The pace of progress on Street Song has picked up substantially, due largely to preparatory work I completed a few years ago. I’ve finished Chapter 18 now and am starting work on Chapter 19, which looks to be another easy one. It starts to get complicated again in Chapter 20, but my years of spending months and months on a single chapter are over. I don’t intend to start posting the news about every chapter I finish. It’s just that I’m feeling relief over the progress I’m making and want to share it. As I may have said here once before, the only thing I’ve ever done that was more difficult than writing this book was living out the events that the book depicts.
This is a essentially an expansion of my last Progress Report.
I’m ten and a half years now into my memoir, Street Song. It’s been ten and a half years of constant work, so obviously it’s been a difficult project. Why take so many years out of one’s life to talk about the past? That’s something I’m still trying to come to grips with. It’s been some comfort to know that there are people eager to read the book. What I want to do here is to explain at some length what I’m trying to do and where I am in the process.
What am I trying to do? The book began with an image I had of myself sitting on the porch of an SRO hotel in North Beach watching people pass by me. I’d had that image for several years before I started work. When I finally started writing, the book went elsewhere, which has always struck me as peculiar. But books write themselves. If you struggle to take it in a direction that your conscious mind prefers, all you encounter is endless conflict. I’d been trying to keep the finished manuscript at around 350 pages, but I see now that it’s going to be longer. I understand why. I was born into a very conventional family in middle America, but I’ve ended up—philosophically, spiritually, intellectually, psychologically, whatever word you want to use—far, far from there. The book traces the nuances of that development. Nothing I say about anything will be understandable or believable unless I show the twists and turns. It’s not that I’ve arrived at some quirky individual mindset that I think might make entertaining reading. I write because, while traveling a highly unusual path, I discovered some fundamental realities that are universally true and have been either forgotten or consciously dismissed by the modern world. They are not my ideas. I believe that if we don’t get back to them we are doomed.
Where am I in the process? I had to do a lot of research before I could even begin writing. I’ve seldom kept any kind of journal, so I had to piece together my past. It was laborious. The research continues to this day—although there is much less to do. When I finally started on the manuscript, I wrote a quick, moderately long first draft. The second draft was nearly 1,000 pages, which I knew was much more than I would ever use. My approach was inspired by the Chinese sage Lao-tse: “If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.” So now I’m on the third and final draft. I have an outline that calls for 48 chapters—although that could get cut down as I move through the manuscript. I’ve completed the first 14 chapters, which I call Section One and regard as the foundation for the rest of the book. It took a long time to find the right balance and compression to build that foundation. I’ve finished Chapter 15, the beginning of “the rest of the book,” and, as I hoped, the writing has sped up considerably. I’m able to bring my Draft Two material straight across and focus on editing it down to a reasonable length. That wasn’t possible with the first fourteen chapters. I’m optimistic that I can go on a roll now. I need to get this book off my plate.
I’ve been making good progress. I just finished what I call Section 1, consisting of chapters 1 through 14. That’s between a quarter and a third of the last draft. But I have too much book in this first section. What I intend to do next is read through it and spend some time cutting, compressing, and removing any repetitions that have worked themselves in. Then I move on to chapter 15. The pace is picking up because I’ve reached a point, working from the previous draft, where I’d finally evolved a method that allows me to do more editing now, instead of rewriting. A subtle difference, but an important one. I still have another year to go, but I can see the light.
Sorry to put this up here with so little notice, but I’m reading from Street Song tomorrow, September 8, at the Presidio Officers Club starting at 6 PM. The event is free, but you have to reserve a seat. You can find all the information you need right here.
