Eric over at Blogcritics commented on what he called "the continuity of your taste from the Velvets through the Sleaters," and that really brought home to me how much last night was about continuity. Let's see if I can be coherent here without just resorting to a list of stuff from my life ... it's hard to know how to tell this story, do I do it chronologically according to when stuff happened, chronologically according to how the events impacted my life, or just scramble everything together, stream-of-consciousness fashion? A lot of this, I've written before, here and elsewhere, but maybe not all in one place.
Well, first there's the Summer of Love. My brother Geoff, who was living in San Francisco at the time, took me to my very first rock concert ... I was 14 years old, the bill was Chuck Berry, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and the Steve Miller Blues Band, the venue was the Fillmore Auditorium. (Berry later released a concert album of the Fillmore shows, Live at the Fillmore Auditorium.) Also at those shows was a Bay Area writer named Greil Marcus, who made passing reference to them in his first book, Rock and Roll Will Stand, which came out in 1969.
Marcus goes on to write for Rolling Stone, which is probably where I first came across his work. Eventually he writes Mystery Train, one of the most influential "pop-academic" books of music/cultural criticism ever published. You can get a feel for the direction of the book, and much of Marcus's subsequent career, from the following sentence, pulled out of the intro to the original edition of the book:
I am no more capable of mulling over Elvis without thinking of Herman Melville that I am of reading Jonathan Edwards (not, I've been asked to point out, the crooner mentioned in the Randy Newman chapter, but the Puritan who made his name with "Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God") without putting on Robert Johnson's records as background music.
A few paragraphs before the Melville-meets-Elvis quote, Marcus noted a few important influences on his work, among them a few Berkeley professors that included Michael Rogin and Norman Jacobson in the PoliSci department, and the film critic Pauline Kael. Finally, the author's blurb mentioned that Marcus had taught something called American Studies at Cal in the early 70s.
When I read Mystery Train, I was early into my ten-year career as a steelworker for the Continental Can Company. I loved the book, and told myself if I ever went back to college, I would take that thing called "American Studies."
Move forward to the early 80s. In one of the few times in my life where I was actually "there" somewhere near the beginning of a phenomena, I attended a concert at a tiny San Francisco club called The Stone. The headline act was a guy named Prince; it was one of the best concerts I ever saw in my life. Later, Greil Marcus wrote about the show for California magazine. He got the feeling of the show down exactly as I'd experienced it, and I decided to write him a thank-you note/fan letter. I knew he lived in Berkeley, so I looked him up in the phone book, but while his number was listed, there was no address. Figuring he might have removed the address after he'd gotten some fame, I went to the public library, found a Berkeley phone book from the year before Mystery Train came out, looked him up, found his address, and sent him my fan letter. To which he graciously replied with a postcard I've still got sitting around here somewhere.
Eventually, I quit the factory and went back to college. When I transferred to Cal in 1986, I found that there was no longer an American Studies major. But Robin, who had been a Cal student in the early 70s, told me there was an option to write your own major. Which I proceeded to do, calling my major "American Studies." For those two years, I was the only American Studies student at Berkeley. The first thing I did was look up those professors who had influenced Greil Marcus. One was about to retire, but Mike Rogin was kind enough to sign on as one of the readers for my honors thesis ... he later sat on my orals committee when I was in grad school, and remained an inspiration for all who knew him until he passed away a few years ago, at which time, I wrote an obit/thank-you piece:
one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own.... one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take
I got my degree in American Studies, along the way interviewing none other than Greil Marcus for background material on my honors thesis, which dealt with Elvis Presley. From there, I got my doctorate in English and then for several years taught American Studies at Cal (the major being reinstated), where, in my last semester in the program, I had a colleague, a visiting instructor named, yes, Greil Marcus. At the graduation ceremony that year, I sat next to Greil on the stage of the Greek Theatre, where he regaled me with stories about The Sixties.
Now, 37 years after Geoff took me to my first rock and roll concert, he's at the Fillmore Auditorium with Jillian and I to see Sleater-Kinney. Geoff brings his 16-year-old son, Sean, who attends the Fillmore for his first time. We go upstairs and show Sean the poster from that long-ago show ... we regale him (OK, we probably bored him, but play along with me) with stories of The Sixties and beyond. Then we go downstairs, to the same floor where Geoff and I saw Chuck Berry in 1967. And after the opening acts are finished and the floor is getting crowded with fans who want to get close for Sleater-Kinney, who should walk by us but ... Greil Marcus. You see, among the things about Greil I didn't mention above, he is one of the biggest champions of Sleater-Kinney, most famously a few years ago when Time ran a series of pieces on "America's Best" and Marcus's contribution was to write about America's Best Rock Band, Sleater-Kinney.
So I introduce everyone to Greil, and I ask him if he's with any of his family, and he says yeah, his daughter came with him, but she found some friends and was hanging with them while Dad moved his way closer to the stage (Marcus reminisced fondly about the early days of punk, when scrambling to the front of the crowd was an accepted artform ... nowadays, he noted with some sadness, if you just tried to sneak into a crack in the crowd with a hearty "excuse me," you got a dirty look). Besides, he said, perhaps it was best, since when he and his daughter had been together, he'd found it very difficult not to just regale her with stories of The Sixties and The Fillmore and ... at that point, I nodded my head at Geoff and Sean and said we understood.
And so yes, it's about continuity, and me and my brother, and my brother and his son, and the Fillmore in '67 and the Fillmore in '04, and me reading Greil Marcus and then me working with Greil Marcus, and all of us at the Fillmore last night to see Sleater-Kinney together and when I asked Greil if he remembered his first show at the Fillmore and he thought perhaps it was one of those Airplane/Big Brother/Dead nights, and I said my first time was Chuck Berry with the Steve Miller Band, and he said hey, I wrote about that in my first book, and I said yes and I have a tattered copy of that book to this day, and I didn't look but I wouldn't be surprised if right about then Sean was rolling his eyes at the oldtimers and their stories of the glory days, but hey Sean, print this post out and save it, and show it to some young whippersnapper when you turn 57. It's about continuity.