The view from the Bridge

The woman behind me on the hillside is in her late ’50s and gorgeous in a way that tells me she must’ve caused a few riots when she was 22. The guy with her is about the same age, rugged in the way of a guy who might’ve started one of those riots. I saw in this handsome couple the hippies as grandparents. And about 50 feet over to the right are their grandchildren, who lustily and drunkenly know the words to every Dashboard Confessional song.

I noticed the same thing last fall when the Rolling Stones were on tour: People my mom’s age taking their grandkids to see legends before they die. That time, though, was at a rainy Pac Bell Park in downtown San Francisco. A Stones crowd is bound to be wound a bit too tight (the guy next to me almost started a fight over nothing) — just not the place where you expect a Summer of Love vibe.

Last night, though, we were in Mountain View at a place called the Shoreline Amphitheatre at a benefit concert Neil Young organizes for the Bridge School, which uses technology to open up new vistas for disabled children. Exactly the kind of place you’d expect the Woodstock Generation and its grandkids to show up.

It’s my first time at the Shoreline so you’ll have to suffer my rookie observations: It’s a huge outdoor concert venue with about 6,500 reserved seats up front and room for another 15,000 on the steep hillside behind them. Here the Grassy Knoll represents the cheap seats, and it’s an amazing bargain, considering the band lineup: Dashboard Confessional, Wilco, Counting Crows, the Indigo Girls, Incubus, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. All great bands in their own ways. And the proceeds help furnish abilities to disabled kids.

The Air of Goodness pervading the place takes a bit of the edge off the proceedings. As does the pair of overpriced, watered-down mixed drinks I’ve consumed with the idea of staying out of the line for the portapotty (better to buy liquor than rent beer, I figure). One part of me is saying, this’d be a lot more fun if I were a lot more drunk, but there’s the issue of the hillside — getting up and down it, threading one’s way through a maze of blankets and people occupying them. I decide sobriety is the better part of balance and cut myself off, but many intrepid youngsters are braver (and tipsier) than I.

Young drunk people navigating the crowd provide plenty of entertainment — especially after sundown. At one point about two hours past dusk, I felt a hand on my shoulder: it was a pretty, dark-haired woman, about 20 or so, whose first words to me and the folks nearby are, "this is SO fucked, I don’t know where my people are." She wanders off, shakily. I still wonder if she found her people. Then there are the people using cellphones like air-traffic controllers. A woman in front of me is offering step-by-step directions to the spot she’s saved for her late-arriving friends. Finally, a wave of recognition and friends are reunited. Seems like all anybody has to say about cellphones is how much they suck, but here’s one indisputable checkmark in their plus column: as long as your batteries last you can find your friends in the darkened mass of a rock concert.

Oh, yeah, there was a concert. One of the requirements of the Bridge Benefit is that everybody plays acoustic guitars. I assume this is because regular rock with its obscene volume and cutting power chords is unhealthy for the school’s students, who spend the entire concert behind the bands, facing the crowd. This is a bit creepy in its own right — all these innocent children in such proximity to rock musicians. I suppose they tell the kids, "all those people are cheering for you"; in any case they look like they’re enjoying themselves. The music is a whole evening of MTV Unplugged, with all that implies. Lots of power ballads. In fact, so many that after about three bands I would’ve given anything for a cover of "Shock Treatment" or "God Save the Queen." Or any song with somebody playing a Stratocaster in it.

I know, get on with it. So, here are highlights of the bands, in the order they played (this is all from memory so I apologize to anybody who took notes and may have a better grasp of the facts):

Neil Young: He opens the show with Sugar Mountain. This is my first time seeing Neil Live and suddenly I’m overcome with emotion … maybe some longing to be back in the backseat of somebody’s 1977 Monte Carlo, getting stoned and listening to "Rust Never Sleeps" too many times to count. It’s Neil being Neil, and everybody approves. He plays maybe three songs and turns the show over to the rest of the cast.

Dashboard Confessional: These guys play a form of alternative rock many people like to call "emo." What it means is, a kind of rock that allows love songs and musing on topics other than youthful rage and lust. The band plays well, the songs are fine. Not bad but not wonderful either. . Lasting memory: Lead singer tells the crowd, "I’m so proud to be here because I used to be a teacher for disabled children." And I’m thinking, his guy has his priorities in order: assist helpless children in making them less helpless, or become the leader of a rock ‘n’ roll band. What sane person would choose differently?

