Meet the WannaBeatles…

A very long time ago, a young version of myself watched, in astonishment, a band of four guys with crazy long hair rock the normally staid Ed Sullivan show.

If you were there, you remember the moment. It changed you. It changed everyone, in ways that were impossible to imagine at the time. For young people, it ended the shock that set in after John Kennedy’s assassination, months earlier. We needed something new and exciting, and there it was, from England, of all places.

Those who were most inspired went out and got guitars or drums and learned to play them. My friend and drum master, Peter, formed a band that year, and they a had a local hit in Chicago the next year. Many other musicians followed suit. Some of us were a little slower. I took up the guitar a few years later, clumsily imitating the Beatles and Dylan, as I describe in Some Way Outa Here. I didn’t start playing electric guitar for decades, but I’ve played with a few bands and done a few gigs over the last decade.

But I’ve always dreamed of doing a gig of all-Beatles songs. My latest band, named in a moment of utter honesty, is The WannaBeatles and we’re doing it!  My 1960s self would have been ecstatic at the idea of playing songs from Rubber Soul, the White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road on stage. Oh, plus “A Day in the Life,” complete with a delirious ending.

I’ve been amazed at how younger folks, my kids included, have also been drawn to this music. The songs are deeply linked to a moment in time…but they’re timeless, too. Who could listen to Eleanor Rigby without a twinge of sadness, Here Comes the Sun without feeling a warm glow, or Strawberry Fields Forever without being drawn into John Lennon’s through-the-looking glass boyhood memories?

Perhaps my favorite Beatles memory is from the night that my band played behind a chorus of seventh and eighth grade girls, singing an all-Beatles concert for their parents, on the 50th anniversary of that first US TV broadcast. The programs featured some kid-friendly songs like Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Octopus’s Garden. It seemed a little uninspired, the girls singing songs that weren’t connecting.

Before we started the last song, our other guitarist said, “let’s pump this up a little,” and we launched into Here Comes the Sun. It seems like a simple song, but Peter the drummer and Steve the bassist were putting a little extra drive into it. Playing behind the singers, I saw that for the first time, the bottoms were starting to sway, and when we got to the chorus, “sun, sun, sun, here it comes,” the voices seemed to blossom. And from nowhere, the music teacher began the intricate hand-clap that drives the middle of the record, unrehearsed, done perfectly. The voices soared, suddenly a choir of angels. We in the band, too, felt lifted to a new level.

At the last notes faded, there was an instant of stunned silence…like, “what was that?” And as the applause filled the room, I saw that some of the standing parents had tears on their faces.

It took me a long time to bring my own versions of these to the stage, but it’s been a good journey. Want to see the result? Come see The WannaBeatles at the Boom Boom Room (John Lee Hooker’s wonderful club) in San Francisco on Tuesday night. We’re the finale band, after 10pm, with other bands all evening, in a benefit for the terrific Blue Bear music school. Hope you can make it!

The Most Beautiful Face of All

Whose face inspires you, more than any other? Is it a beautiful woman, or man? Is it the facade (the “face”) of a delightful building? The face of a towering mountain? Or is it more cosmic than any of these?

Long ago, when I was a science-obsessed teen, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself then, but there was one reason…I felt that if I could orbit the earth, just looking down, I wouldn’t need anything else, just watching the planet turn and turn. It would be bliss.

I was, no doubt, inspired by Ed White, the first American to “walk” in space. After 20 minutes floating above the planet, White was due to return to his Gemini spacecraft. He refused. He told mission control that he couldn’t go back…it was just too magnificent. Finally he was ordered to return, and he gave in. He said, “I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” When I saw the photos he took, I understood.

Later, I found my own version of White’s rapture. I would take plane rides, careful to get a window seat, and watch the planet roll by for every minute of the flight, watching cloud formations when they got in the way, avoiding bathroom breaks for fear of missing something. Sometimes I got a very stiff neck.

On my first cross country flight to California, I found myself sitting next to a five year old girl, traveling alone, going home to San Francisco. The stewardess asked if I minded helping her, and I agreed, a little reluctantly. Myesha was a brave little African America girl who was apparently unafraid of flying alone or sitting next to a stranger. I wasn’t a dad then, and I was more nervous than she was.

