Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What I have been reading

Books on water, tobacco and the acid-rock musical era.

I was informed by and enjoyed Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry, Transworld, 2006 which dealt with global water problems briefly and concisely but which provided a good sense of perspective. Excellent value. Traversing all continents it highlights the monumentally huge water resource problems in India, Pakistan, various African countries, the Middle East, Europe, South America, Australia and China and the relation of these problems to groundwater mismanagement, building dams and of course irrigation schemes. Issues of flooding, water shortages, catastrophic problems of groundwater abuse and contamination gave me perspective on the problems of the Murray-Darling. For all our sins, Australia’s problems are negligible compared to those of the developing world. As I have suggested before Australia may derive economic advantage from the water-driven misery of other countries.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Iain Gately’s Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, Grove Press 2001. He writes in a humorous, incisive way and I kept reaching for my pen to mark down points that I will use in my academic research into the evil weed. He starts 18,000 years ago – 500 years ago if you refer to puffing on the stuff but the real punch lines for me were Gately’s later chapters where he describes the development of automatic cigarette machines in the 1880s coupled with vast levels of marketing expenditure. Cigarettes really took off around the turn of the century when the great surge in lung cancer deaths began. The responses of the cigarette companies in the 1950s to the emerging horror is frightening. The demand for evidence of a causal mechanism explaining cancers when US deaths per thousand increased 9-fold in about 20 years reminds me of similar claims by the global warming denialists. But this is an interlude of morbid drama in what is overall a great read. Gately adores smoking but recognizes that it kills you.

I struggled through Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip, Corgi 2003 which dealt with the history of one of the beloved rock groups of my adolescence, The Grateful Dead. The book was just too long and hagiographic for my tastes. I kept at it because of the interesting intersections which other acid-rock bands of the late 1960s such as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish and the country-oriented New Riders of the Purple Sage. The Allman Brothers, the Band, Joan Baez, Crosby Stills, Nash and Young, Bob Dylan, The Fugs, Santana, Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa all fitted in at various times as well as non-musical components such as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (including for a time Neal Cassidy), Baba Ram Dass, Owsley-Stanley III and Timothy Leary. If you don’t recognize these names you won’t want to read this book and even if you do recognize them you may not. The book is mainly focused on Jerry Garcia who could be a monumentally talented guitarist. Objectively speaking the book is a testimony to the destructive powers of dope and booze. Jerry Garcia ended up a very sick, overweight man who squandered his talents on heroin and cocaine. Many others from the musical scene in this era just died from overdoses, liver diseases and drug-related accidents.


Slim said...

I would never have picked you for a Dead Head, Harry! Never judge a book by its cover, eh?

Your summary of Long Strange Trip evokes the musical landscape of my youth. The Grateful Dead were indeed an extraordinary band. I first read about them in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. When I eventually found a GD album in a record store it was the newly released Working Man's Dead. Needless to say I struggled to reconcile the music with Wolfe's depiction of the Dead in Haight-Ashbury! It did however, mark the beginning of my long journey meandering through Americana roots music - a passion to this day.

I'm especially fond of the tapes made by Garcia and Dave Grisman during the last decade or so of Garcia's life, so sadly prematurely ended.

hc said...

I wasn't a deadhead (just a confused young man) though I did once go to a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco in the early 1980s. My introduction to the scene, like yours, was via Tom Wolfe's book - although I had read many novels by Jack Kerouac and loved them all - still do. I was a big fan also of the limited writings of Ken Kesey - particularly 'Sometimes a Great Notion'. David Grisman as I recall played mandolin on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.

I still think Live/Dead is the best live rock album of all times.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

The Other Big Deadhead truckin around on the Oz Blogs is Gary at