This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Joel Selvin, author and journalist.
If you expect to admonish or take a poke at veteran pop music writer Joel Selvin this year—and many out there do-expect to first stand behind a long line of admirers singing his praises.
Selvin is riding high with the what may be the coolest book of the year, "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues," published by Counterpoint Press in Berkeley, California in April, 2014.
With an eye for musical detail, and blessed with a colorful cast of opportunistic music industry figures, and hard-nosed gangsters, the remarkable book is grounded in New York’s turbulent R&B world of the late ‘50s, and early ‘60s.
Center stage throughout the book is the wily, if somewhat obscure today, producer/songwriter Bert Berns who contributed to 51 pop chart singles in seven years before dying of heart failure in 1967 at the age 38. He scored 19 hits alone in 1964, his first year as an Atlantic Records staff producer.
On his own Bang Records imprint, Berns produced Van Morrison; signed Neil Diamond; co-wrote the McCoys’ #1 Billboard pop hit “Hang On Sloopy” (1965) with Wes Farrell; and co-wrote “Piece of My Heart” with Jerry Ragovoy, a Top 10 R&B hit for Erma Franklin in 1967, that became Janis Joplin’s signature song after Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Cheap Thrills” album in 1968. Berns also wrote such gut-wrenching R&B-laced pop standards as “Twist & Shout” (with Phil Medley), and “Here Comes the Night.”
Among the primary players in "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues," are Atlantic Record principals Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler; the formidable songwriter/production teams Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich, Carole King & Gerry Goffin; producers Phil Spector and Phil Ramone; songwriters Jerry Ragovoy and Wes Farrell; and artists Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Erma Franklin, Van Morrison and Neil Diamond.
This is the latest Selvin book covering pop music and pop culture which also includes: “Ricky Nelson: Idol For a Generation” (1990); “Monterey Pop” with photographer Jim Marshall (1992); “Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love and High Time in the Wild West”; and the 2011 best-seller, "Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock" with Sammy Hagar.
Despite the popularity of his books, Selvin is best-known for being the primary music scribe for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades before his departure in 2009.
Born in Berkeley, California, Selvin failed to graduate with his Berkeley High School class of 1967. He did, however, move to San Francisco the same year, where he was hired as a copy boy at the Chronicle. The newspaper named him as an assistant to distinguished music critic John Wasserman in 1972. Selvin soon began to write for both the daily, and the Sunday issues of the newspaper, fully taking over the newspapers’ music beat in 1979.
Over the years Selvin has also written articles for Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Melody Maker, and penned liner notes for numerous albums. He is a frequent commentator on television shows and film documentaries centered on popular music. Selvin’s decade long run hosting "Selvin on the City," the Sunday night program on the San Francisco classic rock station KSAN (The Bone) and KOZT (The Coast) in Mendocino ends this month. Some of the best shows, including with such guests Tom Waits, Ry Cooder, Chris Isaak, Booker T. Jones, Donovan, and Sammy Hagar can be found on his web site.
Few music journalists have sat outside on a dock fishing with Merle Haggard near his house or walked San Francisco’s gang-riddled Mission District with Tom Waits.
Joel Selvin has.
Sixteen years is a long time to develop a book. At what moment did realize that you were going to do a book involving Bert Berns?
Well, that comes from my meeting his son Brett Berns in 1996. There were then two Hollywood movie producers wanting to make a Janis Joplin movie. One of them decided that the way to lock it (the film) up was to buy the movie rights to “Piece Of My Heart,” the song co-written by Berns and Jerry Ragovoy. They figured that they couldn’t make a movie about Janis without it. So they threw a million bucks at Bert’s children who owned the rights.
Suddenly, they were in the movie business. One of the people being considered for the role was Melissa Etheridge. She came to San Francisco to sit in with the members of Big Brother and the Holding Company at a concert (before a small crowd at the Maritime Hall in San Francisco) and do some Janis numbers.
As a newspaper writer here, I was alerted to that, and I went there to do the story. Somebody said, “The guy who wrote that song, his daughter is backstage.” “Bert Berns?” “Yeah, I think that’s his name.” So I met Cassie that night. Her brother Brett was back at his hotel too sick to come to the show. But she was so excited to find someone who was interested in her father’s work. Brett came to visit me a couple of weeks later. We stayed up to four or five in the morning down in my record library. I was playing him records that he had never heard, and showing him stuff. He told me about stuff that I had only heard little bits about, especially the gangster stuff.
How were you able to sell a book on an obscure ‘60s music figure to an American book publisher?