As soon as we took off from Boston, I gathered in the view of the harbor, then the city, and Myesha asked what I was looking at. I sat back, and she leaned toward the window from the middle seat, straining her seat belt. “Is that Boston?” She asked. Before I could answer, she squealed happily, “It is! It’s a city! Look at all the buildings!” She continued to strain toward the window, until finally the seat belt sign went off and I switched seats with her. Together, for six hours, we leaned into the window, spotting roads, farms, towns, rivers and clouds. Myesha shared my bliss, multiplying it. We flew over the Grand Canyon, on the way to a stop in Los Angeles, and the pilot tipped the plane a bit so each side could look down. The beauty was astonishing. Myesha looked at me and asked, “Is that real?” I told her “I think we’re dreaming.” She smiled and said, “You’re right,” and pressed her nose back against the window. After the flight, I never saw Myesha again, but I hope she grew up with her courage and sense of wonder intact.

Now, decades later, we can see beauty that was unimaginable then. We have images from the Hubble telescope that show amazing nebulae, the remnants of cataclysmic star explosions, and countless galaxies spinning through space, myriad shapes and sizes, sometimes colliding in spectacular encounters. And there are closeups of our own neighbors, planets that we could once only see as fuzzy discs. Hubble brought them into focus, and we could see the especially lovely faces of Jupiter and Saturn.

When a series of spacecraft visited these planets we discovered that their moons, too were equally spectacular, each unique and fantastic. Now, the Juno mission has sent back Jupiter’s close-ups…gorgeous views of an endlessly varied, ever-changing face, full of mystery and drama. Could there be a more fascinating, beautiful face than this, anywhere?

Jupiter 1

Well, yes. It’s the one Ed White saw.

Earth from Space.jpg

You can watch the world roll by in this lovely video.

The story of my life as a science-obsessed teen, from the first moon landing to the first Earth Day, and beyond, is told in Some Way Outa Here. In part, it’s a story about where inspiration comes from, and how to recognize it when it smacks you in the face.


On the passing of Robert Pirsig

A note of appreciation on the passing of Robert Pirsig…
I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at an age when it addressed (and helped form) the urgent questions that filled my mind, like,
“what the heck are we doing here?” and
“why is it so hard to be both rational and emotional/spiritual?”

Pirsig didn’t really answer the first one, but he dug into the second one, deeply. He found some answers, but for me, the joy was in the digging. Robert Pirsig taught me how to dig.
At the time, I was discovering the joy of making things out of wood. Pirsig worked in steel, but his lessons were profound.

He wrote about “quality,” a seemingly simple idea that turns out to be quite elusive. He helped me understand two of my friends who had opposite understandings of quality. One, David, referred to the native American notion that if you make something that’s perfect, put a little ding in it, because only God makes things perfect. The other friend, also named Robert, could make extraordinary things from wood. But if he made something that was flawed, he would ceremoniously take it to the river that ran by our woodshop and toss it into the passing current. The two of them were best friends, but they couldn’t have approached quality more differently.

Robert was passionate about quality on a level that few people could understand. It was a philosophy to him, rather than an obsession. He had to live up to his standards, there was no choice. Pirsig would have understood. Robert, my friend, applied the same standards to his life. He excelled at many things, mastered architecture, became a successful entrepreneur, and was a dedicated father. But when his life crashed down and he couldn’t fix it, Robert did something that only a few of us understood. He ended his life by throwing himself into a river. Pirsig would have understood that, too.

Robert Pirsig’s ideas had an enormous impact on millions of people. He was able to reach so many because he mastered one marvelous skill: he was a great storyteller. For me, that was as much a gift as the ideas themselves.

When I wrote Some Way Outa Here, Pirsig was never far out of mind. He taught me how to tell a story that’s grounded in ideas, that seeks to find truths that surpass the facts of the story. And I learned from him that the most interesting stories are those that cross the chasm between what we think and what we feel, and help us discover who we are.

Me and Bob

We go way back, me and Bob Dylan.

