Monday, February 2, 2009

Interview with Steve Silberman

Steve Silberman- Containing Multitudes (originally published just after Jerry's passing in my rag HUMP)

Wherever destiny takes us, we go, willingly or dragged with our heels kicking sparks. And every evening, after we find ourselves having digested an hour of a news program, our global awareness indicator points decidedly north, in an inflated sense of truth, justice and the American way. But is the media our destiny or just various individuals who spin thoughts into our info receptors. After an hour of CNN we think that we are hurky-jerky informed on world events.

Isn’t it true that we never really know what’s going on in the world, but only certain distorted facts that get filtered through various media? Who are these men who call the shots on what is ultimately shown to us? Do they really want us to get all the facts of the story, or just certain facts?

Traditionally, journalists were hard-boiled, martini swilling guys with degrees in Journalism, men with ink in their fingers, who often immersed themselves in stories to find out a good lead, or to get a scoop on a story. But bottom-line, men who were no nonsense and often very conservative in nature. A conservatism that was so ingrained in their character, that their stories often had conservative slants, whether conscious or not.

Imagine what would happen if the swirling gospel of the media, that we call the news, was dictated by a hipster?

What if Dan Rather was a proponent of Earth First or Gay Rights? Chances are that he would find it impossible to write stories that contradicted his deepest belief system.

Just the other night, I saw Ted Koppel defending the interment of Japanese orphans during World War Two. He based the acceptance of American atrocities on knowing the details of history and therefore being aware of the specifics that lead up to our inhumane acts. He said that because the Japanese killed more Chinese than all the Japanese killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that those American’s who threw Japanese children in Hellholes, were justified. This type of logic is the sort of hypocrisy that contributes to the ills that plague our modern soul. Would a hipster ever let this type of spin on revisionist history occur?

Since my first story about the Internet ran four years ago in Synthesis Magazine, I have tried to show you how the Net will transform our lives, and the world we live in. Many of you turned the other cheek in a basterdization of Christian ethics, but like destiny, you can’t escape history. Time and tide wait for no man.

How could a new source for news ever compete with the monolithic dinosaurs of the current day? Well, Wired News is the David ready to slay the Goliath. And at the helm, loading stones into the slingshot is Steve Silberman. Part scholar, part Deadhead and part visionary, please welcome Steve with a high, hearty, HUMP………..

Tell me what it is you do.

I work for Wired News, I write about a story a day, three or four stories a week and a column. Wired News is I seldom write for the magazine because Wired News is so all consuming. Wired News is a very exciting thing that hasn’t really been talked about much in everyone’s eagerness to bash Wired for hubris or to talk about how Wired Digital is “burning money.” Basically, what we were able to pull off, was to launch a news service last year. We’ve not only managed to stay away from the Silicon Valley press release mentality of a lot of the other on-line news services, but we’ve also stayed away from the sort of gee-whiz/hype/capitalist/lust over objects that afflicts Wired Magazine. We’ve also been able to get into the news flow and kind of inject into the media an awareness of stories that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. I wrote a story about the number of blacks getting onto the net being disproportionately higher than what one might imagine and at the same time there is a loss of minority-ownership radio stations. That story was picked up by CNN and turned into a special report. I wrote a story about this atomic veteran who survived being basically marched through ground zero in the early fifties, everyone he knew who was there with him was dead. He put up a web-site and he ended up getting a book contract to tell the story of the Atomic Veterans. So we’ve been able to be an interesting conduit for stories that otherwise would have been not noticed. I think Wired News is cool, it reminds me of a zine in a way or an underground newspaper from the sixties, but because it looks like a straight news service, we end up getting looked at by a lot of straight and mainstream media people. I have a feeling that most of the people who read us are reporters from other media. The New York Times outright stole one of the first stories I wrote for Wired News. They called me up, asked me for the contact numbers of the story I was writing about, and then ran it as if they were breaking the story. I’ve gotten totally used to that now.



In the last issue of HUMP, I asked Steven Johnson who has FEED.COM if he felt that the dinosaurs like Time Magazine or the New York Times felt the new news media biting at their heels yet. He said no. Do you think that they feel competitiveness as to where people feel the source for news might be?

