Posts Tagged ‘Quicksilver Messenger Service’

Dead Airplane Kerouac Caen

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.” William Faulkner

When my wife and I joined forces four years ago, she came equipped with the nicely aged Toyota pickup I’d always wanted and I came with a Toyota station wagon ideal for toting cellos, so we swapped. The station wagon was subsequently crushed by a falling pine and replaced by a more commodious sedan, but the pickup lives on and I love the old thing.

Marcia bought the truck from the person who bought the truck new, Jim Young, our superlative chiropractor and friend and coach of the Mendocino High School (boys) basketball team. Now and then when I am under Jim’s thumbs, as it were, he will inquire about his former truck and I am happy to report the old thing is humming right along and still getting admirable mileage in this age of fast-rising fuel costs.

The pickup is faded white, eighteen years old, with the requisite rust spots and windows that must be manually cranked up and down. Otherwise non-descript, the truck sports a subtle ornament that Jim affixed to the rear window, an insignia identifying the vehicle as a chariot of the Dead, the Grateful Dead, the band, not my ancestors. I had no idea these five nearly identical dancing bears—blue green yellow orange pink—had anything to do with the Grateful Dead until shortly after I took the helm and picked up a hitchhiker on my way to Fort Bragg, his first words to me, “Love those bears, man. Long live Jerry Garcia.”

Over these ensuing four years, I have been treated to salutes, knowing smiles, waves, words of comradery, and a Pass The Joint victory signal on the order of once a month as a result of Jim affixing those dancing bears to the truck’s window. There seems to be some debate among Deadheads as to whether the bears are dancing in the manner of a famed fan named Owsley tripping on LSD or whether the bears are marching. One Grateful Dead web site claims that a flipbook rendition of the bears proves conclusively that they are marching. In any case, a Gypsy woman winked at me yesterday as a consequence of those bears, and her wink sent me hurtling back to the bygone years of my youth when I and a few of my friends had the Grateful Dead, live, all to ourselves for hours on end.

I feel compelled to admit that I am not a Grateful Dead fan. Indeed, the only Dead tune I ever liked was Barefootin’ from their very first album, and the only words I think I remember from that song are See that girl, barefootin’ along, whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on. When I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s, I had a friend who was a drummer in a Grateful Dead cover band, if you can imagine such a thing, and after attending their third concert of astonishingly accurate, and, to me, horrifying imitations of their heroes, I have avoided listening to the Grateful Dead for lo these forty years. Yet I do love the Grateful Dead, for they were of the utmost importance to me in my teenage years and provided the soundtrack for a great awakening.

“Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.” Sean O’Faolain

Ladera is a housing development a few miles from Stanford University that sprang up in the 1950’s and was home to professors and doctors and stock brokers and dentists and school teachers, mostly white people with a sprinkle of Chinese and Japanese families, and a few serious artists who liked living close to San Francisco in a rural setting not far from beaches with such beautiful names as San Gregorio, Pomponio, and Pescadero.

Ladera had an elementary school that sent its graduates to junior high at La Entrada in Menlo Park, and from there to Woodside High, famous for being the first public high school in America to have a major pot bust in the early 1960’s, many of those busted being children of the first families of Ladera. And it was there in Ladera that the Grateful Dead, yes, Jerry’s band when the keyboard player was a gravel-voiced guy called Pig Pen, used to rehearse on weekends in the multi-purpose room at the elementary school; and I and a handful of my friends were admitted to that sanctum to dance to the music on a vast expanse of highly polished linoleum.

What I remember most vividly about those amazing afternoons are two superb conga players, each with multiple drums, and several men with long hair and mustaches playing guitars in front of stacks of amplifiers, Pig Pen hunched over his keyboard, the music all of a piece—a vast electric raga made of pulsing chords and hypnotic rhythms over which fantabulous guitar solos cried like phantasmagoric muezzins to which I danced and twirled and danced, my too too solid flesh melting and resolving into sweat and ecstasy, my body free of pain at last, and those persistent inner voices of doubt and shame drowned in the sonic deluge, my entire being steeped in glorious visions of life beyond the choking confines of suburbia and parental neuroses.

