San Franciscan Nights: Music Writer Joel Selvin in Conversation
By Barbara Flaska (August 2001)
Joel Selvin has been in motion on the field, providing a play-by-play account of the Bay Area music scene, for three decades. As a journalist, he calls them as he sees them, observing and tracking the players and events. His long running weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle has followed the hometown bands and the music they’ve made during the past 30 years. From the blossoming of the flower power days, into the swirl of psychedelic dance palaces. Slipping through the disco joints, then charting the power chord of arena rock spectacle. Tracing the currents of the persevering blues scene, and the emergence of the funk, the punk, and the rave and techno movements.
In addition to writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joel has published articles in Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times, Billboard, and Melody Maker. Joel also can be read here and there just by turning an album over and looking for his liner notes on dozens of CDs–Creedence Clearwater Revival (Bayou Country and Pendulum), John Allair (Cleans House), Merl Saunders (It’s in the Air), George Thorogood (Anthology), Tommy Castro (Can’t Keep a Good Man Down), Journey (Time3), or Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88’s (Solid Gold Cadillac). Joel’s involvement in the music scene extends well beyond writing music reviews and criticism.
His biography Ricky Nelson: Idol For a Generation (1990) was nominated for a Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award. The book took the subject back to the small screen when used as the basis for an original VH1 movie, Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol. Joel has since written books such as Monterey Pop: June 16-18, 1967 (1992) and a best-selling flash-back that details more than sex and drugs and rock and roll titled Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love, and High Times in the Wild West (1994). Joel prepared the narrative and Sammy Hagar the introduction forPhotopass: The Rock and Roll Photography of Randy Bachman (1995), a posthumous tribute to the Bay Area photographer’s work. Selvin’s next work provides a quirky collection of anecdotes, stories, and secrets of dozens of the area’s music greats, as framed by the clubs, recording studios, and residences they inhabited, The Musical History Tour: A Guide to Over 200 of the Bay Area’s Most Memorable Music Sites (1996). Joel also contributed the introduction for Freehand: The Art of Stanley Mouse (1993) and Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History (For the Record) with Dave Marsh as editor (1998). He’s just finished reading through the galley proofs for what promises to be an interesting and colorful collaboration on the Treasures of the Hard Rock Café: The Official Guide to the Hard Rock Café Memorabilia Collection. Scheduled for release to the general public through bookstores in September 2001, the book is available now at Hard Rock Cafés. The 300-page book is quite pretty, a large coffee table edition of 2000 color photographs.
Joel’s also been teaching classes at San Francisco State University and lecturing at the U.C. Berkeley Journalism Colloquium, Mills College, and The Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco. In May, 1997, Joel was a super-docent at the opening of “I Want To Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era 1965-69” exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The Hall had assembled a huge collection of psychedelic artifacts from San Francisco and London. Joel Selvin was curator of the San Francisco portion of the exhibit, which included such mementos as the cream-colored, fringed top that Grace Slick wore at Woodstock and Janis Joplin’s resplendent 1965 Porsche 356C Cabriolet.
On June 16, 2001, Joel provided a keynote address at “Monterey Pop Revisited”, a symposium which opened the doors of the Monterey History Center, for a newly installed exhibition of the Monterey Pop Festival. In his opening remarks, Joel reiterated his long-held belief that “Section 43” recorded in 1965 by Country Joe and the Fish is “the definitive recorded example of genuine acid rock.”
Joel and his musician wife, Keta Bill, are also active with Thunder Road, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center for youth. The center was named for the Bruce Springsteen song. Joel has been recognized as a “VIP” (that’s an acronym for a very important person) for his continuing support of H.E.A.R. (Hearing and Education Awareness for Rockers). Additionally, Joel is a board member-at-large for the Arhoolie Foundation, an organization which branched from Chris Strachwitz’s offbeat Arhoolie record label. The Arhoolie Foundation’s prime purpose is “the documentation, dissemination, and presentation of authentic traditional and regional vernacular musics and by these activities educate and enlighten the public as well as support and reinforce traditional community values.”