I knew Dylan’s early songs from a young age, but they were a little esoteric and to young ears, the voice was grating. But when other people started recording his songs – first there were pop-folksingers like Peter Paul and Mary – and then the Byrds, I started paying attention. Then I heard “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Since that day, Dylan’s lyrics have filled a disproportionate amount of space in my brain. It wasn’t long before I knew all the words to “Desolation Row,” all ten verses (but who’s counting?). Even now, I can sing (and play) most of the songs from Highway 61 Revisited.

Dylan’s way with words is surely Nobel-worthy. He has written serious songs that still resonate – “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain,” “Hurricane,” “Gates of Eden.” There are love songs that are achingly beautiful – “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “If You See Her Say Hello.” There are short stories in song – “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Black Diamond Bay,” and many more. And songs that make no sense but are unforgettable – “Memphis Blues Again,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”

The words have sunk into our language the way Shakespeare’s words did. “Don’t think twice” or “something’s going on, but you don’t know what it is;” “one more cup of coffee,” or “how does it feel?” – none of these lines are unique to Dylan’s songs, but you may hear the melody when someone says them. Dylanisms like “to live outside the law you must be honest” or “she breaks just like a little girl” ring familiar. And the poetry – “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes,” “yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free” – can bring tears to my eyes.

When I wrote my book, I knew from the start that the title had to be drawn from Bob’s songs. Since the book is about my journey through the politics, culture and music of the late 1960s, it was just a question of which song, which words. In the end, it was easy: the book is my search for some way out of adolescence, out of my suburban hometown, out of here. All “Along the Watchtower” says it plainly, “there must be some way outa here.” It also tells a mysterious, ambiguous story about “too much confusion,” where “there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.” The sense of urgency rang true for me: “let us not talk falsely, the hour is getting late.”

Dylan’s Nobel prize is a well-deserved affirmation of his craft. But even now, there is one big part of his work that is underappreciated: his 21st century songs. When Rolling Stone listed “Dylan’s best” songs a few years ago, only a handful of recent songs were included. They haven’t been paying attention, and if you haven’t either, take heed:

Spend a little time with Modern Times, Love and Theft, and the others. Listen to “Mississippi,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Spirit on the Water,” “High Water,” “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” and “It’s All Good.”

It is…all good. Very good.

Thanks for everything, Bob.

Check out Some Way Outa Here on Amazon!

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

Discovering Goddard College and a Unique Building

Goddard College Design and Construction

The first time I saw the Goddard College Design Center building, I stopped in my tracks (the snow was a few inches deep) and stared. I was a high school senior, and I knew nothing about architecture – but this was design anarchy, a spirit I had never seen embodied in a building before. That was the moment I decided to go to school there.

The building itself wasn’t quite finished – it still looks not-quite-finished, but old, 46 years later – and I wandered through it greedily absorbing the eclectic woodwork and crazily inspired details. I found something written on the wall that changed my life – you can read about that in Some Way Outa Here…no spoilers here. Then I started asking questions.

The story unfolded in small bites…the students built the building…a local architect, John Mallery, was the inspired teacher who let students try pretty much anything…it was all about “learning by doing.” The last part closed the deal for me – if architects could learn by building things, isn’t that a great model for learning everything? My high school mind was, in the terminology of the times, blown.

I returned to Goddard the following fall, determined to learn all I could about political activism and social change. After all, the Vietnam war was still raging, and nothing seemed more important than learning about how to stop a war. Of course, it wasn’t that simple.

I focused on economics, democracy and radical change. The school was caldron of activism, oddly isolated from the world by the Vermont countryside. I found myself surrounded by radicals of every stripe, Weather Underground fugitives,  and earnest academics who believed that knowledge could change the world. Cult leader Steven Gaskin briefly brought a bus caravan of his followers onto campus. A year later, Bernie Sanders would volunteer to run for office at the Goddard library.

Music and drugs were everywhere. Especially music. Top bands would come to play at the behest of Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, a troubled soul who lived in the next dorm. Peter would sit around naked and play astonishing guitar licks; he showed me how to play his song “Black Magic Woman.” There were other lost souls in residence, too, like the couple known only as Man and Woman.

It was less “learn by doing” than “learn by total immersion,” more about culture – and counterculture – than politics and economics. I found myself missing the “real world.”

