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!

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.

The Women’s March opens a new era of resistance

San Francisco Women's March

Yesterday millions of people marched to declare “we’re not gonna take it!” It was an outpouring rarely seen in the US and across the world. Led by women outraged by the new president’s misogyny, racism and habitual dishonesty, huge crowds filled streets in cities and towns to say “no” to Trump. It was the birth of resistance to his administration.

There was an air of disbelief that, the day before, Donald Trump had become President. His blustery inaugural address, a dark statement of a country rotting and beset by “carnage,” was nightmarish. But it was a nightmare from which there was no awakening: the next day, he was bragging and lying at the headquarters of the CIA, a dark cartoonish thug who won’t go away.

Against this backdrop, I took to the streets in San Francisco, along with tens of thousands of my closest friends. Under threatening skies, our Women’s March filled United Nations Plaza – the birthplace of an organization that Trump derided as “a club for people to get together and have a good time.” It was a fitting spot. The crowd displayed a sense of unity and optimism that was rare for any demonstration, much less one under such grim circumstances.

The march was filled with women of all ages and colors, many wearing pink knitted pussy hats in defiance of the pussy-grabbing president. The signs and speeches proclaimed that all issues – health care, immigrant rights, climate change, racism and especially economic justice – are women’s issues, and that women’s issues are everyone’s issues.

Perhaps a quarter of the crowd were men, supporting the women while expressing their own determination to resist. The ease with which the men supported their female friends and relatives was remarkable, the fulfillment of a dream of early feminists: Now, we are all feminists.

The march in Washington was possibly the largest ever held. I attended the previous record holder – the November 1969 march for peace in Vietnam. It was a central, formative event in my life (you can read about my experience there in Some Way Outa Here), but yesterday’s events were very different is some important ways.

In 1969, the grotesque Vietnam war had been raging for four years. We went to Washington full of fury and desperation. On that frigid day, 600,000 people filled the streets chanting, shouting, jeering at a president and congress who were oblivious. The huge crowd showed that the antiwar movement was real and a force to be reckoned with, even as Nixon declared that a “silent majority” supported him. We were mostly peaceful, but the unifying theme was anger.

Yesterday’s march was utterly different. Instead of a long-simmering movement finding itself, as in 1969, this was a new one being born. Young people were discovering that they had much in common with older demonstrators, many of whom were veterans of previous movements. There was a sense that the many issues of the day were urgent and inseparable – this was no one-issue movement. There was a newfound outrage that our country has been seized by an unstable man who was foisted on us by a foreign autocrat, and who lost the popular vote to an unfairly vilified woman. Most of all, there was a fierce sense of commitment to resisting whatever atrocities lie ahead.

The 1969 march was a response to atrocities past, still being committed daily. The Women’s March was a statement that there is a vast movement ready to take on a president who seems hell-bent on committing new atrocities. All were agreed: grim events lie ahead, but we are ready to resist, and to someday sweep these people from power.


The 1969 March on Washington was a pivotal moment in American history. The peace movement went mainstream, no longer a fringe. It changed the lives of millions of Americans, myself included. You can read about the personal drama of that weekend in Some Way Outa Here.

The Unforgettable Image

Ieshia Evans
I can’t get this picture out of my mind.

It was in Baton Rouge, after the death of Alton Sterling at the hands of police, and the killing of five officers in Dallas.

The woman is Ieshia Evans, a nurse from Pennsylvania who traveled to Louisiana to stand up – literally, it turns out – against police attacks on black people. (The photographer is Jonathan Bachman.) The image is surreal, a frozen moment. Evans has been characterized as a superhero, as the statue of liberty, and the small crack in the street between her and the police has been likened to the opening chasm that divides us.

Such is the power of an image.

Images have made Black Lives Matter possible. Shamefully, they didn’t seem to matter so much until cell phones began recording the deaths of people like Sterling. Finally, the deniability that protected racist police evaporated. The world could see and remember the images of people dying…and of people standing against injustice.

