Category Archives: culture

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 reminder that it helps to pitch the right outlet

Watching Avatar while sitting next to a Stanford professor had me (and the professor) wondering about the ‘Stanford’ t-shirt that Sigourney Weaver’s avatar wears very prominently in a number of scenes.

What was the story was behind the shirt’s appearance in the movie?  Why choose that university?  What was that choice meant to signify to the viewer?  And who, I next wondered, might be interested in running a short article featuring the answers?  The obvious candidate was the Stanford alumni magazine — one of the best of its kind — for which I’ve written before.

So the next day I pitched my editorial contact at the magazine and on Friday (just a couple of weeks later) the article was posted online.

The experience is a good reminder that a feature idea can have a lot of potential homes and be of potential interest to a lot of different people.  But when it comes to getting someone to actually commission your idea, you’re best off pitching the outlet most directly aimed at readers with the maximum potential interest in the subject you are hoping to explore.

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Joe Wilson hires a professional tweeter

Not so long ago I wrote about ghost tweeting as a growth market for writers.

So it was interesting to see that pretty much as soon as US Representative Joe Wilson made a national name for himself by heckling the President last week, he went out and hired himself a ghost, or professional, twitterer.


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A Growth Market for Writers: Celebrity GhostTweeter

Well, the NY Times beat me to it.  Sort of.

I’ve been meaning to write something on the consequences of celebrity tweeting for writers for weeks now.   I think there’s a whole new career path here.

It’s clear that while Tweeting adds considerable value to a celebrity’s profile, it’s also something he or she can get seriously wrong.

Intoxicated by the chance to share every moment of an unquestionably fascinating life (they’re a celebrity after all) said famous person can pretty swiftly reveal him or herself to be whiny, egotistical, entitled,crazy or — worst of all — utterly ordinary.

It’s what you could call rule one of celebrity tweeting: done wrong, celebrity tweeting destroys your brand.

Of course, a few rare folks can pull it off.  There’s Stephen Fry and The Real Shaq, whom Noam Coen mentions in the Times, both of who seem to have personalities perfectly suited to the form.  But for most famous people, being interesting many times a day is just plain hard.

Subscribe to a few celebrity feeds and it’s obvious that a lot of people are needing help.  And of those who have it, many clearly aren’t getting the help they need.  Have the wrong people write your tweets  and you quickly betray your twittering as phony PR.  What good is that?

The situation, it’s seemed to me for a while, calls for a new profession — the GhostTweeter.   And here’s the Times recognizing the same thing.

Coen is interested mostly in the fact of GhostTweeting.  I’m as curious about the mechanics.  What exactly is the job description for a celebrity GhostTweeter?

Here’s a try:

Writer needed to work with internationally known personality.  You’ll be:

  • psychologically acute, able to understand what motivates both the famous individual and his/her many tens of thousands of diehard fans.
  • a natural storyteller, able to take the facts of your employer’s day — whatever they are — and spin them into narrative gold, but always in the believable ‘voice’ of your employer.
  • a high-performance, high-producing copywriter, able to translate that understanding into 10 or more engaging, entertaining and above all punchy 140 character tweets per day.  (You will also be expected to reply to at least 20 tweets sent to you be fans per day, to be written in the same engaging ‘voice’).
  • available all hours, ready to be tweet for your celebrity wherever he/she is in the world (no, you will not be traveling with the celebrity.  You can do this from home).

Experience in brand management and creative writing is very much a plus.  Ability to work in a high pressure environment with emotional, ambitious people used to ‘high-touch’ assistance is essential.

How does sound?

My guess is this will be a rare growth industry for writers in the next few years.

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Geography as journalistic destiny

Since I was writing recently about the Bay Area’s unique creative culture, it’s interesting (to me at least) to note that Ready Made magazine is moving from Berkeley to Des Moines, Iowa.  There was a thoughtful dissection of what that might mean for the magazine in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle.

“The move raises the question of how the change will affect Ready Made’s hip editorial sensibilites,” says the Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli.

Garofoli also notes that none of the magazine’s six staff have chosen to go with the magazine to Des Moines.  I think that pretty much answers his question.

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Why should social networks want to make money?

In a guest column today over at VentureBeat, Amuso co-founder Barak Rabinowitz writes about the failure of social networking websites to turn their phenomenal popularity into phenomenal profits.

“There’s an elephant in the room of online advertising,” he suggests.  “An elephant in the shape of 400 million social networkers creating and consuming content, clustering around shared interests and activities — all who have yet to be tapped in any major way by web marketers.”

Continue reading

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Finding the time to think

That’s the biggest challenge facing Americans today, writes Andrew Razeghi in a recent and thought-provoking San Francisco Chronicle editorial.

American lifestyles — and workstyles — allow for little but specialization at work and few interests, sports, hobbies or pastimes outside of it, he argues.

Partly, Razeghi wants to highlight the productive value of having ‘amateurs’ engage with a problem and seeing it from an entirely new angle. But he also points to the price we pay as a society in seeing narrow educational achievement and the 70 hour work week as badges of honor.

This week, in a not-so-veiled reference to the spectacular flame out of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, David Brooks makes clear the personal toll that a life spent as a ‘workaholic-specialist’ can exact. And there’s a cost to families, as well, as any child of over-worked parents will tell you.

It’s all a new spin on the ‘rat-race’ critique, of course. And it ties in closely with contemporary appeals to live life ‘slow‘ and with environmental critiques of capitalist consumer culture.

But what’s interesting — and new — is that Razeghi makes his appeal in terms of innovation. Great ideas, as much as cool gadgets and killer apps., he points out, tend to come out of left field. If American lifestyles barely let people get out onto the grass, let alone wander, that’s a problem for the future economic (not to mention political and psychic) health of the nation.

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