Even though Goddard was a tiny school – enrollment: 600 – it was sufficiently compartmentalized that I didn’t have much contact with the builders. The Design and Construction program was planning a new project, an even more ambitious building for the sculpture program, but I wasn’t paying attention.

After a semester, my friend Alex and I impulsively left for New Mexico, and found ourselves renovating a house in Santa Fe. Building a wall, installing a toilet – everything was learning by doing. I started thinking about Design and Construction again.  More on that later…

The Design Center building became a white elephant on campus, and served for years as a classroom, a meeting space, and music enclave. Years later, Phish would play there, during and after their student days. The building has survived, but needs some work. Like many of us, it’s a little run down, but still standing.

Goddard College Design and Construction

Three Things I Learned from My Mother

My mother was an accidental feminist. Here are three things she taught me, the best way, by example:

1. My mom, a single parent, worked two jobs so that I could go to a good school and have a near-normal life among my Ozzie and Harriet friends. Being divorced, she was an outcast, but a feisty one. She had to be tough and independent, not qualities that women were supposed to have in the 1960s. My friends were a little bit awed by her. I learned that a single mom scared the heck out of people…and that being a beautiful mom isn’t always pretty.

2. My mother wasn’t always happy as a suburban mom, struggling to balance the demands of her second husband, stepdaughter and a rebellious teenage son with her own desires to be creative and independent. When she tried to be superwoman, it didn’t always work – once she threw a party and was so exhausted that she passed out, face first, in her salad…like many parents of the time, she sometimes took refuge in drink. As a teenager, amid the turmoil I realized that, sadly, my mother wasn’t perfect, something we all figure out eventually. Somehow, her support meant even more once I understood this,  and I learned that it is possible to love someone in spite of their flaws.

3. After I left for college, my mom plunged into a new avocation spinning and weaving wool. Before long she was raising sheep and building a career as a fabric artist. I was amazed…my mother, the farmer and artist? Being a mother and a having a career isn’t easy, something that women still struggle with. She made a second career for herself in her late 50s, doing what she most wanted to do. As I pass that age, her lesson is more meaningful than ever.

We all learn from our mothers. I was lucky that mine was a good teacher.

You can read more about her and how our relationship changed in one dizzying year in Some Way Outa Here.

Elinor & Elaine, 2001

Photo: In 2001, my daughter Elinor and my mother explained her artwork at Elie’s school.

Remembering Daniel Berrigan

Daniel Berrigan was an American hero of the highest order. He put himself in harm’s way to stop the war machine that was destroying Southeast Asia and a generation of young Americans.

I learned about Berrigan from a teenage Catholic girl on a bus to Washington DC in November 1969. Her older brother had recently been killed, hideously, in Vietnam, and she was searching for ways to stop the war. She told me that when she met Berrigan, she learned that talking, complaining and yelling wouldn’t accomplish anything, that only taking action, at whatever personal cost, would change things. That was the life Daniel Berrigan was living.

Whether it was torching draft records with napalm or hammering a nuclear warhead into uselessness, Berrigan was willing to go to prison or disappear underground. He never stopped working for peace.

When I was faced with registering for the draft in the spring of 1970, it was Daniel Berrigan who inspired my decision. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. (The full story is in Some Way Outa Here.)

Three weeks before my 18th birthday, as I was agonizing over the decision, Berrigan made headlines for disappearing before he was due to start a prison sentence. His courage inspired me.

When he dramatically reappeared two months later. Here’s how the Times reported it:

Berrigan was convicted with eight other Christian resisters for destroying Selective Service records snatched two years ago from Local Board 33 at Catonsville, Md. But he failed to surrender for imprisonment on April 9.
Berrigan went underground instead, promising to surface at a Cornell peace weekend entitled “America Is Hard to Find,” which had been arranged to celebrate his departure for prison.
Movement people and the FBI suspected this bizarre turn was just one last fading act of protest. They were wrong. The holdout showed at the appointed time, gave a brief exhortation to the crowd of 10,000 assembled in the Cornell gym, and then slipped away when the lights went out. Since that appearance, Berrigan has been hard to find.
– The New York Times, June 28, 1970

Berrigan quote

An Ode to 64

Paul McCartney wrote “When I’m Sixty Four” when he was 16 years old. How did he know?