(Much laughter) No kidding. It (the manuscript) was roundly turned down by almost every East Coat publisher. I can’t entirely blame them. The manuscript was a mess. When I met Charlie Winton, who is the CEO of Counterpoint Press here in Berkeley, and told him about the book, he said that he’d take a look at it. He actually read it, and said, “Well, the manuscript is a mess.” I said, “Let me take a whack at (editing) it.”
How did that work out?
I took 40,000 words out of that manuscript in about 5 days. I was kind of digressive in the original draft. If you imagine that book being even more digressive than what it is. There was a chapter that went back to Stephen Foster in the first draft. Once Charlie saw that I was willing to chop off an arm and a leg and send it back to him with a bleeding torso, he knew we could work together. It’s a perfect fit for his company. They do about 60 books a year. They publish books on conspiracy theories. They publish John Barth’s new fiction. Left Coast stuff.
So here’s a smaller publishing house that is not looking at selling 30,000 copies of every books. Charlie found the thing (Bert Berns’ story) fascinating. He’s edited 250 or 300 books. He did a brilliant job of editing the book. It turns out that this book is revisionist history. It takes a different viewpoint on major (American) cultural figures like (Atlantic Records’ co-owners) Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Berns, himself, is a figure of revisionist history.
The book has had substantial media attention.
We came out with this things on this tiny little label (book company), and bam we are in the New York Times. We are on CBS-TV. We’re on NPR. Bette Midler is tweeting about it. Charlie was at a musical opening, ("Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story" at the Pershing Square Signature Theater in New York City on July 21, 2014), and I introduced him to Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt). Little Steven was complimenting him about the book. I overheard Charlie say to Little Steven that in his entire career that he had not been involved with a project that had received such widespread mainstream acclaim as ( Gary Snyder’s) “Cold Mountain Poems.”
So many of my friends have told me about this book since its publication.
This is crazy. I’m working on a book with L.A. Reid, the record executive (chairman and CEO of Epic Records). He told me that he had a meeting with Jimmy Iovine last week. In the middle of the meeting Jimmy starts telling his about this book that he’s reading. That L.A. ought to read. Ahhhh, man, you’ve got to be kidding. Jimmy Iovine is recommending my book?
You credit the late British radio presenter, musicologist and writer Charlie Gillett for providing the spark for writing “Here Comes The Night.”
Oh absolutely. Charlie was the first person who wrote about Bert Berns to my knowledge. It certainly was the first time I ran across his name in his (1970) book “The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll.”
One of the pivotal music books of our time.
A landmark book. I used to study the cover. He mentioned a few records by Berns. I immediately recognized some common ingredient to those records, and began seeking out his work. Looking at the small print on the 45 (rpm) labels. And as I did so, I began finding this common ingredient, and realized that there was something very special going on.
What was the common ingredient that you discovered?
Oh, this guy had singers pushed to the edge of heartbreak. Everybody is in urgent despair. It’s cataclysmic agony right from the start.
You might say that about a lot of producers from that era. Phil Spector for one.
There’s no agony in Spector records.
Or George Goldner’s recordings with the Crows, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Little Anthony and the Imperials?
George Goldner? There’s no personal infamy on George Goldner records. They all kind of sound alike. There’s no subtext. Goldner’s greatest record arguably is “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Flamingos (in 1959). It’s a beautiful record. It has all of the hallmarks of his productions in it. The great lead vocal. The electronic effects, and that band. That band plays on every record that he ever did, and they are kind of lame. But it was a sound that he could trust, and he could knock these things out by the dozen. Some of them were better than others. Berns’ records, even the ones that weren’t hits, all have this imprint of this same kind of subtext. And the subtext, really is to me, is all linked to his heart condition. Once I was told about the heart problem, then everything lined up for me, and I could see that this guy’s pathology was in the music.
[Bert Berns suffered rheumatic fever as a teenager, and was told he wouldn’t live to 21. When he died in 1967, he was only 38.]
Like Bert Berns, Bobby Darin had a seriously weakened heart. He was 37 when he died after surgery.
Yeah, and there was no question that (condition) was driving his career. The whole, “I want to be famous before I’m 25” bit.
Obviously, Bert Berns’ rheumatic heart disease led to an urgency in his life.
That was my sense of this right early on. I heard it in the records. All of the people in that era with all of the wonderful records and all of that, but they are not part of them. They are creations by clever people. Burt Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King. You don’t see them living in those things (songs) the way that we see Van Morrison living in his music or James Taylor or artists that came after the big hi fi stereo change over. And Berns is in there. I felt his anxiety. I felt his obsessiveness. I felt his compulsion. While they (his recordings) are still posed as teenage romance records or whatever, they are so desperate. You think about a song like “Cry To Me” ( a hit for Solomon Burke in 1962, reaching #5 on Billboard’s R&B chart, and #44 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart). “Cry To Me” is a love song. It’s a positive message, but that’s not what you take away from the initial hearing of it.
