30 November 2006

It's Not A Stereotype If It's True

After years of irritating and annoying me with meretricious and obfuscatory bafflegab, academic Terry Eagleton has confounded the odds by coming up with not one, but two cogent thoughts in quick succession. Rather like London buses, you might say.

Shortly after ripping Richard Dawkins a new one on the subject of the latter's silly anti-God screed, Eagleton follows up with this on the subject of ethnic stereotypes:
The Welsh do not take kindly to being regarded as a race of cunning runts permanently coated in coal dust and sheep shit, but they tend to protest rather less hotly when one praises their musical abilities.
He then goes on to take a swipe at Scousers, suggesting:
It is unusual to meet a working-class Liverpudlian who dresses for dinner other than in the sense of putting on a shirt.

29 November 2006

At Last I Can Die A Happy Man

Supporting Fulham Football Club can be a thankless task, and that goes double or triple when Arsenal are involved. Some of my most miserable moments of the last ten years have come at the hands of the Gooners. Sometimes they've beaten us in thumpingly embarrassing fashion, just running all over us as though they were the Harlem Globetrotters and Fulham were a gaggle of poorly disciplined choir boys. Other times they've beaten us narrowly by nicking a goal in the last minute or through one of their slippery Continentals pulling off an egregious dive to win a free kick or a penalty. At least a couple times they've had the cooperation of a dodgy ref like Rob Halsey, who awarded Fulham a fully deserved penalty before taking it back when the Arsenal players made a fuss over it, and subsequently ruled out perfectly legitimate Fulham goal. Both episodes took place no more than 20 yards from where I was sitting, close enough to see the evil grin on Halsey's face.

But by fair means or foul, by dint of overwhelming talent, great luck, superior management skills or a bit of artful cheater, they always beat us. With one exception, that is; the one time that we held them to a 0-0 draw. On that occasion Fulham fans went on cheering long after the players had left the pitch. You'd think we'd won the FA Cup and the European Cup in the same day.

But all that has changed now. Tonight was probably my last Fulham match for the season, possibly longer. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the front row, with a perfect view of the goal into which Fulham landed two picture-perfect strikes before the game was 20 minutes old. In all my years of watching Fulham play Arsenal, I'm not sure I'd ever seen us score two goals in one match, let alone go into halftime not only leading, but having utterly dominated the proceedings.

And it's not as though Arsenal played badly, though I see some commentators making that claim. In fact they played quite well, were always a threat, and it was painfully plain to see that in terms of raw footballing ability and depth, Arsenal are completely out of our league. But for one magical night, Fulham were better. They played almost flawlessly - were it not for the one major error, Liam Rosenior's conceding a dangerous free kick through a mistimed tackle - Arsenal wouldn't have scored at all. But Rosenior made up for that mistake by playing like a superstar for the rest of the match, as did pretty much every Fulham player, even those who've been hobbling around like donkeys in cement boots for much of the season. At one point, with the clock beginning to wind down, they were keeping the ball away from Arsenal with a series of deft passes that looked more like Barcelona than the Thameside plodders we're used to seeing at Craven Cottage.

Only some brilliant saves by Jens Lehmann kept the score from going to 4-1. Overall, he was excellent; the two Fulham goals that did get past him were more or less unstoppable. And with a few exceptions, Arsenal not only played well, but also managed to do so with a bare minimum of shady tactics. There were a few rough challenges on both sides, but none of the barefaced cheating I'd seen in past years. In fact, it was such a treat to watch them that I wouldn't even have been that bothered if they'd managed to beat us. Simply put, it was 90 minutes of top-class, high-intensity football, one of the better games I've ever witnessed in person.

Naturally it makes the experience all the sweeter to have finally seen the Arsenal jinx broken. They were the only major Premiership team I had never seen Fulham beat, and now that I have, well, I don't really feel the need to die and go to heaven yet, but it does make leaving England just a little bit easier. In at least one small way, my work here feels completed.

27 November 2006

Green Skies At Morning

I slept fitfully on Saturday night, which is to say barely at all. Not surprising, I guess, considering the way I'd spent the previous 24 hours.

After a happy Thanksgiving spent with 11 family members and a couple of stray neighbours, I set about packing for Friday's flight to London. First, however, I had to spend an hour and a half at the all-night laundromat on Solano Avenue, which apart from the maniacal bearded hippie intently playing some incessantly beeping handheld video game and who I soon vibed out the door, was completely empty. I highly recommend Thanksgiving night for those who prefer to do their laundry in solitude.

But the packing was presenting a problem. Normally my approach is to get either a mental picture or a written list of what I think I'll need to take, discover that only about half of it fits in my suitcase, and then proceed to remove all the things I really need and stuff my suitcase full of non-essentials, many of which I'll never even get around to unpacking. But this time I wasn't coming up with even the vaguest picture of what to pack. I wracked my brain again and again, but it came up resolutely blank.

So here it was 2 in the morning and I really had to get to bed if I hoped to get any sleep before setting off the airport, and all I'd accomplished was stuffing a smaller suitcase inside of a bigger one because I knew I'd need extra carrying capacity when I came back from London. Finally it sunk in: I didn't need to take anything. The main purpose of this trip was to retrieve the last of my belongings from my soon-to-be-former home. This would be my last trip to London, at least in the capacity of a resident. My dithering about what to pack had been little more than an escape mechanism to stop me brooding about that fact.

It seems like leaving London has been a foregone conclusion for so long now that it no longer needs thinking about, but I was startled to discover this morning while looking through my journal that I didn't make the final decision until September 30, not even two months ago. But events once set in motion take on a life of their own, and now I'm in no position to do anything other than go with the flow.

The flight over was smooth and uneventful, and were it not for (welcome home!) a complete cock-up on the Underground, I would have been in my flat and ready for bed by 8 am (we'd landed at 6:15). It ended up being closer to 9, and by the time I'd forced the door open over the two months' worth of mail that had accumulated, and started compulsively opening the mail to see if anyone had sent me money (hey, don't laugh, one other time when I came home there was a £100 cheque from my Premium Bond waiting for me), it was getting on for 11.

The reason I was so determined to get to bed - well, not really, I guess - was that I had to be up again shortly after 1 to go to the football. I made it, though a bit blearily, and had an excellent seat at centre pitch to watch my beloved and maddening Fulham lose a desultory match to Premiership newcomers Reading. Fulham's Ian Pearce gave away a penalty by lopping a Reading attacker's legs out from under him only a couple yards from goal; Reading converted to make it 1-0 after only 17 minutes, and that was the game. A 10-man Fulham squad - Pearce had been sent off - tried to make a go of it, but neither team looked much like scoring. If not for the penalty, it almost certainly would have ended up 0-0.

The 1+ mile each way between Craven Cottage and Hammersmith Station was the farthest I've walked since my foot operation, and that combined with the damp and blustery weather convinced me to spend the rest of the day in the house. I noticed that the Thames was fuller than usual, even lapping halfway up the trunks of some trees on the far side, and observed that the radio and newspapers were no longer talking about the drought that they'd been banging on about for the past two years. Now it was all about the floods.

Anyway, after napping off and on through most of the evening, waking up in time to watch Match Of The Day (the Fulham defeat didn't look any more appetising on TV than it had in real life), found at midnight that I was wide awake and couldn't get back to sleep. Until about 6 am, that is, and that lasted only until about 8, when I woke up as it was getting light outside.

But what a strange light it was. I want to say that sky was green - it sounds more picturesque, don't you agree? - but actually most of the sky, apart from one opalescent blue corner off to the east, was covered by sinister, menacing clouds, that though blueish-grey themselves, had the effect of casting an eerie green light over the city. The only time I'd ever seen the atmosphere turn that colour before was as a boy in Michigan, and that was right before a major tornado struck nearby.

We don't normally get tornadoes in the UK, however, so I didn't worry too much, and tried to go back to sleep. Spectacular bolts of lightning and crashing peals of thunder soon made that impossible, but no tornadoes, whirlwinds, hurricanes or other natural disasters ensued, and within another hour or three, the sun was smiling down on a lovely autumn day. The leaves still aren't gone from the trees, even though we're less than a week from December, and here and there you can find roses in bloom. But the storms of the past couple days have made a rather sweeping change, and it can finally be said that there are more leaves on the ground than hanging overhead. This morning the dustmen were out with their brooms, collecting innumerable bags of them and trundling them into trucks to be taken off to - well, who knows where, really?

