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Out From Under My Rock

Under a rock

Faint noises filter in from outside, the roar of a crowd pierced by cries of glee. They’re out there under the sun, watching their sportsball game. Marching with linked arms. Or partying down, dancing, singing out of tune. The extroverts.

The noises are faint because I’m under my rock, in my cave. It’s neither dank nor buggy, and I sit in a very comfortable chair. Best of all, I’m alone. I’m happy here. I’m an introvert. Read more…


Storming the Castle

Siege_et_prise_du_Chateau_des_Tuileries_cph.3b49398In the eleven years I’ve been writing I’ve completed a memoir and two novels, and am working on a third. I could self-publish any of them in a matter of a few days, but I’m still holding out for a traditional publisher. You can’t get one without a literary agent. I’ve parted ways with mine, so I’ve been looking for a new one. It’s been an ordeal.

Read more…

Love and Mercy

Love and Mercy, the new movie about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is a deeply moving, often brilliant film. It makes up for all the crummy rock music biopics that have come before. Those films follow the predictable three act “Behind the Music” story arc: band gets big, gets drugged, then gets redeemed, through Jesus, Rehab, or a reunion tour. Read more…

B.B. King

Read more…

Open Salon, R.I.P.

“Don’t it always seem to go. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” –Joni Mitchell.

I started blogging at Open Salon almost five years ago, with a post (a love letter, really) to Joni Mitchell. As of the 9th of March, OS is officially dead. Read more…

Marty Balin Live at the Throckmorton Theatre

I keep getting tangled up in strange loops of time. I’ve told the true fairy tale of how I came to Mill Valley in the summer of 1970, vowed to live there and then found myself doing just that, 44 years later. But that was last month. Whatever time-release spell enchanted me wore off, leaving me in Oakland.

Or so I thought, until an old friend invited me back to Mill Valley, to hear Marty Balin at the Throckmorton Theatre.


Jefferson Airplane, 1967, Marty Balin top right

I last saw Marty Balin….44 years ago, at the Fillmore East, with the Jefferson Airplane. If Jerry Garcia was my Guitar Hero back then, Marty was more of a personal hero to me. He put fine lyrics to lovely melodies, and sang better than anyone else in the scene (unless you count Janis, and I don’t know that ”singing” is exactly what she did. Shreiking is more like it.) Behind all the stuff Marty did so well was something unique. He was a guy who sang unabashedly about the way he felt. Yes, John Lennon had broken that ground. But everything Lennon sang had a tinge of anger. Marty Balin expressed dark things too – regret, sorrow. But he also did love (and lust) and exuberance.

It’s obvious that the radical 60s were all about liberation – for blacks, women and gays, and from sexual repression. That time was also about the struggle for freedom from emotional repression.

When the Beatles hit and the girls screamed my parents pointed out that “they screamed for Sinatra, too,” as if that explained it. It didn’t. Sinatra and his ilk were all about pretending to express feeling while avoiding it. The way my parents did. The way I did, until the Beatles came along. I heard the Beatles and wanted to be free. I heard Marty Balin and wanted to be him.

Marty had a way of manifesting things that had previously been contradictory. His lovely tenor was androgynous, yet he was no wimp. When the Hell’s Angels started beating on a naked guy at Altamont Marty jumped off the stage to protect him and got knocked out for his trouble. He was smart, a deep thinker, yet when it came time to lay bare his heart he pushed all the thinking aside, and went for the gut.


Marty throckmorton

But what was he doing now? I wondered as we sat in the Throckmorton along with maybe 150 people. Marty appeared with a guitar, a standup bass player and another guitar player. All acoustic, but plugged into amps. At first it was too loud for us geezers. But we got used to it.

They started with “It’s No Secret,” from the first Jefferson Airplane album, followed by some newer songs I didn’t know. They were decent, and at moments through the crummy acoustics I could tell, he still had his voice! That voice.

Marty hit a certain familiar riff and I got chills. I had hoped against hope that he would do my very favorite of his songs – “Young Girl Sunday Blues” from After Bathing at Baxter’s. Baxter’s was one of the only successful psychedelic art experiments in history – five brilliant but discordant personalities dropping a ton of acid at some spa and somehow emerging with a melodious masterpiece that speaks more truly of the High 60s than any other musical work. I was so smitten with “Young Girl Sunday Blues” back in the day that I felt compelled to perform it, despite the ridiculously high range. I could never hit the notes.