My goal as a youth to make it as a singer-songwriter is a major thread in my work-in-progress, Street Song. You can’t really describe music with words, and, as I’ve worked on the book, it has occurred to me that most readers will be curious to know what I sounded like. I haven’t played seriously in over 40 years, but have never stopped entirely. I’ve decided to make a small demo-type recording of six songs which I’ll make available one way or another to readers of the book. All the songs I’m recording are referred to in the text. Three of them are songs that I wrote. One of the most vital songs in Street Song is “Highway,” by the singer-songwriter Lane Tietgen. I first heard “Highway” in 1972 on an album called Crazed Hipsters by Finnigan and Wood. Lane was not a member of that band, but had been in a band called The Serfs with Finnigan and Wood’s lead singer, Mike Finnigan. You can hear the Crazed Hipsters version here.
In the 60s and 70s, songs fulfilled the same function as poetry had in other eras. Religion, too! Certain songs changed the way people looked at the world. “Highway” did that for me. Several years ago, seeking permission to quote the lyrics in my book, I spent some time tracking down Lane Tietgen. I finally found him in nearby Sonoma, and he kindly gave me permission. When I decided to make this recording I knew “Highway” had to be one of the songs I recorded. So I sent him another email asking if it was okay for me to record it. He said I could, but he wanted to know if I was certain that I was playing the correct chords. I’d never learned it back in the days I was performing because it sounded like the type of song you needed a band to play, and I was a solo artist. Although I’d started learning the song, I hadn’t put a great deal of work into it yet, and I was unsure about a few of the chords. So Lane suggested that I come up to his place so he could teach me the correct chords. I was quite taken aback—pleased as could be. Judy and I recently drove up to Eureka in Northern California, and along the way we stopped for my “Highway” lesson. Thank you, Lane.
Not many people know his work, which is a pity. I have a two-part piece here on my blog called “The Magnificent Return of Lane Tietgen” which I suggest you all read. He continues to be one of the few practitioners of the singer-songwriter genre who, in my opinion, is still really doing it. The best of that genre was about the exploration of the human heart, not neurotic complaints or political posturing. Lane has stayed with his heart.
The pace has been picking up some as my working methods for my work in progress, Street Song, have become more clear. It’s been ten years now, so some clarity ought to be expected! I have completed 13 chapters (chapters 1-11 as well as two other chapters from later in the manuscript) out of 48 chapters projected. The first seven chapters took a long time to get straight, but the channel was dug in those first seven chapter, and the water is flowing in the desired direction. I just finished my second pass through Chapter 12 and will do one, maybe two more before heading on to Chapter 13. Overall, I’m on the third and final draft of the entire book. I project another year of work and then I should be finished. Somebody asked me if I would have started this project if I’d known how hard it would be and how long it would take. I couldn’t answer. Probably yes, but I couldn’t swear to it.
The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.
For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.
When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.
If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.
My teenage years were the 1960s, a tremendously idealistic time. It was quite clear then that war was wrong, racism was wrong, chasing money was wrong, not loving was wrong. But I was always having to listen to older people assure me that someday I’d get real and grow up. I never knew how to respond to that. I didn’t have enough life experience to understand where they were coming from. Now we’re in a time where you have a candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, arousing the idealism of the young, and the young are responding. And you have another set of people denigrating their idealism and telling them to grow up. And this time the denigrators are people my age. I understand who they are, what they are saying, and why they’re saying it. They are not the people of my generation who grew up; they’re the ones who got old.
We live in a particularly materialistic era of a particularly materialistic civilization. A lot of us tend to see ideals as having no real foundation, that they’re just “brain activity” in a fundamentally meaningless universe. But the essence of existence is not material. What it is is beyond language, although we’ve come up with words for it — “spiritual” being one of them, one that has gotten tired from misuse. There is a set of universal ideals that grow out of that essence. Most of them are obvious, but not all. You don’t need to cultivate them for them to exist. They are inherent within us when we are born. In many of us, as we get older, as we compromise ourselves over and over again, those ideals grow dull and remote. Many of us eventually turn against them. We don’t believe in them anymore. And then we call it growing up. But real growing up is something else entirely: It’s understanding how difficult it is to bring our ideals into our practical lives and the patience we need to accomplish that. We can’t ever abandon those ideals. The farther we get from them, the older and grayer and more meaningless our everyday life feels. I’m not really interested in what a lot of folks call pragmatism. To me, it looks more like death.