Today it's warm again, following another bit of rain to help the leaves stick to the pavements and bedevil the sweepers. I went to the gym for the first time since my operation and was pleased to discover that my muscles hadn't completely atrophied from two months of inactivity, though they were certainly headed in that direction. Then off for a haircut from the taciturn Ukrainian (£8), a spot of shopping at Tesco (a lot more than £8), and home to begin the melancholy task of sorting out a dozen or more years of London life into boxes and bin bags. Given the cost of shipping things back to the States, little more than my favourite clothes and books are going to make the cut; almost everything else will remain here, either to find a good home or to clutter up the already overstretched British landfills.

And in between the tedium of packing, throwing things out, making calls to cut off the phone, electricity, internet, etc., and making calls and visits to say goodbye to all the people who've been a part of my life here, I expect I'll put in a fair bit of time just wandering the streets and trying to fix in my memory for all time just how magnificent and beautiful and maddening and strange this city has been, and how fortunate I feel to have had this chance to be a part of it.

23 November 2006


I called a friend in England and reflexively greeted him with "Happy Thanksgiving" when he picked up the phone. "Thanksgiving?" he responded. "Oh, is it Thanksgiving over there?"

He was playing dumb, of course; he's been to America a couple times, even has a brother who emigrated here several years ago. He knows perfectly well what and when Thanksgiving is. But he still had to go through the requisite harrumphing and tutting and mild drollery that roughly translates as, "You wacky Americans!"

I don't mean to suggest that English people are any less grateful than Americans, merely that they're much less inclined to make a special occasion of it. The more cynical might also suggest that by condensing all their gratitude down to a single daylong orgy (mostly devoted to rapaciously consuming all the things they are allegedly grateful for), the Americans have given themselves a pass to abandon any pretense of it for the rest of the year.

I'm not one of those cynics; in fact I think one of America's great redeeming features is that by and large its people - even those who might appear not to be having the best time of it - have a pretty good sense of just how fortunate they are. True, they have funny ways of showing it at times, and maybe the holiday glow has caused me to over-romanticize or idealize my fellow Americans, but I think on balance they're a pretty grateful lot, and perhaps as a consequence, a fairly generous one as well.

Whether you agree or not, there's no doubt that declarations of thanksgiving will be winging their way effulgently about the land for the rest of this day and well into the night. And it occurred to me to ask: just where do they all go? Put another way, when all these people say "thanks," to whom or what are they saying it?

The majority of Americans espouse some form of religious or spiritual faith, so presumably they're thanking God or one of his intermediaries. But what about the millions of agnostics, or their fundamentalist cousins, the atheists? Are they any less grateful for want of some specific entity to be grateful to?

Obviously a fair number of them - especially here in California - will be addressing their praises to Gaia or "the force" or whoever/whatever it is that Wiccans revere. And still more of them will reserve their gratitude to friends or loved ones or the aged relatives who endowed them with substantial trust funds. But what of the truly hardcore fanatics - the Richard Dawkinses of the world, shall we say - who steadfastly refuse to accept that there is any power extant beyond the bounds of their own keenly honed powers of reason? Can they be truly thankful, if indeed there is nothing out there worthy of being thanked?

I was reminded of this question - one which periodically, but not too periodically occurs to me - by Dr. Frank's mention of an intellectual/theological spat among the above-mentioned Dawkins, the post-structural obscurantist Terry Eagleton, the rather-a-bit-too-full-of-himself commentator/philosopher A.C. Grayling, and the fairly astute professor and blogger Norm Geras.

I will say right from the start that I've never had much use for Richard Dawkins. I think of him as a more obtrusive and obnoxious Noam Chomsky, i.e., someone who by virtue of having achieved modest success in one field proceeded to appoint himself an unrivaled expert in a completely unrelated field. My own personal experience with Dawkins is limited to having heard him on the radio, where he would snap, "That's a completely stupid question" or the like at anyone who showed the temerity to question his theories. But a journalist friend who interviewed him confirms my impression of him as someone completely obsessed with his own idiosyncratic view of the life and the universe, to the exclusion of anyone or anything else. "He [Dawkins] was in a bit of a state," my friend reported, "as if he were having a spiritual crisis," which could be terribly disconcerting for the man who believes there is no such thing.

But what surprised me was Eagleton's commentary, because Eagleton, one of those products of the 1960s who has pledged unswerving allegiance to Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, et al., in other words, a roll call of some of the past century and a half's most spectacularly wrong individuals, provided a very well-reasoned and (in light of everything I've seen by Eagleton in the past) astoundingly readable evisceration of Dawkins's half-baked adolescent temper tantrum-cum-best selling novel, er, screed, The God Delusion.

I'd just heard the old proverb about my enemy's enemy being my friend on some radio talk show, and wondered if I would now have to find new tolerance for the previously intolerable Eagleton. In his defense, he does at times show signs of having a sense of humor, which puts him streets ahead of Dawkins, whose idea of a good joke doesn't seem to extend beyond, "There's no God and you think there is, so you're stupid, ha ha ha." And equally ahead of A.C. Grayling, who I'm most accustomed to reading in the Guardian, where his doleful and lugubrious commentaries have unsurprisingly found a ready home.

But as long as Eagleton clings to his discredited Marxism as tenaciously as Dawkins does to his teenage atheism (or Grayling to his mumbly-jumbly Grauniadism), I can't take any of them too seriously. Still, it's disconcerting to find myself - on this issue, anyway - largely in agreement with Eagleton, who has previously been unable to string two sentences together without either annoying or stupefying me. Professor Geras, who of the four I'm least familiar with, had by far the best of the exchange.

Enough of such intellectual dither, though. I started out to express my own thanks, and shall do so now, before this dispatch reaches thoroughly unwieldy lengths. The past couple months, what with my medical difficulties and being marooned in sad old Berkeley, have not been easy, but the year overall, and the several years previous, have been outstanding. I've been privileged to spend time with wonderful people, both new acquaintances and old, to see a good deal of my family, to travel to some of my favorite places on earth, to enjoy (again except for this brief interval) really good health and and a joyous disposition. Life's been very good to me, and with any luck, I will continue to learn how in turn to be good to life.

In my own case, I don't have any problem with giving my thanks directly to a higher power that I personally call God. I equally have no problem with people - and this includes most of my friends - who can't get their heads around the concept of any such thing as God. The only reason I get so exercised about Dawkins and similar extremists is that - like Christian or Muslim fundamentalists - they cling so ferociously to a single-pointed ideology that is as joyless as it is lifeless. Worse, not with darkening only their own enjoyment and understanding of existence, they loudly insist that anyone else who does not embrace it with them is a heretic or an idiot or both. Granted, at least Dawkins hasn't yet taken up the fatwa or the suicide bombing campaign, which gives me, I suppose, yet another thing to be grateful for.

It's interesting, though, how I can happily interact with many agnostics on an ongoing basis without the subject of God or religion even needing to be discussed. I suspect this is because whatever name or voice we give to our beliefs (or lack thereof), we're not really very far apart on the essentials. Neither they nor I have any particular ax to grind when it comes to spiritual matters; I don't feel compelled (nor able, for that matter) to demonstrate the existence of God to them, and they similarly are quite content to let me think and believe, even worship and pray, the way I do.

"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao," it says at the beginning of the Lao tzu, which was a close to a bible as I'd allow myself back in hippie days, but it strikes me now that the identical words could be said about God in whatever form we (attempt to) understand him. Anyone who claims to know the nature of God (or to be able to prove his absence) has already missed the point, and anyone capable of keeping an open mind, especially when coupled with reverence and gratitude, is well on his or her way to understanding exactly what they need to know to live a long and fruitful life.

Well, that's the way it looks at the moment, on this Thanksgiving Day, 2006. I'm very happy and grateful just to be alive and well, here and now, and I hope very much that the same is true for you and yours.

21 November 2006

North Berkeley

A few years ago - quite a few years, in fact - I was having an argument with Tim Armstrong about what was the cover of the first Rancid album. It was a purely academic argument, since the record was coming out on Epitaph, rather than on my label, but since all of Tim's previous records had come out on Lookout, I felt entitled to have my say.

Scratch that; I was the sort of person who felt entitled to have his say regardless. And Tim was the sort of person who was inclined to give my opinions a respectful hearing before telling me I didn't know what I was talking about.

At issue was the large gun which Rancid were planning on using as their cover art. I argued that it was an unnecessarily negative and violent image. Leave that kind of stuff to NWA, I urged.

"Larry," Tim said patiently, "See, you don't know what it's like down in the streets, you know what I'm saying? You live up here in North Berkeley where it's all nice and safe."

A word about local geography: South and West Berkeley are the "bad" parts of town, especially that portion of South Berkeley that juts into Oakland, and it was there that Tim had recently taken up residence after spending his formative years in Albany, which is a good bit north of North Berkeley. A solid working class kind of neighborhood, nothing fancy, but definitely a pretty safe sort of place. Not a lot of gangbangers running riot in the streets of A-town.