And I remember my anguish when I arrived at the multi-purpose room one sunny Saturday afternoon and found the entrance barred by a huge man who said the rehearsals were now closed to the likes of me, only invited guests allowed, my magical mystery tour at end. I waited around for my friends to show up, and watched indignantly as the bouncer admitted my most beautiful friends Mona and Cassie, and rebuffed all the boys and the less beautiful girls. But that big goon couldn’t take away the visions I’d had while dancing to those awesome ragas of the Dead; and I vowed to start my own band one day and blow the roof off the jail, so to speak, and set everybody free.

“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” Denis Diderot

My father had a 1963 Karmann Ghia, red bottom, white top. Cute little long-nosed Italian body, a two-seater with a Volkswagen engine. Remember those? In 1966, gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon, the Karmann Ghia got about thirty miles to the gallon, and it was twenty-seven miles from Redwood City to San Francisco. Four teenagers could squeeze into that little car, one in the cramped back compartment, one sitting on the lap of the one sitting in the passenger seat, and one (me) driving. And that’s how we got to the Fillmore, that vast windowless rotting warehouse in a dangerous part of San Francisco on many a Saturday night to hear Quicksilver Messenger Service (with or without Dino Valenti) open for the Grateful Dead who then set the stage for the Jefferson Airplane, pre-Grace Slick.

I have had several musical heroes in my life, most of them jazz people, but I have only adored one band and that was the original Jefferson Airplane. I saw the Airplane perform with their first female vocalist Signe Anderson four times, and each time I saw them they were brilliant and fabulously musical. Then Signe split and I was devastated, the devastation of a jilted teen. And then Grace Slick came aboard and my misery deepened, for to my ears the magical synergy of my favorite band was gone, so I kissed the folk rock scene goodbye.

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted;

One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing

Material place.
”

Emily Dickinson

So here we are forty-five years later living in the wilds of Mendocino where through the auspices of unseen patrons the San Francisco Chronicle arrives on our driveway every Sunday morning. The Chronicle of today is largely unreadable junk and wire service propaganda, but I dutifully solve the Sunday Jumble words, skim the Sports section for news of the Giants, and thank those unseen ones for providing us with a week’s worth of fire starter.

And this morning, while I was getting the fire going, a headline in last week’s pink section caught my eye: Jefferson Airplane Mansion for sale. Upon closer examination, I found this headline to be the lead item of a section entitled Wayback Machine, the headline referring to something that happened twenty-five years ago.

“February 4, 1986. The ‘Airplane House,’ a piece of San Francisco rock n’ roll history, is up for sale. The mansion overlooking Golden Gate Park that was once the home of the Jefferson Airplane, one of the pioneer psychedelic bands of the ‘60s, is on the market for $795,000. The three-story, Colonial Revival-style mansion on Fulton Street, with its distinctive Doric columns in front, has 17 rooms, stained-glass windows, silk wallpaper, rich mahogany woodwork, fireplaces on every level and lots of memories. ‘If the walls could talk,’ said Nadine Condon, publicist for Starship, the band that evolved from the original group. ‘We’ve had some great parties here,’ she said, climbing to the uppermost floor. ‘The joke used to be that the higher you got, the higher you got.’ In 1968, still flush from the Summer of Love a year earlier, band mates Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady and their manager Bill Thompson, bought the mansion for $70,000. When the mansion was built in 1904 by R.A. Vance, a lumber baron, the Golden Gate Park did not exist and sand dunes rolled uninterrupted to the ocean. The mansion survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. According to legend, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, a friend of Vance, fled from the Palace Hotel on the day of the quake and found refuge in the house. Most of the house is as it always was, but the second-floor kitchen is trimmed in orange and purple Day-Glo paint. ‘The last vestiges of hippiedom,’ Condon said.”

EARLY SPRING

The dog writes on the window

With his nose

Philip Whalen

So what should I find on the flip side of that pink page with the story of the Jefferson Airplane mansion but a Chronicle Classic reprint of Herb Caen’s column from October 22, 1969, entitled One thing after another, which includes the following:

“Poor, embittered Jack Kerouac, dead at 47, almost forgotten in the North Beach byways he frequented—and helped make famous—more than a decade ago. In his last years, he turned on the young people, sometimes viciously, and they in turn turned their backs on him. Yet a small literary niche will forever be his. ‘On the Road’ remains the finest chronicle of the Beatnik era.”