At age 63 and 364 days, I sang his song to Darcie.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me…?

“Yes,” she answered. It’s reassuring. When you’re almost 64, you do worry about this stuff. It’s just a year from Medicare age, right?

You’ll be older too…

We’re all time travelers – it’s just a question of how far we get. My father died at age 63, and my brother was crippled by a stroke at 63. So getting to 64 is something to celebrate in my family.

I can be handy mending a fuse, when your lights have gone…

We’re not exactly useless, after all. In fact, some of us still feel like we’re actually about 29, and can do even more than mend fuses. Take Sir Paul himself…rocking the world at a ripe old age. When he was 16, I don’t suppose he dreamed he’d be doing that.

One thing hasn’t changed. Young McCartney wrote the song because he hoped to write a Broadway musical. His band wanted nothing to do with the song, until they finally relented and sang it as a Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now, it’s a song that I could never get my band to play, because it’s too cute, and stodgy, and…it hits a little bit too close to home.

Give me your answer, fill in a form…mine forever more…will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

Even now, the Beatles are providing the soundtrack for our lives.

When I'm 64

The first Earth Day, 1970

The first Earth Day snuck up on America. Sure, we all knew about pollution – a year earlier a polluted river in Cleveland had burst into flames – but no one had ever tried to build an environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, we stumbled into a mass movement to save the earth.

For the first time, the magnitude of the situation was laid out clearly, in a way that even we high school students could understand. Pollution, overpopulation, looming shortages of food, water and energy – it was astonishing to realize what a mess we were making.

The brilliance of Earth Day was in applying the lessons of the civil rights and peace movements to environmental issues. There were teach-ins, demonstrations and political campaigns. It was up to us to bring the planet back into balance. Briefly, it was the most important thing on earth.

Briefly, because a week after Earth Day, the US invaded Cambodia and all hell broke loose. There were soon students dead in the streets, and even burning rivers seemed secondary. We lost sight of the lessons of Earth Day, and a backlash took hold. The seeming consensus evaporated, and we began to hear how questioning “progress” was un-American. It was years before the momentum was regained.

On that first Earth Day, there was no talk of global warming. Of all the grim scenarios we imagined, warming the planet sufficiently to melt the ice caps was beyond our imagination. We imagined freezing in the dark as our oil ran out, or choking on car exhaust. We didn’t know it was the invisible gasses that would threaten the planet, but we did learn that “progress” could be dangerous.

Looking back, Earth Day 1970 seems like a brief optimistic moment when we – our generation – felt we could fix things before it was too late. But since then the world has barreled down a road to an overheated, sea-drowned slow-motion apocalypse that now seems inevitable.

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

In Some Way Outa Here, I tell the story of Earth Day, 1970, and the impact it had on my suburban town.Earth Day 1970

Hair Wars

Would you go to war over your hair?
Some of us did. When we fought to stop the war in Vietnam and tried to overthrow “mainstream culture” in the process, hair became one of the battlegrounds.

The Beatles started it. Previously, boys had short hair and a “longhair” was a professor or a “classical music snob.” After the Beatles first appeared on TV on February 9th, 1964, long hair became a symbol – first among musicians, then among the rebels we called hippies, and then it became a symbol of rebellion, especially against the war.

Along the way, the symbol became an “issue.” Boys with long hair were called “fags” and “queers,” a curious proposition when most gays were trying desperately to blend into the mainstream. Adults often assumed that boys with long hair were drug users. (OK, some of us were, but hey, they were alcohol-users, right?)

Some of us fought screaming battles with our parents about who was in control. School dress codes were enforced with rulers and sometimes with scissors. You could be sent home – or to the barber in the case of a friend – if your hair touched your ear or your collar.

Girls’ hair wasn’t judged by length, but it was still a symbol. At a time when girls routinely rolled and twisted their hair into carefully concocted styles, long, straight hair was a symbol of rebellion. If it wasn’t naturally straight, it could be ironed to look “natural.”