Absolutely, I think people can read a lot of news and it’s not just insidery geeky business news. Allen Ginsburghs terminal illness broke on Wired News half a day before any of the wire services had it, we break a lot of interesting cultural information before the other news services. I don’t think that the owners of the Hearst newspapers are waking up with sweaty palms, worrying that people are going to go to our news service, instead of reading the newspaper in the morning with their sip of coffee. Also, I don’t think that Time Magazine is worried that we are going to go out of business. On the other hand, what I think that is even more interesting than direct competition for eyeballs, is that the on-line world as a whole is becoming an interesting challenger for some of the bullshit in mainstream media. The first time I really saw that was when Time Magazine ran a cover story on Cyberporn, siteing this study by this guy Marty Rin, who is really a student at some East Coast university. The cover was very spectacular, it was a child’s face that had been altered by photoshop so that his eyes were totally wide, he looked like he was looking at split beaver right on his screen. What happened was a group of journalists and smart folks got together on the WELL, and found out through digging a little that Marty Rins study was completely bogus. The figures that he came up with were from surf sessions on porn sites rather than general usenet statistics. The study was completely debunked. Time ran a retraction in microscopic type. Time was made to look very foolish. Even though the publisher of Time Magazine didn’t commit hari cari, it’s important to realize that the study was debunked by on-line conversation on the Well.

So here’s the sense that there are watchdogs for the mainstream media now.

Things like Wired News and intelligent on-line communities like the Well act as an ombudsman for the big media view of things, conventional wisdom. An ombudsman in the old newspaper world was somebody whose job it was to be a little bit cynical. They would take the coverage in a newspaper and say” is this really true?” They were the check and balance for the stories and the spin. Places like Wired News and the on-line community in general are acting like a giant ombudsman for mainstream culture and mainstream media and I think that is a profoundly important development in American History.

The Persian Gulf had media blackout, could that happen again, or is on-line reporting going to change that.

Yeah, I do think it will change the way public response is organized completely. It will massively decrease response time so information will be wildly disseminated on a scale that the sixties mimeographing radicals could have only dreamed. It’s as if you could go back in time and say to SDS “how would you like to have a meeting that’s a) Worldwide, b) very low cost, c) as pervasive as the television networks, and D. you can do images and text?” They would go out of their minds!

What if the Black Panthers were able to arm the citizens of Oakland with laptops and Video Cameras, instead of guns?

Exactly. I also think the ubiquity of video cameras is interesting, but of course it’s a mixed blessing. The story I’m working on now is how whenever a big crime happens, like the Oklahoma City Bombing, somebody comes up with pictures or video of the bombers eating sandwiches, or Princess Di walking through the hotel lobby before the car crash. One wonders if one is ever completely not under watch. But yet on the other hand, if there’s massive police brutality or something, there’s a guy with a video camera. And hopefully that information can get on the net or a television station.

In the case of the Humboldt Cops torturing people with pepper spray, they handed in the goods on themselves.

Around the Tiennaman Square thing, the first thing that the Chinese Government tried to do was to shut down the Fax machines. I think as the Net becomes more pervasive in Third World countries, it will either become harder for the enemies of human liberties to accomplish their deeds or it will just cause dictators and despots to completely crack down on the Net. So I think it will be both, it will be turf wars, where people will be trying to wire their local communities and organizations into the Net and Governments will be coming down on them. And coming down on them in more insidious ways as filtering software becomes more pervasive. So if you’re in country XYZ and the government doesn’t want you to see political sites, when you log on, you’ll just never see them, they’ll be invisible. Imagine if Gary Bower of the American Family Council could put his own filtering software in everybody’s machine, gay kids would never see gay teen sites and there is a lot of information that will be lost as filtering software becomes accepted as a humane replacement for censorship.

Couldn’t all the hype about child molesters on the Web just be a rallying point for filtering software and censorship? Don’t you think that just parallels the censorship of newspapers. Aren’t certain stories kept to regions?

Yes they are, but I see it as my personal job and mission in life to undo that and I have a very clear case in point. A couple of University of Pittsburgh students were recently barred from having any internet access and from even physically appearing in any computer labs, and they were computer science majors, so it was tantamount to expelling them. Their crime was that they had created one of the most useful net security resources for people who wanted to guard their sites against hackers that there is. It’s a site called anti and the University simply did not understand what these kids were doing and reacted against it in a very heavy-handed way. For instance one of the first sites to talk about a hack called a windowhack, that allows people to take down windows machines remotely. It’s a very useful site that was referred to by many other sites. But these kids were screwed by not only being barred form the Net and use of any computer equipment on campus but by being barred from communicating directly with the person that was making it all happen. I got a tip from one of the students who said that the only coverage that the story had gotten was in the school newspaper. I wrote an article about it in Wired News and within two weeks, the story had gotten into USA Today, The Village Voice, The New York Times and the associated Press. The school officials, even though the case is still pending, got a heavy message that they were fucking up. I think it’s very possible for Wired News and people on-line who have compelling enough Web Sites to make regional outrages a global concern.

