A Gen X remembrance of Lou Reed

I remember exactly the first time I heard Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. I was fifteen and at a party to which I had been invited by a girl. That fact alone was remarkable. What’s more, she was the host and somehow had heard about me from a friend at her all-girls’ school some twenty miles from my all-boys’ school and had sent me a hand-written card asking me to attend. She was, I seem to recall, called Jane.

A warm early Autumn night in a verdant back garden on England’s South Coast. Apple trees, candles, wine, and a new crowd, and, for the first time in my experience, kids smoking cigarettes that were sweet and aromatic. My guess is that I was invited because I was the putative singer in a new wave rock band. We were called the Idle Frets and had recently played the first of what would be a grand total of two live gigs. It had been loud and incoherent and mercifully brief. But we looked great, I’m sure.

Jane’s father was a dentist and amateur jeweler and divorced from his wife. From the perspective of the parent I am now, he must also have been keen to get into his daughter’s good graces. I’m pretty sure he was gone for the entire evening.

Such was the set up. The party itself, as I remember it, was a massive bore. The kids were a tight crowd, with little to say to newcomers. Plus they were, for the most part, seriously stoned. And then there was the music. Jane’s friends were comfortably aligned on the other side of the massive divide that was the defining experience of my generation – the punk explosion. The boys I hung out with at school cared about The Sex Pistols and The Stranglers, The Clash and The Jam, and part of the point of our musical passions were that they made a clear break (as we saw it) with the epic hippie indulgences of the likes of Genesis, Zeppelin, ELP, and Yes – the kind of bands that our immediate elders still revered and that Jane’s friends still seemed to be stuck on.

But then she put on an album that complicated my prejudices – The Velvet Underground and Nico. It was clearly of a time before punk. But it was also raw, and dark, and as uninterested in pleasing anyone as anything I’d heard from my New Wave idols. And yet it was melodically compelling, too. It was the best thing about the party. Then they played Loaded.

Jack is in his corset, and Jane is in her vest, and, me
I’m in a rock’n’roll band. Huh –

. . .
Sweet Jane!

I don’t remember staying late or seeing much more of Jane. I received a Valentine from her the next Spring and soon after a call during which she told me that she thought we should break up, which left me dumbfounded because it had never occurred to me that we were in a relationship.

Reed and The Velvet Underground, though, stayed with me. I had always intuited that valuable music must have been made before 1977, but tribal loyalties hadn’t let me admit it and the vicissitudes of teen life in the late seventies, when it was hard to hear songs that weren’t on the radio or owned by your friends, made sonic ignorance a tough thing to overcome. Now, I sought out Reed’s albums. I found out about New York’s proto-punk scene, got interested in John Cale, in the artist responsible for the cover art of The Velvet Underground and Nico – Andy Warhol – and the community he built around him at the Factory. Years later, I named a play that I wrote Satellite of Love.

In acknowledging Reed’s death today, my local Public Radio station played “Sweet Jane.” In the kitchen of my California home, that adolescent English Autumn instantly returned.

And, everyone who ever had a heart, oh -
That wouldn’t turn around and break it.
And anyone who ever played a part, whoa -
Wouldn’t turn around and hate it.

Sweet Jane.

No heart was broken that night. My Jane was sweet, but not a whole lot more, which is pretty much the level at which things should work when you are fifteen – when music is the more appropriate vehicle through which to be moved, or shocked, or devastated, even.

In the years since, I’ve grown up. I’ve come to understand that great rock songs are compelling fictions and not, as we imagined then, confusing manifestos for life. Best of all, I’ve found love. I hope Jane has been as lucky. If she kept Lou Reed’s humanity, his cool, his humor, and his transcendent melodies in her life as she’s aged, she’s had great company – and a vivid connection to her youth – at least.

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The Internet as fuel for the curious and the crazy

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about how the Internet has been such a boon for curious children, and adults for that matter. If you want to find out more about anything (quarks, volcanoes, bugs, Egyptology) there are resources galore at your fingertips. It’s a glorious age we live in that lets you satisfy any intellectual itch almost instantaneously (so long as you have a computer and connectivity, of course).

But there’s a flip side, too. The exact same tool broadcasts the voices of the ignorant, the paranoid, the prejudiced, the uncritically conspiratorial, and the straight-forwardly malicious among us. I was reminded of this by the response of reader G P Wiggins of Hopewell, NJ to Timothy Egan’s NYT column on Congressional Republicans (The Wrong Side of History) yesterday:

“You want to know how bad this craziness is? Google on the ‘secret plan’ by Obama to get a third and fourth term; and Google on all these recent acts of violence being ‘red flag’ events that the government is secretly behind. Millions of people believe this stuff. The Internet has played a still-under-appreciated role in this madness: you can now live in a paranoid echo chamber and believe that everyone thinks like you.”

Supposed experts aren’t always to be trusted and it’s good to offer a public publishing platform to all. And there are multiple communities of people (those with esoteric passions, retailers and purchasers of uncommon goods, the sufferers of rare medical conditions) who have been immensely enriched by the web’s ability to unite small but widely distributed groups.

