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Buzz Knight [00:00:01] I’m Buzz Knight, the host of Taking a Walk Music History on Foot. Find us at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the Podcast Playground, or wherever you get your podcasts. Today, our guest is Joel Selvin, a legendary San Francisco based music critic and author known for his weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s written multiple books covering everything from Altamont to Sly and the Family Stone to Sammy Hagar. And he he’s always been in the middle of music history. We’ll talk to Joel Selvin next on Taking a Walk.
Buzz Knight [00:00:41] So Joel Selvin, when did you find your voice as a writer?
Joel Selvin [00:00:47] That’s presuming I have. I don’t know. But I mean, you know, voices like that’s kind of the highest aspiration of writing. And, and sometimes I find that I found the voice and then I lose it. I, I started writing early on in life, you know, that was just something that I resonated with even at school, which I was a terrible student and eventually dropped out of high school. And then I went to work in the newspaper business and they don’t really like stand on much ceremony about writing in the newspaper business. You know, you got to get it in on time and make sure it’s in English and somebody else will straighten out the punctuation and misspellings. So, you know, over 30 plus years in the newspaper, every article got a little better. And so now I’m like, I left the newspaper business and nine. I started concentrating on long form journalism, you know, books. And since oh nine, I think I’m I think I’m putting out my 12th and 13th book this year. So are those each one of those has gotten a little bit better.
Buzz Knight [00:02:07] So how badly really did you detest school, though? Did you just hate it to death?
Joel Selvin [00:02:13] School was slow for me. I had other things I was interested in. There was other places that were more rewarding to be. I spent a lot of time in the public library, oddly enough, although I also did spend time in the. In the pool hall. Up the street. Yeah. School? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it was the sixties, man. There were other things going on.
Buzz Knight [00:02:37] Yes, there were plenty of other. Do you remember that? That first moment that you walked in to the. The San Francisco Chronicle?
Joel Selvin [00:02:51] I do. I do. Yeah. I was 17 years old. I had been hired as a copy boy, and it was September of 1967. And I walked into the The Chronicle City room, this giant. One room that everybody that works for a newspaper is at a desk, and there’s these pillars down the center of the room. There are no trash cans. Everybody just crumbles up stuff and throws it on the floor. And the pillars are covered with stuff that people have cut out of the paper and pasted on it. Just headline words and goofy pictures. And I had spent my whole life being told I didn’t fit in. And it was not something I understood, like fit into what? But when I walked into that room and I just took in the atmosphere and saw all the people, and before I walked halfway back to where my table was, I realized that I was in a room full of people who had been told the same thing. We were a collection of people who didn’t fit in, and I was just instantly at home.
Buzz Knight [00:04:18] And I have to think based on that period of time, there was a ton of interesting characters that were part of that room.
Joel Selvin [00:04:28] Yeah, we still had the old guys from the front page, you know, from before the Second World War. Charlie, had a little wax mustache that they spun into a little curl, and he had this tweed hat and he would he would come in and he would push the tweed that back on his head type with two fingers at about 90 words a minute. And Charlie broke a murder case that the cops couldn’t handle. And then there was George Draper. George fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and he was this incredibly elegant, sort of aristocratic character who rode his bicycle into work from Sausalito. And George was just a remarkable character. I crossed paths with him when a gal was murdered in a recording studio, and I volunteered that I knew who she was. And so they sent me out to our parents house to get a picture.
Buzz Knight [00:05:36] And what about this gentleman by the name of Ralph Gleason?