Did you feel that the media adequately covered Allen Ginsbergs passing?

Allen was a friend of mine for twenty years, all of my adult life. The depth and sensitivity of the coverage of like The New York Times impressed me, they put his obituary on the cover. There were some decent stories in the AP about him. Ultimately, the coverage he got, was because he founded a movement that has almost become a cultural trademark, the Beat Generation. Everyone from Starbucks to Levi’s has appropriated it. Granted, a lot of the content that Ginsberg and Kerouac and Burroughs had put across is not appreciated in an ad of slackers nodding, out as jazz plays in the background. But Ginsberg was perennially popular with young people, I know because I went on several different tours with him. And wherever Ginsberg went the halls were packed to capacity and often he would give a second reading to the thousands of people that were outside that couldn’t get in. So he remained, in terms of popularity for a poet, incredibly popular. I can’t say that he was necessarily influential on the current poetry scene in any kind of obvious way. There’s a tremendous bunch of corny, tacky, beatnik poetry out there in zines that I can’t say is really a good thing. But I do think that he was subtly pervasive influence in terms of encouraging public sincerity and honesty in such things as homosexuality and even drug use. I think that even though he was a very famous man, that some of his most enduring influences are part of the woodwork, part of the air that Americans breath that allows them to be a little bit freer then they would had he never lived. Certainly for a subject like homosexuality, he really was one of the first people to open the door at all on any kind of honest dialogue. Although I think what he was really saying about homosexuality is still not appreciated even by his gay fans. I asked him once in 1987 if he felt that it was ironic that he was hailed as the father of gay poetry and that he had hardly any gay friends? He said “well Burroughs and I never really considered ourselves gay, gay was like Castro street, we called ourselves queer.” What’s funny is that this was before the word queer was resurrected by the younger queer people. I said what’s queer? He said “well gay people are like adults trying to have sex with each other and queers like me and Burroughs, we’re trying to have sex with straight teenagers.” I happen to know how often he was very successful in that ambition. I think that Ginsberg and Kerouac also pointed to a truth that even this week America is wrestling with. There’s this little blonde guy who claims that this co-workers on an oil rig were harassing him sexually. One of the lower courts said “well this couldn’t be true because all these guys are heterosexual, so it must be about something else besides sex. The same lower court said it’s only harassment if the people involved in gay, because only then would sexual attraction be going on. That’s ridiculous. One of the things that both Ginsberg and Kerouac pointed to is that the human heart is very complicated. Walt Whitman said “I contradict myself, very well than I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes.” And I think that Ginsberg and Kerouac were pointing to the fact that we contain multitudes, some of our multitudes are heterosexual and some of our multitudes are homosexual and they’re all kinds of different feelings and tenderness. Going with that tenderness is more subversive than going with the idea that gay people are genetically determined and you can’t get mad at them because its genetic. It’s actually more subversive to say that we all have these different ways of relating and loving those around us, and what are we going to do with that?

Science is still looking for a gay gene.

Right and what are they going to do when they find it? What about all those kids that Allen slept with, did they have just a little bit of the gene? It’s easy to say that they slept with him because he’s famous, which is probably true, but they also slept with him because they loved him. The truth is ultimately more subversive than any easy take on it, even a progressive take on it, even a gay positive one.

What about NAMBLA?

Allen was hit with some of the hysteria over pedophilia. I talked to Allen about NAMBLA, and he didn’t know that much about it, but he defended their right to speak. To be frank, I think he had a soft part in his heart for NAMBLA, because he himself was very attracted to teenagers, so he was well aware of the pleasures and the risk of inter-generational sex. As far as I know he did not have sex with minors. I remember talking to someone about Allen not soon after he was dead. This person said “well I never liked Allen Ginsberg and I’m not sad that he’s dead.” I said, “Why’s that?” And he said, “Well he was a pedophile. One of my professors said that he supported NAMBLA.” I asked if he ever read his poetry and he said “No and I don’t want to read it.” Well that’s great, that’s like not listening to John Coltrane’s music because he was a heroin addict at one point. People are so moralistic it’s unbelievable. Or people that said that Jerry Garcia took heroin and wrestled with addiction himself. We’re all wrestling with something.