Why all these tears? Why is he crying? Why is this such a big part of this thing?
“Here Comes The Night” is a song about a guy seeing his girlfriend walking down the street with another guy. We have run across those forever. (Claudine Clark’s 1962 hit) “Party Lights” and so on. But to Bert Berns, this comes out as, ‘Here Comes The Night.” That’s grandiose.
What’s intriguing about Bert Berns is that he went to the UK in the early ‘60s, and fully embraced the emerging music scene there. Using Jimmy Page as a session player there and in New York.
I think that Berns saw the parallels between the British working class musicians that were in England, and the Afro-Americans in America. Really those (British) records are very much of a piece. The instrumentation is different. The voices are different. But the intensity, the urgency, the thematic congruity, all of those (aspects) are very much alike. ‘Here Comes The Night,” the (1964) Lulu version (that reached #50 on the UK chart), is such a phenomenal pop piece. It really is a different version than the Them version, which is the one everybody is familiar with. That’s a towering pop ballad. It really brings out that anxiety, and obsessiveness of the song. That is in the text.
What’s interesting in reading your book is realizing how prolific Bert Berns was as a producer and as a songwriter. There are so many records I hadn’t heard of. As well, he’d borrow one section of a song for other productions.
Yeah, everything is on the table with Berns. That guitar lick from “Here Comes The Night” was just an incidental thing that was in a Marv Johnson record that nobody noticed. “Come On and Stop.” It’s a funny record. Marv Johnson is this genial baritone. He really doesn’t have any of the drama in his voice that could support a Berns’ record. So Berns brings in Cissy Houston and her gals, pops Garnett Mimms in the background chorus, and writes this arrangement that just buries the lead vocal. The record just goes back to black and white when it is just a lead vocal. Then on comes these background vocalists with this highly orchestrated part, and Garnett Mimms just whooping it up, and the record comes back to life. It‘s almost funny. But in the middle of it, there’s da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da.
For years, Atlantic Records got a free pass in music history until, perhaps, the Ruth Brown lawsuits of the ‘80s which led to further scrutiny of the company’s accounting practices. Robert Greenfield’s book “The Last Sultan” (2011) suggested that Atlantic’s co-owners Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler weren’t always heroes. As Ben E. King said, “They were a better class of thieves.”
I think that what I loved about these guys, Ahmet and Jerry, was that they really dug the music, and their whole A&R strategy was, “If we like it, somebody else might like it.” They didn’t really care what that (music) was. They didn’t care if that was cocktail music that Ahmet was into or some kind of crazy jazz that Wexler thought was something. The label is rich with wonderful music because of that (attitude). That is what their legacy is. At the same time, they were part of this independent New York rhythm and blues record scene which was just a click above a racket.
Columbia’s John Hammond Sr. once told me that that corruption has always bred great music. As in the case of New Orleans with the birth of jazz, and Kansas City, Missouri under the political machine of Tom Pendergast in the late ‘20s and ‘30s. Same as with New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
You know, it was just an industrial mandate. These guys were out to make hit records. They didn’t see what they were doing as having any cultural heft. It was about making hit records. It was a fun little game. It was chisel. A racket. They were selling records to people that were young, a lot of them (records were) racial. And it was all of the side of the periphery of big business, and big music business. The “My Fair Lady” soundtrack (1964), Atlantic didn’t have anything that came even close to that at the time.
The R&B world of the ‘50s and ‘50s had such colorful characters as the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil and in Chicago; Don Robey at Duke/Peacock in Houston, and the Bihari brothers, Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe at Modern/Kent/Crown in Los Angeles. These guys were part of a tough side of the music business, and operated like gangsters.
There were racial divides. There were cultural divides. It was a small business. It didn’t make a lot of money in the sense of General Motors. It was corrupt to the core. That was the whole universe that these guys operated in. Still, there were still people who still felt the bliss and who were guided by that. That’s why we have these wonderful Burt Bacharach records. These extraordinary Leiber and Stroller productions. And Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s work. And Goffin and King. And (Phil) Spector, and Berns productions. These are amazing records done by people who were really taken with what they were doing.
The scene even had true eccentrics like George “Shadow” Morton best known for writing and producing “Remember (Walking in the Sand)," and “Leader of the Pack” and other hits for the Shangri-Las.
Oh, it just supported all kinds of eccentricity, and unconventional thinking. If it (poor behavior) would make a hit record, it was open, and everybody would consider it. It didn’t matter who you were. If you had that magic, you could get a place at the table.
Jerry Wexler provided the career springboard for Bert Berns, right?
Despite their apparent closeness, Berns and Wexler didn’t end up on good terms.
