Critical Questions: Gene Sculatti
Conversing with the King of Cool.
When I was an impressionable teen, veteran music journalist Gene Sculatti's 1982 book The Catalog of Cool introduced me to a cornucopia of then-esoteric cultural artifacts of past decades from the worlds of film, music, art, and literature -- the kind of information that wasn't so easy to come by in the era when Google was just a misspelling of the term for 10 to the 100th power. I'm older now than Sculatti was when the book was written, but that crucial early exposure to everything from beatnik monologist Lord Buckley to ‘60s novelist/songwriter Richard Fariña profoundly influenced just about everything I've done from high school to the present. One of Sculatti's newest writings is Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving, and Making Up With The Music Of The Grateful Dead, a short-form eBook that's part of Rhino's new Single Notes series. The book begins with Sculatti's own experiences as a teen, seeing The Dead's earliest shows in San Francisco, and details his on-again/off-again relationship with the band's music over the years. It also offered me the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with the man largely responsible for many of my lifelong, arcane obsessions.
CM: What was the genesis of The Catalog of Cool?
GS: I used to work at Warner Brothers, and a guy came around who was looking for book projects. It was the late ‘70s and there had been this thing at the end of the ‘60s called the Whole Earth Catalog, it was quite a big bestseller; it was a large-format book for sort of late-hippie stuff: how to live off the land, grow your own food, make chemical toilets, and stuff. But it was very unstylish. Around this time, punk was starting to happen, and all sorts of looks back at the ‘50s and ‘60s were starting. I thought, "Maybe we'll do a book called The Catalog of Cool, which will be just really cool stuff that we would like to point out to people." And we found a publisher in New York and we did it.
One of the crucial distinctions you tried to make in the book was the one between "hip" and "cool."
Both those terms get tossed around a lot. I just meant "cool" to mean things that I and the other people who wrote for it [the book] liked. It's like, "Hey, it's our turn to say what we think is really great." And I guess "hip" could almost be interchangeable, but what I don't like now, and it used to happen even then, is people use those two terms to mean things that are kind of fashionable at the moment, and set them in opposition to things that aren't fashionable. The L.A. Times every day is full of the hip new food places, the cool new dance club, the great new tattoo studio, all that kind of means nothing. I think what we were trying to say in that book is to use cool to mean things that are stylish but might have some lasting value -- they're not just this week's trend. I find I'm writing about past stuff a lot, because I'm 65, so I like to write about the glory days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and things from now that might be like that. I find that people sling those words around now more than ever and they mean even less.
Who was The Catalog of Cool really directed towards?
If you're an older person like me you probably grew up with a lot of those things in real time...if you're young and didn't have the exposure, that's who it would hopefully appeal to. I do this radio show now I've been doing for five years [The Cool and the Crazy at LuxuriaMusic.com]. It's mostly music, the point there is to put all this stuff out there and hope everyone hears it as contemporary and new - if you've never heard it before it's really new even if it's 40 or 50 years old.
Did the book do well?
It did okay, I think it did around 30-35,000 books, and it took 10 years to get a sequel, which I really loved, but we barely got a deal, and the publisher wasn't anywhere near as supportive. And some people thought the relative commercial failure of the second book was that a lot of these things were now being uncovered, and then as you get closer to being online -- everyone can find all these things and more. So it wasn't any kind of blockbuster to begin with, it took a decade to get a second book, and I tried to do a third but that was kind of a loss. I had a Catalog of Cool website for a while.
The book was written in the pre-Internet era, when discovering cultural esoterica was both more difficult and more rewarding.
I often think about things like that. When I was starting to collect records in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was such a trek into the jungle to go to the thrift store and find ‘60s punk records or lounge records. Nobody knew them, so when you found them it was a real treasure. And now, a couple of clicks and you're there. The voyage of discovery...you can go a lot farther a lot faster now, but maybe something's lost, I don't know. It's such a forest now, and a book is something that can provide a nice focus for you. When the Catalog came out there wasn't anything like that, so if you were halfway interested in that stuff, here's one source where you could get your coat pulled to all these things.
When the mainstream came around years later to some of the things you championed, did you ever feel like, "Where were you guys 15 years ago?"
A little bit, but it's easier to just feel that you were vindicated and let it go at that. We weren't the only people touting these things. I don't mind. The lounge revival was a cool thing, I'm glad we kind of helped point toward that.