Marty couldn’t hit them now, either. So he sang the whole song on a lower harmony. Lesser singers might have copped out to a falsetto, but Marty Balin could no more sing in falsetto than Wyatt Earp could shoot with a pea-shooter. Unfortunately that made the song unrecognizable. All the time he sang the version from the record was playing in my head, and that thing I wanted so badly was just there, out of reach….No, you can’t go home again.

Or maybe you can. Because he followed that disappointment with “Today,” then “Coming Back to Me,” hitting the notes (they are ranged lower) and I was back in some dorm room, marveling at those words, at that unfamiliar tugging in my chest….

He covered Paul Kantner’s “Martha” from Baxter’s, and they extended the end into a little Grateful Dead style jam, and I thought – These are the original San Francisco Sound guys. Or at least one of them.

And then it was onto the Starship. Jefferson Starship is unquestionably a greasy, unclassy 80’s Big Hair band. In the early days of the Internet a number of “Worst Songs in History” lists were topped by “Built This City.” This is plain unfair. I can think of a hundred far worse songs. No, the unreasonable animus towards the Starship is really outrage at the chutzpah of implying this creaky vehicle could ever take you higher than the Airplane.

I like “Miracles,” despite it’s schmaltzy arrangement. Hearing it stripped of strings and Grace Slick’s over-enthusiastic harmonies

I realized just what an odd hit record it makes. The chord changes are all over the place and the form wanders, echoes of the eclectic, searching spirit which made Baxters.

“Hearts” is a well crafted tune, but it has an old standard vibe that threatens to reduce that voice to mere crooning. Still, a couple of days later it’s stuck in my head.

I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly cover “Volunteers” – a period piece if ever there was. Neither could he. He didn’t.

“Summer of Love” is a recent song that does a decent job of capturing nostalgia for the spirit of ’67, but with one poignant note. He sang:

     Summer of Love, which I was a part of….

 And I wanted to shout, Come on Marty, you don’t have to tell us. We all know!

He sang for a solid two hours, didn’t forget a single lyric, and was plenty pumped, a spry 72. Near the end of an extended encore he really loosened up (I suspect he shares with many great performers some stage fright.) His guitar player laid down a bump-and-grind riff, Marty unstrapped his guitar, grabbed the mike and lit into a most unusual song: “Stripper.”

You show me yours, I’ll show you mine….Take it all off!

He gyrated like a rock star, which was somehow surprising, except that of course he is one. But I detected in his smile a strong note of irony. Smart Marty.

As the song developed it became apparent that this was no mere sex song, but sex as metaphor for the very opening up of the heart that’s always been his gift to rest of us. He made it explicit:

Love is a stripper.

Stripping away all the defenses, all the delusions and fears.

He ended by turning the metaphor on its head, whispering some stuff that made the steamier parts of “Miracles” seem tame. I heard gasps from some of the gals (and guys) in the audience.

I’ll let Marty close this show:

Don’t you know that I have found it, maybe you’ve found it too

Today is made up of yesterday and tomorrow

Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow















Epiphany in the Check-in Line


My mother was a confirmed atheist. She believed in no higher power, in nothing that couldn’t be quantified. She barely believed in the existence of emotions. But everyone’s got to believe in something, even my mother.

She was an orthodox liberal who fervently believed in equality. Racism, anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and prejudice were deadly sins in her book, and they all grew from the original sin: stereotyping. Stereotyping arises from a need to feel that my group (insiders) is superior to theirs (outsiders.)

 It’s an old, deep instinct. In one of its virulent forms – xenophobia – we can perhaps see that it once conferred an evolutionary benefit, because insiders may have had good reason to fear diseases carried by outsiders. A nasty vestige of this instinct can be seen in some people suggesting that the 50,000 immigrant children who recently arrived in the US must be carrying diseases. Never mind that the same thing has been said about every wave of US immigrants, and with as little reason.

After spending some time in Europe I observed to my mother how interesting it was that the French were great cooks and the Germans lousy; whereas the opposite was true of music. She excoriated me for stereotyping, and of course when it comes to individuals she was right: I have a good French friend who’s a fine composer, and learned to cook from someone whose family came here from Germany.

