Friday, June 21, 2013

San Francisco Musical History Tour (Joel Selvin)

San Francisco Musical History Tour, Joel Selvin
Read: 11 December to 13 December 2011
3 / 5 stars

Years ago, I rescued this promisingly titled tour-guide-in-a-book from the wastelands of a former job's free-book pile, which was really just an embarrassing array of Sookie Stackhouse tripe and battered romance novels that made me ashamed of my supposedly well-educated journalists-in-arms (okay, I kid, but.... I've never seen people with otherwise smashing taste take that much pride in letting their guilty pleasures run amok). I figured that since I love reading and have a special fondness for the catch-all genre that is classic rock, something combining two of my most lovingly nurtured interests should have been downright onanistic. I mean, right?

It's not the fault of Musical History Tour that I've never been able to shake the suspicion that I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time, though the book couldn't have possibly rubbed my face in it any harder (why, yes, it totally got personal, thank you for asking). My three-star rating is a terribly reluctant one, though the vindictiveness behind it is slightly less reluctant. Because... seriously. Damn you all for getting to see Janis and Zep and Floyd and CCR and The Dead and scores upon scores of other rock legends in their prime while I have to settle for bootleg recordings and the occasional Allman Bros. gig when my neo-hippie chums and I can get our shit together enough for a trip to fucking Camden. Which is like Philly, only you're way more likely to get fork-stabbed in broad daylight.

The blurb on the back cover hails this as "....more than a guidebook--it's a trip." I'll certainly grant it that. It was pretty neat to see history play out against the backdrop of not just music's greatest talents but also some of literature's and even comedy's biggest names and brightest stars. Reading about how creative minds representing all of the arts mingled was a treat unto itself; there's something quietly, beautifully unifying in knowing that writers I love were in the audience when bands I love even more took to the stage. The bonus of more modern outfits -- Metallica, Green Day, Les Fucking Claypool (!) -- popping up in places that once showcased their predecessors did lend a strangely endearing cyclical nature to everything, and I did thoroughly enjoy and appreciate that aspect of the narrative.

For all the sad endings a lot of these venerable music institutions met -- fires, inept management, runs of straight-up bad luck -- it was an interesting reminder that nothing's forever (not even the heyday of rock 'n' roll) as well as an inadvertent tribute to our society's fondness for hanging on to the past and other emotionally relevant but fleeting intangibles via old memories and older buildings.

The one not-in-my-head shortcoming of this book was its woeful lack of photos. I've never been to The City by the Bay or any of its surroundings areas, so lengthy descriptions of structures and areas didn't mean as much to me as, say, a faithfully reproduced photograph would have. What struck me as a little odd was how many of the photos were from the '90s. I would have much preferred to see these clubs and makeshift recording studios and parks as they were when the book's anecdotes existed in the present tense. I mean, if I wanted to see more current images of these locations, I could just run to Google maps (which I plan to do anyway). Reading about these once-in-a-lifetime shows and spontaneous mixings of musical powerhouses made me want to see what things were like when it was all happening, which is the largest contributor to how denied I felt by the time I got to the last page.

But! Speaking of anecdotes, the liberal sprinkling of tales about notable events, performers, recordings and general goings-on from the past was what had me hemming and hawing over my tepid rating. This book's biggest success was the stories it told about what made each of its landmarks musically notable. I loved how San Fran was actually treated like a physical presence in these artists' lives and how the city had such an influence on the miscreants who called it home and the work they produced. Reading about the places where some of my favorite albums were recorded was such a treat for the fangirl in me. Learning new things about bands and musicians I love was the purest kind of delightful.

All in all, this would have elicited a much gushier reaction from me if not for my distaste for reality's harsher points. So I'll let the need for a serious classic-rock binge that this book left me with be its lasting impression.

Now excuse me while I go dance '60s-documentary-style to "Box of Rain" for the next five minutes.

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