And technically, geographically, Tim was right. I did live in North Berkeley; University Avenue is generally considered the dividing line, and I was one block to the north (still am, in fact, as I type these very words). But to me North Berkeley had always meant the antiseptic yuppie precincts of Solano Avenue, the tree-lined streets of million-dollar houses, not my grubby little neighborhood situated only steps away from bum and crime-infested downtown Berkeley.

Anyway, it was a pointless argument. Tim always used to say, "You can tell Operation Ivy, but you can't tell 'em much." Or maybe that's what he said I used to say, but it was true, and now that half of Operation Ivy were in Rancid, it was doubly true. The gun went on the cover, the album sold a lot of copies, and as far as I know, no one ever got shot or otherwise harmed as a result.

Regardless of what Tim had said, though, I never accepted that I was part of North Berkeley. In fact, North Berkeley didn't even register on my radar; just about everything I ever did in Berkeley took place on the south side of University, and most of that within the five or six blocks just beyond University and Shattuck. The old Lookout offices and store, my bank, the post office, the now-defunct Cafe Firenze: what more was there to life, I'd often ask myself. Right before asking myself what I was doing stuck in this wretched little two-bit town, but that's an old story I don't need to go into again here.

The point is that I developed an automatic reflex response that meant I would automatically turn right, never left, when I got to Shattuck Avenue. Occasionally I'd read articles in the paper about Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto," supposedly strung out along North Shattuck and no more than a 10 or 15 minute walk away, but it might as well have been in Shanghai or Timbuktu for all I saw of it.

But tonight I was feeling antsy, wanting to go for a slightly longer walk on my still-mending foot, but having, as is often the problem in Berkeley, nowhere in particular to go. Downtown after dark is kind of crappy, and the farther south you go, the crappier it gets. In a pinch, and if you're really bored or jaded, you can always walk to Telegraph, but it's best to do this only when you're already depressed, because you're pretty sure to end up that way once you've got there. So I took a deep breath, turned left at Shattuck, and headed deep into the wilds of North Berkeley.

I must say, it was like visiting a different city than the Berkeley I've known and loathed for so many years. Not necessarily anywhere I'd want to live, but it wasn't bad at all for a brief visit. About a hundred restaurants, at least two or three of which might have been affordable for normal people, but many of which were at least pretty to look at. Lots and lots of cute little shops, and a fair number - especially for a Monday night - of strollers, promenaders, and boulevardiers. Okay, I stretch the point slightly, but at least it wasn't completely desolate and scary the way so much of downtown is.

I was surprised, too, to see only one beggar and two shopping cart scavengers in the whole 15-block stretch that I walked. On the other side of University you'd see double or triple that on any given block. Why is that, I wondered? Downtown there's nobody much to beg from apart from other beggars or the occasional movie-goers; on North Shattuck, there's a steady procession of yuppies, students and elderly baby boomers, all of whom you'd think would be relatively soft touches.

It was also about 99% white, in marked contrast with downtown, which by night is 50 to 75% black. Again, for those not familiar with Berkeley, I'm not talking about some vast geographical divide; the two areas are at most a few blocks apart. How this class and race separation was achieved and maintained is a mystery to me. I didn't see any cops telling "those" people to stay on one side or the other of University; in fact I didn't see any police at all. It seemed as though people knew where they were supposed to be and faithfully gravitated there, much as I imagine things worked in Southern American towns during the days of Jim Crow.

Interesting that I discovered this whole new corner of Berkeley right under my nose; as I say, it's not really my scene, but I'd definitely go strolling there again if I weren't leaving town in a few days. It does help explain why so many Berkeleyans don't understand what I'm talking about when I bemoan the sad state of this town; if you confined your comings and goings to the favored precincts of North Berkeley, I guess life could look pretty darn pleasant. A little boring, true, but pleasant.

So maybe Tim was barking up the right tree when he suggested being from North Berkeley was blinding me to the reality of street and thug life. He just didn't know - how could he? - that all those years I'd been turning right instead of left at Shattuck. Or, that for my few days left here, I'll probably continue to do so. I guess it's just the way I roll.

P.S. I probably can't get away with titling this piece "North Berkeley" without some of you Operation Ivy-Downfall-Rancid connoisseurs wanting to know what's up with that "North Berkeley, scene of the crime" lyric from the legendary lost Downfall album. Well, the answer is, you'll have to ask Tim. I don't have a clue either, but it still sounds cool.

19 November 2006

Bad Sports

For many years the only sport I've followed faithfully has been English football - soccer to my American readers. True, I was enough of a glory hunter to watch and enthuse about England winning the rugby World Cup. And, after a decade of professing blank incomprehension and/or annoyance at the very existence of the game of cricket, England's triumph over Australia in the most recent Ashes series finally inspired me to figure out not only how the sport worked, but also to acquire a real appreciation for its nearly infinite nuances and subtleties (not necessarily enough, however, to sit through a typical five-day, 40-hour test match, but perhaps as I get older I'll be blessed with more patience or at least a suitably lethargic disposition).

But leaving England would, I feared, put a real damper on my sporting life. Once I've settled into someplace semi-permanent in America, I can always get digital TV and watch more English Premier League matches than I typically saw back in London, provided I'm willing to get up at ungodly hours to do so, but it's not quite the same when you're surrounded by people who are similarly obsessed. If you're ever at a loss for conversation with another English male, there's a considerably better than 50-50 chance that asking, "Did you watch the football yesterday?" will do the trick. Often you don't even need to specify which particular football, because he'll immediately go off ranting or gushing about whatever match seemed of all-consuming importance to him.

But even if living in America was to put a damper on my enthusiasm for English football, I didn't expect was to re-acquire an interest in American sports. I was pretty keen on baseball and (American) football as a boy, and though I'm not sure hockey technically counts as American, I worshiped the Detroit Red Wings during the days of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio. So I surprised when I found myself getting a bit emotional about the Detroit Tigers having a go at the World Series. I was a big Tiger fan all through the 50s and early 60s, and it was only when I'd moved away to California and finally given up hope on them that they finally won a Series in 1968. This year would have been my first opportunity ever to actually watch them win it all, but naturally they stuffed it up, much like the Tigers of old.

And I really didn't expect to watch American football again, with its maddening stop-start routine and commercial breaks that take up more time than the actual playing of the game. But today I had the chance to watch two of my old favorites, Michigan, who I followed as a boy and have always had a soft spot for, and California, my beloved alma mater. Never mind that I haven't set foot in Michigan Stadium since 1979, and Cal's Memorial Stadium since approximately the same era, they both wear blue and gold (also the colors of my other alma mater, Cabrini High School) and carry a certain resonance with my past, and that's good enough for me.

Yes, they both lost, Michigan bravely and Cal humiliatingly, and yes, I'm a sucker for caring. Wasn't I just the other day arguing with someone that American football was infinitely inferior to the English variety anyway? No comfort there today, however; Fulham, the team I followed at the cost of great financial outlays and considerable emotional damage throughout my time in London, were at the wrong end of a 3-1 drubbing by Man City (which, as Mr. P. Hynes wittily remarked at last night's dinner, would be a great name for a gay football team).

In fact, the only bright spot in this dismal sporting weekend, nay, month, has been the sterling performance put in by my nephew Jackson's Hurricanes in the El Cerrito Youth Soccer League's under-12 tournament. The Hurricanes breezed through this morning's game 5-1, and had to struggle a bit more against determined opposition to squeeze out a 1-0 victory in the afternoon match (and how many Premiership sides do you suppose could pull off two championship matches in a single day?). Tomorrow they go for it all, and if today's gutsy performances were any indication, they'll be bringing home some of the first silverware ever to adorn the family trophy cabinet.

Well, there was another family member who lifted a few trophies in his time, my second cousin once removed, Joe Montana, who used to play for another local team. Second cousin or not, I only got to see him play in person once, as my dad put the kibosh on calling in favors - like season tickets, for example - from the relatives. The year Joe came to play for the 49ers, his grandma - my dad's first cousin - sent us a Christmas card urging us to get in touch with Joe "now that he's got a job out there in California near you." She thoughtfully included the address and phone number, but my dad confiscated the card before I could say, "Yo, cousin Joe, hit us up with some tickets!" "It wouldn't be right," Dad insisted, "it would look tacky. He must have relatives coming out of the woodwork right about now." "Well, then what difference would a couple more make?" I protested, but as always, Father knew best, and I was consigned to watching the 49ers' glory years on TV, just like millions of ordinary Northern Californians.

And there you go. I've gotten sidetracked as usual, since my original intention was to point out that it was obviously best if I didn't watch my favorite teams play at all, since they'd inevitably lose. Only to prove in the course of writing this that I was actually rather wrong. Not the first time that's happened, either.