And in the same Caen column: “Steve Frye, a hippie-hating L.A. policeman, now has mixed emotions. Last Wed. night, driving through the rain in Big Sur, he had a flat tire, and the only people who stopped to help him were—two hippies. This so unraveled him that after he drove on he was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge to pick up a hippie hitchhiker. Which he did. There is hope for us all.”

See that girl, barefootin’ along,

Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.

There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,

She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street

Art Rant

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Books

Rae’s eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor.” from Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott

The silence of the eyes rings true, and the eyes being side-by-side seems plausible, but how in heck did those eyes get onto that couch without Rae?

I was thirteen and had devoured a thousand books before I discovered the first typo of my reading career, an error that struck me as a scandalous affront to the artistry of writing. I was an insatiable reader, and wanting to be a professional writer I did not skim, but read every word. And when I found passages that wowed me, I copied their lines longhand to teach my sinews the feel of great writing.

“The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.” from Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Nowadays I am surprised if I read a book from a corporate press and don’t find grammatical errors galore with typos sprinkled throughout. I was recently told I must read the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, a current darling of the New York literati, a writer with myriad awards to her credit, including a Pulitzer. I dutifully ordered her most revered collection of short stories, and after wading through several introductory pages of praiseful blurbs from influential magazines and newspapers—the word miraculous appearing in several of the blurbs—I entered a grammatical minefield that rendered her half-baked stories unreadable for the likes of me.

I complained of Ms. Lahiri’s failings to Marcia, my wife who is so patient with me when I rant about the decline and fall of our culture. Marcia calmly considered my condemnation of the writer and said, “Maybe you just don’t like her style.”

Indeed. Clunky composition featuring profligate use of the word “it”, pronoun confusion, place confusion, time confusion, inadequate descriptions of people and places, and lame depictions of action do add up to a particular style, but who needs it? And why would reviewers describe such stuff as miraculous? In two words: culture collapse.

Jhumpa Lahiri and Anne Lamott and countless other contemporary authors contracted by the corporate presses should be ashamed to publish books that have not been thoroughly and thoughtfully edited. Why aren’t they ashamed? You tell me.

Radio

“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.” Marilyn Monroe

In 1966 I was lead singer in a rock band of sixteen-year-old boys. By our third rehearsal we knew we were fantastic and would soon be opening at the Fillmore for our favorite bands Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After much deliberation, we settled on the name Joy Ride, though I was never certain if we were The Joy Ride or simply Joy Ride.

This was long before the advent of cassette tape recorders (now obsolete) so we recorded our loud songs on an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the one-of-a-kind tapes to Warner Brothers and Columbia Records so we would be discovered and made famous and have beautiful wonderful girlfriends who wanted to have sex with us day and night while maintaining their brilliance and creativity and innocence.

We had one gig before (The) Joy Ride broke up. The gig was a battle of four bands in a cavernous high school gymnasium. We were awesome, yet we lost the battle. The only possible explanation for our defeat was that the airheads didn’t get where we were coming from. Our one stalwart groupie said we reminded her of Jimi Hendrix and The Byrds rolled into one. No wonder we knew we were fantastic.

Embittered by our rejection by the airheads, I joined forces with a guitar player and wrote eleven amazing songs. We recorded our masterworks on that same reel-to-reel tape recorder and sent the tape to A&M Records because a friend of ours had a friend who knew someone’s friend’s cousin or uncle who worked there. Maybe the tape got lost in the mail, but more likely the record company airheads just didn’t get where we were coming from. In any case…

Fast-forward forty-five years. Having just produced two new CDs, I have been questing for likely DJs at likely radio stations to send our music to, my goal being to send forth a hundred packets, each containing our CDs and a heartfelt handwritten letter aimed at a specific DJ. So not Jazz is my collaboration with the aforementioned patient wife Marcia, her exquisite cello improvisations elevating our jazzy instrumentals and songs into the sublime, while 43 short Piano Improvisations is my solo adventure in musical haiku.