I spoke to Jerry when I was going to do this book. He was very confrontative. He said that he wouldn’t even dream of assisting me. He said, “I don’t know where the guy is buried, but if I did I would piss on his grave.” Typically a colorful Wexlerism, but it does go to the depth of the enmity. They were like father and son. Wexler discovered him at a time when Atlantic was about to dry up, and blow away. He (Jerry) was through in the studio. Ahmet was off being a playboy, and the label was as cold as ice. They hadn’t produced a record out of their own studios that was on the charts for two years. So Berns came along at a point where Wexler really needed him, and he performed so well. They became really close. Really like a father and son.
Berns created miracles at Atlantic like resuscitating the Drifters’ career whom everybody had written off.
“Under the Boardwalk” (1964) sold Beatles’ type numbers that summer. It pretty much created the summer song. So yeah. They did great work. I think that Berns had something like 19 records on the charts in 1964 for Atlantic.
In Neil Diamond’s current album, "All-Time Greatest Hits," featuring his recordings from the Bang, MCA, and Columbia catalogs, he doesn’t give any credit to Bang Records’ principals, Berns, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler for providing him with the career platform to record “Solitary Man,” “Cherry, Cherry,” and so on.
Did you read those liner notes? Isn’t that amazing? He mentions everybody that he can think of. Funny that he forgot Bert. Bert sings on those (Bang) records. Does handclaps, and percussion on those records. He was in every pre-production meeting. He mixed those records. He marketed those records. Neil Diamond was his life. Neil Diamond had been around a long time and nobody had seen him. He had been at Roosevelt Music. He had been here and there, and he hadn’t amounted to anything until Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich found him, and gave him to Bert Berns.
Neil has always had hard feelings about Bert Berns. In an interview with me in 1969, he talked about the Mafia being part of his early career. A few years later, he briefly talked about that in a Rolling Stone story.
Yep. He has said very little about it, but Berns scared the hell out of him.
Was your buy-out from the Chronicle newspaper in 2009 liberating?
(Laughter). Oh, the next day when I woke up, and I felt like the shades were up and the windows were open for a room that had been closed for I don’t know how long. Not having a job is something that I completely recommend to every one of your readers.
Daily newspaper writing is a grind.
You know, as long as I was interested in what I was writing about—and that doesn’t mean as long as I liked the concert—I didn’t find it a grind at all. I thought it was exciting, and fun, and I thought that I was the most important person in the room. That when I got to sit down and write the article, it was like my moment onstage. So, no (it wasn’t a grind). Of course, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I got the job when I was 22, and I had done a lot of work before that.
You had previously been a copy boy at the Chronicle.
Oh yeah, and I sold them articles for their Sunday paper, and I wrote record reviews for Rolling Stone. The newspaper thing was just so magic to me. I loved being a newspaper man. And I loved the newspaper. And I loved the bars. And I loved the clubs. And I loved being that guy. Everybody in town loves to know you. The parking lot attendant is saying, “You going to the show tonight?” I had a ball. But the music scene dried up and blew away just about the same time as the newspaper business did. So it was getting a lot less fun for me in both areas. It took me about 15 seconds when I saw the new union contract to decide that I was going to leave my job after 36 years. I really had no idea of what I was going to do. But I could just tell, man, that this play is over.
Time to write another a book.
Well, I had that probably somewhere in the back to the middle of my mind that I would take a shot at writing books, and see if there was any dough in that racket. I went to New York the day after my retirement party. I met with my agent and asked him about that. He said, “Well Barnes & Nobles is going down every day, but Walt-Mart is going up.” I said, Wal-Mart? Well, Sammy Hagar is a Wal-Mart kind of guy.” Bing. So I called Sammy, and we worked out a deal (for "Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock"). I had known him forever.
Well first, there was Sammy’s manager, John Carter who wasn’t convinced about Sammy doing a book.
Yeah, I cut out Carter. The late great John Carter. God, what a fantastic guy. Yeah, I called Carter first, and he said, “I don’t see any upside to it. It’s a big distraction. I don’t see why he would want to do it. I’d say no.” I hung up the phone, and when I got back (to San Francisco) from New York, there was a message from Sammy on my phone saying, “Carter tells me that you want to write a book. You know me. You call me. Deal directly with me.”
So I called Sammy.
He had called earlier (in 1998) and asked my thoughts about it and I didn’t really think it was a book then. That was before the Van Halen reunion, and a lot of stuff. “Mas Tequila” (1999) hadn’t broken big yet. (In the book) we told Sammy’s story, and we told it the way that Sammy wanted to.
