Written by: Matt Wardlaw
As someone with a passion for both music and writing, I really look up to the legendary members of the old guard that really paved the way for what is being done in their respective fields today. On the radio side of things, I'm talking about guys like Rick Dees (now on Twitter @RickDees) and when it comes to print, Joel Selvin is definitely someone that I've enjoyed reading for quite a while, thanks to the availability of his music writings via the internet. Retired after a nearly 40 year run at the San Francisco Chronicle, Selvin is making headlines on his own thanks to two recently published books. Smart Ass came out late last year, collecting the best of Selvin's writing through the years for the Chronicle, MOJO and other outlets. From the Beach Boys to the Grateful Dead, Smart Ass is a treasure chest of history and required reading for music geeks.
More recently, Selvin is in the spotlight as the co-author who helped Sammy Hagar finally put his story on paper with his new autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. I enjoyed the chance to converse with Joel about his role in putting the book together for an interview that ran in two parts on the Riverfront Times music blog. Quite a bit of the conversation ended up on the cutting room floor, so I'm happy to share the rest of it with you here.
Let's talk about some stuff specific to your time covering music in San Francisco – this first question is Sammy related. Going back a little bit, music fans were excited about the prospects when Sammy reunited with Neal Schon, Michael Anthony and later, Joe Satriani for the Planet US project. What was the scene like there on the home turf when that project fell apart?
I don't think it's even mentioned in the book – I think it didn't even flip through Sammy's mind while he was dealing with it. I believe that the band lasted for two numbers during a Bay Area Music Awards – that was the extent of their career, that and some rehearsals.
Right. I know that some fans though are curious as to what the current state of relations is between Sammy and Neal and what the prospects might be for them working together again on another project.
You know, Neal and [Jonathan] Cain worked really hard at getting that Journey thing back together and you have no idea how much they gave up to unnamed parties in order to do that. So I would imagine that you're not going to see Neal involved in anything except informally other than Journey for some time to come. They've got a new album, he's pumped up about it. I saw Neal just a couple of months ago at [former Santana band member] Michael Carabello's wedding. And he looks good and seems to be in full vigorous health, in good shape and not all depressed and pissed off like he was during the years when he couldn't be Journey. He was a miserable son of a bitch, because he wanted to be in Journey and they couldn't – they didn't have enough ownership of their own goddamn band to go out on the road.
Which is crazy.
Oh, and frustrating and infuriating. I used to see Neal around a lot in those days because they weren't on tour all of the time, so he was out in the nightclubs and stuff and he was always sort of semi-pissed off.
What was the reaction like locally when Journey went outside of the United States to hire their latest vocalist Arnel Pineda?
You know, the idea that there's a new Journey up and running, I think has sort of been lost on the Bay Area music scene, whatever there is of it left. Without a Herbie Herbert behind it, managed out of Irving Azoff's office, putting records out in big store units, I don't think there's any sense around town that Journey is a local band anymore. They don't even all live here – doesn't Cain live in Nashville now? They don't do any gigs around here – it's not like they're singing anthems at the ballpark anymore. The San Francisco music scene, what little there is left, you have to be present to win – that's how you get to be a member, you take part in the community events. And we still see Mickey and Bob and Phil around at those things all of the time, even if they're not getting along – they'll show up at the benefits. They do the local gigs in the clubs and make it clear that they're part of the community in which they live. We haven't seen Journey here since they did a benefit gig in 1993 at Bimbo's – I can't remember the name of the singer, Steve Augeri, is that right? [We did some research and found that it was actually Chicago-based singer and Journey associate Kevin Chalfant, who made a couple of appearances with the post-Perry group prior to the hiring of Augeri much later]. He's a dead ringer for Perry, dead ringer! They played the benefit at Bimbo's and I think that was the last time I laid eyes on Journey in anything other than a major concert venue where they could have been anyone.
So they do play some of the big venues still in San Francisco?
Whenever they're on tour, they hit either Concord or Shoreline, the sheds. What's the shed outside St. Louis, there's one in the suburbs somewhere, right?