Hello? Hello? Anybody here?
I know I’ve been neglecting this blog. It’s been difficult getting to it, again, because of my book, Street Song. Anytime I have the energy to write, I always feel I should be putting it into the book. At the same time, I don’t want to abandon this blog. I started it up because there wasn’t anybody saying what I wanted to hear said, which is still true.
As for the book, I’m almost finished with chapter 10, and I have two chapters much later in the manuscript completed as well, for a total of 12 finished chapters. I have 48 chapters outlined, which makes me a quarter of the way through the book. (This is the last draft.) It’s almost 10 years now, but I can see the end. For reasons too tedious to explain, these first 10 chapters have been the most difficult to write. The pace will pick up with Chapter 11. I see one task that I have to attend to soon. Within the first seven chapters especially, I have about twice as much book as I want. I need to do some editing, compressing, cutting, which I don’t think will be too hard. There’s always a little cleanup to do after that kind of surgery, though. I can say beyond any doubt that I’ve learned a great deal writing Street Song. You might think that’s a no-brainer, but I’ve always tended to regard writing as an expression of what one already knows. But that has not been the case here. It’s been a real meditation that has changed me. I understand certain things now that I didn’t understand before.
As for this blog, like I said, I don’t want to abandon it. I have one idea on how I can stick with it. It can never supersede my work on the book, but there’s a lot happening in the world right now, and I’m eager to speak my mind. I’ve been on Facebook a bunch lately, but you can’t really go into any depth there. It’s fast and ephemeral — more cheerleading than anything else, as I have told a number of people. I’m sure I’ve lost a lot of readers here, but I aim to make a return. Not many people hold the views I do. Because we live in a democracy, there is a tendency to think that whatever the majority of the population believes is the correct view. I don’t see it that way. I think humanity has gone way off the track. There’s a lot I want to say about that.
Every time I get involved in some kind of conversation or debate over economic justice, there’s always some guy who will jump in to invoke the “Law of Supply and Demand.” Invariably, he steps back then to see if any of us are dumb enough to continue. It’s a law, man, a settled issue, something that only an idiot would challenge. But supply and demand is not a law. A law is something that absolutely must happen. But no one has any obligation to follow this supposed law in any transaction they control. If I have the only loaf of bread and I’m surrounded by hungry people, I can give the bread away if I so choose. Supply and demand is a syndrome—a philosophical justification for greed. One of the assumptions behind supply and demand is that people naturally want to get as much as they can and will play every angle they can in order to get it. A further assumption is, that’s okay. The only law involved then is the Law of the Jungle. But it’s not okay. Greed is killing us. It’s been sanctioned for a long time and the ill-effects are mounting. Climate change is one of them. Another is the cost of housing. We have to change our approach to how we exist and survive. We don’t need so much stuff. We’re heading for the cliff, and the cliff isn’t that far away now. If we don’t stop soon, we’re going over it.
This post will be of interest primarily to people who live in San Francisco. But it should interest anyone who loves the city. I wrote it for a booklet called San Francisco Lost and Found, which was put together by David Talbot (author of Season of the Witch among other books and founder of Salon.com) to aid Aaron’s campaign. This is a slightly edited version.
I arrived in North Beach in late 1973. One of my aims at the time was to escape what I saw as the horror of everyday American life: wake up, go to work, stop to shop, watch TV. It was a magical time—magical because people didn’t care too much about money. North Beach and Telegraph Hill were very different places from what they are today. North Beach was legendary as the West Coast home of the Beats, but it had continued on past its beat days to become a home for all kinds of people: artists, seekers, as well as those who simply had no idea what to do with their lives and couldn’t see where else to go. It didn’t cost much to live here then. There were a lot of SRO hotels, and even apartments were cheap. I was so broke and at such a crossroads that I couldn’t afford even a cheap hotel room. I lived on the street—not what we think of nowadays as a homeless person, but as a street person. I usually had somewhere to sleep—a rooftop hut, a storage room, a rooftop tent—but I didn’t have my own home. I was able to live that way because I was surrounded by folks who, even if they didn’t understand, were tolerant of other people’s unusual trips.