I had met with Sammy and talked over doing a book. I said, “I’m going to start talking, and inside of three minutes if we are going to have a “Vulcan Mind-Meld” (A "Star Trek”-inspired technique for sharing thoughts, experiences, memories, and knowledge with another individual) let me know when to stop. I got in about 90 seconds, and he said, “Vulcan Mind Meld.”
In March 2011, Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock” reached #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Did that surprise you?
Yeah. It didn’t surprise me that I could get a book deal for Sammy Hagar. That didn’t surprise me at all. I wouldn’t have been too surprised to make the best sellers list for a week or two on the bottom end. But a #1 best seller, yeah. That took my breath away, dude. Carter is the reason. Carter was brilliant. He marshaled all of the resources of the publishing company, and all of the resources of the Sammy Hagar Fan Club. They pumped up pre-sales. We were #42 on the Amazon chart the day before the book was released. Carter was brilliant. That (book) was a #1 best seller and, all of a sudden, I’m thinking that, maybe, I can do something with this book thing.
Your first book had been “Ricky Nelson: Idol For a Generation” in 1990. How did that come about?
It was just some sick moment where I realized that this is a great book that needed to be written. I had never written a book before. I didn’t know what I was doing.
It’s a good book.
I’m okay with it. You know who tumbled across it was (American journalist/historian) David Halberstam. We had several long conversations because he thought it [“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” show that ran on ABC-TV, 1952-1966] was emblematic of that era. He devoted something like 16 pages to Ricky Nelson in his book on the ‘50s (“The Fifties” in 1993). A brilliant reduction of my book, and it covered every important point that I made.
Ricky Nelson was a musical trail blazer, if only for working with guitarist James Burton, and contributing to the birth of country rock.
Ricky is under the radar. What Halberstam said is, “I don’t know much about this rock and roll thing, but my wife tells me he’s much better than he’s considered." That’s very true. And you have to mention that Ricky invented the music video. The only reason people watched that dumb show was because Ricky was going to do a song.
Of course, and we get to see James Burton as well.
Yeah, with big ears. I’ll tell you a story. Henry Kaiser--the guitar player--he’s a friend of mine. He called up at 11 PM one night. He’s in the studio with (British singer/guitarist) Richard Thompson who has, in conversations with Henry, just discovered that James Burton was on American TV all through the ‘50s. In those days, “Ozzie and Harriet” never showed in England. It made no sense to English people. The two of them wanted to come over and look at all of Ozzie and Harriet episodes. I said, “Look fellas, I’m going to bed. If you want to come over tomorrow morning, that fine. I’m up and running by 9 AM. At 9 AM the door bell rings, and there’s Henry and Richard with a bag of croissants. They wanted to see James Burton on TV.
In 1972, you became assistant to entertainment critic John Wasserman. Was Ralph Gleason gone from the Chronicle by then?
Gleason had sort of a vestige of a Sunday column. He retired from the paper in 1970, and they gave John Wasserman the music critic chair. John was a brilliant young man. A great writer. But he didn’t have any sensibility of what was going on in the pop scene. He was kind of a ‘50s Playboy magazine, hi-fi kind of guy. He knew that he was out of it. He knew that the rock scene was happening, and that he didn’t really care about Led Zeppelin. So he brought me in to do this and do that and pretty soon he relied on me. Just handed over the coverage of the rock scene because he was more interested in supper club singers, and jazz musicians.
You have talked about being in Las Vegas in the mid '90s for the opening of a U2 tour, and there were 50 media representatives standing around waiting for their passes. You described the scene as being “something that might attend a presidential campaign.” By that time, the mainstream media had discovered the music industry, which was leading to significant change in the coverage of artists and music events.
Well, they were late to the game. They found out that people out there were interested in reading about this subject. God knows they were buying the records, and going to the concerts. Then all of a sudden it got their attention. That happened to me at the paper in the ‘80s. It did also correspond to editors getting a little older. But once they saw the impact with the readers, and the connect, then suddenly concert tickets going on sale were front page stories, and photographers were suddenly being assigned to cover reviews with me. You are right. The U2 thing was a big event for me.
Entertainment news on mainstream television, cable TV, and MTV channels further changed coverage of popular music.
Yeah, those guys were a pain in the ass to cover any kind of story with. They were always in the way.
As with political coverage, TV took over from print in the coverage of music.
The whole evolution of music and media, those things were going on at the same time. I always saw myself as a newspaper professional. I never really think of myself being in the music business at all. I was fascinated by sports coverage even though I'm not a sports fan. And I read the obits every day. I checked the classifieds. It was a lifestyle. The newspaper used to be a vital part of our culture, and I was there for that. Watching everything change was exciting for awhile, and then it started to fall apart. It’s kind of sad.
With the internet today, anyone can be a music journalist/blogger.
