I read Ralph’s columns in the San Francisco Chronicle five times a week from the time I was ten. When I first began to publish articles about rock & roll in 1968, I had a set of favorite Gleason columns in my head. I was also sure I understood what Ralph was writing about much better than he did, and I resented his role. In my first few pieces for the old San Francisco Express-Times, therefore, I threw in little attacks on recent Gleason opinions and pronouncements—nothing fancy, nothing friendly either.
However, an article on the Coasters needed a picture, and nobody had one—nobody, that is, but Ralph, who kept a file of such things. Practically choking with embarrassment, I called him up and asked if I might borrow the photograph and then drove across Berkeley to get it. Handing me the picture, Ralph offered a little criticism of a recent column I’d written—the only one, as it happened, that contained no mention of him. A very neat way of letting me know that he was perfectly aware of what I’d been writing, without, of course, making it difficult for either of us.
He then invited me in to talk and for the next few hours I listened as he ranged over virtually every subject in which the two of us might conceivably be interested: the Great Depression, a new book on the Civil War, the corruption of the record business, the psyches of various musicians, what Dylan might be up to, the thrill of finding a box of mint Blind Lemon Jefferson records on a trip through Harlem, the coming concert by the Band, Albert Grossman’s management strategies, Mario Savio’s political strategies, Bobby Kennedy’s electoral strategies, the professor who taught him Melville in the Thirties, the possibility of a comeback for Phil Spector. When I left I was ecstatic.
In the years that followed I rarely wrote a good piece without receiving a note of congratulations from Ralph a few days later. We discussed articles we were working on and passed originals back and forth when editors mangled them. Never did a special event take place—an unscheduled concert by a favorite group, a new rumor, the arrival of a rare Dylan tape or—a few days before he died—the sneak showing of a banned film on the Stones—without Ralph making sure I knew about it. In 1969, when I complained to him about the lousy quality of the Rolling Stone record review section, he got me a job editing it. Last year when I finished a book and gave Ralph the manuscript to read, he responded with a long letter correcting my errors, worrying about possible limits on the book’s audience, comparing it to an obscure novel he and I treasured and then proceeded to go out of his way to do everything he could think of to make the book a success. A comment my wife Jenny made is the best summation of the quality of Ralph’s friendship: “He always comes through.”
Ralph’s ethics were no less straightforward; they were far more complex. When Ralph taught ethics as he did whenever one spent time listening to what he had to say—ethics were less a matter of resolving to be honest (that, among friends, went without saying and was a little naive) than learning how to avoid situations in which one would, almost inevitably, be corrupted. He described and analyzed situations in which you would trade your point of view for another’s without knowing it; the ways in which a manager or a press agent would seduce a writer; the ways in which an editor or a publisher would convince a writer to compromise when he or she should not; the plots and counterplots that were necessary to preserve your right to say what you had to say, and perhaps more important, to preserve your sense that you had something to say.
Ralph’s ethics were, no less, a matter of insisting on personal accountability. Things did not just “happen”; one was responsible for his or her own actions, even if the result of those actions did not correspond to one’s intent. You did not escape responsibility by claiming that you acted with only the best of motives so that no matter how your actions came out your hands were clean. Ralph understood Altamont as a criminal reversal of this principle; he was attacked by many good-vibe types for saying so and naming names, but there were countless smaller incidents, day to day, that were tougher fights and which cost him more.
These same ethics were at the source of Ralph’s insistence that those who had provided one with pleasure, enlightenment or inspiration were not to pass unnoticed, which is to say that Ralph wrote a lot of obituaries. That a person do important work and be ignored or forgotten revolted him. It was no accident Ralph had a long memory. You were, he thought, accountable to those who formed you; it was your responsibility, especially if you were a writer with the chance to reach others, to honor those who had mattered, who had made a difference in how you or your readers lived their lives. Ralph was the most honorable man I have known. Some who did not know him will perhaps find such a claim excessive or too “emotional.” Those who did know him well will recognize it as a simple statement of fact.
Rolling Stone, July 17, 1975 (from a lengthy tribute to RJG, with contributions by Studs Terkel, Dizzy Gillespie, Ken Kesey, John Lennon, et al.)