Joel Selvin [00:05:41] Or Ralph was a huge figure in the world of popular music criticism. He started writing for the Chronicle somewhere around like 1949, 1950, and he was the first regular pop music critic to write for a daily newspaper. The New York Times didn’t have one for a couple of years. And Ralph was mostly a jazz critic at that point because that’s where the action was. But his his coverage ranged far and wide. He drove out to San Pablo to review Hank Williams. He caught Fats Domino at an R&B show in 1952. People like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington that he routinely covered were astonished to find themselves being the subject of newspaper articles in mainstream establishment white newspapers. So Gleason was this incredible pioneer and pathfinder in the world of pop music criticism. His only peers were Leonard Feather and now the Los Angeles Times and Nat Hentoff as The Village Voice. Now, I grew up reading Ralph in the Chronicle, and furthermore, I went to high school with his kids. So Ralph learned very large in my sort of like forming my impressions about how this job went and what music was about. And, you know, back in those days, if you had an intellectual curiosity about music, there were very few places to turn. I used to spend after school afternoons in record stores reading liner notes because that was a repository of information. There weren’t books about this music, but there were liner notes by Gleason and Hentoff and Feather and and a lot of these guys that were part of the record business back in the fifties and sixties. So that was it. And then Ralph had three columns Monday, Wednesday and Friday and two on Sunday. So there was plenty of Ralph in the paper and he and he saw his bailiwick being far and wide. I mean, he wrote extensively about World War Two history. It was very anti-Nazi. He wrote a lot about free speech issues and he wrote a lot about jazz. And then when the San Francisco rock scene started to happen, he was there from the very moment Ralph had that newspaper man’s instinct for a good story. And so when this stuff started to take place, it got covered in the Chronicle. And that was a window into this new and exciting scene going on that you couldn’t get anywhere else. There was nothing on the radio. There were no underground newspapers, there were no Rolling Stones or Matte music magazines. But you could read about it in Ralph’s columns, and that became a huge advantage to the scene. I mean, he grew that scene. He was a multiplying effect. And then when Ralph retired from the Chronicle in 1970 to go to work at Fantasy Records, he was. His replacement, John Waterman, subsequently hired me to be his assistant. And that’s where I enter the picture, right in the shadow of Ralph Gleason. And and there was one point much, much later in my career where I had had a serious beef with management, and I think they wanted me to quit. But, you know, I end up slapping them down with an age discrimination beef. And I was like radioactive in the city room. Nobody wanted to tell me to do anything. You know, It was like leave Sullivan alone. And I was in pretty bad mood about my job at the time, too. So I spent three weeks coming to the paper and going downstairs in the basement where they kept the files. And I read in order of appearance every article that Ralph read wrote for the Chronicle. In the end, I wrote a 100 inch article about Gleason and what I’d read, and 100 inches in the newspaper, by the way, is like War and peace or something. It took months to get the thing for that thing to see print, but that was kind of a way that I reconnected with my bliss and figured out what my roots were and looked into this whole thing. And, you know, that’s Ralph. And he looms over all of us that write about pop music in this country.
Buzz Knight [00:10:49] Is there anything that you wish that you asked him that you never had the chance to ask him?
Joel Selvin [00:10:54] Oh, I got the I got hooked up back with Ralph at some point. Yeah. At Fantasy Records, I was there talking to the publicity director, and Ralph wandered into the office and he was very antipathetic with my boss, John Wasserman. And, you know, this Irish guy kept grudges. So that afternoon, Ralph spent about 2 hours just talking to me about what he thought I should know, and lots of stuff he told me stayed with me for the rest of my time at the Chronicle. And then that night I paid a phone call in between him and Wasserman, and so that got paved over and fixed. And from then on I had full access to Ralph. He would call me if I wrote something that he thought was interesting or send me a letter. I remember letters, and the last time I talked to Ralph was about a week before he died, and he called to talk about the death of the radio disc jockey Tom Donohue, who was which was a huge loss to San Francisco. Huge. And I remember Ralph’s benediction was, yeah, he was a good cat. And that was like the blessing from Ralph Gleason. Yeah, he was a good cat. So I had a lot of direction from Ralph and a lot of things that he said guided me and there was, you know, a good period of time, like, you know, when I was starting out where if I had a question, I could actually pick up the phone and call him and chat with him. So, yeah, now Ralph was an authentic mentor. He had hands on with me. So with the newspaper.
Buzz Knight [00:12:38] Business that’s gone through, you know, all these shifts and downturns, obviously to this, to this day, what was the ownership like of The Chronicle back in that day?
Joel Selvin [00:12:50] Well, the Chronicle was owned by a one family. It was a little bit like working for, you know, an aristocratic group of people who had sort of Republican inclinations but ran a kind of Democrat newspaper. And there was always this sort of tension between that. And we knew in the Sunday paper, we knew that double check. The Sunday crossword puzzle because the publisher’s wife read it. And if there was a typo or a mistake, that was Monday morning problem. As time went on, the younger generation of newspaper owners would connect with me to get tickets to rock concerts and ultimately join me covering shows so that like Joe Tobin and Nyan McEvoy, they were my pals. We would go out to shows together at the end and they were like, Happy to be going to the Rock show with the paper’s new music critic and be like going to the football game with the sportswriter.