Wilco: I have most of their albums, and I know people who are friends of the lead singer. In fact, I know so much about Wilco that the urge to hear live performances of songs I know by heart is overcome by my urge to acquire that second drink. So I spend half their set in line. I hear enough to wonder why Wilco is so great and yet deprived of the rich rewards they deserve. It could be that they’re just not tight in concert — the music sounds loose and frayed, which can be really cool in your headphones or at a nightclub, but doesn’t translate as well in front of a huge crowd like this, at least in comparison to the bands to come.

Counting Crows: Their lead singer has hair like the homicidal lunatic who’s always trying to kill Bart Simpson, except Sideshow Bob is more entertaining. The band is as tight as Wilco is loose, and the contrast is startling enough to make me wonder if there is a meritocracy in Rock ‘n’ Roll, that the most famous bands get that way because they have the best musicians. The problem is, the band plays wonderfully in the service of painfully forgettable songs and a painfully annoying lead singer. When I hear him say, "We’ve got one more song to go," I swear I hear some guy behind me say, "oh, Shit!" At least there was one laugh in the Crows’ set.

Indigo Girls: The first fantastic performance of the evening. The Girls are a duo, two women with two guitars. Unlike the other bands who had to squeeze their sets into an acoustic box, the Girls where on home turf in a all-acoustic show and the difference was amazing. See, they play like two people out to prove there are a million ways two guitars and two voices, set to words, can sound good. With way too many singer-songwriters, all the work goes into voices and lyrics, and the guitar playing is an afterthought. Not with the Indigo Girls: Both played complex, intricate stuff that would’ve impressed the most skeptical headbanging lead guitarist. And their harmonies were wonderful. I’m going to have to see a couple more of their shows before they win me over completely, but for now I can say: it’s not quite rock ‘n’ roll, but their live show rocks. The only flat spot: a cameo by David Crosby, who can’t seem to harmonize with the Girls. It’s an act of charity that embarrasses donor and recipient alike.

Incubus: The only band that felt really out of place playing acoustic music. They’re more of a thrash-rap-metal band. In keeping with the good-deeds-done-dirt cheap theme of the night, they played melodic, slightly groovy stuff that must’ve irked their hardcore fans to no end. The turntablist probably had his sleepiest show in months. I could sense a bulldog straining against its leash.

Pearl Jam: Eddie Vedder comes on stage, sits down and opens with "Masters of War," the classic Dylan anti-war screed. See, they had a big antiwar protest in San Francisco yesterday, so Eddie and his bandmates opted to localize their set. Seeing Vedder’s face on the giant screen makes me think: "now that is why we have rock stars," to give us those stick-it-to-the-man moments we crave. PJ also plays a ripping cover of Johnny Cash’s "Twenty Five Minutes to Go," a song about a guy at the gallows who’s about to get his neck stretched. Like Incubus, PJ is a rock band screaming for an honest A-minor bar chord, but unlike Incubus, they have the Sinatra of our era for a lead singer, which allows them indulge in a bit of pure schmaltz that only the great performers can pull off. Near the end of their set, Vedder introduces a Bridge School alumna who’s in her third year at Cal-Berkeley. The camera closes in on her smiling, almost ecstatic face. See, Eddie’s going to play her favorite song, "Last Kiss," that cover PJ had on the radio a few years back. Back then, it was a bit grating, but in this setting it’s positively charming. When it’s over, Vedder goes over and gives her a little kiss on the cheek. As the folks from MasterCard would say: priceless.

Willie Nelson: Willie plays like he’s got a plane to catch and doesn’t do anything memorable. We expect more from a legend, which makes it a bit of a letdown when he is anything less than amazing. The other thing I wanted to scream, "For God’s sake, Willie, you can afford a new guitar." That broken-down thing he plays used to be cute, now it seems ridiculous.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Crosby looked irrelevant on stage aside the hard-driving, polished professionalism of the Indigo Girls, but he gets along fine in the company of his old cronies. Graham Nash gets this absurd grimace on his face when emoting his lines. Stephen Stills has almost lost that trademark voice of his. Neil is still Neil. However: Tonight the harmonies are perfect, the songs tight, the musicianship solid, and the guys show they’re not ready to be mummified just yet. One of the first songs has to be "Deja Vu," because, yeah, we’ve all been here before. Then the high guitar note that hints "For What it’s Worth" is up next. "There’s something happening here…" and yeah, it’s not exactly clear. Because there are, again, men with guns over there telling us we’ve got to beware. A song played so many times it’s become a cliché, but tonight, it works, maybe in a way it hasn’t worked since the fall of Saigon. They close with "Teach your Children" and I’m overcome with emotion for the second time tonight. The feelings come back even when I write about it. Maybe because at this age there’s no way to deny: I’m becoming more and more like them, the Dinosaurs of Rock, and less and less like the youngsters of Dashboard Confessional.