Pictures have the power to reframe the world. It happens all the time.

In the 1960s, the onslaught of gripping images, published by news magazines and newspapers, helped drive the Civil Rghts movement, with images of Southern lynchings, demonstrators being attacked with water cannons and dogs, and the iconic March on Washington in 1963. The pictures of brutality shocked us, but the images of courage, like that of Ieshia Evans, gripped us and wouldn’t let go.

Consider one of the iconic images from the 1968: Olympics – the award ceremony for John Carlos and Tommie Smith:
Smith Carlos 1968

The Civil Rights movement was transitioning to the Black Power movement. The demand for “power,” not just “rights,” made a lot of white people uncomfortable. Carlos and Smith had the gall to bring the movement to the Olympic podium, and the nation was shocked. This photo had an impact that is hard to imagine now – horrifying many, inspiring others. It captured the fears and hopes of the country in a single frame.

Vietnam brought a deluge of unforgettable images. Three are so memorable that most people recognize them, even now: The photo of a young girl, naked, fleeing a napalm attack; bodies stacked at My Lai, massacred by American soldiers, and a young woman bending over a student at Kent State, blood streaming onto the pavement. Each told the story that had to be told. No words were needed.

Another heroic image gripped the world in 1989. The world was in turmoil as Communist countries began to collapse. It seemed that China would be next, as demonstrators converged on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. When the army responded, a single man challenged the Chinese army, stood his ground, and stopped a row of tanks in its tracks. One person, armed only with unfathomable courage.
1989-Tank-man

Images like this tell stories that can change how we see the world. They can change how we think and what we do. They make us question what we assumed to be true, and they can give us courage to act in ways we didn’t know we could act.

As a teenager, the act of John Carlos and Tommie Smith not only gave me new respect for the Black Power movement – they inspired me to similar actions (documented in Some Way Outa Here). Likewise, the photos from Vietnam and Kent State spoke to every American, and drove many of us to action, fueling the antiwar movement.

Of course, pictures never tell the whole story. How many people know what happened to Peter Norman, the Australian on the podium with Carlos and Smith? The silver medal winner, Norman wore a Black Power patch on his uniform in support of the Americans, for which the Australian sports federation banned him from competition for life. It’s easy to forget that the brief victory of Tank Man was followed by the massacre at Tiananmen Square that ended the reform movement. And a few days after Ieshia Evans confronted (and was arrested by) Baton Rouge police, several officers were killed by a gunman who sought to avenge Alton Sterling’s death.

History is never simple.

But now we all carry cameras with us. All the time. Everyone has the power to record events, to report (or even make) news, and to change how we see the world. To change our minds. And our hearts.

You have a powerful tool in your pocket. Use it well.

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?

Oops.


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

bomb

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

High School Heroes, Villains and a Speech to Remember

Abington High School 1970

The Abington High School graduation ceremony of 1970 was a tumultuous affair, marked by protests and conflict. (You can read about it in my book Some Way Outa Here.) It was an amazing day, summing up the triumphs and tragedies not just of high school, but of a generation that was entangled in battles far beyond the school’s doors.

At the 1970 graduation ceremony, rebellion was in the air. College students had been gunned down by soldiers, weeks earlier, and the Vietnam draft hung over the heads of graduating seniors.

One memorable speech by a remarkable educator, Allan Glatthorn, bears rehearing. We didn’t know it, but it was his farewell to the school.

Abington was then a 4000-student high school, split into two separately administered buildings. It was bigger than many colleges. Some students flourished in pockets of inspiration, while others became lost or disillusioned amid an assembly line education. There were some amazing teachers, some who were less stellar, and even an English teacher named Bill Gavin, who left the school to craft some of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew’s most divisive, hateful speeches.

