“Hank Williams came out of the bathroom carrying a glass of water. He was lean, slightly stooped over, and long-jawed. He shook hands (quickly, then went over to the top of the bureau, swept off a hand full of pills, and deftly dropped them, one at a time, with short, expert slugs from the glass of water.
“… so he died in the back seat of a car en route from one ratty gig to another, from one ratty dance hall to another ratty dance hall, while the world gradually came to sing his song and his Hollywoodized life was shown and reshown on late night TV and the court fight over his estate went on for years. Still goes on, I think, that legal fight, like some ghost walking the pine hills for eternity.”
Ralph Gleason died in Berkeley a few days ago; he died very suddenly, of a heart attack, early in the morning, on June 3. As I went through that day, thinking back over the 20 years I had read his columns in the San Francisco Chronicle, thinking over the countless hours I had spent talking with him, I remembered his lines about Hanks Williams, because they caught, in their rhythms and turns of phrase, the quiet intensity, the directness, the insistence of Ralph himself. And I thought of those lines, probably because they were a sort of obituary, and that was the kind of writing Ralph understood very well.
Ralph was always open to anything new, not merely open to it but eager to fight for it, as he fought for Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Joseph Heller, Lenny Bruce, the Free Speech Movement, Rock ‘n’ Roll, the San Francisco Sound, the Filmore Auditorium when San Francisco was ready to close it down. He founded, back in 1939, the first jazz magazine in America, Jazz Information, and in 1967, with Jann Wenner, he founded Rolling Stone. He fought for years to break the conservatism of jazz programming and jazz festivals, to get new musicians on TV, producing the shows himself, railing for years against those settled in their tastes, smug in their opinions. But as much as he was ready for the new, he insisted on the past, and he fought for that too.
That people be remembered for what they had done was vital to Ralph; for them to be forgotten, or worse, never known at all, was obscene. And so he fought for 30 years, with every publication for which he wrote, to get the space to memorialize musicians and writers who had mattered to him, fought for the space to accord them the respect they deserved. Ralph was at his best writing of those whom he feared might be misunderstood, ignored, dismissed easily. He was not a tolerant man; not when something he cared about was at stake. He was not much of a compromiser, because he found compromise, in one’s life, one’s work, one’s opinions, a waste of time.
Ralph had a strong sense of his place in the world, and a sense of where he came from. He was born in New York City, went to college at Columbia, moved to California in the late ’40s, and resented the East as only a Californian can. He was an Irishman whose abhorrence of violence grew out of the great deal he knew about what 150 years of violence had done to the Irish; he was a patriot who took the Constitution at face value, and his proudest accomplishment was his place on the White House Enemies’ List; he was a literary man who knew most of what was worth knowing about American novels, Irish literature, American journalism.
From the work he did and the books he read, he learned the strict ethics that governed his life. He learned, practiced, and taught the how and when of saying yes before it was too late for what you said to matter; perhaps better than that, he learned how to say no–to say no in thunder–when he chose to. A few months back, pinning down the moral ambivalence that troubled him whenever he found it, he wrote: “If Randy Newman means anything by his new album, Good Old Boys, it is that we are all one, everything is everything, witchi-tai-to, and like that… Newman is saying that beneath the hypocrisy and the prejudice and the rest, Lester Maddox is a human being after all, just like me or you… If we think we’re better than Lester Maddox we’re wrong, Newman says… “If I thought I were better than Lester Maddox or Richard Nixon there would be no point in living.”
As I knew him, Ralph’s deepest ambition was to live and work as an honorable man. He defined what that meant by the way he carried himself, by what he wrote, by the things he said, by the fights he fought, by the way he treated his friends. One could not be his friend without seeking, in some manner, to live up to the example he set–set year by year, column by column, day by day.
Village Voice, June 16, 1975