Mad as Hell

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”

That’s a line from the movie Network, but it’s could be from the script of the Brexit referendum. Or the Trump campaign.

You know the feeling. Things aren’t going well, we desperately need a change, and we need to make a statement. Now.

So along comes a candidate or proposition that gives us a chance to tell the world how angry we are. Easy choice – I vote for it! That’ll show ’em! But then…oops, it passed, or we elected a bigmouthed know-nothing.

What have we done?

The people of Britain have some serious problems, beginning with a stagnant economy (especially outside London), and a massively uneven distribution of wealth. (Does this sound familiar, America?) The Brexit vote gave them a voice. But did they really want to leave the European Union, and risk an even greater economic dislocation? Unlikely.

Google UK has seen a huge jump in searches like “what happens if we leave the EU?” It’s a good bet that a lot of those who voted to leave didn’t know or care what would happen…they never expected to actually win.

For Americans, that’s the scary part. Few people actually want Donald Trump to be president, but voting for him is a great way to say you’re mad as hell. And a lot of Americans are mad as hell. It’s not just unemployed, old southern white guys, either. Many of us are furious about income inequality and guns (Trump used to be for gun control, right…?), and big banks – so why not send a message?

I once knew some people who were actually bomb-throwers. They were part of the Weather Underground (not the forecasting app), and they believed that blowing up (empty) buildings was a good way to get people to change things. Surely the Vietnam war would end if America started exploding!  They succeeded in damaging a few buildings, accidentally killed a guy and a couple of themselves, and did a lot of damage to the antiwar movement. There are always unintended consequences to blowing things up.

Trump voters are often quoted as wanting to “tear it down” or “blow it up.” I get it. So do a lot of Brits. We want to yell and make our voices heard. We want to scare the bastards so that they’ll fix things.

But we didn’t really mean it about tearing it all down, did we?


One of the big questions of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement was how to make our voices heard. Sit-ins, marches, breaking windows, blowing things up? Writing? That’s what I was trying to figure out in the year of Some Way Outa Here


What’s Your Soundtrack?

Most of us are incessantly playing music in our heads. Don’t take it from me – Oliver Sachs documented it in Musicophilia. Our brains are wired that way. It’s not just you – we’re all pretty musical. It drives us in interesting, sometimes profound ways.

This week the husband of a friend passed away, after a long struggle with cancer. Very ill, Jim Barringer had a last wish – to see Bob Dylan play one more time. His wife, writer Joyce Maynard, wrote about his insistence that he go to Berkeley’s Greek Theater for Dylan’s concert, and how he spoke his last words upon returning home. Along with his love for his wife, music was part of the life force that kept him going. (For Joyce’s account of the concert, see her Facebook page.)

Music drives us in ways we are barely aware of. It frames our moods, and can change them. A good beat keeps us exercising when we’re tiring, a catchy tune cheers us, and an upbeat anthem motivates us.

Try thinking about the civil rights marchers of the 1960s without hearing “We Shall Overcome.” The song was a key ingredient of the movement. The soundtrack of the antiwar movement was everywhere in the 1960s – people hummed Dylan’s protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “Get Together,” “All You Need is Love,” “Revolution” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Bill Clinton took office to a resounding, looping soundtrack of “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” Rap and hip-hop have been expressing anger and outrage since the beginning, Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.”

We’re being manipulated by music all the time. Stores pick their soundtracks carefully – Starbucks has decided what music is most likely to get you to stay around and drink more coffee. Yoga, massage and meditation all use music to relax you. Movie and TV soundtracks are often masterful manipulators. A good soundtrack is invisible, yet it drives your emotions and tells you how to feel about the characters. You may leave a movie theater humming a song you don’t even remember hearing.

It’s personal. We each have our own soundtrack. Mine is based around the blues and rock I immersed myself in as a teenager, but it includes the jazz and classical music I came to love later. The jukebox in my head plays a strange brew of Beatles, Miles Davis, bluegrass, Muddy Waters and Bach. Songs seemingly come from nowhere, but upon reflection, they often come from a lyric association: hearing “foreign movie” might trigger Steely Dan’s “Peg.” The mind works in strange ways.

I’m a musician (so was Jim, a basssist), and the music might be more powerful for people who play it. (Think of Beethoven – he was still composing when he couldn’t even hear the sounds.) When I ask others about the music in their heads, they often say, sure, sometimes I get a song stuck in my head. But then they think about it, and usually realize that songs come and go through the day.

Our personal soundtracks connect us with our past: our experiences, our friends, and our selves. Joyce writes about how Jim went back to his Beatles collection in his last months, reveling in the exuberance, the energy and the memories. I get it…that’s probably exactly what I would go back to. It’s a way to reconnect with something that’s still there inside, still strong, young and fun. It connects us with our emotions, and strengthens us. I can only hope that the last song I hear is “Here Comes the Sun.”