17 November 2006

Down The Memory Hole

Here's something I've been puzzling about: in the course of going through my old writings, I've found some very interesting things, some very boring things, and some extremely embarrassing things. The question is: when I encounter something I wrote many years ago (or yesterday, for that matter) that is just plain painful to look at, do I just toss it out? Or should I hang onto it for one or more of the following reasons: a) as a reminder of just how wrong I can be; b) because maybe I'm wrong now and will eventually come to appreciate the value of the currently loathed piece of writing; c) for its possible historical value; d) so that people will have the opportunity to know the whole me rather than just the (hopefully) flattering bits I choose to show them?

As it happens, I've already thrown away quite a bit of junk writing, and I don't use the word "junk" loosely. Would you, for example, want people finding evidence that as a callow teen or 20-something, you were guilty of poetry? Love poetry in particular? I didn't think so. The same goes for some of my airy-fairy, hippie-dippie musings from the dawning of the New Age/Me Decade, some of which, unfortunately, I continued developing, albeit with a more substantive vocabulary, well into the 1990s.

Most of my earliest and worst excrescences were never published, so no one will be the wiser if they end up in the shredder or the dumpster. But what about some of my more flamingly ridiculous rhetoric that appeared in Lookout or MRR? When I retype those articles to keep for myself or to display on my website (yes, still coming one of these days), do I have the right to make corrections, or edit out the stupidest bits? Well, of course I have the right, but is it fair? Is it more important to display a true picture of how at least one rabble rouser was thinking in the 1980s or 90s, or to put out something containing at least a modicum of common sense?

It's probably a bit late to be asking this; I've already made some corrections to my old MRR columns, mostly along the lines of fixing typos or misspellings (yes, believe it or not, there were one or two), but in a few instances, I removed whole sentences or paragraphs where I seemed to banging on ad nauseam about the blindingly obvious. I tried not to change the sense of the piece, not always easy when it sometimes made little or no sense to begin with, and I think in most cases I succeeded in making it more readable. But is it honest to label it as "MRR column from January 1988" if it's a bit different from what actually appeared in MRR in January of '88?

Thinking about MRR reminded me of Tim Yohannan, who as first among equals (editor/publisher by any other name, but he refused to acknowledge himself as such), used to comb through columns and scene reports looking for items that ran counter to MRR dogma. It didn't happen all that often, but occasionally I'd be reading my own column only to discover that I'd said something rather different to what I thought I had. For instance, I might have mentioned such-and-such band from DC as exemplifying an especially pernicious brand of suckitude, only to find that in the published version, I'd praised them as being important contributors to the scene. Or if I'd carelessly used the name of one of those individuals ("unpersons," I believe they were called in 1984), it would have neatly and seamlessly disappeared. A couple of times I mentioned this to Tim, stating that it seemed a bit reminiscent of the Orwellian device of the "memory hole," into which all inconvenient facts and realities could be made to disappear, but he professed not to know what I was talking about. "I figured you'd appreciate me correcting your mistakes before they got into print," he'd say in not quite those exact words.

So I don't feel so bad about polishing up those MRR pieces a bit, knowing as I do that if Tim were still alive and had the ability to do so, he'd be doing everything he could to rewrite them his way. But what about this one: I just found a handwritten letter from 1967. It's one of the oldest examples of my writing apart from some articles published in my high school newspaper in the early 60s. It's a love letter of sorts, and speaking of which, it's curious how so many of these old love letters ended up back in my possession. Though considering how mawkish and tawdry they tend to be, I'm glad to know they're not in someone else's hands.

This particular one is fairly pedestrian; what I found shocking, and the reason that I'm inclined to destroy it, is how terribly dishonest it is. Not the sentiments themselves; I actually did care for the person involved, or at least believed I did. But what I wrote about myself was just plain embarrassing. It was as though I was writing a novel about myself, and not an especially plausible one at that. I portrayed myself as some sort of Dead End Kid who "had to fight his way to school" every day, so brutalized and shell-shocked by my harsh life that it was simply a miracle I could experience feelings at all, let alone nurture a budding love.

While it's true that I did run around with a pretty thuggish gang in my teenage years, my neighborhood was not exactly the South Bronx. In fact, it was completely ordinary, and tediously quiet lower middle class/working class suburb, where the chief danger to be found in walking the streets was terminal ennui. There was trouble to be found if someone was, like myself, determined enough to look for it, but that was almost entirely a matter of choice. I imagine most of the kids who grew up around me would not even begin to recognize the picture I painted of my allegedly deprived and brutal youth.

That was the most glaring instance, but the letter was replete with other examples of my bigging myself up in a most egregious (and I would think transparent, since the object of my affections grew up in an almost identical suburb on the other side of 8 Mile) fashion. Anyway, on reading these tackily constructed lies, my first impulse was to crumple up these seven pages of self-serving verbiage and deposit them in the trash. Something stayed my hand, though, just as I was about to let them fall: would I regret no longer having this reminder of what, after all, had been my first love? Perhaps one day my biographers would struggle in vain for evidence of what I was up to between 1966 and and 1968? Did I need a reminder of why it was better to be scrupulously truthful in any future declarations of my affections? Or would I be better simply noting the lesson and discarding the sordid evidence?

Well, there the question sits, and so does the offending letter, on the counter next to the garbage, gradually accumulating food and coffee stains and crying out for action of some sort. Sooner or later it will go either into the files or down the memory hole, and it probably barely matters which. Unless, of course, somebody apart from myself ever happens to read it, in which case my embarrassment and humiliation will be only slightly lessened by having confessed to my crime in advance.

16 November 2006

Falling Down On The Job

I'm much chagrined every time I check in over at 327 Words - which is pretty much every day - and discover that Dave 327 has put up yet another 327 words, thereby passing another milestone in his noble/quixotic (you choose) quest to create and post a 327-word essay on 327 consecutive days.

Not the snappiest of lead sentences there, and entirely overburdened with the number 327, but hopefully it conveys a bit of the burden I feel when first a day, then a week or more slithers by without my having posted anything here. Not that I'm comparing myself with Dave; after all, the man is a consummate professional (and professor) accustomed to keeping to schedules and deadlines, his steely intellect tempered by the constant and rigorous study of philosophy, his creativity channeled by careful cultivation of his responsibilities to family, friends and colleagues.

In other words, a faithful man, good and true, even if he does insist on careening about the late night streets of Seattle on an unlit bike, stoned and sloshed to the gills. The man works hard; he's certainly entitled to his recreation, regardless of what bizarre form it might take. But though, as I say, I'm not comparing myself with him, I still reckon he has a bit of nerve being so damned reliable and all.

Perhaps I should have set myself the goal of writing something here every day. I probably would have kept to for quite a while, if not for 327 days (and if I were to use the same formula as Dave has for setting his goal, I'd have to come up with a post of 1,028 words every day for 1,028 days). I'm pretty sure I've never done anything that faithfully in my entire life. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, there'd come a day when I just didn't feel like it. That would probably be on the second or third day, if not sooner. I'd force myself to do it anyway, reminding myself of how healthy is is to acquire the steady discipline of a regular writer, but eventually would come a day when I'd say, "I don't care how healthy it is, I'm going to the beach/movies/cafe/back to bed."

Which more or less sums up what I've been doing this past week, if you subtract "going to the beach" and replace it with "looking at pointless things on the internet for hours on end." And add an occasional dollop of "cleaning my room" (still). One of the things I unearthed (and promptly deposited in the rubbish) was a 10-page essay I composed (under considerable duress) during my Berkeley undergraduate days. It was called "Why They Wrote" and was supposed to explain the reasons a variety of characters, including Sartre, Virginia Woolf, Orwell, and similar suspects, felt compelled to put pen or typewriter to paper.

My own deeply felt conviction was that I didn't particularly care, but that wasn't going to bring home the grade I desired, so I unleashed a whole lot of pretentious and high-faluting nonsense of the sort that usually pleases college professors, and I noted with satisfaction that many of my points had been circled and labeled "good point!" I was not so satisfied when I reached the end and found that I had only been awarded an A- for my efforts. The reason: well, according to the professor's notes, "I'm not accusing you of plagiarism, but I would have much preferred it if you'd provided citations for some of your otherwise excellent quotes."

Nigh on 20 years had elapsed, but my teeth gnashed all over again at the indignity and injustice of it all: the source of the "quotes" she was asking me to provide references for was none other than myself. I had already plowed through that damnable Sartre once; I wasn't about to do it again when I was perfectly capable of making up my own pompous rhetoric about the nature and necessity of writing. And before I get sidetracked, let me reiterate here: Jean-Paul Sartre is a plonker and a nuisance whose writing gave me a severe headache. And I hear he smoked far too much and was beastly to Simone de Beauvoir in the bargain.