There’s a democracy to the net that has also undermined authority. You don’t know where to go for any kind of consistent of view. I'm not sure that record reviews matter anymore. I know concert reviews have kind of stopped mattering.
Label executives and managers used to contend that radio sold records, and that print didn’t.
Well, it was a matter of scale. I learned that early on in my career when I was standing around at a counter at a record store in Berkeley. This guy shows up, and he’s got 7 albums he’s buying. I look at the 7 albums, and there were 7 out of the Top 10 list that I had put in the paper. I said to the guy, “That’s an interesting set of records. What made you buy those?” He goes, “They were in the paper.” I had to take the Top 10 list a little more seriously after that.
In 1976, Robert Christgau argued the case of a rock critic establishment in the Village Voice. You never succumbed to that brand of national elitism. California was your beat while at the Chronicle.
I was never part of any national pop music scene. Rolling Stone was published for awhile here in San Francisco, and those guys were around, and I tossed a couple of articles their way. The San Franciscan reading public is a peculiar animal in this kind provincial backwater as (Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher) Mr. Jann Wenner once said. So most of my coverage was very San Francisco centric. I didn’t interview Paul Simon for the Chronicle. I was much more likely to be interviewing Chris Isaac. I very much wanted to reflect information that was unique to the readers of the Chronicle. If they wanted to read a Paul Simon interview, I knew that damn well that Rolling Stone was going to have one.
A San Franciscan with a lasting impact on American culture is the late concert impresario, Bill Graham....
Bill and I didn’t get along too well.
Bill didn’t get along with a lot of people
Unless he wanted something from you. Then he was charming and genial. I was the guy who wrote the newspaper articles that came to his front door in the morning. He sort of viewed me as an extension of his promotion department. That was hardly my perspective on it. As a result, we would have these relationships based on what I had done for him lately. Frankly, that never works for me.
In 1991, you found out in the early hours of a Saturday morning in that Bill had died when a helicopter carrying him and two others crashed into an electrical utility tower near Vallejo, California after they had attended a Huey Lewis and the News’ concert at the Concord Pavilion in Concord, California.
I got a phone call at three in the morning from Huey Lewis’ road manager’s wife (Roseanne Kahn) saying that “Killer” Kahn wasn’t home (Bill Graham's helicopter pilot, Steve Kahn, known as “Killer”), and that Bill wasn’t answering his phone. So I made some calls. I got a highway patrol dispatcher on the phone at like four in the morning. She told me that there had indeed been a helicopter crash in Sonoma County.
You couldn’t immediately report what had happened because the Chronicle didn’t print on Sundays.
You are so right, Larry. It was really a peculiar situation for me because in those days the Chronicle didn’t have a Sunday paper. They had a joint operating feed with the San Francisco Examiner. The news section in the Sunday paper was produced by the Examiner. So here I am on Saturday morning with a big front page story that is going to go to the other paper. It was 4:30 in the morning. What am I going to do? So I put in a call to AP (Associated Press) in San Francisco, and got bounced to an answering machine in Los Angeles. “Hello, the world’s largest news gathering organization.” Then this dumb sucker, who comes in at 6 AM, and picks up the messages, calls me and says, “Can I confirm that Bill Graham had died in a helicopter crash?” I said, “Hey knucklehead, you can’t be calling another news agency, and asking them to confirm (a story). There’s a bunch of highway patrolmen wandering around in a swamp in Sonoma. Short of going out there yourself, you aren’t going to get any confirmation.”
It shows how far we have come. In the Internet age news is 24/7.
Oh, today we’d get a cell phone call into somebody on the scene. I’ve watched all those things come around. I’m glad I’m not in the newspaper business anymore.
Another influential figures in music from San Francisco is the late Jim Marshall whom you worked extensively with. He was one of the great chroniclers of our time.
I’ve got a book coming out in October of Jim Marshall photographs taken in Haight-Ashbury from 1964 to 1968. I agree with you completely.
These are photographs I’ve never seen.
None of us have seen them. Marshall just threw them in a box. We found 300 rolls of color (film). I don’t think he had ever seen them. Jim Marshall will be remembered more and more as we get away from his life, and the photographs that he took, and we see how accurately and how perceptively he captured this brief incandescent moment in our history. I worked with Jim on a lot of books, and his contact sheets are just amazing. Every shot is formed, composed, and beautifully taken. It’s not like there are 5 duffs, and one winner. I’ve seen a lot of proof sheets in the newspaper business. This guy was so amazing to me that I actually sold a book (to a publisher) called “Proof” (Chronicle Books, 2004) where we just ran his proof sheets on one side, and blew up the “hero” shot on the other side. I talked to him about this. “How do you know when to pull the trigger? How do you get these things?” He didn’t know, but he knew that he did it.