You wrote another book in the ‘80s that kind of presaged Dark Stars.
It was called San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip. Gavin Seay, who has one of the other Rhino eBooks -- he did one on Rick James -- he and I wrote that in ‘85. It was about all of San Francisco, because we were there then, and the individual bands. I wrote about Frisco and the psychedelic era about three or four years ago for this site Rock's Back Pages, I said, "That's the last Frisco psychedelic thing I'm ever gonna do." And then I got a chance to do this book, here I was doing it again. And the justification kind of was, "Well, I get to tell some more aspects of this story, and maybe there are younger people who weren't around for those and maybe they'll pick up on it through this."
Witnessing The Dead's early years firsthand really gave you a unique perspective on the band.
But for people who weren't there, then all they have to go on is the records, and a lot of people find that really wanting, which is fair enough. For people who weren't there, if you hear the records and like it, just like if you like Benny Goodman or doo wop and you weren't there for it, I think that really must say something for the music.
What are your favorite albums from the ‘60s San Francisco scene?
Probably the first Grateful Dead album and Live/Dead, and the first Quicksilver [Messenger Service] album, and the very first [Jefferson] Airplane album [Takes Off], before they had their hits. The Charlatans were great, but they didn't get a proper release until a reissue CD was done about 10 years ago. The Great Society, the first Big Brother [& The Holding Company] album before Janis [Joplin] kind of muscled her way in to dominate the music.
Was your enjoyment of any of those ‘60s Dead shows lysergically enhanced?
My younger cousin, who's about two years younger than me, he went to one of the things [Acid Tests] at Longshoreman's Hall; I didn't. I didn't start [seeing The Dead] until March of 1966, and those things had already happened. My cousin, who went to the Trips Festival in January of '66, he later became a speed freak and he took too much acid and stuff, and I had this naïve notion that if I didn't do any of it I would be setting a good model for him, so I didn't. And it didn't really help, because he kind of went off the deep end, and he later came back. Most of the time that I saw that stuff I was straight. A lot of people say if you saw the Grateful Dead and liked them, "Well of course you liked them, you were stoned." But I wasn't! [Laughs]
What were your feelings about the L.A. bands of that era?
I saw Captain Beefheart early on, before his records, and that was tremendous, and I saw Love a couple of times, and I was disappointed because all I knew was their first album, which has all their folk-rock, Byrdsy-type stuff. By the time they came to the Avalon Ballroom they too were doing all this kind of bluesy, half-hour-long versions of "Smokestack Lightning," and I thought, "This is not what I came here to see."
What about Bay Area bands outside the usual litany of the four or five that are always mentioned whenever the topic arises?
Steve Miller had a great band back then too. The band from Chicago that relocated to Frisco called Linn County I really like. Mad River's a good example, I like their first album quite a bit; I don't think I ever saw them. I wound up appreciating Blue Cheer more than I used to, and even Santana to some degree, who seemed to me interminable to have to sit through all that conga drumming and wait to see the Grateful Dead or the Airplane or something, but they had their moments too. Then there are all the bands I really never saw but wish I had, who were part of that whole suburban garage scene that everybody really venerates now, me included, like Chocolate Watch Band and Creedence before they were Creedence [The Golliwogs]. All that stuff that was really considered junior-league because it wasn't really Fillmore-type stuff yet. But that stuff of course is great.
It's been said that a lot of the earliest Deadheads were disappointed by the band's first album, but you're a big fan of it.
Everyone anticipated that first album. You knew that they were going to L.A. to record. I think the first album came out in March of '67. Your only experience with it all was live, so the standard that you held everything to was, "Well they're gonna sound like these bands sound live," that was for every one of them. I was over the moon about that record. By the time they do Anthem of The Sun, the second one, they really made an effort to bring you the live version. Jerry himself had said they didn't like the first album. They recorded it in four days or something. I don't know -- if you take away the live edge, that's largely how they sounded back then.
What is it about The Dead that you think can translate to young listeners who never had the opportunity to see them?
The songwriting: the fact that anybody can perform some of those songs and they're really good. I'm sure there are plenty of bands covering those songs now. I think the material is something that really translates at any age, and as far as the records go, the [Dead] records that I like the best, which is kind of up through the Europe thing [Europe ‘72], and even some of the later things that I point out, those should be pretty good for a younger person, I would hope.
|Dark Stars & Anti-Matter trailer|