Buzz Knight [00:14:03] So what do you think in those rare instances where a truly local small town paper exists, how important is that to somebody like you?
Joel Selvin [00:14:14] I don’t know. What’s the future of print journalism is? The Internet has obviously overwhelmed our culture, and the affect on newspapers has been deleterious to the extreme. I left my job at the Chronicle in 2009. Hearst Corporation was losing $1,000,000 a week at that newspaper. 120 editorial employees left their jobs that year. There had been a substantial departure the year before, and there was a substantial departure the year after. So they just whittle it down to this really, you know, skeleton crew, many, many young people, because the old people were the ones that walk the plank and and and with them went all the institutional law for hundreds if not thousands of years of experience, knowledge, contacts, resources. So. Not only did they lose their audience, but they lost their professional level. I mean, I remember going to New York the year I left the paper and having drinks with some guys that made their living selling magazine articles. Now there are bellyaching about how 10,000 daily newspaper guys have lost their job across the country, and we’re going to be trying to sell magazine articles. Of course, magazines all are empty now, too. I mean, that market dried up and went away. I don’t have an incredible vision for that. But your question about local news sources so speaks to the real vulnerability of like, who’s covering the city councils in this country now and what are they getting away with without, you know, newspaper guys that know what’s going on, watching what they do? I don’t know. You know, next door dot.com doesn’t make it.
Buzz Knight [00:16:24] So you were you were on the scene when the legendary Fillmore West first began. How did Bill Graham pull off building that special place?
Joel Selvin [00:16:37] Bill Graham was an interesting guy, a really powerful personality and the compulsive, obsessive narcissism that, you know, powers that kind of world beating, empire building attitude. He didn’t really understand what he stumbled on to. So it’s even more miraculous than it might seem, you know, just sort of happened to Bill. He was an actor who had failed in his acting career and moved to San Francisco and was working as an office manager for Alice Chalmers, who rented out office furniture to keep his hand in the theatrical world. He became the business manager for a local left wing theater group called the San Francisco Meme Chew, and they were arrested on obscenity charges for producing a 16th century Italian play in a public park. And in order to raise money for their defense fund, some of the people in the theater group put together a benefit featuring some of these new rock bands that were around town. And the thing was so successful, it was beyond anybody’s imagination. So Bill had a second benefit, and that was real successful. That one. He rented an auditorium in a black neighborhood called the Fillmore Auditorium $60 a night, and he did a third benefit. And then a month later, he started throwing concerts there on his own. Now, Bill didn’t know one band from another, and he knew nothing about music outside of Latin music, which had been an enthusiasm of his growing up in New York in the seventies. But he had this street smarts sense of who knew what and who he could lean on for this and that. His first partner was a guy named Chet Helms, and he used to tell the story about how he got up early and called New York while Chet was still asleep. And that’s the end of that partnership. He booked the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The Butterfield Blues Band showed up in town. They were huge in San Francisco in 66. They were everything all the other bands wanted to be. And Mike Bloomfield was this enormous figure of of repute and recognition. And Bloomfield was the one who started telling Bill, Billy, you got to bring in the guys from Chicago like Muddy Waters and Junior Wells and and and the Blues Guys and B.B. King. And then as the Fillmore went on and he hired a guy named Paul Barada, and Paul knew all about the English rock scene. So Traffic and Cream and Pink Floyd and Procol Harum got booked in the Fillmore and and the thing was just phenomenally successful. Oh, what a wonderful scene it was, too. But I swear to God, three bucks, you walk up these stairs, there’s some goofball at the top of the stairs. Tony, Welcome to the Fillmore. There’s a barrel of apples free. Take one if you want an apple. And inside there’s this room filled with lights and sounds. They weren’t spotlights. They were colored projections that were from the balcony that were operated by maybe ten, 12 people so they could, like, slap plastic and make the lights bounce in time to the music. And Chet Helms, who started the competition of the Fillmore at the Avalon Ballroom and was much more of a philosopher king. Bill did. Chet Helms was really important that this was not an Apollonian theatrical presentation. By Apollonian, he meant a proscenium stage with the gateway to the gods, where the audience sits and stares through the proscenium at these magnificent creatures that are acting out to chat. What was much more important was that there was no proscenium, there was no spotlights, there was no real distinction between what was going on on stage and what was going on in the room. The audience and the performers were all of one piece and just shed that represented a Dionysian Revel, not Apollonia. And so he’s looking at these kind of archetypes. And I tell you, every one of us that walked into those rooms in 1966 felt the specialness of it as soon as we got there. And it bonded us as audience members because we were all in this special secret world together and we all knew how wonderful it was. So just immediately the whole thing created community just to walk in there. And then the bands were all just breaking down barriers and trying out things and new stuff was going on. And for some San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, it was groups from Los Angeles like Buffalo Springfield and The Doors or bands from England that were coming through. When Traffic showed up in town for their first US gig, Ousley met them at the airport and fill them full of LSD, took them back to the Grateful Dead House, and at midnight they were jamming on a flatbed truck outside the camp studios. When the radio station staff went on strike that night. I mean, the San Francisco was on the edge of the Western world and it was happening. This stuff was on fire.