When a play about the antiwar movement and the “counterculture” arrived on Broadway, it was called – what else? – “Hair.”

A camaraderie grew among longhairs. You felt you could trust someone who had long hair, especially if it was a little scraggly. It meant you had similar values, liked the same music, and spoke the same language. “Far out,” “right on,” and “outasite,” were good…but even your hair wouldn’t help you if you said “groovy.”

And then suddenly, as we turned the corner into the 1970s, everyone had long hair. At first, it seemed like we had won, and that peace and love would reign. Instead, the symbols of rebellion had become the new normal. The war wound down, and the sense of rebellion passed. Eventually, long hair became unremarkable, found most predictably on rock stars.

Hair is still a potent symbol of who we are. But it rarely starts fights or inspires revolutions any more.

You can read about my own hair wars – and how we won – in Some Way Outa Here.

Got any good hair stories of your own? Reply below!

beatles hair-songs

We all went to the moon…and back

When John Kennedy declared that America would send people to the moon, a grand drama began. It rolled out like a TV serial, in episodes that captivated the nation. We thought we knew the ending – but you couldn’t be sure.

When an American went into space – Alan Shepard, who happened to be my mother’s childhood playmate – the race to get to the moon before the Russians was on. Each adventure that followed was a little more ambitious: orbiting the earth, spaceships rendezvousing, the first spacewalk – Ed White was too awestruck to return to the capsule – and then, astonishingly, tragedy, as three astronauts were incinerated on the launch pad. This wasn’t a movie. And the Russians pressed on, relentlessly, with their own exploits.

But America didn’t stand still while NASA raced to the moon. At first, we were pretty innocent, seduced by visions of The Jetsons and afraid that the Russians would steal our future from us. By the time Apollo 11 was launched, the country had been transformed by the civil rights movement, rock and roll, and, most of all, the war in Vietnam. The war, which had raged for four years by 1969, changed our view of the world, and we began to focus more on our own planet than on getting to another one. Barry McGuire’s hit “Eve of Destruction” told us “you may leave the here for four days in space, but when you return it’s the same old place.”

Like most young Americans, I was bedazzled by the early space flights. Every time a new mission was launched, we watched it in school on small black and white TVs. We looked on breathlessly, counting orbits, until the astronauts splashed down. But as the flights became longer and more routine, I began to lose interest. NASA tried hard to keep our attention, staging live-from-space astronaut shows that culminated in the spectacular broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.

The lunar landing of July 1969, the fulfillment of Kennedy’s dream, rekindled the excitement for a brief moment. It wasn’t just America – the whole world was galvanized as Neil and Buzz moonwalked across our little screens. For me, it was bittersweet – I loved idea of exploring space, and I wanted desperately to float weightlessly, watching the earth below. But the “race” – beating the Russians – by now seemed silly, and I was having trouble justifying  such costly adventures while a war raged and earthlings went hungry.

The next moon landing came as hundreds of thousands of Americans converged on Washington DC for a massive demonstration against the war, and the astronauts were no longer in the headlines. Only the nail-biting drama of Apollo 13, a failed mission that became an unlikely triumph, recaptured our attention.

In the end, the most remarkable journeys ever taken – to the moon and back – were reduced to mere entertainment. When the drama ended the audience turned to another channel.

But the space program had a profound impact on those of us who grew up in the 1960s. It gave us a national goal that we believed in – for a while – and it very literally shaped our world view. The image of the whole earth from deep space taught our generation that we were all sharing the same small planet.

That’s where Some Way Outa Here begins.

earth moon Beatles

An interview about Some Way Outa Here

Last week author Mercedes Fox asked me to talk about writing and my new book, and here’s the interview, excerpted from her website.

If you use a pen name, why did you choose it?  My pen name is my real name. In real life, I go by another name.

I had a complicated family, and I ended up with my stepfather’s last name. But I was the last male in my father’s family, and we gave my children – all girls, it turned out – his last name. So when I started writing stories about growing up, it made sense to me to use the name I was born with, Mark Lauden.

Why do you write?  I can’t not write. It just happens. I do it in my work to explain things – technology, usually. I write about people because it’s the best way to understand them and share that understanding. I figured that out in high school when I started writing for an underground newspaper – it’s a story I tell in Some Way Outa Here.