Like any other school, Abington had teachers and administrators who inspired students, and others who earned their wholehearted contempt. Principal Dr. Glatthorn led Abington to public notice in the 1960s by developing an innovative independent study-based curriculum for the ninth and tenth grades. After that, his efforts to build a more progressive public high school were undermined by conservative administrators and school board, but he fought the good fight at Abington.

Here is his speech, in its entirety:

Address to Graduating Students and Guests , Dr. Allen A. Glatthorn,  June 14, 1970

I say goodbye to you, the class of 1970, with sadness—sadness because I shall miss the zest you brought to our school—and sadness because you enter a world torn by violence from both the left and the right.

For these are strange days, when men commit the vilest deeds for the noblest purposes.

They lie for the sake of truth, practice tyranny in the name of democracy, and wage war in the name of peace.

And the greatest danger in our society today is from all those who commit evil in the name of good.

While man can always find good reasons for the evil he does, the harmful act is no less painful because it was done for our supposed good.

So I call upon you today, not so much to dedicate yourselves to noble causes but instead to commit the good act.

Seek not to commit injustice in the name of justice, nor to repress dissent in the name of freedom. Neither commit violence for the sake of peace, nor hate in the name of love.

And reject the flamboyant gesture.

But choose instead the simple virtues that will surely draw us together—kindness, gentleness, tolerance, and love.

So go in peace, with love in your hearts.

A sick world waits for your healing touch.

His speech was delivered amidst flamboyant gestures – students, myself included, used the occasion to protest the war and the military draft that would soon claim the lives of some of our classmates. It was loud and briefly colorful, but Dr. Glatthorn provided a somber note.

Not long after our graduation, Dr. Glatthorn was forced out.

To his credit, he began work that led to the founding of an alternative high school. It featured a level of academic freedom and opportunity that was unknown at Abington. The school, Alternative East, fulfilled the vision of a group of students working through the Suburban Action Center in 1969-70. (More on this, too, in Some Way Outa Here.)

Dr. Glatthorn’s commencement address is still relevant today. There are still hypocrites and charlatans out there, and a demagogue who seeks to lead the country into the abyss. We would do well to keep Glatthorn’s words in mind.

* * *

I discovered a copy of Glatthorn’s speech after I finished my book about that year, Some Way Outa Here – too late to include. But The book recounts two memorable speeches by students that were also profoundly moving, and worth remembering.

I would be delighted to hear from others who remember that day.

Abington High School 1970

Bernie Isn’t Going Away

Bernie Sanders has sharp elbows. I know – I used to play basketball with him in Vermont. He’s a tough opponent who never, ever gives up.

Sharp elbows are even more useful in politics than in basketball, and Bernie has used them, gently, on Hillary Clinton. As it becomes clear that he will probably not be the nominee, he shows no signs of letting up. Don’t expect him to.

In Vermont in the 1970s, Bernie was a perennial candidate for state office – he ran for governor, the Senate and Congress before (barely) being elected mayor of Burlington. His persistence was remarkable, not just because he never gave up, but because his message was heartfelt and consistent: He was determined to change an economy and government that served the wealthy. He is still running on the same platform, and the events of the last thirty years have proven his critique to be pretty much right on target.

In the 1970s, Bernie Sanders’ name could have been the punchline in a Vermont joke: who will be running for president in 2016? Bernie…ha! Well, the joke’s on us.

I don’t think Bernie expected to win the presidency this year. But I also don’t think he expects to lose, even now. For Bernie, winning is about changing minds, about reframing the debate, about opening the door to the kind of change he believes in so strongly. Sometimes leaders don’t get to walk through the doors they open, but if we can build a more fair and democratic country in the next ten or twenty years, we’ll owe a debt of gratitude to Bernie Sanders’ persistence.

Bernie has already won. Now it’s up to all of us to push the door the rest of the way open, push Hillary Clinton through it, and demand real change.

Sharpen your elbows.

Bernie Sanders governor