Let's Head Back to Tennessee, Jed

The Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary final shows are now over. Blowing past the boring cliches about aging hippies, the finale turned out to be a spectacular tribute to a gentle cultural phenomenon that offers balm and hope to a pained world ... as well as a glorious summertime-flavored dive into a gorgeous American songbook that unites rock and roll, jazz, country, folk, bluegrass and blues.

I was able to go to one of the five final shows (the second show in Santa Clara, California) and loved it immensely. I also enjoyed experiencing the other four shows in various formats ranging from extremely low-density (following the setlists on Twitter) to extremely high-density (dancing in a sweaty wistful crowd along with a theater simulcast on Long Island). Highlights for me from all shows included "Black Peter", "Brown Eyed Women", "He's Gone", "Brokedown Palace", "Tennessee Jed", "Deal", "Sailor->Saint", "Cassidy", "Unbroken Chain". Maybe the one thing that impressed me the most was the expressive singing of Bob Weir, who delivered "Throwing Stones" (the Dead's most explicitly ecological song) with a seriousness of purpose that no listener could miss.

Conjuring the Beat Generation: Gerd Stern and the Cassady Kin

One of the exciting things about the Beat Museum's Beatnik Shindig which is happening next weekend in San Francisco is the activity it's stirring up. The photo above, which has never been published before, shows a gang of unknown beatniks on a now-legendary Sausalito barge that became a group home for a wide variety of writers and artists (including, at one point, young Maya Angelou, as she describes in her memoir The Heart of a Woman) in "Howl"-era 1950s San Francisco. Only two faces can be positively identified today, and they are the ones wearing glasses: Gerd Stern and Allen Ginsberg.

I spent a delightful evening with Gerd Stern — still wearing glasses! — and his partner Judith recently to prepare for my onstage interview with Gerd at the Beatnik Shindig. Here's my new friend in 2015, along with one of his cool artworks:

Splinters

“What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story.” - Pedro Calderon de la Barca

I think it would be fun if Literary Kicks won the 3 Quarks Daily Arts and Literature Prize in 2015. My blog post "First There Is A Mountain" is in the running, and if you’d also like to see Litkicks win this prestigious prize, please help me out by voting for me. I need your votes to advance to the next round, so please take a look — thank you!

I did a wonderful podcast this week for a BreakThru Radio show called Biology of the Blog. This podcast features an eclectic variety of original voices on the Internet, and I was truly inspired by the smart and thoughtful questions host DJ Jess tossed my way and went on quite a roll about, hmm, let’s see … why online literature is like Bitcoin, why pacifism is a major meme waiting to hit, why I am obsessed with the phrase "Ship of Fools". BreakThru Radio is about both words and music, and I also like the pleasant tunes DJ Jess selected for this podcast. Thanks BreakThruRadio and Biology of the Blog!

A Beat Gathering in San Francisco, June 27 and 28

The Beat Museum in San Francisco is hosting a major literary conference this summer. The Beatnik Shindig or 2015 Beat Generation Conference will take place at the Fort Mason Center on San Francisco's beautiful waterfront from June 26 to June 28 ... and I will be one of the participants!

Satin Island: Tom McCarthy's Humanistic Weave

Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from "The Office". He doesn't come across as a very warm person.

But is this a mirage? I'm liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I'm starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with "propaganda" on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.

Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he's emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Nonviolence

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native and widely respected young writer, has written a powerful article about the shocking riots that are taking place in that city this week, following the inexplicable death of an innocent African-American named Freddie Gray in police custody. The article is titled "Nonviolence as Compliance", and those three words say a lot.

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's article ... because he is expressing what every one of us feels as we begin to understand the depths of the problem of police abuse of African-American populations all over the USA. You should also read Coates's article because he knows Baltimore, and is speaking from a position of knowledge. Except when he gets to his last paragraph:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

"Nonviolence is a ruse"? The train just shot off the tracks here, and in a really bad way. The problem in Baltimore (and in the entire USA) is between police officers and innocent African-American citizens. I don't know if there is a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King anywhere on the scene in Baltimore this week, so it's weird that Coates chooses the (all too rare) political philosophy of nonviolent resistance as the target of his piece. And it's sad that this Atlantic Monthly article is now being widely spread, as if there were actual wisdom to be found in these angry and misguided words.

First There Is A Mountain

When I'm feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah range this weekend.

I've done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary's Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I'm planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for "the scramble", a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.

New York City has "the ramble" -- the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has "the scramble", and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn't bear to not complete the rhyme.

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For more recent Litkicks articles, please visit the complete 2015 archive page.
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