Oh yeah, it's the Verizon Wireless, formerly Riverport back in the day.
Of all of the loathsome intrusions of corporate culture on our life, that public facility naming thing pisses me off more than anybody. It used to be like you had to lay down your life for the country to get a building named after you. Now, Grandpa is forgotten, “yeah, I know your grandpa died in the war, but shit, Verizon just put up 50 grand!” [Laughs]
Your recent book collects nearly 40 years of writing for the Chronicle and it really strikes me that the bands that were in your backyard, the bands that we've talked about, were a little bit more high profile than most cities. Besides the Sammy story that we opened up the interview with, what's another favorite reaction by a local artist to something that you wrote?
Oh, there's so many good ones. Because we're all in the same playground together, right? Sooner or later we all show up at the same nightclub or the same dinner party or something over the 40 years I've been doing this. Everybody's made their peace or not with me. Don't ask Carlos! I remember the Summer of Love which I think was kind of the introduction outside the newspaper world for my kind of dark style, downbeat narratives [laughs]. Whatever it is, no happy endings! I remember Robert Hunter sent me a letter saying it was the first time he'd recognized the Janis Joplin he knew. I remember Country Joe telling me “man, I'm glad I didn't do any of that stupid stuff!” There've often been good ones, but my favorite of all is on the back of Smart Ass, Sam Andrew from Big Brother [ & Holding Company] introduced me to some friends of his and said “Joel's the Mickey Spillane of rock journalism.” That was it, that was all I wanted to be [laughs]!
You wrapped up your official career at the Chronicle in 2009 having lasted long enough to endure quite a few things including a couple of newspaper strikes. As someone that continues to be a journalist, what's your viewpoint of journalism and print media here in the present? Where's it all going from here?
Well, you know the whole culture is migrating to the internet. We're seeing that more everyday. And the future, the internet is so fluid, we really can't see much beyond the next app or two. Something like Flash comes and suddenly the internet's filled with videos, right? So we don't know what the next innovation is and innovation is definitely in the air. Newspapers, radio and here comes television, because now all of the TVs are internet ready. Broadcast TV is dead and cable TV is not feeling well [laughs]. Guys like you and me that spent our lives depending on a printed outlet for our writing, I'm not sure what to say about that. But you know, the internet has done a lot of good things for rock criticism – it's really opened up the dialogue between the so-called critical elite and the audience that they're addressing. It's democratized the voicing. I always wanted to be part of this conversation and I really wanted to work at a daily newspaper, but I never saw myself as the final arbiter on any of these topics, right? I just wanted to lead the conversation from my post at the Chronicle. And the more the conversation gets involved, the better my ends are served.
In the days that people had to write a postcard to tell you to drop dead, it was a lot less dialogue, you were a lot less in touch with your audience and the conversation was much more one-sided. Once the internet started and the email thing and the comment page and all of this kind of interactivity and interrelatedness started being part of the communication, it became a much more exciting and engrossing event for both sides. When MP3s showed up, man, I got MP3s right away. Now, I'm a very unlikely person to embrace technological advances – I carry a fountain pen and I have a 40 year old convertible. I am an old school guy and everybody doesn't have to know me long before they know that, but I love technology. And when I got an MP3 [player], I figured it out right away.
For a while there, I was doing articles based on my ability to secure and clear an MP3 associated with the article, just because I could post it on the Chronicle's website and send you, from the pages of the Chronicle to get one for your little iPod and it was like reaching through the pages and going “here, listen to this!” I mean, I've always wanted to do that! “No, no, listen to this yourself, check this out!” All of us in our racket, that's our number one thing. We don't want to go pee on the big bands that suck – we want to turn people onto things that we like and that's how we got where we are, right? That's the native impulse of the critic. So MP3s, it was like an unimaginable dream come true, like wow, I can just give them the Sal Valentino record, they can listen to it for themselves!
That's a really good point because it really does allow you to have a written conversation with your readers that is just like having them at your house saying...
“Yeah, let me put this on!”
You walk over and you put it on.
