podunk-By-The-Bay apart from it being a rather singularly smug and boring little place that might best be described by inverting Hannah Arendt's phrase, to wit, the evil of banality.

But yes, I digress again; I was thinking more about this poor fellow Lot, who was told by God that if he wanted to save Sodom and Gomorrah and all their inhabitants from a divine incineration, he need only find ten decent people living therein. As all you Biblical scholars will be aware, he failed to find even one, and down came the fire and brimstone. Well, I was fancying myself a modern-day Lot, challenged to find a reason or reasons why San Francisco should not be destroyed, and in pursuit of that quest, devoted most of my weekend and a small fortune in BART and Muni fares to prowling the streets of Frisco in search of an angry... no, wait, wrong poem... Let's just say, as would Rod Stewart, that I was looking for a reason to believe.

I started out with great optimism. After a week of miserably dank and cold weather, the sun had burst out all over, temperatures were in the mid to high 70s, the air was crystalline, visibility practically limitless, and the bay, the ocean, the hills with their carpetings of rich yellow grass, deep green forests, white and pastel houses, all practically shimmered in the soft October light. At least it looked that way as long as I stayed isolated on a hilltop overlooking the panorama; as soon as I descended into town, it was a clear case of every prospect pleasing and only man being vile, if you know what I mean.

Let's just put it this way: the California temperament, the Northern California, Bay Area temperament, anyway, clashes rather harshly with my own. But there I go straying off into negative territory again, when all I wanted to point out was that this weekend offered, in addition to fabulous weather and scenery (and, let us not forget, several excellent, impossible-to-obtain-anywhere-else burritos), a host of events. There were parades, on land (Columbus Day/Italian Heritage) sea (battleships et al. in conjunction with Fleet Week), and air (the Blue Angels, a US Navy airborne daredevil act, also Fleet Week-related). There was a Cal football game, an Oakland A's playoff game, about half a dozen concerts and festivals, and most of all, there was Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, three days of absolutely free shows on five stages in Golden Gate Park.

Apparently this was the 6th annual HSB, and I'd never even heard of it before. In fact I only found out about it because I was perusing The List, which mostly covers punk and ska-type stuff. I came across one item with about 300 names followed by "free," and when I saw that those names included the likes of Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, I thought, "Well, I probably wouldn't pay to see any of those guys, but who can argue with free? And besides, I love bluegrass and hillbilly music.

So I moseyed on out there for two days running. Granted, I took my time, and both days didn't get there till near the end, but then I wasn't going to see anyone in particular; I was just going to wander around from stage to stage seeing what was on offer. Much as I like the stuff, I have to admit that most bluegrass tends to sound pretty much the same - kind of like one of my other favorite kinds of music, pop-punk - so I figured it would all be pretty good.

One of the first things I stumbled across was Billy Bragg, in a cowboy hat, talking like Tony Blair in a ridiculous cockney-cum-cowboy accent. When I say that, I don't mean to imply that Tony Blair talks in a cockney-cum-cowboy accent (though it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he did), but that BB was doing that same hokey, folksy man-of-the-people thing that Tony does when he yanks out all the glottal stops and launches into a full-estuary attempt to get down with "you guys."

Well, that's what Billy B was doing, only in a more-socialist-hence-even-more-boring manner than Our Tone. "You guys" were walking away in droves as it became clear that Billy was out to shatter even the Jello Biafra blabbermouth standard, but eventually he did sing a song or two, one about the Diggers (the 17th century English variety, not the 1960s Haight-Ashbury kind, though I think in his long, convoluted discourse Billy may have been trying to establish a linkage between the two). There was another one about sleeping under the California stars that was kind of touching and reminded me of how much I used to love this state before another 20 million people moved here, but not having been born here myself, I guess I can't complain too much about that.