Writing is also a zenlike thing. When you immerse yourself in a story or characters, you get lost in a world that can go any way you want it to go. It’s like being in control of a dream. I enjoy that.

What made you decide to sit down and actually start something? I’ve been telling stories about he events of the late 1960s for years, and recently someone pointed out to me that it’s now history, not just memories. But she felt that the events of that time have often been told poorly, misunderstood, and that it’s up to those of us who were there to tell what really happened. It turns out, the truth is a lot more interesting than the mythology of hippies and protesters. I think Some Way Outa Here will strike my contemporaries as true in some important ways, and I hope it sheds some light on a distant, mystical era for younger readers.

Which writers inspire you?  This varies day to day, but today I’m feeling in a Mark Twain mood. Huckleberry Finn is still the best American novel, and if I could write something like it my life would be complete. Homer’s Odyssey has inspired us all. – so many stories harken back to it. Kerouac’s On the Road inspired me to think about learning from the world, not just learning about the world. Robert Pirsig showed us how examine the world, philosophy and madness while riding a motorcycle across the country. You might notice a theme there, and it’s one that I try to explore in my own writing.

What one person from history would you like to meet and why? John Lennon. To thank him for everything. I wouldn’t mind if he’d play a tune or two with me, too.

If there was one thing you could do to change the world, what would it be?  I would make sure that every student learned two things really well: First, the beauty and importance of the scientific method, so that everyone would appreciate the disciplines of skepticism and proof. Second, the parable of The Tragedy of the Commons, which teaches a concept that may be central to the survival of humanity. For more on the latter, you can read about how I learned this in Some Way Outa Here.

What is one great lesson you have learned as a writer?  Writing things as they happened – journalism – rarely gets to the truth. If you want to tell the truth, write like a painter rather than a photographer. Find the essence of a person, place or concept and repaint it with colors and light that illuminate what’s important. Even in history or memoir, insight is more important than precision.

What do you think of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing?  I’ve done both, and while my first book, published by a big publisher, was financially successful, I had a lot more fun with my new self-published book, and I think it shows. It’s not a shortcut: I approach self-publishing as a challenge to make a book that’s better than a traditional publisher would make, in all ways – writing, editing and design.

How can readers discover more about you and you work?  As my first independent reviewer recommended: “Just read it.”

For the whole interview, check out Mercedes Fox’s site.
Mark Lauden interview

All Along the Watchtower

There must be some way outa here, cried the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.

I fell in love with “All Along the Watchtower” the first time I heard the John Wesley Harding album. (It’s still one of my favorite Dylan albums.) But like so many of us, it was Jimi Hendrix who made this into an indelible, central part of the our personal soundtracks.

It’s a strange song. It’s written backwards – the last line could easily be the first: two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl. The characters are looking for a way out at the beginning, but it seems like it should be the end.

A few months after Dylan released the song, Hendrix tried it out. The result was a thunderous, electrifying guitar explosion that fulfilled the song’s apocalyptic potential. Instead of Dylan’s storyteller vocal, Hendrix sings it like he’s out there on the watchtower when the wind begins to howl, a desperate watchman at the rampart. The rhythm guitars (Dave Mason is playing a 12-string acoustic) turn Dylan’s simple strum into a slapped, crackling force, like timbers snapping. And the topping is Hendrix’ astonishing guitar lead, personifying the howling wind.

Dylan says this is the best cover version of any of his songs. Some people say this is the best cover version of any rock song. I’ll buy that.

But it’s that first line that drew me in, from the first hearing. “There must be some way outa here.” (Actually, Jimi turns it into “there must be some kinda way outa here.” It works.) It’s the vision of being on the rampart in the middle of nowhere, with wildcats prowling, riders approaching, and the wind blowing hard…there must be some way out. Who hasn’t been there?

I was there, on my own private watchtower, a teenager desperate to find something else, someplace else. Perhaps that’s why Watchtower was one of the first songs I learned on guitar…I needed to sing it. Still do. Whenever the wind begins to howl.