On the way out, we’re discussing the CSNY set … I’m noting how their voices seem to have aged at the same rate, so even though they can’t hit the notes they did before, they still sound good together. Next to us is a young guy with the look of somebody about to ask us for money for bus fare. He’s fairly itching to join the conversation and finally he blurts it out: He’s 26 years old so he can’t claim to know all he needs to know, but tonight’s is the best of the nine CSNY shows he’s seen. Somehow that seemed to sum up the whole thing.


A new look

Scott Shepler, the guy who drew the signature image on my homepage, came through with perhaps the world’s only illustration of an editor printing the chaff. Naturally I had to redesign the whole page to make the visual work … what other way is there to do things? This was Scott’s first draft, though I’m tempted to say he cleared the fence with his first try.

To be a rock ‘n’ roller

This guy in New York is doing what I’d be doing if I had a scrap of musical talent. By day he works for peanuts at a Mailboxes Etc., but by night he’s in a rockin’ band. The leader of the band writes a song about the end of a seven-year relationship and the song it inspired.

At the time of the breakup, he said, he felt pretty hopeless about everything. But, he explained: “Those seven years, and all that I went through afterward, was worth it to get that three minutes of song. No matter how awful life gets, it’s O.K. if you get a good song out of it. The situation fades away. But the song lasts forever.”

Check out the band’s tour diary. It’s exactly what you’d expect when four guys go cross country in a van that can’t stop breakin’ down.

Get your fanny perpendicular and off to ‘School’

Forget that Jack Black wooed the fat-suit girl in “Shallow Hal.” What you need to know is, can the secret weapon of “High Fidelity” make a movie we’ll remember six seconds after the credits roll?

I’m mean, c’mon, is there a single Jack Black movie besides “Hi-Fi” you would pay to see twice?

Finally, there is because at long last he’s in a movie whose a) subject is Rock ‘n’ Roll; b) director is Richard Linklater (“Dazed & Confused”) and c) supporting cast includes a rockin’ bunch of kids who come within a drumstick’s width of upstaging him.

“School of Rock” stars Black as Dewey Finn, a loser guitarist who gets kicked out of his loser band and is about to lose his crash pad because his old pal who’s put up with no-rent-paying ways now has a gorgeous girlfriend who insists the time for a change is right now.

Ned, the roomate, doesn’t want to blow it with the Queen Bitch of the Universe, who is such a staple of Rock ‘n’ Roll lore — the girlfriend who spoils everything — that I’m surprised they didn’t name her Yoko. So he sides with bitch babe against poor Dewey, who immediately thinks the thing to do is start a new band — which will never happen because he’s totally lame and has the brain of a 10-year-old still living in the moment he first heard “Back in Black.”

But as the script has it, there are several musical 10-year-olds in his future who will prove he’s not such a loser after all, and that Rock ‘n’ Roll can save, well, their souls.

The magic of “School of Rock” is that it gets away with every teen-rock movie cliche from here to “Rock Around the Clock.” Do the kids defy adult authority? Sure. Does an evil meanie try to stand between them and rock destiny? Better believe it. Can a band of kids who have never played a bar chord before produce a catchy, rockin’ tune inside of three weeks? Why the hell not? It’s a movie, OK, and we’re doing this because we can, Linklater, Black and company are saying.

See, the people who made this flick understand that Rock ‘n’ Roll thrives in the heart of a child. “School of Rock” is about the mojo that made the girls go mad for the Beatles — the pure, ecstatic, raving fun of abandoning yourself to a rock tune. Black’s Dewey is a moron who has a doctorate in the Meaning of Rock ‘n’ Roll … it’s so basic that comes perfectly natural to a roomful of bright kids.

Combine this with a rockin’ score heavy on AC/DC and all the greatest hits from Classic Rock that Rocks radio and you’ve got a movie representing the gritty, nasty, silly and soaring firmament of Rock ‘n’ Roll That Matters (and where Huey Lewis, Billy Joel and Journey dare not dwell).

If that firmament matters to you, pony up the obscene ticket price (it’d be a crime not to see this in a theater) and get your butt in a seat. Better yet, if you’ve given up on Rock as hopelessly compromised by the mighty dollar, “School of Rock” might just get you believing again.