He was a shooter. He’s the kind of photographer that they don’t make anymore. There’s a lot of guys who took good photos of bands. Back in the ‘60s, there were a lot of things to take pictures of. Jim’s stuff is marked with the kind of visual honesty and accuracy of a (Henri) Cartier-Bresson.
You did the “Monterey Pop” book with Jim in 1992.
Yep, “Monterey Pop.” To tell you the truth, I worked on all of Jim’s books. Some of them unaccredited. He was a very, very abrasive, and difficult guy. An extremely temperamental artist. Diva to the extreme. If he was your friend, he would die for you. It’s to my credit as a spiritual person that I could get along with Jim as well as I could. I loved the guy, and he loved me. We could communicate adequately that I could get these projects across the finish line. No other writer was successful in working with Jim.
You know what I said to (American photographer) Baron Wolman? I said, “Baron, Jim Marshall dies, everybody moves up one.”
Well, we are all getting older. I’m 67 this year.
Well, you don’t have the mileage that Marshall did. Marshall was a high mileage dude. Nobody I know assaulted their body more thoroughly and completely, racked their psyche or drove themselves more insanely than Jim Marshall.
Yeah. Right up there with Hunter (Thompson). And I hung and swung with Hunter. Marshall was his match.
[In 2014, Jim Marshall was posthumously given a Trustees Award [part of the Lifetime Achievement Awards] at the 56th Grammy Awards, the first and only photographer to be so honored.]
In New Orleans, and Memphis there are official nods to the past. How has San Francisco handled its musical legacy?
Haight-Ashbury is a tourist attraction. Some supervisor (John Avalos) was in the paper recently saying how he wants to put a plaque on Jerry Garcia’s two boyhood homes. That is kind of amusing. They named an amphitheater, and a park after Jerry out in that neighborhood. I think there are a couple of brass things stuck in (the sidewalk of) what is laughingly called the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (formerly the San Francisco Civic Auditorium). I think that was a program that lasted for two or three years. A Hall of Fame sort of thing. I don’t think they have put one in there for 15 or 20 years.
[On July 29, 2014, San Francisco supervisor John Avalos introduced a resolution that would enable the city to install commemorative street plaques in front of 121 Amazon Ave., where Garcia lived with his parents until he was 5, and 87 Harrington St., where he and his brother lived with their grandparents after his father's death. Both homes are in the Excelsior district which is also home to the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park, site of the annual Jerry Day. The resolution will be considered by the Board of Supervisors in September, 2014.]
Any other signs of the city’s musical past?
There are little maps of places in Haight-Ashbury that you can pick up for a couple of bucks. This site and that site. The Dead house (at 710 Asbury St.) is still there. The same with the Airplane mansion (at 24 Fulton St.). They painted it white again. San Francisco’s musical legacy goes back to the (1906) earthquake, and before. So I don’t know where you would begin. It’s just this rich musical history. I would like to think that it’s still alive. I’m not sure it is. But when you see something like what’s going on in Memphis or New Orleans, there’s sort of a theme park aspect to it that I'm not sure would be comfortable in San Francisco. There’s a little bit of beatnik theme park in North Beach. There’s a hotel that caters to beatniks there. I sort like that. Actually, some of those places are still around that used to be there in the ’50.s You can go have a drink at Specs, and you feel like (Jack) Kerouac might walk in. Or Vesuvio's (Bar). Tosca’s has been ripped up, and has been remodeled. It’s not the same.
You once wrote, “Like Ray Charles, Levon Helm sang with a voice that was all America. He told our history, forecast our dreams and urged us to be our best. He never told us anything but the truth.” I loved that description of Levon.
Levon was a great guy. I remember asking him, “How do you pronounce your first name?” He said, “Anyway you want.”
The best-known configuration of the Band ended at "The Last Waltz" on American Thanksgiving Day at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on November 25th, 1976. After Martin Scorsese’s documentary film of the same name was released two years later, the Band somewhat morphed into Robbie Robertson’s group. Many regard Levon as the leader of the Band; not Robbie.
His microphone was unplugged that night. They were worried that he might actually sing in it. I was there. I covered it for the Chronicle. It was the Robbie Robertson event. All of those guys were going through it because they wanted a pile (of money) to bank before they spirited off. They all hated each other. Actually, they all hated Robbie and they were just sick of the whole thing.
C’mon, in truth, Richard Manuel was quite a mess by then from acute alcoholism.