But in the face of upended hierarchies of authority, we’ve yet to grapple with the shear weight of misinformed, unsourced, ill-intentioned, poorly argued, speculative, and plain crazy speech that we’ve also enabled and that has so easily conjoined into a sizable, self-supporting shadow-web of bogus guff.

That it’s out there has a lot to do with the origin of the Web in a culture that’s as interested in the statement, “I want to believe,” as, “I want to know.” Belief also drives visitor numbers, whether you’re interested in income or fame, while confirmed fact often does the opposite.

But it leaves us with a powerful nexus of information that is, paradoxically, also astonishingly untrustworthy, where the right answer can’t ever be trusted always to bubble to top. What’s interesting is to ask how could it be otherwise? What’s the best way to allow those right answers to make it through the powerful wish so many of us so often have that things might be other than they are?

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Ten random observations on seeing Richard Diebenkorn – The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 at the De Young, San Francisco

  • Nearly every piece in the show is both sui generis (although that’s sometimes subtle, given his imitators) and stunning.
  • A discovery: Diebenkorn’s simple, sensual charcoal figure drawings.
  • Roughly 75 % of the people viewing the show were women.
  • Roughly 95 % of the figures depicted by Diebenkorn were women. A Diebenkorn quote from a 1970’s TV profile shown at the exhibition about his canvasses: “When they are new, they are too pristine to do anything with. But when they get besmirched, they’re fair game.” It’s a queasy moment.
  • The men in the crowd were soft-faced, well-dressed, middle-aged.
  • In his early years, Diebenkorn was beautiful; in his later years, avuncular.
  • Many contemporary painters still clearly work under Diebenkorn’s influence.
  • Diebenkorn’s Berkeley work is strongly marked by what have become moderne style clichés. It easily reaches beyond them, but from 2013 the resonances are impossible to miss – in how he divides his frames, in the architecture and furnishings he depicts, in his color choices, in his cultural optimism tinged with privileged ennui, in his embrace of modernist art historical convention and economics, in his disinterest in ornament, in politics, in mess.
  • The work captures (and encapsulates) the mid-century Anglo-expansionist era of Californian history, the vestiges of which still surrounded us, but which no longer defines or controls its growth – it’s there in the coastal and city landscapes that are still being built out, in its very specific (white, male, straight) eroticism, in images of overwhelmingly Caucasian people living in newly-built homes, with large yards and the time to sit and reflect, to be enigmatic, decorative, interesting, to look.

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Silicon Valley architecture on an upswing?

Just over decade ago I wrote a big article for Salon that asked why Silicon Valley’s vaunted innovation hadn’t extended to its physical environment.

Well, perhaps times are changing. As the LA Times reports today, “Tech companies that have long occupied dreary office parks are planning to build distinctive campuses that reflect their art and soul.”

Frank Gehry is redesigning the Facebook campus. Foster and Partners is adding Apple’s new headquarters to its local portfolio (along with the Clark Center, home of Stanford’s Bio-X program). Samsung, Google and Nvidia plan spiffy new buildings, too.

Reporter Chris O’Brien credits a growing appreciation of design among Valley companies for the change, along with the presumption that working in a ‘building that makes your jaw hit the floor’ might help companies recruit top talent. I think he’s likely right. If he is, we’re still a way off from matching the ambitions of the builders of renaissance Florence (the then-popular comparison that launched my Salon article). But with luck our eyes will have a little more to feast on as we move our very un-virtual bodies around.

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A profile of Sigrid Close and her work on ‘space dust’

A lot of the writing I’ve done in the last few months – white papers, case studies, marketing copy – hasn’t found its way online or hasn’t been under my byline, so I’ve not linked to it.

But here’s a profile that was just published. It’s about the work of Stanford Aeronautics and Astronautics professor Sigrid Close. I started working on it almost a year ago, but it got delayed for a variety of reasons. I’m glad to see it up – and amazed by the number of projects that Sigrid has going on. I didn’t even mention them all.

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Bioengineer Stephen Quake profiled

I’ve been enjoying the chance to write about faculty in Stanford’s School of Engineering recently. My latest effort profiles Stephen Quake, winner of this year’s MIT Lemelson-MIT Prize.

At just 43, Quake has already made an extraordinary number of major breakthroughs in applying measurement to biological phenomena.

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Profile of Stanford chemical engineering prof. Channing Robertson

Here’s a profile that I put together for the Stanford School of Engineering on Channing Robertson, emeritus professor of Chemical Engineering. He’s a legendary teacher, former Senior Associate Dean, and was the first engineering faculty member hired by Stanford to focus specifically on the chemistry of life forms. Apart from all that, he’s been involved in some of the most significant legal cases of the last 40 years to touch on issues of chemical and medical engineering.

Amazingly, though, that’s far from his whole story. Thanks to the space constraints we were working with, we had to leave plenty of interesting material on the virtual editing room floor. I hope Professor Robertson gets time to write a memoir in his retirement. It would be a great read.

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