Since that run-in with my mother I hadn’t given the subject of stereotyping much thought until I started writing fiction. One of my pet peeves as a reader is cardboard characters, and I certainly don’t want to write them. Cardboard characters are two-dimensional, all surface. Rather than be formed of flesh and blood and strong bones they’re made of tics and tropes, the stuff of stereotypes. No matter how much adrenaline an author packs into a story, the story doesn’t touch me if I can’t identify with the people all the action is happening to. You can run a character over with a Mack truck, nuke them to smithereens, but I don’t care if they’re made of cardboard.

How do you write real characters? One way is by becoming a student of other people. By observing how they walk and talk, and listening to what they have to say, all the while populating an inner database of gestures, expressions, attitudes, accents, and yes, prejudices, because everyone has them. When it comes time to write you have a growing body of knowledge from which to draw.

I just moved to California from Massachusetts.  I did not cross the great plains in a covered wagon, fighting off wolves and stereotypical native Americans, but flew. The morning of my flight the line at Jet Blue was long, winding around five of those corralling fences. It was too early. I was tired and toting too much crap. And I hate standing in line.

Lines evoke in me an irrational anxiety, a kind of social claustrophobia. One effect is to accentuate my sense of the others in line as outsiders. It’s like I see them through a dingy filter. They look all wrong, and I start thinking bad thoughts about them.

Judging. And stereotyping.

What’s that teenager doing wearing a Foxy Lady tee-shirt? The shirt doesn’t make her any foxier. And what the hell are those people doing wearing Hawaiian shirts, and laughing at 6:30 in the morning? Where’s the TSA when you need them?

A group of guys stands behind me. To now their conversation has just been a low menacing grumble, but they seem to be getting excited about something, and I catch a few words. The Venetian! Vegas! It dawns on me. Foxy Lady and the Hawaiian shirt folks and these guys are all headed to Las Vegas.

They coalesce in my fear-addled brain into a stereotypical group – Idiots who go to Vegas. Never mind that I’ve been there several times myself. Hey – I was there on business! I’ll admit, the lights were a kick, and so was looking down my nose at all the tacky hotels. Paris. The Venetian. Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio….

Because you see, I’ve been to the real Bellagio, up on Lago di Como (that’s Italian for lake Como, you morons.) I’ve been to the real Paris, and Rome, and Venice.


Bellagio, Italy


Bellagio, Las Vegas

They both have water, but….

Looking on those ersatz palaces was when my stereotype of Vegas-goers thrust its ugly head into the light, but its roots went deeper. Back to my mother. Because while she believed herself to be tolerant of people of all races and ethnicities, at the same time she was incredibly judgmental of the actual people she knew – family and friends. And judgmental of everyone else, on the basis of class. She was, in a word, a snob. She had a longer nose than anybody I’ve known, and looked miles down it at everyone with “bad taste.” Which is to say, different taste than hers, which was strictly Modernist. (Probably the reason I came to love all things Victorian, which she despised.)

I know exactly what she would have said about those folks on their way to Vegas. The same thing I was telling myself.

I turned and cast the corner of a jaundiced eye on the group behind me. Guys in their thirties. Vaguelly ethnic. Not Hispanic, but with broad faces….Armenian? I did business with some Armenians one time…. Probably wearing polyester, though with what I know about clothes I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. And then the kicker. Thick Boston Accents.

Low class….

Judgment city. And then I remembered my new job – snooping, observing, filling that database. And before my eyes these cardboard jerks on their way to throw their money away, or whatever, filled out into three dimensions. Became real people.

They were on their way to a bachelor’s party. Along with about 15 cousins. (Damn, wish I had 15 cousins!) The guy doing most of the talking had been to the promised land of Vegas and was cluing his buddy in on it.

“You won’t believe the rooms at the Venetian – they’re suites! You walk down steps to the bedroom!”


“You’ve heard about the restaurants in the hotel, they’re amazing! But you’ve got to wear businessman’s casual. I brought a white shirt. That works with anything.”

“Good. I brought one, too. What about the gambling?” The second guy sounded worried.

The first guy laughed. “Drop a couple of bucks on the slots, say you’ve done it, then move on.” He reminded me of myself evangelizing about French Cathedrals and the ruins of Rome. Never mind that their Venice was fake. These guys were no longer part of an outside group, but we were in the same group. Of people searching for that quality buzz, the Higher Ground.

Before you start inviting me to the goody-two-shoes club I should remind you that I’m still a writer. That’s topsay, a vampire. Though I wished those fellows a fine time, I had no compunction about mining their supposedly private lives for my database and using them for my characters. I already have.