It was a unique time. People hung out on the streets more, and I made real friends there. It was possible to get into conversations that changed you—not just some opinion you held, but the direction your life was heading. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, money started talking again and nearly everyone listened. The interesting people, the ones whose lives were not devoted to having big careers, could not afford the new regime. One by one, I watched my friends leave town. I managed to hang on, but the neighborhood’s magic was leaving with those who couldn’t afford it anymore. Since then, the encroachment of careerism and the obsession with wealth have grown stronger and stronger, while those who oppose it have become fewer and fewer. I’ve lived through both periods. No one will ever be able to convince me that this is the better time. Friends meet on Facebook, not on the street. And oddly, their online conversations never seem to carry over to their face-to-face meetings. (What’s that all about?)
Many supporters of Aaron’s opponent talk about turning San Francisco into a “world class city,” something I find remarkably obtuse. For years, San Francisco was a world class city without compare. In the 1980s I was constantly meeting people from all over the world who had come here looking for the remains of the counterculture—both beat and hippie. It was clear that these people felt hope for humanity because of the experiments that took place here in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This didn’t happen in the same way anywhere else. That is “world class.”
One of the last places you’ll ever find anyone with an interest in what I’m describing here is within the halls of power. But San Francisco is different in that there have been a handful of politicians who have had some experience with what is generally referred to as “bohemia.” One of those politicians is Aaron Peskin. He has other constituencies—I’m not suggesting that he’s the artists’ candidate—but he’s perfectly comfortable socially with the neighborhood’s artists, misfits, and seekers. Good lord, the man speaks Hindi, Nepali, and Hebrew! He has an intelligence, sensibility, and integrity that I trust. And his interest has always been in the community, not in the corporate offices. (Everyone says that about their favorite candidates, but it’s seldom true. In Aaron’s case, it is true.)
I’ll always be grateful to Aaron for one thing in particular. In 2007 the wild parrot flock was having a serious problem with people feeding them in a public park. They’d become so tame that some of the feeders were nabbing them and taking them home as pets. I went through a tremendous amount of anxiety over this. I knew that the parrots valued their freedom above all else. It was beginning to look as though the book and film about them had been a huge mistake. I had to stop the feedings. But how? Talking to the feeders didn’t do any good. The only solution appeared to be a law. I didn’t have to go through any great contortions to get Aaron, my district supervisor, to understand the problem. He saw that the freedom of the wild ones was more important than the desires of a few of his constituents who didn’t have the best interests of the parrots at heart. So he sponsored an ordinance that effectively put an end to the public feedings. He took a tremendous amount of crap for doing so, but he knew what was right and he did it. I have no confidence—no confidence at all—that my current representative would understand. (For details on the ordinance and what brought it about, go to http://www.markbittner.net/writings/feeding_ordinance1.html)
Since money and the inevitable, attendant corruption have become the dominant forces in San Francisco, I’ve seen a lot of “one step forward and two steps back.” District 3 has always been the heart of San Francisco. As I see it, if Aaron doesn’t win this election it will be the final nail in San Francisco’s coffin. Everything I came here for will be gone forever. San Francisco will be just another city. So, we really do need him. He understands how the government works. He also understands that not everybody wants to live a conventional life. Americans like to talk about freedom. One of the greatest freedoms, I think, is to be allowed to seek a way of life outside convention. It’s hard to go there when all the machinery within the society insists on homogenization. I’m not suggesting that San Francisco go back to the way it was before. To create something fresh and vital you always have to dig into the present moment. But I want the regression to stop and for San Francisco to become a spiritually stimulating place to live again. Electing Aaron would be a good place to begin.