The passage of years helped me understand that in 1969-70, this was what I needed, a way out of a time when nothing made sense, and a place that was oblivious to the madness. Suburban life in the late 1960s had the feeling of a place you would stumble on if you fell down a rabbit hole, where nothing was quite real, and you wanted to find the way out, back into the sunshine. I knew it at the time, but I couldn’t articulate it.

Dylan’s words and Jimi’s anguished voice and thrashing guitar said it best.

Is there a song lyric that would sum up your formative years?


Why did you write Some Way Outa Here?

I’m asked…why did you write your book?

Good question. It’s a less polite way of asking: What makes you think anyone is interested in what happened to you almost 50 years ago?

Once I got the idea for this book, I had to write it. Once I started, it was as if it was writing itself. My recollections of a twelve month period, long ago, somehow snapped together like a puzzle, and I could see them as a whole that was much more interesting than the individual parts.

I saw the connections between people and events; I saw how friends and relatives were all part of a web of interconnections, all influencing each other.

The time, the place, and the people had come into focus.

What made the story most worth telling was the time itself. So many amazing weird and outrageous things happened that year, and I wanted to explain them to people. For my friends who were there, I found that reviving memories by telling my story helped them remember their own stories. And I found that younger people were astonished and amused by the slightly unhinged world we grew up in.

So there are two answers to the question…

I wrote Some Way Outa Here as a way to understand what had happened and how it led us to where we are now.


I think it’s a pretty good story, and a good story is always worth telling.

Mark Lauden's memoir

The galleys arrive…

Today the galley copies of Some Way Outa Here arrived. These are actual books that I’ll use to proofread and double-check for errors. Also, a few will go out to reviewers. It’s pretty cool to hold a book in your hand after so much work on a computer.

Full speed ahead!

My book, Some Way Outa Here is in the last phases of editing, and should be available soon. It’s been a long, strange trip, as they used to say.

I started writing the book in the summer of 2014, got off to a rapid start, and kept at it even while the demands of my day job increased. Herein lies the secret to writing: I wanted to see what happened next. That may seem like a strange thing to say about a memoirish book. But I found my own story suspenseful, for two reasons.

First, there are holes in my memory (has anyone else experienced this?) that have to be filled to tell a story. Filling the holes has to be done faithfully to the story and the characters – especially when the characters are real people. So figuring out what people said and did (or would have said and did) is a constant act of discovery.

I was delighted to discover that the process of writing about long-forgotten events seems to uncover them: The more I wrote, the more I remembered. Sometimes memories resurfaced as I wrote, a sort of “just in time” experience. It was exciting, and I often got lost in the thrill of rediscovery.

Second, I had to discover how the story ended, just like a reader. Sure, I knew what the actual events were going to be – I lived them. But I was searching for the bows and ribbons that tied everything together and gave it all meaning. I had to learn how the various events of a year were connected. I talked to people I hadn’t seen in decades, and the threads began to connect. That’s the exciting thing about writing a story: weaving the threads together so that in the end, they add up to something important.

So when I got to the end, I was as excited as any reader would be to see how it all came together. I wasn’t disappointed. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

What’s in a name?

Every blog starts somewhere, and this one starts here.

Who am I? That’s a fair question, since even those of you who know me might be a little confused.

I was born as Mark Alexis Lauden. If you read my new book, Some Way Outta Here, you’ll understand.

My parents changed my name when my mother remarried. Why? Back then (I was 11), divorce was something you didn’t want to talk about. It was a lot easier if everyone in a family had the same name. So I went along willingly, giving little thought to the implications of losing my family name. (I did keep it as my middle name, and used it.)

What implications? Our names are part of who we are, right? They define us. So I was redefined. It was OK at the time, and even when my “adopted” name felt odd, I got used to it.

But when my children were born, I gave them my family name: Lauden. It was a tribute to my father, and a small act of rebellion. It was also very ironic: we were a mulitiple last name family. And since my wife kept her last name, we were a three last name family.

When I wrote a book about growing up, it seemed natural to write it under my born-as name. Glad I did. Sorry for any confusion, but I’m comfortable with it.

Yours truly,

Mark Lauden

PS: “What’s in a Name (book version)” will follow. How and why did I name Some Way Outa Here?