Some skinny girl called Gillian Welch, who I guess is a big deal in some circles, just not mine, was singing on the next stage, and she was all right, although I'd been listening to her for about 20 minutes before I realized she wasn't Emmy Lou Harris (I was standing way at the back of a very large crowd). I'd had a headache all day, not the fault of any of the singers/bands, but it wasn't being helped any by the crowds of morons puffing up great clouds of marijuana smoke all around me. You'd think this was some hippie love-in rather than a hillbilly music festival, until it dawned on me that it actually was a hippie love-in, so long as you define "love-in" as a massive crowd of badly dressed stoned and drunk people wallowing and rutting in a vast muddy field. Yes sir, it was just like old times; I'd been to free concerts in this very same location - Speedway Meadows - some 35 or more years ago, and no doubt some of these very same people had been there, too, and had remained stoned ever since.

It's not necessarily pleasant to find yourself suddenly surrounded by the human wreckage of your past, and not just because it makes you think, "Oh my, did I really look that bad when I was cavorting around fields high on pot and acid and talking utter nonsense about, well, about anything that came up, actually?" No, there's also the creeping suspicion that these people, who are basically the same age as me, might come closer than I'd like to think to representing how I too appear to the world these days.

Then there's the young hippies, who I find even more disconcerting in a way. They hadn't even been born in the 60s or 70s when we were committing our moral, ethical and fashion faux pas, yet they have the look, the language, the costumes and the drug abuse down pat, so much so that I'm constantly confusing them with people I used to see in Provo Park or spare changing on St. Mark's Place some three or four decades ago. Which causes me to have a momentary lapse of reason, to think I'm still the same age I was when I was first surrounded by hippies, and simultaneously wonder why all those ridiculous old people are hanging around our groovy young scene.

The usual unsightly bits were on copious display: acres of tie-dye, children watching in slack-jawed boredom as their somewhat feral parents got blotto on bong hits, voluminous hindquarters stuffed (barely) into Indian bedspread dresses, but I also spied a long-haired and bearded fellow passing a joint back and forth with a whole passel of like-minded and coiffed individuals while wearing a NOFX "Never Trust A Hippy" hoodie. Unless I'm missing something here, this may be the first irony-enabled hippie I've come across in 40 years of observing the species.

Anyway, that was all yesterday; today I came back sans headache and with a slightly better attitude. Caught a bit of Richard Thompson, who I've never liked, and had to admit that even though I still don't care much for his singing or songwriting, he is one astounding guitarist. Noted from the sign nearby that I'd missed Elvis Costello for the second day running and wasn't that bothered. Then wandered over into the next meadow and heard something that sounded remarkably like the Grateful Dead, made doubly eerie by the fact that I've seen the Grateful Dead before playing in that very meadow, albeit some 35 years ago. But the closer I got the more they sounded like the Grateful Dead, and the more the crowd looked like a Grateful Dead crowd, complete with gaping, grinning girls doing the twirl and flycatcher dance and swaying drunks with mustaches singing, or rather shouting out the lyrics so badly out of tune that you wonder how much and how often they have to drink and smoke in order such a high order of obliviousness.

It finally dawned on me that a) the band was indeed playing a Grateful Dead song; b) that at least one member of the Grateful Dead, Bob Weir (the one who used to be the baby-faced cutie of the group, but who now sports grizzled mutton chops and looks like the Old Prospector just down from the mountains) was on stage with them; and c) that I was completely and utterly surrounded by Deadheads.

That's where I should have gone screaming for the exits, were there any, but despite the clouds of marijuana smoke wafting at me from all directions, despite the beer belches and other unpleasant eructations of hippies both old and young, despite the youthful Phish fans who danced like Francis the Talking Mule on a diet of Mexican jumping beans, I stuck around because I was actually enjoying the music. They played semi-acoustic versions of about half a dozen Dead songs, including "Dire Wolf" from the one GD album I'll unabashedly admit to liking, Workingman's Dead, and also from that album, "Casey Jones" (the one about driving the train high on cocaine), and an even older Dead chestnut, "St. Stephen," which I first heard at Winterland in 1971, high on about 19 hits of acid. Much to my amazement, I found that I liked the music much better now that I wasn't stoned (contravening the old joke about what one Deadhead said to the other when they realized they'd run out of dope: "Hey man, this music sucks").