Buzz Knight [00:22:33] What was your relationship like with Bill Graham?
Joel Selvin [00:22:36] RA Oh, oh. So Bill was under the impression that I worked for him but wasn’t on his payroll. And it took about ten years before I could teach him that I didn’t write the headlines because he would read the headline and he would pick up the phone and start screaming at me. He didn’t even read the story. But that went on. It depended on what he wanted. Did he need some help on something? If he needed some help on something, he was on the phone like we were old friends. If I hadn’t given him proper glory in the newspaper, then he was pissed at me and he would be incredibly rude and just awful. He would, you know, avert his eyes and just terrible. So I saw right away that this guy was really all about self service. And what could I do for him? My first wife said, Oh, I get Bill Graham. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable then. And that’s pretty much the way Bill operates. I got stories for days about how, you know, we came into conflict over stuff, but, you know, it just went away as soon as he wanted something else. And in his autobiography, he talks about how he put The Last Waltz tickets on sale for 25 bucks. And he couldn’t announce any of the special guests, but his audience trusted him so much, they just bought the tickets anyway. So that’s not really how I remember. What I remember is that the band had already had a concert booked for the Berkeley Community Theater on sale, and it was stinking up the place. They weren’t going to sell a third of the tickets to this 3000 seat hall, and that’s when they decided, well, you know, what we’re going to do is we’re going to retire and we’ve got to do this big deal. And they put a built in, put the last of all tickets on sale, 25 bucks, farewell to the band. That’s all it said. And they didn’t budge. Nobody bought $25 tickets to the band at Winterland. So he calls me up and says he can’t tell anybody this, but Bob Dylan, the Eric Clapton, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it goes in my column and the tickets sell out. And then our that park is forgotten. And Bill’s retelling of it, you know, his retelling is that his is folks trusted him so much they went and bought those $25 tickets. Not bloody likely as that goes on and on and on and at all. I mean, when he died, we weren’t speaking and that was over some Z.Z top concerts that, you know, he blocked from being in the baseball stadium in Oakland. You know, Bill is a really difficult person unless you did what he wanted.
Buzz Knight [00:25:47] So it’s April of 1967. A magical time for sure. What were you and your friends and coconspirators? What were you talking about there?
Joel Selvin [00:26:02] So it’s funny, you mentioned April. In January of 1967, a human being happened in Golden Gate Park. 60, 80, 100,000 people showed up and just were hippies for a day. And it was a sign that this thing was on whatever it was. And the idea that the young world was going to come to San Francisco as soon as school’s out, that year started to develop. That became a part of the discussion. But here we were living right under the auspices of this whole thing, and we had all been taking LSD, So we were part of what was going on and it was a topic of discussion how we got together and what’s going on was being analyzed, commented on observe. It was it was just happening. And I’m in an apartment in Oakland. I remember seeing there’s like five or six guys were sitting around and we’re talking about what’s going on. And somebody says, I hear there’s 100,000 people coming to San Francisco this summer. Another guy says, Now if we can just figure out how to get a dollar from each one of them, bills went off in my head. Buzz was like, Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. No way, no way, No. Oh, no, no. That’s all right. That’s not what we’re about here. We’re evolved consciousness, and now we’re trying to change the world, not get a dollar out of everybody. It struck such a nerve with me. I realized that everything that I had thought was possible was not possible. That all these dreams of of of utopian bliss were just foolishness on my part. And so I dropped out of high school and left the Bay Area for the summer and went and lived in a small town in Indiana and just hid from what they called the Summer of Love. And I came back in September having arranged a job as a copy boy at the Chronicle. And once I got to the Chronicle and discovered that I could get on the guest list at the Fillmore, everything was cool. I was just, you know, I was set.