Whilst pursuing those rare DJs who might be open to music from the likes of us, I have visited over a hundred public radio station web sites and scrutinized several hundred DJ profiles and play lists. As of this writing, I have sent out sixty-seven packets and gained three DJ fans: one in Fort Collins, Colorado, one in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one in Astoria, Oregon. They have each played a tune or two of ours, and promise to play more. We are, in a word, thrilled.

As a result of my copious research, I have learned that if a radio station is an NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate and airs All Things Considered, they will probably be a kind of public radio Clear Channel with canned programming and zero interest in independent artists. But if a station airs Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, there is a fair chance they will harbor one or more zany, curious, eclectic programmers. And then there are the entirely student-run college stations. I do not intend to approach any of these stations until our hip-hop metal reggae album Dread Metal YoYo is ready for release.

Movies and Plays

“Television has raised writing to a new low.” Samuel Goldwyn

John Simon is the author of my favorite one-sentence film review. In response to the movie Tommy, he wrote in Esquire, “Anyone who has anything good to say about this movie has nothing to say to me.” I feel this way about nearly all the American movies I’ve seen in the last thirty years, and that is because I have not been programmed to digest contemporary theatrical offerings.

Contemporary movies and theatre in America are now entirely conflated with television, the essence of which is physical and psychic violence, emotional superficiality, sexism, the deification of morons, verbal abuse disguised as humor, and non-stop brainwashing. Because I ceased watching television in 1969, the programming of my brain has not kept pace with the changing cultural mores. Thus contemporary American plays and movies, even those purported to be brilliant and deep and meaningful, almost always strike me as trivial and/or toxic.

I remember the precise moment I decided to forego television for the rest of my life. I was nineteen and on the verge of dropping out of college—academia antithetical to the likes of me. I was wandering the halls of my dorm looking for someone to accompany me on a late night stroll when I came to a lounge wherein a dozen young men and women were watching television. As I stood in the lounge doorway and watched the watchers, I was struck by the realization that these promising young people, four of them my best friends, were being lobotomized by the rays emanating from the television, their faces fixed in helpless idiocy.

Over the last thirty years, I have attended some two hundred plays in theatres large and small in New York and Los Angeles and Seattle and Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco, and most recently Mendocino, and I cannot bring to mind a single contemporary play written by an American that I believed in for more than a moment or two. Of the few hundred American movies I’ve seen since 1980, I can think of a handful I would call good, only a few great. Thank goodness we have access to foreign films (I consider the British foreign) so I do not entirely starve for good movies, though I am frequently hungry.

I am certain (having been privileged to read such manuscripts) that fine plays, books, and screenplays are still being written in America, but they are not, as a rule, produced or published or widely disseminated. And, yes, I have on rare occasions over the last forty years watched television, usually at the request of friends urging me to sample shows they say are fabulous, only to have my sense of the ongoing devolution confirmed.

Renaissance

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

If you so desire, you can overcome the televisionization of your psyche and revitalize your aesthetic taste buds. Having worked with many teenage and adult writers who were initially incapable of writing original stories with non-stereotypical characters and natural-sounding dialogue, and knowing the causes of their dysfunction to be television, corporate fiction, and contemporary American movies, I found that if I could convince my charges to eliminate these influences from their lives, creative rebirth was a virtual certainty. For teenagers, such rebirths may occur within weeks of their ceasing to imbibe the media opiates. For adults, such rejuvenation may take months. And I suppose the modern variants of television, iPads, cell phones, YouTube, etc. should be included in the list of influences to be minimized.

Our brains, in much the same way as ecosystems, will regenerate once persistent toxics and stresses are removed, and once you end your addiction to the opiates of the masses you will be astonished by the dramatic shift in your perceptions. However, there is the strong possibility you will feel left out of the cultural discourse about celebrities and the latest movies and books you can’t remember shortly after you ingest them, and you may feel isolated and lonely and desperate in the absence of all that you have become accustomed to. Fear not. Falling off the wagon is but a click of the On button and a badly written bestseller away.

[Todd reads books written by dead or very old or unknown authors and watches foreign films (and the occasional teen flick) in Mendocino.]

This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010