A flashback

I mentioned getting flashbacks in the post below, so here’s my recounting of the worst correction I ever caused.

It was a Friday on the Tampa Tribune’s County Desk, where we put out six zoned sections a day. Normally a layout person would do one section but if we were shorthanded somebody’d have to do two. This was one of those days, and the sections awarded to me were the first two deadlines of the day, meaning if I blew my deadlines, a daisy chain of blown deadlines could happen through the next dozen zones (after us, a whole bunch of regional State sections went to press). So, there was immense pressure to make deadline on the early sections.

There were 95 thousand complications having to do with shared color positions (this was before the Trib had pagination), 75 percent of the stories coming in late (final copy deadline was 4 p.m. and the first section — mine — was off the floor at 6), and the fact that the second of these sections would be delivered popping fresh to the executive editor’s door and he read every damn word.

So, anyway, I get my sections laid out at light speed and head to the backshop, where they’re pasting up both of my sections. Most of my energy goes into getting the first section cleared so I don’t keep a particularly close eye on the work of the rookie compositor pasting up the front page of the second section.

The first section clears about 15 minutes before the deadline on the second. I’m doing a hurried check of the jumps … so hurried that I fail to notice that our rookie compositor has mixed up the sticks of type from two stories.

Next morning the boss calls, having no doubt been wakened by a call from the Executive Editor, who wanted to know what the deal was with these two stories at the bottom of the front page of his local news section. I take a look at the section and realize what has happened. Bottom line: we had to re-run both stories.

In retrospect this seems hardly like the end of the world, but back then it felt like I had betrayed the Gods of Journalism and deserved to be smote with a rusty pica pole. Later I learned it happens to everybody, like the guy who’d been an editor for 30 years and still found a way to forget to include the jump from his centerpiece. (Got a real loud call from the boss over that one).

If you have similar horror stories, pass ’em along and I”ll post here.

Dateline: somewhere between the Blue and the Grass stages

The stages are about 300 yards apart and I’m standing at this point where you hear one band playing into one ear, the other band playing into the other. And for some reason the brain is able to process both. I’ve come here here because it’s the one bunch of porta-potties without a 25-minute wait to do my business.

I’m at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the prohibition against alcohol is enthusiastically ignored by everybody but me, who has taken the regulations at their word and arrived dry. Some part of me thinks, well, at least I won’t spend the whole day in line to pee. That was before I bought the 24-ounce Pepsi that went through me faster than a six-pack of Bud Light. At least two trips to loo-land and no buzz to compensate. Alas.

So I’m at this giant festival surrounded by thousands of people who came for the same reason: fine music that’s free (some rich guy pays for it all; I want to meet him and introduce him to my sister). We heard country legend Ricky Skaggs with a mad banjo picker, Texas icon Joe Ely with a mad guitar picker, and reformed junkie Steve Earle looking mad. Lately Steve has shaved off his beard, lost a bunch of weight and taken on the appearance of a disturbing third cousin of Steven King. With nature’s disguises removed, it’s plain to see: Steve’s done some scary shit and it shows.

Steve cannot seem to get it into his head that we have come to see him to escape the grating realities of the times we live in. He and his band play wonderful bluegrass riffs, he even provides a couple OH YEAH moments, but before too long he’s singing against war, singing against the oppressors of working people, singing against The Man. My inner redneck is screaming, “Copperhead Road!” I know this urge is wrong, I know he brought his bluegrass band and not the Supersuckers, and he will not play that song about the hitchiker going to New York City. I want the rocking, hell-raising Steve Earle but on this afternoon I’ve got the rootsy, self-righteous one. After Anti-War Dirge No. 3, the urge to scram early to beat the crowds to the bus stop is impossible to overcome.

At the bus, something cool happens: the fare box is broke and we get to ride all the way back downtown for free. Behind me I hear some graybearded old leftist extolling the Virtues of Public Transportation. I’m thinking: a free ride is always virtuous, but at some point they throw you off the bus.

Ok, now that the Steve Earle report out of the way, I can get on to the rest of the day. Let’s see, what else. OK: We haul our sawed-off lawnchairs all the way from Dublin to the park, an hour and a half of Bart and the Muni bus to get to the festival about 12:30 in the afternoon. There’s already a thousand people between us and the Grass Stage … we set up camp here because we want to see Dave Alvin, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Earle; the other is the Blue Stage (blue+grass=Bluegrass, clever eh?), where I’d like to catch some of the sets of Gillian Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. The real superstars, Emmy Lou Harris and Willy Nelson, will be there Sunday but we have no use for superstars.