Having torn off on that particular tangent, I think I'll stop short of musing over why I myself feel the necessity to write here (or anywhere). Besides, Dave already touched on that subject as well, and I'm sure has said more succinctly whatever I would have said. On to other subjects, however briefly: today is the birthday of my good friend, the journalist and author Danny Penman. It's one of those milestone birthdays, too, but out of deference to any possible sensitivity on Danny's part, I'll refrain from mentioning specific numbers here. He's still a good bit younger than me at any rate.

Elections: turned out about as I would have expected, though I was disappointed that boatloads of corporate cash managed to dissuade voters from approving the oil and cigarette taxes. I stated my view here last week that as long as teenagers and unemployed college students can afford to take up smoking, cigarettes are too cheap, and I'll add here that as long as people can afford to squander energy the way they do, oil is also too cheap. Sooner or later we're going to have to made radical adjustments to our lifestyle, particularly in the areas of transportation and suburban sprawl. The longer we keep oil prices artificially low, the more painful that transition is going to be when it's finally forced upon us. And the longer we're going to be dependent upon/embroiled in the charnel house of Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Most of my records and tapes and about half my CDs went bye-bye last week, and are in the process of being sold and/or added to a nearby landfill by a helpful friend. Watch for some of them to crop up on eBay in the coming weeks. The same friend has also helped me by making digital copies of many of my old records and cassettes, including most of my old Lookouts stuff, most of which I haven't been able to listen to for years because of the lack of a functioning record player. Next step is to get my long-awaited website up and functioning so I can post mp3s of those songs for the many (well, 10 or 20, anyway) of you who've requested them. And just when I was rejoicing over having finished typing up all my old MRR columns (all the ones I had access to, anyway; no doubt one of you helpful souls will soon unload a whole new bundle on me), I discovered a pile of Anderson Valley Advertisers from the 1980s, all of which contained lengthy articles by yours truly. A month's worth of typing, at least.

And my time in Berkeley is fast running out. Right after Thanksgiving I'm back to England for what may be the last time, at least as a resident. My flat is going on the market, and may be sold before Christmas. It's something I've considered for a long time, but it's kind of shocking that it's actually happening. London has been a part-time home for over 30 years, and a full-time one for the past 10. Leaving it is likely to be as wrenching as when I left Spy Rock for the last time, but it seems as though that's what's happening. I'll only be there two and a half weeks, barely time to pack up my remaining things, let alone get round to see everyone and say my goodbyes. In the end I'll probably slip away almost as unobtrusively as I arrived.

It's not the end of my love affair with London, though the ardor has cooled somewhat in recent years. It's just that another city - or two - has caught my eye. I wish I were rich enough - some people seem to be under the impression that I am - to live in both London and New York, but unfortunately that's not the case. Speaking of which: I need a job. Ideally some freelance writing work, but I'd be happy doing some copy editing as well, or related media-type stuff. If going to/hanging about in offices is involved, it should ideally be in New York City. Anybody with any leads, please let me know.

07 November 2006

More Junkpiling

I must admit I'm surprised at the reaction I got from so many of you regarding my piles of junk/relics of the Lookout era. At least a dozen people have volunteered to come haul it all away, and while it's tempting to take them up on it, it's not quite that simple. Well, maybe it is, but I'm not quite ready to accept it.

While it would be tempting to shovel the whole mess into the back of someone's pickup truck, I feel as though I have a responsibility to at least try and sort out the wheat, if any, from the chaff. This was brought home to me the other night during a conversation with one of Pat and Erika's friends who works as an archivist for a major museum.

That's not to say I think any of my stuff necessarily belongs in a museum, but when you consider the kinds of things that do end up being treasured by scholars of a future era, it's not always easy to know what might have lasting importance. She was talking about having to wade through the scribbled notes and shopping lists of Beat-era poets, many of whom were regarded in their day - understandably enough, considering their behavior - as garden-variety drunks and crackpots. Could the same prove to be true of some of the bands or writers or artists who inhabited the East Bay/Gilman scene in the late 80s/early 90s? It's not so far out of the realm of possibility.

But the thing is, I'm a lousy archivist or curator. I tend to toss things in a box or a milk crate and shove them into a corner. Every few years I'll dust them off, sort through them and think, "What am I saving this for? But, oh, I can't throw this out because it reminds me of ___" and back it goes into the corner or closet. Except for the stuff I actually did throw out, which will probably be the exact kind of thing the scholars will be desperately searching for 50 years from now. So I'm thinking that it's best being passed on to the hands of people who know and care more about these things than I do.

That includes sound recordings, of course, and last night I tackled some of the discouraging pile of cassettes I've accumulated. Most of them, of course, barely if at all labeled. I doubt any of it is unique to me, since whoever gave me the tapes must have kept a copy for themself, but at the same time you don't casually toss out a recording of Op Ivy live at Gilman. Trouble is, I've at least a dozen tapes marked "Operation Ivy" in some form or another. I'm willing to bet many of them are duplicates, or consist of stuff that's already been bootlegged and/or otherwise made available to the masses. But do I dare throw any of them away without listening to each first? Probably not.

The problem is compounded when it comes to my own bands. Not that I suspect that there's going to a vast amount of historical curiosity about the Lookouts or the Potatomen (though one can always dream), but just for my own sake I'd like to be able occasionally to listen to what I was up to musically as a young(er) man. And in the unlikely event that I ever end up with any children or grandchildren, they might be interested, too. If only to have something to laugh at the old man about...

Anyway, today I uncovered a tape of the Lookouts playing at Gilman. Based on the song selection - lots of stuff from our second album - it must have been somewhere in 1989. There were also songs that I had totally forgotten we ever did, and a few that I certainly wish we hadn't. The latter category included a punked-up version of The Booger Song, a little ditty I composed for my niece and nephew when they were 5 and 7 and which they seemed to find amusing enough at the time. Sample lyric: "Boogers for breakfast, boogers for lunch, and on Sunday morning, it's boogers for brunch. It's boogers for you and boogers for me, and when Mom and Dad come, we'll put boogers in their tea."

Repertoire aside, the tape made for interesting enough listening, or would have had the sound engineer - who I won't name since I'm sure he meant well - not twiddled the knobs in such a way that about all you could hear was my very raw and strained singing and a smattering of drumbeats. I only know for sure that a band was playing because when we came to instrumental breaks he turned the guitar and bass back up. At those points it didn't sound bad at all, but the minute I came back in singing, all the music would drop out and be replaced by - and I'm being as kind to myself as possible here - what sounded like a very painful (for audience and singer alike) vocal ordeal.

You know how most guitarists seem to have one primary remedy for any faults or weaknesses in their guitar playing? I.e., turn it up louder? Well, I seem to have been using the same approach to singing. All attempts at following the melody or even the rhythm of the song seeme to have been abandoned in my attempts to outshout the Marshall amps and Tre Cool's manic drumming. And I used to wonder why I could never get through half a set without losing my voice! Ah well, live and learn. I'm trusting that the audience heard a very different mix than what the engineer taped off the soundboard, and that they probably heard little more than me bellowing and yelping like a wounded seal, which was pretty much par for the course in those days anyway.

Then I came across the Potatomen's all-acoustic demo tape, which we recorded in (I think) 1992, in the days when we used to perform almost exclusively on the sidewalk outside of Gilman. It was softer and - let's be blunt - wimpier than I recalled, but at least I was (mostly) in tune. Unfortunately, many of the backing vocals weren't, but you can't have everything. Paul Curran's banjo accompaniment on "Drown In My Beer" was by itself worth the price of admission ($2, if I recall correctly). So yeah, I think I'll hang onto that. As for the 30 other cassettes labeled "Potatomen something-or-other", I'm not so sure. Most are just outtakes from the studio, and at least one is an unnerving 30 minutes of me practicing vocals that somehow got recorded backward, i.e., satanic incantation-style. I almost flung that one out the window in a spasm of horror, but luckily didn't, as the window was closed at the time. And now I'm procrastinating via blog instead of tackling the task at hand, so I believe I'll say so long for now. If I'm back on here again before tomorrow, it probably means that I ran into something even more unlistenable.

The Old Man And The Shoe

The combination of another birthday and having been a semi-cripple for the past month has left me feeling considerably more than my age, though hopefully this is only a temporary condition. And today a giant, if you'll pardon the expression, step has been taken in my hoped-for return to normality: my operated-upon foot is once more encased in a shoe.

