Ralph J. Gleason, 1917-1975 (06/16/75)

“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.
Ralph Gleason

Village Voice, June 16, 1975

12 thoughts on “Ralph J. Gleason, 1917-1975 (06/16/75)

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  3. I’m pretty sure there’s a mistranscription up there, both because I remember reading this piece when it appeared and because as it stands it doesn’t make much sense; shouldn’t that be “If I thought I were no better than Lester Maddox or Richard Nixon there would be no point in living.”?

  4. Thanks, Edward, but for once (at last) I have an alibi. I double-checked my version from the Voice archives, and the transcription is accurate. If there’s an error, it’s theirs. But anyway, I think it makes sense as is. Newman is pretty clearly asserting that he’s not superior to these people; he doesn’t write down to his subjects–he writes about them from the inside, as actual people. The sentence that precedes the one you point to says the same thing.

  5. Actually, I misspoke–I don’t remember reading this Marcus piece, but I do remember reading Gleason’s piece on Newman and being struck by the unapologetic forthrightness with which Gleason made his point: he was quite explicitly upbraiding Newman for saying we’re no better than Maddox and Nixon–of course most of us are, or certainly should be. Thus Gleason’s sarcasm when he says “Newman means… we are all one, everything is everything, witchi-tai-to, and like that,” and thus GM’s characterizing this as an instance of Gleason saying “no in thunder.” Ask Greil if you get the chance, but I stand by my memory.

  6. Ralph Gleason was,without doubt,one of the most inspiring,passionate, readable & knowledgeable music journalists/writers who ever graced the scene… However in his ferocious polemic with Mike Bloomfield on “can a white man play the blues” he took
    the side of the nay-saying purest fuddy-duddy much to the disappointment of all those white kids who dedicated their lives to learning and loving the Blues….Pete
    Welding over at Downbeat endorsed Butterfield and Bloomfield early on….I think that History has proven Ralph Gleason to be on the wrong side of that issue.
    That doesn’t detract from Gleason’s greatness though-because his opposition made
    made newcomers to the Blues more serious and better players………

    • I think Gleason, in this column as well as others based on this theme, was criticizing the appropriation of black music by white musicians, even the most devoutly well-intended like Bloomfield.

  7. Greil, thanks for posting this, one of the best summaries of Gleason’s singular contribution to music journalism I’ve read. Ironic that this champion of the under-recognized musicians of his time goes un-mentioned in so many histories of mid-century popular music writing.

  8. Dan A.-Yes .Gleason was criticizing its appropriation-without acknowledging the love half of the “Love & Theft” dynamic-or the financial benefits of e.g. Muddy Waters,& B.B. King- that stemmed from the appropriation-not that the overall rewards deficit was overcome -but the appropriation that Gleason opposed ,resulted in an increase in profits and overall prestige for several under- appreciated,underpaid black blues musicians-…You make a great point about the irony of Gleason being excluded in the accounts of music writers from that era.

  9. Gleason’s collection, “Celebrating the Duke..” is a good introduction, but it only represents a small fraction of his writing. I would love to see a well-edited collection of Gleason’s San Francisco columns and liner notes, especially his work from the fifties. If his work is available anywhere in cyberspace please let me know…

  10. ralph gave me my first review when i was in a psycodelic rock band from berkeley ca, 1968, managed by bill graham. i sang and played electric violin with a group called dancing, food and entertainment. love u ralph

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