As we get settled in, I hear faint wailing coming from the Blue Stage. It’s Gillian Welch (that’s with a hard G, I always want to call her Gilligan Welch), who sang that “Sirens” song with Alison Krauss in “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Gillian is probably about the age of a daughter of Loretta Lynn but sounds like the person who might’ve taught Loretta to sing about coal mines. She is seriously hardcore country in a way no other country singer dares to sing it today. I walk over and hear her singing “White Freightliner” and it brings tears to my eyes .. she has this searing voice that gives me a visceral chill down the spine. I don’t even care for her music that much, but damn, that voice gets to me. You know how in the movies they show grown men crying when they’re listening to opera? It’s like that. I have to leave before I start getting all weepy.

I head back over to the Grass Stage, where Melissa is contentedly working on a baby quilt she’ll donate to Stanford Hospital’s neonatal unit (She’s the First Vice President for Good Deeds in our household). It’s what the womenfolk used to do at bluegrass gigs, I suppose. She’s listening to the same music her grandfather listened to while milking the cows back in the 1940s and ’50s. It probably doesn’t appear that she’s having all that much fun but she insists she’s where she wants to be: in the sunshine, sewing on something, listening to old-timey music.

Around 2 p.m. Dave Alvin takes the stage. Dave looks like a worn-out old white guy and his Band of Guilty Men appear much the same. The sound is country but the roots are rock ‘n’ roll. Dave was a punk rocker and a rockabilly guy back when those words meant something in the late ’70s, and his set is the rockingest one of the day. He sings in this baritone that seems to combine a Merle Haggard and a George Jones who listened to a lot more rhythm ‘n’ blues in their formative years. He sneaks a bit of politics into his set … one song’s lyrics went something along the lines of “when I get rich I’ll buy me a recall election,” and his last words were, “Don’t forget to vote.” Why Dave Alvin is not the richest, most famous musician in America is a mystery to me. His sets are simply stunning.

Ricky Skaggs is next. His band plays a blazing bluegrass set that has people up and dancing like lunatics. It’s a reminder that bluegrass isn’t all banjos and fiddles and murder ballads and stories about working in the coalmines. Sometimes it’s more like rock ‘n’ roll, vibrant, boisterous stuff that sets the toes to tapping.

Awhile later I stopped in on Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s set. He has this long gray hair flying wild in the wind and this rough, drawn face that reminded me of a skeleton with the hair still on it. He sings in a high-pitched drawl that takes some getting used to. I’m too impatient and head back to the other stage. I know Jimmie Dale is highly respected back in Texas and I’m sure I should’ve given him another chance. For now though I’m lacking the patience for acquired tastes.

The last guy I want to see before Steve Earle comes on is Joe Ely, a mainstay of Texas country-blues. I saw Joe perform for 60 minutes one evening back in about 1989 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. He has humor, enthusiasm and a smoking band with a slide guitarist who can bring tears to your eyes. Joe’s a natural born performer and knows how to draw the audience in. I suspect he wants people to remember having seen him. I head back over to the Blue Stage and get there in time for Joe’s first song, an epic tune about a lost cotton farm. I’m thinking, hey, he’s off to a good start. So I find a place by the sound mixing board, plop down on the ground and wait to be amazed. Then reality sets in: I’ve got most of Joe’s albums and know all the songs so well that it’s not really important all the sudden to hear him perform them. After a couple songs I’m back over at the Grass Stage, resting up for Steve. Joe, meanwhile, has about another half-hour to warm up the crowd, and every few minutes the roars get a little bit louder. By the time his set’s over it sounds like the 49ers winning the Super Bowl over there. I’m thinking: Joe pulled off another of his dazzlers and I missed it. Damn.

Meanwhile some funny and cool stuff is happening right in front of us. Somebody brought these huge hula hoops to the show, and these little girls, ages about 4 to 8, are trying like hell to learn to keep them aloft. They never do but it’s hilarious watching them try.

Another hilarious moment: A woman has this cute little black dog on a leash. I’m watching the little guy sniffing along somebody’s backpack on the ground. Nobody’s watching him except me, apparently, and my gaze is frozen while he lifts his leg and takes a leak on the backpack. His minder notices when it’s too late do do any good.

Well, those are the highlights. Only regrets are all the other pee-and-backpack moments I missed because I couldn’t be everywhere at the same time.