Buzz Knight [00:28:41] But you also in 1968, the L.A. publicity scene became your friend as well in terms of interviews, which was kind of your next progression. Talk about some of that access that that gave you for your trips to L.A. to meet some of these folks and interview them.
Joel Selvin [00:29:04] So I ended up getting into college at Riverside, was about an hour east of Los Angeles, UC Riverside, and go and write for this school newspaper, and this would be 1968. And at that point, there was so little media paying attention to this music scene that was just blowing up. There were a few underground newspapers like the L.A. Free Press or the Berkeley Bar. Rolling Stone started and, what, November of 67. But it was really pretty small time for a still a couple years. And I found that record company publicity offices were very welcoming to somebody writing for a college newspaper. And as I was an hour outside of Los Angeles. It was super easy to just scoot in there and catch shows at the whiskey or conduct interviews, and the accessibility was unbelievable. I remember doing an article on Little Richard and he was doing a run at the Whiskey, and he just had me and our photographer with him at all times. We sat in his dressing room when Mick Jagger came in and says, Oh, the king of rock and roll. We were at his hotel room after the gigs up until three and four in the morning talking to him. We were meeting him the next day when he doing TV shows, and I mean, I spent like four or five days with Little Richard. I mean, what better things to do than that for your college education? I had interviews for my college newspaper with album Lead from ten years After with Sly Stone. Really? I could contact anybody and and get their time. And the guys in the publicity departments, you know, they were pretty remarkable. And in those days, there were some fantastic people like Gralen Landon at RCA Victor. He was the guy that spotted Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, and signed him to a publishing deal and had had a job with RCA for the rest of his life, pretty much because of it.
Buzz Knight [00:31:29] Well, at that point on the trip to Yeah, you mentioned Sly Stone, who you would later write about. What was the experience that prompted your further interest in that gentleman.
Joel Selvin [00:31:42] Who has always been of interest and what, 1993 94? I was commissioned to conduct an oral history of Sly and the Family Stone for a series of books that were going to be oral histories sweeping out the dusty corners of rock history. Black Sabbath littered, scattered salmon gave the women of Motown and Sly and the Family Stone. So at that point, I’d been almost entirely forgotten, and I had the opportunity to go around and talk to these people. There were associated with that story at a point where they really felt ignored and nobody had really come and punched them dry. So everybody participated and everybody was incredibly candid and open. And then there was HAMP Banks. And HAMP was Sly’s brother in law. He was a pimp and kind of a gangster. No, not he was a gangster. We’re talking about kind of. And nobody had ever asked him about Sly. I found him and he was super enthusiastic. He not only wanted to tell me everything he knew, but he wanted to introduce me to all the other gangsters so they could tell me what they knew. And I ended up with this extraordinary account of this watershed event in pop music history, the Sly and the Family Stone parabola up and down. It’s almost just to ASCII and it points is so grim and dark. But there you have it. And that was kind of a breakthrough work in the field because the story had just never really been told. It stopped at the edge of the band and nobody had gone in and researched it and gotten the back story with Black and James Brown and they beat up the road crew one night, kidnaped the road managers girlfriend, and then went after the bass player and he left the band in the backseat of a car under a blanket and never went back. Wow.
Buzz Knight [00:34:09] Well, how did you become this writer that. Wanted to touch these stories and dig in them that a lot of people probably ran away from.
Joel Selvin [00:34:21] Yeah, well, yeah. I like the noir stories I like. I like the dark stories. I like the conflict and and the adversity, the irony that gets developed about that. And it’s real. The happy endings are our fiction. We don’t have happy endings. And so, yeah, I’m drawn towards the Bert Burns story with the damaged heart and the gangsters at the end, or the Rolling Stones and Altamont with the Hells Angels and all that, or the Hollywood Eden Book, which really gets into the the underbelly, the dark underbelly of the Los Angeles Sunny Pop of the Sixties, the Beach Boys and Jan and Jane and Nancy Sinatra and all that. Yeah, those are the things that I like to read. Those are the stories that I feel have the kind of sharp, dramatic contours that I like to work with as a writer.
Buzz Knight [00:35:32] Which brings us to the recent passing of Jim Gordon and something I know you’ve been working on.