Not a special post-op shoe (looks kind of like an especially lame hippie sandal with velcro straps) and toe splint, which has been my required footwear ever since they took the bandages off, but a regular, old-fashioned shoe. In fact, it's one of my internet shoes that you may have read about here a few months back. Today's visit to the doctor produced approval not only to start wearing my shoe again (though only for an hour or two a day to start), but also to attempt some unaided walking. Pretty exciting stuff, this walking business. It's almost been worth going through the business of not being able to for the sake of acquiring this new appreciation.

Of course I can't go out for any long hikes just yet. In fact a one-block trek to the nearest mailbox is about as much as I have on the horizon for right now. There's a whole process of rehabilitation, including numerous toe-flexing exercises, that I still have to go through. But - and, before I forget, thanks for all your messages of encouragement and support - it looks like I'm on my way.

I Voted

And so it says on the red, white and blue, stars-and-stripes-bedecked sticker now adorning my breast pocket. Why I am wearing it, and why anyone who should happen to notice it as they pass me on the street would care, is a matter of some mystery to me. It's just that they were handing them out for free at the polling place, and I like free things.

Voting in Berkeley is always going to be a bit surreal. The very patriotically American-looking "I voted" sticker itself seems an odd thing to encounter in a city that for the most part refuses to acknowledge that we are affiliated in any way with George Bush's Evil Empire (for those of you not up to speed on the Berkeley Weltanschauung, the EE=the USA, not those misunderstood People of Multicultural Diversity who, true, might want to blow us up, but only because George Bush drove them to it with his imperial machinations). That's not to say that Berkeley takes no interest in American politics; in fact, one of this year's ballot propositions is a recommendation from the City of Berkeley to Congress, advising it that George Bush should immediately be impeached. Advice from the City of Berkeley on how to run a country, a company, or, for that matter, a lunatic asylum, is about as useful or welcome as advice from North Korea on how to create a free and open society, but I expect that will have escaped the notice of local electors, who will probably approve it.

Because the polling place has been moved this year to a nearby firehouse, there was actually an American flag flying outside, the firefighters being among the few Berkeleyans with the temerity to fly the national flag within city limits. But inside, apart from one voter loudly explaining to his girlfriend why one of the mayoral candidates is clinically insane (he's probably right), it could have been Anytown, USA.

There's something deeply comforting and assuring about participating in the democratic ritual, even when you're dubious that anything of great importance will come of it. This was the first time since - oh, I don't know, 1992, maybe - that I voted in person. Since then I've either used absentee ballots or, in recent years, not voted at all because I wasn't really living here. I wasn't sure I was going to vote this year, either, but now that I expect to be living in the United States again, it seems as though I should have something to say about who's running the place. I felt less certain about whether I should vote on issues specifically related to Berkeley, since I hope to be out of here as soon as possible. But in light of all the griping I've done about this town, and all the years I've spent in it, I figured I might as well have my say one last time. It's not like anything or anyone I voted for is going to win anyway.

The main reason it felt important to vote this year - helping the Democrats to take back control of Congress so as to put a brake on Bush's excesses - doesn't really apply in Berkeley. The idea of anyone other than a left-wing Democrat representing this area in Congress is about as plausible as the Ku Klux Klan choosing an African-American to be its next Grand Dragon. The Berkeley continuum of political acceptability runs from Clinton Democrats on the far right and moves steadily leftward from there. Our Congresswoman, Barbara Lee, cast the only vote against the 2001 attack on Afghanistan; she'd be classed as a moderate, as would Mayor Tom Bates, who in a previous incarnation was one of the most liberal members ever to sit in the California State Assembly.

Bates has got quite a few people angry with him, primarily because he allowed developers to build a few new apartment buildings downtown (prior to the late 90s, almost no new housing had been built in Berkeley since the 1970s, during which time the city's population dropped by more than 10%). To preservation-minded Berkeleyans, who have been known to riot if a homeless encampment (aka People's Park) is ever so slightly disrupted, this is tantamount to treason, so it was to be expected that Bates would face some stiff opposition. But silly me thought that at least one of his opponents might run from the right (e.g., as a centrist Democrat).

Obviously I've lost touch from being away from Berkeley so long, because of the three candidates vying with Bates, one is considerably to the left, one is a hippie-dippie "Native American" by the name of Running Wolf, and the third is a stark, staring bonkers member of the tinfoil hat/9/11 was a hoax brigade.

Our local city councilperson is no prize, either. You don't generally hear a word said against her because she's disabled (confined to a wheelchair), which runs neck-and-neck with being a Person of Color when it comes to conferring sainthood, Berkeley-style. She's also a bit of a dingbat, and a huge proponent of keeping Berkeley the Way It Is, i.e., an open-air refuge for dysfunctional street people and highly paid social services bureaucrats. She'll probably be re-elected in a landslide.

One of the issues I had to struggle with most is about extending a property tax surcharge for "schools." As usual with these things, it's being sold as "for the kids," though in reality the prime beneficiaries will be administrators and political appointees. The trouble with voting no is that any spending cuts made as a result will certainly indeed be taken from "the kids" and not through laying off superfluous curriculum advisers and self-appointed facilitators. Whereas a "yes" might mean that some of the extra money would eventually trickle down to those for whom it was intended, though considering he voracity of Berkeley's edu-apparatus, this is by no means certain. A further problem with voting yes is that it gives both tacit and concrete approval to a system that has been nothing short of disastrous for minority students; Berkeley sends a high proportion of its white and Asian students to the best universities in the country, but its black students might as well be attending school in 1950s Alabama. A disproportionate number of them graduates only to unemployment and/or penal institutions, largely because - at least in my opinion - anyone who dared attempt imposing minimal academic or behavioral standards would be swiftly smeared as a racist and cultural imperialist.

So I ended up voting no on the school tax, not because I'm against schools, but because I'm very much against leaving them in the hands of the dingbats who've been running them in Berkeley for the past few decades. I feel a bit churlish about it, but I don't know any other way of sending a message. Voting for a new school board alone won't do it, as candidates tend to inhabit the same spectrum generally found in Berkeley, i.e., moderately leftist to complete loony tunes.

I voted for Angelides for governor, but only because I don't think he has a prayer of winning. If it were a close race, I might give more serious consideration to Schwarzenegger, who despite getting off to a very bad start, hasn't turned out that badly. But Angelides is closer to my own views on things like the minimum wage and the environment; the main reason I wouldn't want him to win (apart from the fact that he seems to be utterly hopeless as a politician) is his forthright support for affirmative action, which I just as forthrightly oppose. I couldn't bring myself to vote for Jerry Brown for Attorney General; he's been such a disaster when it comes to law enforcement in Oakland that I can't imagine putting him charge of it for the whole state. At the same time, I couldn't vote for his right-wing opponent, either, so someone else is going to have to decide that race.

Only a few hours now before we find out whether the Democrats will be successful. While I'd prefer to see them control at least one house of Congress, I don't want it to be by that big a majority, because I don't want them thinking they've got a mandate for what ultimately isn't much of a program beyond "We hate Bush" and "Republicans are evil." If I thought there was a chance in hell of seeing progress toward national health care or a Manhattan Project-style push for energy self-sufficiency, I'd be considerably more enthusiastic, but I honestly don't expect much out of them beyond arrogant sniping and moral posturing. John Kerry's hamhanded blunder, with which he may have succeeded in costing the Democrats an election he's not even running in, serves as the archetypal example.

I found voting harder than usual this time, probably because I no longer have a firmly defined political party or ideology to dictate for me. Well, I'll confess to reacting viscerally on a couple issues: I voted yes on the oil tax primarily because I was so sick of the oil company ads against it (and in spite of being equally tired of hearing Bill Clinton blabber in favor), and yes on the cigarette tax because a) I hate smoking; and b) as long as teenagers and young 20-somethings can afford cigarettes, they're too cheap. I skipped over more races and issues than I have in the past because I simply didn't know who or what was best. But I tried my best, did my duty and all that, so don't come complaining to me if it all goes tits up. Especially if you didn't bother to vote yourself.

05 November 2006

The Calm Before The Storm

I'm listening to a battered, dust-covered old cassette tape that must have been stuffed away somewhere for the last 13 years and has recently re-emerged during the ongoing process of weeding out my accumulated junk. It's marked "Larry's messages - 1993," which is not quite accurate; it's a cassette from my old answering machine all right, but by 1993 I no longer had a private phone, or life for that matter. Lookout Records was still being run out of my little room on Berkeley Way, but had grown to the point where it occupied a lot more space than I did, and phone calls were as likely to be for one of the two Lookout employees or many Lookout bands as they were for me personally.