Joel’s a founding member of the infamous literary rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders with Amy Tan, Steven King, and Matt Groening. You can catch them on disc on the “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” label and hear what critics are panning, or even watch a video immortalizing one of their concerts performed May 25, 1992, at the Cowboy Boogie in Anaheim, California. The celebrity writers banded together en masse to benefit writers’ groups and the anti-censorship movement. By then, the numbers of “Remainders” onstage had swelled to jam-band proportions to include Dave Barry, Tad Bartimus, Roy Blount, Jr., Michael Dorris, Robert Fulghum, Matt Groening, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Ridley Pearson, Joel Selvin, Amy Tan, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Al Kooper, Josh Kelly, Jerry Peterson. Sen. Paul Simon provided the introduction for the show. Watch in amazed disbelief as they drown onstage in a “Sea of Love”, almost completely lose “Money”, and show off their spelling with “G-l-o-r-i-a”. The group in various configurations still performs at benefits for literacy projects and charities.
Last, but not by any means least, Selvin also co-produced the triumphant comeback recording by surf guitar king Dick Dale, Tribal Thunder (1997).
Music informs the life of Joel Selvin, and through his writing Joel informs others about music–but culture and community and the human beings who make it make their appearance, too.
The following interview was conducted by e-mail.
Barbara: What have you been up to lately?
Joel: Cooking in the backyard.
Barbara: How was this job for Treasures of the Hard Rock different from your regular work for the Chronicle?
Joel: Never before have done the kind of detailed photo editing and organization–in collaboration with the Rare Air designers and co-author Grushkin. The text was a milk run.
Barbara: Can you give me some more background information? Where you were born, went to school…
Joel: Born in Berkeley, failed to graduate with Berkeley High School class of ’67. Went to work as a copy boy at the Chronicle and got on the guest list for the Fillmore. Never looked back.
Barbara: Did you know you wanted to be a writer early on in your life?
Joel: I always liked newspapers. I was a printer before I was a writer.
Barbara: When did you discover rock and roll and which artists were part of that experience?
Joel: Heard rock and roll on AM radio, but it wasn’t until psychedelics that the whole thing became this huge obsession–Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, and Little Richard loomed large in my mind.
Barbara: Where was your first piece of rock journalism published and how did you first get into writing about music?
Joel: I left the Chronicle for a short, misguided tour through college (UC-Riverside) and started writing pop for the paper there. I sold my first professional piece, a record review, to Rolling Stone and, oddly enough, it was later anthologized.
Barbara: Do you remember what pop you wrote about at Riverside? I’ll forgive you if you don’t.
Joel: I wrote record reviews, columns and all sorts of features. I interviewed (among others) Little Richard, Sly Stone, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Dick Dale.
Barbara: Did you just send the review to RS cold or walk it over when you were back in SF? Which record, by the way?
Joel: If memory serves that would be U.S. Mail. First Step by the Faces (the band’s first album with Rod Stewart on vocals).
Barbara: Your favorite rock magazines and critics in the ’70s? Which rock critics and writers were your favorites and which ones influenced you?
Joel: I liked Stone OK, some of Christgau’s Esquire stuff, but as a Chronicle subscriber Ralph Gleason was always the man. Sports writers have been more of an influence on my work than other pop writers.
Barbara: I enjoyed your book The Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock and Roll, Free Love and High Times In the Wild West. Are you happy with the way the book turned out and what effect did The Summer of Love have on your life?
Joel: I love the book. I spent more than four years of my life making that book everything I wanted it to be. I spent the summer of ’67 hiding out in Indiana–my real summer of love was ’69, when I worked at the Wild West Festival and saw shows every night.
Barbara: Was it difficult to translate “the underground” to the “overground”? Is there an “underground” today?
Joel: I feel a kindred spirit with the raves and techno scene to the ’60s underground thing. Underground is difficult to find in this media-conscious age, but there are still people trading intriguing ideas out of the limelight of the commercial marketplace.
Barbara: I also liked your “if-walls-could-talk” approach in 200 Clubs [Musical History Tour]. That was a fun spin on architectural history and made the stories more three-dimensional. Why are those old stories important?