Exactly. You can always find a reason not to listen to somebody.

It’s more of what you can accomplish anyway despite how confusing and messed up your life is. Who doesn’t have a messed up and confusing life?

I don’t know, I haven’t met them yet.

And those people who pose as those kind of altruistic people are the ones who turn out to be the worst kind of motel room whore mongering drag…..

..J. Edgar Hoover……

I read Rock Scully’s book “life with the Dead,” and hearing about how Garcias would set hotel rooms on fire when he would nod out, didn’t make me lose love for the man. It allowed me an insight to his psychological make-up. If we all didn’t have these quirks and eccentricities, we would lose our individuality.

I find it almost redemptive to read those stories. I’m reading through a much more in-depth biography of Jerry Garcia that’s going to be published in a year and a half by Blair Jackson, long time Dead scholar. Garcia’s relationships make even mine look relatively stable. He often had two girlfriends at once and sometimes three. He was always paying off various ex-wives and was riding a little scooter from one wife to the next. It was obvious that he was unable to make up his mind who he wanted to be with intimately and he probably had big fears of intimacy and yet was drawn into it. And as I read through it and go through my own relationship apocalypses it made me feel better. When I put on a tape now I think, “geez, this guy who’s singing and making this beautiful music, once he got off stage, had to deal with all these ex-wives and problems and all this tzuris, as they say, a great yiddish word that means hassles. And yet he was still able to create this art that had like a primordial majesty to it.” I met Garcia and he certainly was my favorite of the Dead in terms of personality. I mean the Dead are fairly egotistical and isolated guys by now. Bill Kreutzman is an unpretentious and nice guy in terms of my limited contact with him, but I never felt like they were living saints or anything like that. But for so long they were able to speak this musical language and be so articulate in it. They gave so much pleasure and so much ur-education to so many people. Its amazing that they were able to do that and still struggle through their lives as we are all doing. So one of the things about Allen was that he never tried to present himself as perfect. He always presented himself as this lusty, confused, hilariously egotistical goofball. Even though I think he had a tremendous ego, there was something redemptive, and as he might have said, Bodhisvata, about his willingness to be wounded and confused and fucked up in public. He realized that we’re not alone and the thoughts in our head don’t make us the one cursed.

Much of the music we look back on and label as ‘revolutionary,’ is only so in hindsight. Just as so many people say, “rock is dead” today, it will take visionary thought or just the simple [passage of time to see how today’s music related to and contributed to society at large. With that in mind, do you feel the impact of the music of the Dead has yet been revealed?

What’s hilarious and cosmic about this is that this is the second interview in twelve hours where this question has come up. I was reminded last night when the author of this Phish book asked me this question is that in the late sixties, like 69 or 70, I was reading the newspaper at my parents home. My parents were communist and the paper was published by the political organization that my father was in called Progressive Labor. It was accusing the Grateful Dead of being sellouts because they were not singing songs about the war and they were not addressing the political issues of the day. And they certainly were not (sell outs), they were singing these weird transformations of traditional American folk songs and (lyricist) Hunters psychedelic word salad. In a sense they were occupying their own little space and yet if you think back on the more topical music of the day, it’s totally tacky and did not last and was a flavor of the month. Certainly some of the more tacky stuff like “eve of destruction,” is completely forgettable. Some of the more earnest stuff like Phil Oches and whatnot is great, but it’s very much of it’s period. But if you put on the Dead playing Dark Star in 1969, damn it’s still relevant to this era. Their subversiveness was at the level of music and being open to spontaneously emerging forms in the improvistory moment. In a funny way that ends up being more subversive than coming up with some big policy statement about why the government are all pigs. You end up being a little garden where the essential free nature that is the heart of every living being gets to flourish. This is more subversive in the same way that Picasso is more subversive than some of the social realist artists of the Soviet Union. You look at Social realism and you think “oh god, this is just tacky propaganda.” You look at Picasso and there’s vitality and a untameability to his images that could practically over throw a police state. At least in your mind, for a moment when you look at Picasso you’re not living in a police state. That’s the best kind of art.

I guess that’s the difference between being the road, a car or a bumper sticker.