So, intermingled with my mother's plaintive, "Larry, this is your mother and I'm still trying to get hold of you" and an estranged boyfriend calling to say, "This is ____ , it's Tuesday," but maddeningly leaving no message or phone number, were calls from the likes of Ben Weasel wanting to know if we'd gotten the tape of the Queers LP and planning the Screeching Weasel/Queers tour, Tre Cool wanting God know what, but "it's important," Al Sobrante thanking the Potatomen for playing in Arcata, Jeff Ott (he seemed dubious about the whole concept of answering machines and called repeatedly, saying "Hello? Hello? Hello?" while tapping impatiently on the receiver as though he assumed we were being willfully obtuse by not answering him), Chris from Brent's TV planning the reunion show that would also mark Green Day's last Gilman show before departing for major label land, some booking agent out in Texas frantic because some other booking agent had secured the rights to the next Green Day tour, Chuck from Monsula wondering about that royalty check he'd heard was waiting for him, Molly Neuman looking for her future husband Chris Appelgren, half a dozen printers and graphic designers rattling off color numbers and film prices, Pat Hynes calling to find out if Chris and I were coming to Potatomen practice, and a couple dozen random people calling to whistle, sing, make scary noises, or otherwise try to call attention to themselves.

Because it was an antique answering machine and didn't leave a date stamp, there's no way of telling for sure how many days or weeks the messages stretched over, but it's clear that there were frequent periods when the Lookout office, aka my room, was left completely unmanned, something that would become unthinkable a year or two later when Green Day-mania would prompt a quadrupling of our staff and office space and a ten-tupling (if you know what the right word for that is, please tell me) of our sales. It was all so relaxed, like a bunch of kids trying out their "My First Record Label" role-playing game. We were only months away from the release of Green Day's Dookie, but were dithering and doddering along our merry way, completely unaware that everything was about to change forever.

Listening to this tape - which just ended without coming to any dramatic conclusion or resolution - is like a window into another time and place, one that I'd almost forgotten, I time when running a reasonably successful record label sounds like it was almost fun, probably because none of us was taking it anywhere near as seriously as we would soon have to when the big bucks started rolling in. People used to laugh at our "office," which was really just my shabby bedsit in an old hippie house (I didn't even have a bed for much of the time, just a mat and some blankets wadded up in the corner) but looking, or rather listening back now, it sounds like a much more fun place to work than most offices I've ever been in.

I'm actually typing these words from the house next door to the old Lookout office, which is now an upmarket bedsit, erm, studio "apartment" renting for 10 times what we paid for it. This street, which used to see a constant procession of bands and individual punk rockers tossing pennies at our upstairs window because there was no doorbell, is a lot quieter these days, apart from the ghetto house across the street and the college kid house two doors down. Not too many bands or musicians or artists or scenesters live in Berkeley anymore; it's too expensive, too dull, and - at least in my opinion - too crime-ridden and depressing. But on a warm, sunny day like today, with the air crystal clear and the scent of still-blooming flowers wafting through the windows, it's easy to collapse time and imagine that any second now Claude or Janelle or Eggplant or Aaron Cometbus is going to come strolling around the corner and say, "Let's go hang out, you can do your work some other time."

Probably not going to happen, though, and in the meantime, I have to decide what to do with this old cassette (and about 400 other old cassettes full of music, demos, and I'll never know what unless I sit down and take a couple months to listen to all of them. I thought briefly of auctioning the message tape off on eBay, but I think the trash is a more likely receptacle. Honestly, it's really not that interesting if you weren't there, and even if you were, it's kind of like, "Oh yeah, that's the way we were, but so what? This is now, and what are you gonna do about that?"

When Saturday Comes

Up before the crack of dawn today to watch the match between Fulham and Everton, something which, were I still in London, I'd be doing in person and at a much more sensible time of day. I was going to watch it with Kendra K, which I reckoned should be interesting, as she - for reasons inexplicable apart from a possible Northern fetish - is an Everton supporter. Since Everton have been riding high in the Premiership this season - I fully expected Fulham to lose (an essential part of being a Fulham supporter is always expecting to lose), so I was a little iffy about sitting next to Kendra, especially at such an ungodly hour, while she racously exulted over another Toffee triumph. But since she has the technology hookup (something about hijacking Chinese ESPN over the internet) and I don't, I figured we'd have to make the best of it.

A bit reticent about knocking on someone's door at 7 am - especially since the Kendrak household showed no signs of life - I decided I'd better call first. I hate waking people up from a sound sleep, don't you? Which is, of course, exactly what I proceeded to do. I wasn't clear whether she had just overslept or had forgotten about the whole business, but after a moment of stunned silence, she mumbled, "Can I call you back?"

I sat down to wait, figuring I'd give it about 15 more minutes before concluding that she'd gone back to sleep, which I was about 95% sure she was about to do. But, miraculously enough, no more than five minutes later my phone rang, and there she was, wide awake and perky as ever. Which was even more surprising, considering the message she had to deliver: "Congratulations on your three points." Turns out that the Fulham-Everton match had been a lunchtime kickoff, i.e., at 12:45 UK time, or 4:45 am on the West Coast.

Kendra was taking the Everton defeat a lot better than I would have been had the situation been reversed. I know, you're asking why hearing that Fulham had lost would bother me if I had been expecting it anyway? Well, that's just the way it works. Anticipating, even savoring the misery in advance does nothing to diminish its sting. Considering Kendra's seemingly effervescent spirits, I reckoned it would be safe to come in and watch the Liverpool-Reading match with her. It turned out to be a not-too-exceptional 2-0 win for the Scousers. I had mixed feelings, on one hand wanting Liverpool to lose because I always want the big teams to lose, and on the other, wanting Reading to lose because they've been inhabiting more or less the same area of the standings as Fulham. Sadly - and I hope this doesn't mark me out as a bad sport - I watch all too many matches in which the ideal result would be for both teams to lose. Despite all the tinkerings and adjustments the Football Association keeps coming up with, so far nobody seems to have devised a way to make this possible.

The match being rather uneventful, we had plenty of time to chat. I learned about the previous night's art opening for Bella Bigsby, to which nobody had invited me, and what might have been Thee Kendrak Attack's penultimate show, to which I was similarly uninvited, though in the latter case, given my delicate foot-type situation, it might have been for the best. Aparently there was a bout of fairly uproarious candy throwing, something I tend not to appreciate even at the best of times. I also learned - and apologies in advance to Kendra if she gets in trouble for passing this tidbit on - about fomer vegan Pepito Pea devouring a 49-ounce steak (at just over 3 pounds or 1.4 kilos, I reckon that at about 2.5% of Pepito's entire body mass) as part of the bizarre initiation process to some highly exclusive internet message board. Which, I no doubt superfluously point out, I have also not been invited to join.

When football was over, we spent some time watching Robojoe play a computer game - I think it was called Bully, but this is not an area where I have a lot - I mean any - expertise, and drifted into a conversation, sparked by news of Rancid losing their drummer, about the whole idea of making a living from music. I was surprised to hear both Kendra and Robojoe defending the old school punk principle that there was something dubious or at least less than desirable of making a job or career out of playing music. It reminded me of arguments I used to have 20 years ago with MRR co-founder Tim Yohannan and which similarly never reached a satisfactory conclusion. I contended that a musician playing large venues or signing to a major label was the same as a baseball player leaving his hometown team to play for the Yankees. In both cases, his original fans would be disappointed and his hometown scene/team would lose a vital component, but was this sufficient reason for the musician/athlete to deliberately place limits on his potential audience or income?

Robojoe argued that music was "different," that because it was an art form, it occupied a special position and couldn't be evaluated on the same terms as baseball or, for that matter, nuclear physics. I argued back that an athlete who had devoted his life to mastering the art of baseball, the distinction would be nebulous at best, but it was clear there was going to be no meeting of the minds here. Tim Yohannan had the same idea. You could - and should - do any old thing for a living (he himself worked for the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, an odd choice considering his radical leftism and anti-militarism) but the minute you started earning money from music, you became suspect, and were very likely in danger of being kicked out of the scene.

Fair disclosure: there was a time when I was every bit as unyielding on the subject as Yohannan, something I've been awkwardly reminded of by this week's re-reading of my old MRR columns. The alacrity with which I denounced people for being "sellouts" or betrayers of the scene could at times have put Joe McCarthy to shame. A band need do nothing more than have their new record reviewed in the "wrong" sort of magazine before I was on my soapbox demanding an inquiry about this "dangerous" undermining of our precious little cynosure.

Frankly, I'm surprised that I didn't get beaten up on a regular basis, especially since some of those I denounced most rabidly were noted tough guys from East Coast hardcore bands, or the rather burly and athletic Henry Rollins. I think I harbored the delusion that the targets of my criticism would not see it, since I preferred to believe that only right-thinking individuals like myself read my MRR column. Considering, however, what a punk scene focal point MRR was in those days, I realize now that it's very likely my insult-barrages were read and noted. I can only guess that Rollins and others I attacked had a much better sense of humor than I gave them credit for. Either that or they recognized that I was clearly off my trolley and hardly worth the effort of squashing like the irritating insect I must have seemed to them.