In fact I found myself feeling sorry for the near-catatonic crowd around me, who were witnessing a display of musicianship that was simply stunning and yet would probably remember little more than how high or drunk they'd been. But then I also started noticing that there were many others who were enjoying the music every bit as much as me, everything from 70 year-old whitebeards to 14 year-old Bob Dylan fans who went mental when the band launched into an inspired cover of "Like A Rolling Stone" (joined by the aforementioned Gillian Welch on backing vocals and guitar). There were a couple of Rolling Stones covers, too, "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "The Last Time," and, so ludicrous that it was actually kind of cool, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

These were all songs that I'd heard played by the original artists many, many years ago, and yet, thanks to the treatment they were given - a bit of country, a bit of Dead-type jamming, a bit of just hanging out and playing some great old songs - they sounded, if not brand new, still fresh and, well, evergreen. It's painful, at least a little, for me to admit that I went in among the Deadheads and not only survived, but actually enjoyed myself, but there you go. I'm even tempted to suggest that perhaps my generation wasn't entirely worthless after all, though I'm not sure I'm prepared to go quite that far just yet.

But the upshot of it is that by the end of the concert, followed by a walk out to Ocean Beach where I met a group of friends for a bonfire, I was prepared to give San Francisco a pass, at least for now. Can't vouch for how God feels on the subject, but I personally am willing to hold off on the fire and brimstone for a while yet.

Which is just as well, because I've just learned I may be stuck here for as long as two to three months. As some of you know, I'm having surgery on my foot to correct the consequences of the fat stage diver who landed on me at Gilman Street in 1988, and I'm going to be essentially crippled for much of that time, and confined pretty much to bed or near it for the first two or three weeks. So I don't know how much blogging I'll be able to do; maybe a lot, maybe none at all, depending how I feel. But if all goes well, by December my foot should be better than new (they're putting in an artificial joint, so I'm assuming that will be an improvement over this decrepit natural one I've got) and I'll be back in action, hopefully on the far more sane East Coast. I might be posting here one more time before the operation (which is Tuesday), but if not, please wish me well (or not, depending on your inclination).

P.S. The whole Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is funded by one of SF's local billionaires (there are quite a few, apparently), one Warren Hellman, who I don't think has anything to do with the mayonnaise, but you never know. I imagine he must drop a few million on it every year, at least, but he seems to be enjoying it. To tell the truth, if I'd realized you could do that sort of thing with your money rather than just sit around your mansion being grumpy, I might have been more motivated to become a billionaire myself. But you know what, I didn't, and it's a bit late in life to start now, so good for Mr. Hellman and other billionaires who like to give their money away. But knowing that all this music and fun (not to mention all the performers' paychecks) had been underwritten by one very successful investment banker lent a special piquancy to Billy Bragg's rants about the bloody capitalists. He would have been better advised to shut up and sing, which, I forgot to mention, is mostly what Steve Earle did over on the main stage. I was expecting a whole lot of Dixie Chicks-type "Bush sucks" rhetoric from Mr. Earle (a cheap way to wow any Frisco crowd), but apart from urging people to give the finger to the Blue Angels if they should fly over, he mostly stuck to his music which is pretty decent. Okay, a little bland, but decent. Not that I stuck around for the end, but that was Saturday, when I had a headache. Anyway, I'm babbling now; think maybe it's time for bed.

03 October 2006

Dancers Of Size

Also from last week's Bay Guardian: this smirking little piece about Frisco's much-vaunted unionized strip joint, run, ever since a strike and coup d'├ętat some years back, by its strippers and janitors. Now, however, it seems that socialism in stripping may have bumped up against the same economic brick wall that has confounded most other socialist experiments in recent history.