Oh yeah, and I also know that I put this Sal Valentino MP3 up on the web. You, my reader, you go out and you download it, you listen to it. You put it on your iPod and you go “wow, pretty cool.” And then like five days later, it comes up again on your iPod. Bingo! Not only “wow, pretty cool,” but you're now connected to the Chronicle and their pop music department. It's going to come up for you every time – we're embedding ourselves even more in your life like “wow, they gave me this MP3 that I wouldn't have known about otherwise, cool!” [laughs].
We couldn't do that with the newspaper articles! People would clip them out and sometimes they would clip them out and send them to people, look at this and scrawl on them, “this asshole doesn't know what he's talking about!” The advance of technology, social networking and the prospects of passing this stuff around, it just really opens up our ability to communicate with each other. And that's really at the core of what we're talking about. And another thing about me personally is that in my development, I was always in the newspaper business – I never went into the underground newspaper business racket too much, I was always in the daily newspaper. I dropped out of Berkeley High, 17 years old and went to work as a copy boy. So, I always saw all of this hip culture that I was a part of as exciting and interesting, but from the vantage point of this old time newspaper world where I really identified with sports writing.
You know, I heard you speak on that a little bit on one of your radio shows and I was really interested to hear that was where you found the perspective that you ultimately would apply to your writing style.
Well, the underground rock critics of the time were interesting to me, the Greil Marcuses and Jon Landaus and I certainly read them. We shared an avid interest in the topic and I was enthusiastically seeking all viewpoints. But I deplored the conversational style of the writing, the colloquial nature of it. I really felt like that there were tenants of old-fashioned daily journalism that merited being included in this discussion. So that's where I was coming from, I was an old time newspaper guy covering a new time beat. So I ended up being the tail end of the old guard! [Laughs]
You talked about the critics in your audience but you also had your own critics among the critics that were in your same field. When you consider the way that Sammy Hagar engaged you from the stage for your bad review, did you ever engage your fellow colleagues similarly when they took aim at you with the Selvin Watch column, for example?
Oh, Wyman [journalist Bill Wyman]! Selvin Watch was great and Wyman calls me up one day and leaves a message on my machine and says “I hear you and Dave Marsh are having a fight.” So I called him back, which just blew his mind, like why is he calling me back? This guy is riding me every week in the fuckin' newspaper. I got him on the phone and I said “well, you called to ask a couple of questions, you know?” First, he wants to know about Dave Marsh and I said “yes, we're having a fight, but that's not personal, this is just business. Dave was my friend before and he'll be my friend after.” “Oh.” So that sort of destroys his big hot story, but then we got into the Selvin Watch thing and I said “look, from my point of view, you're working trying to make me famous and back in the inner recesses of my heart somewhere, I'm flattered. And that was it for Selvin Watch, that was the last fuckin' Selvin Watch column.
It took all of the fun out of it for him – we started...we went out to dinner, we went to shows together [laughs]. But I was just me to the guy, right? First of all, anybody calls me asking a question, I'm going to give them the fuckin' answer. They don't have to say Selvin wouldn't comment, Selvin will comment! And if you ask, that makes you a fair and decent reporter and you deserve my help, just as all of the ones that I called, I wanted to help. Live in glass houses, don't throw stones – somebody calls and asks me a question, I'll give them the answer. Second of all, I think he read me as being a little more pompo pretentieux than I turn out to be, so now what do you do with that guy? And he's telling you that he's flattered that you're riding his ass about it? Deep in the inner recesses, I remember saying that!
During that time, I was working on this Sly Stone book and I was trying to get a hold of this ghetto guy that had been very involved in Sly's life. I finally got him on the phone and we talked and then he calls back and he says “hey, I saw your name on the cover of this magazine.” And I said “yeah, yeah, yeah.” “They don't like you much!” And I go, “fuck them!” And he goes “well, it sounds pretty good to me!” And I was like alright, this guy's making me sound like a bad guy! So Hamp [Hamp “Bubba” Banks, bodyguard for Sly Stone in the '70s] thinks I'm alright! [Laughs]more