Joel: Thank you. I thought it was an interesting way to capture anecdotal history–lore, in other words–and lore must be preserved outside the memories of those who know it or it disappears.
Barbara: Is history relevant to the present? What would you say to people who don’t care to learn the roots of art, history, or anything else.
Joel: History is great because that’s where all the best stories are.
Barbara: If you think about the younger reader, do you ever feel like you’re writing subtitles to foreign films?
Joel: Young people these days are so much smarter and hipper than we were at their age. I never have to talk down to them. It’s the people my age that need a little help understanding sometimes.
Barbara: What music magazines do you read today? Do you have any favorite music writers or critics being published today?
Joel: I love Mojo–it’s the Architectural Digest of my field–and I dig Vanity Fair, although that doesn’t have much to do with rock and roll. There are so many good critics and writers in pop these days, I wouldn’t know where to begin. But I’d be foolish not to mention my outstanding colleagues at the Chronicle: James Sullivan, Neva Chonin, and, my main man, Aidin Vaziri.
Barbara: Do you think internet publishing has changed music journalism for better or worse?
Joel: Farm club baseball–room for lots of young writers to get experience on the Web.
Barbara: How does a writer avoid “hack” pieces? Any tricks you can recommend to stay fresh?
Joel: A French whore once said there are no tricks, just enthusiasm. I suspect that applies as much to writing as sex.
Barbara: Do you have a favorite period of music?
Joel: So many–Harlem in the ’30s, Chicago in the ’50s, Memphis in the ’50s, Nashville in late ’40s, early ’50s, London and SF mid ’60s. I even like the New York disco era. Texas anytime.
Barbara: What music are you still listening to that holds up from the old days? Any new music that makes you believe in the power of music?
Joel: I like Olu Dara, but he hardly counts. New music has a lot of disadvantages these days. Have to adopt wait and see attitude, check and see what’s still floating five years from now.
Barbara: You started up your career in a very exciting time and place. To my way of thinking that milieu has changed considerably. Let’s pretend you’ve been asked to make commencement remarks to a group of young aspiring music writers. What sorts of things would you say to them? What’s the most important thing to remember when writing about music?
Joel: Got to tell ’em how it sounds. A baseball report is no damn good if you don’t know the final score by the end of the first paragraph. You must care. The readers do.
Barbara: Is the idea of “community” important to music?
Joel: Community is important to us all, but music is one of the ways we make community. Musicians also understand the concept better than other people, so, in SF at least, there is an authentic music community.
Barbara: Want to talk about Chris Strachwitz? Why does everyone love and respect him so much?
Joel: Only person I know who is still in the music business because he loves the music.
Barbara: Anything you’d care to say about your biography on Ricky? That’s become a collector’s item (I saw it listed for $65 on ebay). Did the small screen shape his career or should I just read the book?
Joel: David Halberstam liked my book. He digested my 300 page book in about 12 pages of his book, The Fifties. He told me that he didn’t think it was a book about rock and roll as much as it was about the American family. I liked that.
Barbara: Should musicians write their memoirs or autobiographies?
Joel: There’ve been some good ones; Count Basie, Mick Fleetwood, Ian Whitcomb.
Barbara: A common question–are Hard Rock Cafés a form of globalization? The imitators who hopped on what they thought was a trend (Planet Hollywood, and so on) collapsed fairly quickly, yet the Hard Rock endures. What are they selling in terms of cultural appeal?
Joel: It’s the memorabilia, I’m convinced, that keeps Hard Rock going. It’s a great collection and the stuff means things to people in ways I try to describe in the book.
Barbara: There are plenty of rock and roll museums and more on the way. Why is the memorabilia at Hard Rock Cafés important? If those walls could talk, what would they say?
Joel: It’s about authenticity–these instruments are not props, they are genuine connections to important human deeds. It’s a psychological thing that I try to explain in the book.
Barbara: Any projects you can’t wait to get started on?
Joel: I’m looking forward to finishing my research and book about the Brill Bldg era of N.Y. R&B.