Joel Selvin [00:35:39] The last two and a half years. I’ve been working on a biography of Jim Gordon. It’s something that’s been with me for a long, long time, and I finally was able to, you know, clear A place and dive is very difficult project. And it was started when an editor at a publishing house suggested that I do something that mixed rock and roll with crime. I mean, what’s more famous than Jim Gordon killing his mother? But after you look into it and then that’s how it plays and it’s just awful. It’s just, you know, this guy killed his mother. That’s all you know about it. I mean, you look into it, there’s a couple of things going on. First of all, the level of Jim Gordon’s abilities was just beyond any human parameters. I mean, he he was a supernatural drummer. And all the other drummers recognized that those of us that just listen to music, it might be a little lost on you, but it’s a level of intuition that’s just so beyond the technique and training and all that. So you have this brilliant guy who has created whole vocabularies for rock and roll drum and playing on the greatest records of his lifetime. He’s playing on Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell. He starts out with the Everly Brothers. He’s on Nancy Sinatra Records. Sonny and Cher records. Phil Spector records. He’s on Good Vibrations. He’s on, you know, just it on. And then, of course, he has his whole English period. Well, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Delaney and Bonnie and friends and then Derek and the Dominos was on the greatest records, one of the pinnacles of rock history. And then the mental illness takes over. And that’s the thing that’s so interesting to me is the music industry is so tolerant of drug addicts and alcoholics and sex deviants. No problem. But somebody who’s mentally ill can’t handle it, can’t deal with it. But Jim battled to maintain his beautiful life. He fought those voices and that illness as hard as he could. Unfortunately, he was severely ill. It wasn’t really curable. But we’re talking about someone who entered 15 mental hospitals, not 15 different ones. But he went into mental hospital 15 times to try and help himself. And he and I didn’t see where too many people reached out of hand and said, Poor Jim, can I help you? Jackson Browne did. Burton Cummings did. But not really. Everybody else just sort of like there is Jim Keltner available for the state, you know. Well, Jim didn’t get any help, but he was schizophrenic. And there’s a whole bunch of things that go along with being schizophrenic and we have to understand about schizophrenia to. Schizophrenia is so common, but it’s one in 100 in the general population. By comparison, multiple sclerosis is one in 10,000. So in all those people you see out on the streets that have got nowhere to go and got their backpacks and stuff. There’s a lot of those people are schizophrenics and they don’t necessarily have it as severely as Jim did. His symptoms were incredibly severe and they built and built and built, and they culminated in this horrible, grotesque act where he brutally killed his mother. He went to jail the next morning and never set foot outside of the jail again. He spent half his life in jail. 39 years. He was 38 when he went in. Already people’s attitudes in public have changed tremendously about Jim Wright with his death. And it’s is fascinating to me because I’ve been pushing this stone up the hill and there’s been a lot of people don’t want to talk to me, don’t want to deal with it, don’t want to have anything to do with it. And then suddenly he’s not a murderer anymore. He’s somebody who suffered from mental illness. That was the take of the obituaries. And there’s never played that way before. It always been, Who’s this murderer who killed his mother? Now he’s mentally ill guy who played on some of the greatest records of his lifetime. It’s an incredible, wrenching, sad story. And the details as as it comes out in the book, they just make you hurt to read them. So it’ll be out next month. Next year. February. Drums and Demons. The Tragic Journey of Jim Gordon. And I’m most anxious to see how people respond to it.
Buzz Knight [00:40:58] Maybe it’ll change things that opened people’s eyes at a time around mental illness that would be needed. You know.
Joel Selvin [00:41:06] Our society turns a blind eye on mental illness, especially something as untreatable as Jim’s condition. And we just as a society, we don’t know what to do with these people. And so we throw up our hands and either warehouse them or the basic treatment is to just dial them in on drugs until they can stay off the sidewalks and then push them back out again. It’s unkind. It is not a real solution, and it doesn’t take into account the vast prevalence of this condition amongst us.
Buzz Knight [00:41:52] You brought up Bert Berns, your book Here Comes the Night. Tell us what’s going on with that. I know there’s big plans for Broadway and beyond.