It might not be down to the classical mismanagement of a planned economy, though; the Lusty Lady's problems might be more succinctly summed up by the Yogi Berra-ism: "If people don't want to come, you can't stop them."

But isn't there always a near-limitless market for scantily (or not-at-all) clad female flesh? Not, apparently, if like the Lusty Lady, you adhere to "a broader vision of female beauty." Or as one male employee less gallantly puts it, "People come asking for refunds because they do not want to see girls that they would not want to have sex with even if they were completely drunk."

It must only be a matter of time before a similar trend emerges in professional sports, where teams are unionized, and it's no longer important whether you win or lose as long as the team adheres to "a broader vision of atheletic ability." Come to think of it, I've been supporting and buying season tickets to see just such a team for many years now. Roll on, mighty Fulham!

What A Dump

That would be Berkeley, California, downtown Berkeley, to be precise. I got off the BART at Addison and Shattuck after a torturous ride across town and under the bay that seemed to take as long as the plane ride from London did, and the first thing I saw was six bums having a shopping cart convention, though on closer examination, it seemed as though one of them might have been gathering signatures or registering voters for the Democratic Party. It was difficult to tell, as he was sharing a joint with the rest of them, not that that proves anything, either.

And that was about it. Three o'clock in the afternoon and there wasn't much else shaking on Main Street in the Athens of the West, as they used to call it (it occurred to me today that the person who coined that ludicrous description could have been suffering fom a lisp and was actually saying "Ass End of the West," but never mind). A couple more stores had shut down, no new ones had opened, the streets were filthy, and the overall ambience was that of a Podunk ghetto.

Yes, undoubtedly I'm spoiled and my expectations are skewed by having spent the bulk of this year in Sydney, New York and London, and maybe Berkeley was always going to look bad when the drugs wore off (but in my case, that's been a few years now, and yet it keeps on getting uglier). But then tonight I had to go to Frisco, and it's just as squalid over there, maybe worse. Which leads me to wonder: probably nowhere will you find (in more than one sense of the word) so dense a concentration of people prepared to tell us how to run the world than in Berkeley and Frisco, and yet these self-proclaimed moral titans and political geniuses have managed to run their own once-beautiful towns nowhere but into the ground.

Enough, enough, I hear you say; if you hate it that much, why do you keep coming back there? Honestly, I'm not here on a pleasure trip; although it's always enjoyable to see my family and friends, my primary reason for being here is to have a long-overdue operation on my foot. It also means I'll be stuck here for four to six weeks, possibly longer if it's slow to heal. At least I'll be indoors most of the time with a fast internet connection, though I don't know if I'll be in any condition to type, at least for the first couple of weeks. Anyway, the operation isn't until a week from Tuesday, which should give me ample time to get around town finding a few more things to get riled up about.

Like, for example, the imbecilic Bay Guardian, which editorializes on its front page against Mayor Gavin's campaign to make Golden Gate Park more like New York's Central Park by rousting the drunks, junkies and hippies who live there on a more or less a permanent basis. Oh, but we wouldn't want that, oozes the Guardian, because Central Park - almost universally viewed as one of the world's great urban oases - is "run by and for a private group of rich people."

Okay, I know the Bay Guardian staff have been locked in a bunker doing bong hits since the 1970s, but I can assure them that I have visited Central Park many times - 50, maybe even 100 - and never once been asked for a membership card or my bank statement. Nor have any of the other hundreds of thousands of people who flock there to picnic, play or listen to music, stroll, dance, relax, dream. Okay, Frisco's a small town, so it's never going to attract those kind of crowds, and, face it, Golden Gate Park's location means the weather is going to be too lousy for picnicking and promenading at least 75% of the time. But that doesn't mean, as the Bay Guardian advocates, that it should be turned into a permanent sleepaway camp for the drunk, drug addicted and dysfunctional. Oh, wait, are we talking about Golden Gate Park here, or the San Francisco Bay Area in general? It's not always easy to tell.