They were all a mess. They were all screwed up. It was this totally horrible dysfunctional family. They decided that they were done. They weren’t making any money. They couldn’t sell any tickets. The records were down to nothing (in sales). So enough of this mess. Then Robbie comes up with this grandiose scheme to work with Martin Scorsese. He’s going to use this (farewell concert and film) as a pole vault out of this band into some kind of Hollywood career. Pretty smart, but not as smart and as shrewd as he thinks he is. And (he’s) not the great artist that he pretends to be. Robbie is an interesting guy; Levon is an unpretentious guy to the core. A real soul man. Those guys never had a comfortable balance between them. The superannuated intellectual and the intuitive giant. Hush. Not a good match.
“The Last Waltz” (concert) was a funny night. The tension was really obvious. The event had a kind of staged feel that was at odds with the music that was being performed. But all that said, it was the single best night of music that I ever attended.
As music journalists, we’ve all had nights like that.
You are so knowledgeable, Larry. Here I am talking about rock writing. None of this stuff by me was accidents. I thought very carefully about what I did. It just never has been of any interest to anybody else to ask me about it before.
For many of us music journalists, it started with free records and being able to meet girls.
In my case, I went into the Chronicle’s city room as a 17 year old high school dropout. I looked around this room and, after being told all my life that I didn’t fit in, I realized immediately that I was a roomful of people who had been told the same thing, and we had been collected here. So I immediately felt at home in the newspaper world, and I wanted to live there. I started getting on the guest lists of the Fillmore. “No problem. Just call up and put him on the guest list.” So I saw Jimi Hendrix, Cream and all those acts at the Fillmore on the guest list. The idea in 1967 that you could work in this fantastic front page newspaper world, and write about rock just seemed like a dream.
What type of work did your parents do?
My father was a press agent for labor unions, and he produced a newspaper for the Central Labor Council. My mother raised all of us Selvin boys. My other brothers have much more distinguished careers than me. There’s three of us. My oldest brother, Stephen. is a biostatistician who has made discoveries that have redirected cancer research. For years he’s been getting people coming up to him at the university (The University of California, Berkeley) asking, “Are you related to the guy who writes for the newspaper?” Google “Monty Hall Problem.” That’s his internet moment. It’s a mathematical problem (brain teaser) that he made of (the TV show “Let’s Make A Deal”). My other brother, Michael, rose to the high ranks of the corporate world at Bechtel Corporation as a writer and editor. These guys have had really distinguished careers. I just had a job at the newspaper.
Neither of us graduated from high school though I did go to university.
I did a little time in college (at the University of California) and realized that it was high school with ash trays. I was thankful to anyone who worked in a position of authority at junior or high school who got what being a young person was about. There were fucking very few of them. I look back at my high school teachers and wonder why did they do it (teach). They clearly didn’t like doing it.
Each year critics argue over who should or shouldn’t be inducted in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you care who isn’t inducted?
It’s interesting. The stuff you are making me talk about. I don’t talk about this shit.
Rock and roll is what you have covered for decades. You must have an opinion.
I do. That’s one thing that I can always be counted on for.
Do you annually vote for inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Oh, me and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They fired me from the nominating committee for being too old. The next year (2007) I wrote a completely nasty article about what I felt about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was year that Madonna was inducted. As long as I was getting into it, I got into the whole thing of being on the nominating committee, and being kicked off, and age discrimination, and all that kind of stuff. I tweaked Mr. Jann Wenner in the article because he richly deserved it. The last sentence was, “Next year, they probably won’t even send me a ballot.” And guess what? I have been excommunicated.
[Selvin’s final sentence in his 2007 article was, “After they read this, the Hall may stop hounding me for my ballot, which is due Nov. 26. Heck, after they read this, they may strike me from the voter rolls for good.”]
C’mon if you piss on someone’s parade, they are going to kick you out of the tent.
Okay. Fine by me. Sure, go ahead. That’s not the high road. The Hall of Fame is a ridiculous institution. I worked for them. I curated their first temporary exhibit. The folks in Cleveland are completely different from the folks in New York. The New York thing is corrupt, and a boys’ club. It was run by Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner and Seymour Stein. Ahmet is gone so it’s now in Jann and Seymour’s hands. You know, all of their pals are in, and all of their enemies are out.
[Selvin served as featured docent for the San Francisco Sound portion of a psychedelic era exhibit of London and San Francisco memorabilia at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio in 2007.]
That’s pretty harsh.
It doesn’t have the same creditability to me as the Baseball Writers' Association of America. You know what I mean? The politics are really weird. Miles Davis got in because they were bombarded by telegrams from Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder. Miles Davis in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? That’s a stretch. I know what Miles would have thought about it. What about my pal Steve Miller. I’ve sat in a nominating meeting, and said, “We don’t know what makes a Hall of Fame career? Do you have to win batting championships?” I don’t know anyone who qualifies more than Steve Miller.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Greails Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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