That being said, and though it's many years ago, I feel an apology is in order, to Henry Rollins in particular, but to any number of other musicians, writers and scenesters who I used to excoriate as if they were Nazi war criminals for doing nothing more than espousing a style of music or a line of thinking that didn't quite agree with my own. What can I say? I was a jerk. Still can be at times. If I can bring myself to trawl through the last year or so of blog posts, I'll probably have a whole new set of apologies to make. But that will have to wait for at least another day or two. Right now I'm off to bed.

02 November 2006

Words And Pictures

The task du jour - of the last several jours, actually - has been typing up my remaining Maximum Rocknroll columns. Lo and behold, it's finally done, and not a moment too soon, either. I'm not sure I could have faced another page of naive, ill-informed opinions sententiously expounded by the late-80s/early 90s Larry Livermore. Fortunately, I won't have to, as all my remaining copies of the mag have now been boxed up - thanks to Erika over at Little Type - and will soon be winging there way to JoeIII in New Jersey, who was the first to lay claim to them. At one point I thought about trying to sell them on eBay, but it seemed more important to get them to a good home, ideally one where I'll never have to look at them again. Though seeing pictures of Aaron Cometbus and Lenny Filth as callow teenagers did bring back some happy Gilman Street memories.

Speaking of which, Gilman's 20th anniversary is coming up soon, on Dec. 31 to be specific, and I just realized that I won't be here for it. I'm slightly annoyed by that, and will be more annoyed if they repeat the offer made during the 10th anniversary (which I also missed): show up with your original Gilman membership card from 1986 and get in free! Frankly, since the original membership card states very clearly that it was a LIFETIME membership, a provision not honored by the new collective that took over Gilman in 1988, and since as a result I've probably had to buy at least 15 annual memberships at $2 a pop since then, I figure they owe me two or three shows at least.

But never mind; in honor of Gilman's multifarious contributions to the community and what it has meant to a couple generations of young people, I guess I can let it slide. And for the same reason, I don't need to be here for the New Year's Eve celebration. To me the real celebration is the simple ongoing miracle of what was from the start and has continued to be ever since the most amazing punk rock club in the world.

More news about ratty old magazines: I also uncovered a box of Lookout zines, dating all the way back to the very first four-page xeroxed issue from 1984, and have consigned them to the fine folks at - where else? - Little Type, who I believe have already put them up for sale. You can look here if for some reason you feel compelled to own a complete set of all 40.5 issue, the .5 being a digest-sized issue that I did around 1998 and never got circulated much beyond immediate family and friends. The writing is nothing spectacular; its main collector value now might stem from its cover, which features an original drawing by fast-rising comics star Gabrielle Bell. And if you're a fan of Ms. Bell's work, you might like to know that Lucky, her newest book, is out this month on Drawn And Quarterly, and is already available for pre-orders at Amazon. Yes, she's my niece, but don't hold that against her. She didn't ask to be related to me, and so far it doesn't seem to have stopped her being a genius.

01 November 2006

If You Come To San Francisco...

The groovy little city of love is in a tiz over last night's Halloween shootings in the Castro. And, judging from these comments on the San Francisco Chronicle's website, it's also deep in denial. At least half of the respondents were banging on about the problem being "outsiders," "East Bay trash, "bridge and tunnel people" and the like. Their solution to the violence that has plagued the Castro's Halloween party for years was "ban people who aren't from San Francisco."

Because, of course, anyone dwelling within the 49 square miles enclosing God's crown of creation, that jewel-like city that is a model to the world of civility, sophistication, and racial and cultural harmony, is pretty much incapable of being mildly unpleasant, let alone robbing, assaulting, or randomly shooting down people in the streets. Ergo, all of last night's unpleasantness, of which there was plenty, had to have been the fault of loathsome out-of-towners.

I lived in or near the Castro for a few years during the 70s, but the last time I attended one of these Halloween shindigs was 1983, when a gang of about 50 teenagers came swarming through the crowd attacking and robbing people. They seemed to have come from the projects on Lower Haight Street, and that's definitely where they headed when they made their retreat. They were also, without exception, black, as were those being blamed for last night's fiasco. But this being San Francisco, you're not really supposed to point that out, hence the resorting to code words like "East Bay trash." Apparently the flustered Frisco-ites are under the misapprehension that there are no longer any black people in their city, that they have all moved to Richmond or Oakland. One suspects that some of those doing the loudest bleating have not left the Castro in the past decade and may be assuming that the entire city of San Francisco is, like their own neighborhood, composed of white, upper middle class gay men with large disposable incomes.

A few more astute observers pointed out - as, ahem, I've been doing for years - that last night's events were not an aberration, that San Francisco has been growing steadily more violent and unpleasant for a long time now. This quickly drew the following rebuttal:
Are you joking? This city is the safest big city in the country (possibly 2nd to NYC). Statistics are meaningless. 99% of the "shootings" you see reported are gangsters shooting each other. You have a next to zero chance of being a victim of crime in SF with two exceptions: 1) Bike and car theft, which is appallingly problematic and 2) During a bridge and tunnel event such as halloween in the Castro - mark my words - it is not SF residents who caused this problem.
Since, as this person assures us, "statistics are meaningless," I suppose we're left with no choice but to accept his assertion that San Francisco is "the safest big city in the country." Whether it's even fair to consider little Frisco, which is considerably smaller than San Jose, a "big city" is a question I'll leave open for now, but let's just, for the sake of argument, suppose statistics aren't "meaningless. In that case, according to last week's Morgan Quitno report, the safest "big city" in the country actually is San Jose. Frisco's not even in the running; in fact of all 371 cities measured, it comes in at a dismal #270, which puts it nearly twice as dangerous as New York, at #145.

San Franciscans can still console themselves with the notion that they're not as bad as Oakland (#364) or Richmond (#361), both of which are wallowing pretty near the bottom of the barrel in the murder-and-mayhem sweepstakes. Berkeley, sandwiched in between the crime capitals, comes in at #226, which might not look so bad until you consider that it's a podunk college town of barely 100,000, yet is saddled with a much higher crime rate than 8 million-strong New York City.

Bay Area liberals don't like to talk about this stuff, not only because it calls into serious question their caring, sharing social policies which over the past 40 years or so have produced a steadily declining quality of life and a huge rise in violent crime, but also because any honest discussion soon has to spill over into the explosive realm of racial politics. It's difficult to point it out without being branded as a bigot and reactionary, but the Bay Area's current crime problem - especially the soaring murder rate - is largely a black problem. But even that's not quite accurate; more precisely, it's a problem with young black men. Eliminate violent crimes committed by African-American men aged 15-35 (more or less), and the Bay Area's crime rate would more closely resemble South Dakota's.

I'm not that comfortable pointing this out myself, not because I'm afraid of being called a racist (it wouldn't be the first time), but because this past year or so I've found myself spending a good deal more of my time with black people, nearly all of whom have been wonderful, warm, funny and insightful companions. Most of them, of course, have not been part of the young male demographic responsible for so much violent crime, but they have in many cases been their parents or grandparents. And in my volunteer work last summer, I did come in contact with many ex-cons and street people who freely admitted to having committed murders, muggings and rapes when they were out on the streets.

Even this latter group, taken as individuals, could be great guys, often capable of inspiring me with the courage and tenacity they'd shown in surviving lives harsher than most of us can imagine. But this was in a hospital setting, where they were free - often for the first time in years - from drugs and booze. I'm not so sure I'd want to encounter some of them on the streets wired up on crack or crank again.

The more I deal with black people on an individual basis, the harder it is to think in terms of a "black problem," even if I'm just referring to a specific subset of young black males. But it would be naive in the extreme to pretend that such a thing doesn't exist, and even more naive to keep on acting as though current social policies weren't completely bankrupt. If it's awkward for me as white male to say such things, let's hear from a black female, also posting on the Chronicle blog:
As a Black woman, I am tired, discouraged and outraged at the behavior that accompanies the appearance of these shameful, disrespectful and DANGEROUS hoodlums. Alternate event, you betcha. Respect?? Why should I have even a modicum of respect for people who can't even respect themselves? Please. Stop it with the liberal bleeding heart PC, boo hoo hoo, poor poor black people. Can we at least be real here? You want so badly for everything to be equal and non-racist that you can't even see that your refusal to identify the problem perpetuates it. We all know what that headline said even when it didn't. And yeah, I am black and proud, but not of the baggy pants, cap wearing, gun toting silly dangerous fools. Them, you can keep them. Preferably in a cell with no chance for parole.
I don't have anything to add to that, so I think I'll shut up and leave it there.