So what this guy was asking me last night, was were the Dead the voice of their generation and the answer is no. They were the voice of something deeper than that. They were the voice of a transcendent, very wild and hairy principle, like the voice of the Tao, which is the voice of every generation.

It’s interesting how the Dead made a point of not making overt political statements on stage while at the same time there were protests and rioting going on right behind the show.

I know that Garcia was personally asked hundreds of times by police and anti-drug organizations to make an announcement at the shows to tell the fans not to come to the shows and take drugs, and he never did. I think it’s too his credit that he wasn’t willing to take on the role of an authority in other peoples lives. And yet, it’s true that a lot of people suffered by going to jail and what not because the government was able to move in and really cut through the dead scene likes wolves through a flock of sheep. Who wants to be caseing out crack dealers, when you can go to Oakland Colesium and bust a bunch of Oberlin Students.

The lot of the Dead couldn’t handle the weight of suddenly being the cool place to be.

The lot was like a wildlife preserve and all of a sudden a lot animals, even those not native to that jungle, came in simply because it was one of the few places where animals could be animals. Also there was a lot of greed by people realizing that they could make some quick bucks selling nitrous or bad drugs. It’ easy to understand how it could develop that way considering the amount of hypocrisy and oppression at large in the American Culture. There was definite feeling in the early eighties that the Dead scene was a little island of sanity in the middle of the Reagan/Bush Bullshit Festival. What’s unfortunate is that after MTV featured the Day of the Dead, it became known as the biggest party going. Al these people who really didn’t care about the music showed up. I mean there was always people who didn’t care about the music. They were filtering themselves in, and then out. Once the music became irrelevant in the lot, it just became a place to: live in a barter economy, a place to not get a job, a place to have a lot of sex, and make some money, and stay high constantly. It became too much of a refuge, I think. A little bit of all that is great, but it really became a bunch of people who weren’t dealing with the outside world much. The thing about the Dead scene that I really miss, is that it was a litmus test and a easy way to see where people were coming from. There were many times I would be in some small town, or on the road, and I would look, and it wasn’t even so blatant as Dead patches on a knapsack or stinking orf Patchouli oil, even if they were dressed in straight clothes, there would be just a look in their eyes and I would say “do you go to shows?” And if they said “what kind of shows?,” you knew you made a mistake. So often you hit though, and it was an instant, if not shallow, brotherhood and sisterhood with other people you might have seen at a show at that moment you were having a revelation. I not only miss it, I think that my life is suffering form the lack of that, and from the lack of having a place to remagnetize the compass needle of my spirit. I’m doing fine with my adult life, like keeping a job and all that. But in terms of the heartfullness and confidence that I need, it’s not as easy to feel at home in the world without occasional visits to Deadland.

I just figure I’ll never dance again.

I know, I’ve put on weight since Jerry died because I don’t dance as much. I feel like I’ve aged twenty years since 1995. I think that the problem with the size and scale of the Dead scene in later years was too centralized and the litter had become too big and there are only so many teats. I do think there has been an upsurge in more local and smaller jamming bands, who take some of the lessons of the Grateful Dead. Although it’s a little too easy too play that way. But local hippie scenes are getting more attention from people, because they have too. They just can’t hitch a ride to Deer Creek and immerse themselves in their own scene, because that place no longer exists. Every Deadheads hometown disappeared like Pompeii under the volcano. Everyone has to find the scene that’s local to them. That having been said, I’m on Phish tour.

Jumping Ship?

No, I love Phish and have since 1992. I don’t feel like it’s jumping ship, I feel like it’s a different ship and it’s floating very well thank you. Phish are doing great things in their own groove. Seeing Phish now is like seeing the Dead in 1973 because their music is so focused and so tight that they can go anywhere with it. It’s a very exciting time to be into Phish and I’m not there because it’s a substitute, I’m there because it’s good music.

I tend to be a snob sometimes.

I remember I ran into someone who saw the Deads last 650 shows, at a Phish show, 6 months after Jerry died and he said “Owww, it’s like the Stepford show! It’s the same people, the same clothes, different band!!” I mean, sure a lot of the cultural forms have been appropriated, but that’s not the point. The point is the music and point is getting off, and the point is psychedelic experience whether you’re tripping or not, and the point is being free for a moment and listening to the spontaneous risky inventions of a bunch of geniuses that are very hooked into one another. So wherever you can find that you should do it, whether it’s at Phish or your own local bar or your own room.