We need music, until the end. It’s part of who we are.

Some Way Outa Here reveals how the music of a time, the late 1960s, permeates daily life. It’s a book with a soundtrack, an homage to one of the great eras in popular music.


Why Your Opinion Matters…More than You Think

Once, there was only one way that most of us could ever share our opinions with a wide audience: the humble Letter to the Editor.

The Letters page in every newspaper was the closest thing we had to a public forum. If you felt that your opinion was worth sharing, that’s where you went.

My first newspaper letter appeared in late 1969, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, as recounted in Some Way Outa Here. Years later, I became a regular contributor on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Letters page. It wasn’t so different from writing comments on a news site – there were even trolls who sent nasty letters by snail mail or left creepy phone messages. (When I wrote about gun control, I inevitably received anonymous death threats – always full of misspellings and tortured grammar.) Many fascinating discussions – in the paper and in person – grew out of those letters.

When a friend asked how I got published so much, I realized it was simple, but not obvious: All you needed was a single idea, an interesting way to present it, and well-tuned, clear writing. Easy, right?

Now we can publish pretty much anything, any time. Whether it’s Facebook or a blog or Yelp, you tell lots of people what you think. But beyond your Facebook friends, is anybody listening?

I think the answer is emphatically YES, and here’s why…

Sites like Yelp have a huge impact on businesses. The threat of negative reviews drives business decisions. One bad review can hurt – something that, sadly, competitors and trolls know and abuse. And good reviews get read and bring in customers.

Authors – or at least their books – live and die by reviews. They help a book become more visible: Amazon’s search engine promotes books that have lots of good reviews. If you read my book, or anyone’s book, I encourage you to write a review online. Even just a few words. Think about how much these reviews influence your choices about what to read or buy: you’re helping people like yourself make decisions about how to spend their time and money.

Since I published Some Way Outa Here, many readers have posted their literary criticism on Amazon, Goodreads and Facebook. It’s been gratifying to me, as an author, to see the kind words people have written about the book. And I’ve learned some amazing things about the era, the places and people that I wrote about.

Whether it’s an Amazon review, a Facebook post, a news article’s comments, or a blog like this one – share your thoughts. If you keep it simple, people will read it. A well written comment can influence someone else in ways you can’t imagine.

You can check out some of the review comments at the Amazon page for Some Way Outa Here.
letters to the editor

Ali – The Troublemaker Who Inspired Us

Muhammad-Ali-on-courageMuhammad Ali was a widely admired American icon. Many have forgotten that he was widely hated in the 1960s, a victim of racism and the Vietnam war. But amazingly, he became a hero to many who once despised him.

I first heard of Ali – then Cassius Clay – when I listened to the radio broadcast of his first championship fight in a far-off place called Lewiston, Maine. . I lived in the south then, and the consensus among my sixth grade classmates seemed to be he was the devil himself. Among adults, the term “uppity [N-word]” was common. I was intrigued. Unlike my white classmates, I had attended integrated schools in the north, and a poetry-spouting black boxer was exciting…and a little subversive.

I watched Ali’s fights over the next few years, and came to marvel at his astonishing prowess. I didn’t really even like boxing – I just like watching Ali. Then, in 1966, Ali did something remarkable.

Like so many young Americans, he was classified as eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam war. His response was “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Viet Cong.”

In 1966, this was shocking – the antiwar movement was in its infancy, and the draft was an unpleasant reality of life. Ali applied to be a conscientious objector, citing his Muslim beliefs. The press attacked fiercely, and Ali was branded a coward.

In 1967 he was stripped of his boxing title and convicted of draft evasion. He lost his livelihood at the height of his career, and faced prison. He was branded a traitor by many.

Was he a coward? I didn’t think so. He routinely faced opponents who could have killed him – I had seen the films of Benny Paret being killed in the ring, and knew well Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore.” Boxing took courage. Taking on the American government and giving up his career? This man was no coward.

Ali’s conviction was overturned, but he lost almost four years during his athletic prime. During those years, the war raged, the antiwar movement grew, and Ali became a symbol of resistance. He inspired many of us who faced the draft, showing us that sometimes it was more important to follow your conscience than to do the popular thing. By the fall of 1970, his opposition to the war was vindicated and he was allowed to return to his sport.

In the 1970s, Ali made a comeback, regained his title, and ultimately was brought down by the ravages of a brutal sport. But his determination to prevail gained him the admiration of many who had once despised him; his illness gained him the sympathy of others. He became an American hero.

For me, it’s young Muhammad Ali I remember most – a young man who was not afraid to do the right thing.

My own struggles against the draft are at the center of Some Way Outa Here.