Joel Selvin [00:42:04] There’s a there’s a musical that actually was off-Broadway in 2014, and it’s in the works to return to Broadway on the on the big stage. Rob Reiner has completed a script based on this book and plans to shoot it. I guess next year he wants to do the Spinal Tap reunion movie first, and I want to see that one. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. But so, yeah, there’s a lot going on. I mean, the book, I can’t say I worked for years and years and years on that book. And if I had a nickel for every time somebody said, Who’s Bert Berns, I would have just finished my royalties. But the fact is that the book came out. People stopped asking who Bert Berns was. And the next year there’s a documentary out about him, and the next year he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the next year he’s up for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. So yeah, we went from Who’s Bert Berns to bringing this guy as close to Back to Life as Can Be Done. And that book. Yeah, I’m real proud of that book. The music is fantastic, the story is amazing and I was able to get in there. You know, Ellie Greenwich and Maurice Levy and all those people that were such a big part of the book. They’re not they’re not with us anymore.
Buzz Knight [00:43:36] What role in the real day did radio stations play on not only the culture but the activity around breaking artists?
Joel Selvin [00:43:48] Oh, man. Because we remember when radio was one of our cultures leading mediums and and by the time we’re involved in it, it has gravitated towards being the the purveyor, the conveyer of popular music, whether it’s, you know, the MLR stations, the easy listening or the top 40 stations or the rock and roll stations evolved into that. They carried that culture. And, you know, I think back on it and it’s like a miracle that James Brown and Herman’s Hermits were on the same radio station. There was no race barrier. It was it was a good record. It was on that station. Anybody with a good record could get on that station. Good record and five bucks, I guess. But radio in the late fifties and early sixties was the clarion call for this whole culture, for all this, this musical culture. And then as it opened up into the FM band that opened up the music in ways that it hadn’t been before and created yet more barriers for these cultural activities to take place. Radio was so important and I guess, you know, like the record industry itself, it fell prey to its own marketing methods, you know, kind of a research just way right out of relevance. I mean, you know better than I do. But my recollection is that the top 40 stations of the late seventies had a playlist of about 16 records, and they were banging like 16 records. And you’d hear the entire playlist in two and a half hours. Only hits only very narrow caskets. It didn’t allow for the culture to grow and allowed for the music to grow. And it certainly, you know, put a stranglehold on the AM radio programing when the FM radio programing took over again. That was great. For a while. It promoted all this creativity and there was all these open playlists. I mean, they called it free form Radio Underground Radio. But, you know, it wasn’t long before the great experts of media broadcasting started applying the marketing methods. And did you have stations with PIs? So you have people one to is one of these. And as the only one blue dot record for an hour. And, you know, I don’t know. I remember when the river came out now it’s ever if ever there was a record that hit the rock culture on his day of release, The River was one, I mean, double record set every song Killer. The Guy was the most anticipated new release of the moment. And I remember the FM radio station in San Francisco, the program director telling me proudly that she was five cuts deep. That and that was radical being five cuts deep on a record. Really radical. No question. I was 16 cuts deep.
Buzz Knight [00:47:22] Well, Joe, in closing, so I have a little exercise for you. We’re going to be holding a a make believe cocktail party at your house tomorrow night. You get to invite five deceased guests that you’d like to have conversation with at the cocktail party. Who would you invite?
Joel Selvin [00:47:43] Well, this is like that New York Times book section interview. They always want the dinner party for the dead authors. And, you know, actually, I would invite friends of mine that died. So but that’s not you know, when I got a chance to see Brian Rohan again in a minute. But who who are the musicians that I would like to gather together and maybe like, you know, hand out a few guitars and stuff, Right? You know, How about Jerry Garcia? Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, Allen Toussaint. Got to have a keyboard player and, you know, maybe Steve Miller, because he’s my pal and it’s always fun to hang out with Steve. Oh, wow, That’d be good. Jam session.
Buzz Knight [00:48:30] That would be a great party. I’ll be right over.
Joel Selvin [00:48:34] And bring and bring a couple of joints.
Buzz Knight [00:48:39] Some there that we’ll bring our we’ll bring our pals, Dave Logan and Bill Pugh as well.
Joel Selvin [00:48:45] Yeah, man. Well, Buzz, this is great. I really hope it’s been as much fun for you as it’s been for me. It’s good to be with you, but I’m glad to make your acquaintance.
Buzz Knight [00:48:53] Thanks, John. Thanks to Joel Selvin for the amazing candid storytelling. If you like this podcast, kindly share it with a friend. All episodes of Taking a Walk. Produced by Bob Malatesta. Thanks for listening. I’m Buzz Tight.