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A 'Smart Ass' Take On San Francisco Sound

Smart Ass: The Music Journalism Of Joel Selvin

When I was discovering music during my high school years in Northern California in the mid 1970s, one of the vital sources of information was the entertainment section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. The section was officially called Datebook but everyone I knew called it The Pink Section (because it was printed on pink newsprint).

I say it was important because that's where I discovered the writing of Joel Selvin, who was then a columnist for the Chron. His pieces ran from 1972 to 2009, and many are collected in his ninth book, Smart Ass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin.

Selvin writes about the Bay Area music scene from an insider's perspective: He was born in Berkeley and entered high school in 1965 -- just about the time things were getting interesting across the bay in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. After a short stint in Southern California during his college years, Selvin returned to the Bay Area with his reporter's notebook, then started to take notes and listen.

Full disclosure: I've interviewed Selvin in a few stories for NPR. The new book only confirms why I called him in the first place: He's seen or heard just about every significant musical moment in San Francisco, and he tells the stories in a concise, flowing style that can make you feel as if you were in the room when the music went down.

His column space in The Pink Section was limited, and he made every word count in things like a very touching eulogy for former Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick, Boz Scaggs' return to his Texas blues roots and a profile of vocalist Bonnie Raitt after the success of her multi-Grammy-winning album Nick of Time.

There are longer pieces from the Chron and other publications: a piece on the musical "underground railroad" between Austin and San Francisco in the mid-1960s; a chilling account of Sly Stone's slip into madness; the tangled mess left in the wake of promoter Bill Graham's sudden death in a helicopter crash (he had an appointment to finalize his will the week after the crash).

Graham's Fillmore ballroom gets an entire section, as do The Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival and even The Beach Boys. (Here is where I have a bone to pick, Joel: The Beach Boys over the iconic San Francisco band Santana? Really, Joel?)

"San Francisco Into the 80s" comes toward the end of the book (Huey Lewis, Metallica, Chris Isaak). Sprinkled throughout are profiles of lesser known rock musicians, blues legends and almost legends; country singers and a great profile of one my heroes, folk music producer/record label owner Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records).

The common thread here is the eclectic music that is the San Francisco sound -- because in reality there is no San Francisco sound. The fog-shrouded hills of what the other San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called Baghdad by the Bay has attracted quite a collage of musical talent over the decades that Selvin has covered the city. And from them came strains of bluegrass, soul, country and western, punk, Mexican folk music and Afro Cuban jazz.

It was a blessing of circumstance that I was born in NorCal and was able to soak up all of that music. And we are all damn lucky as well that Selvin never really left home and chose to make his living listening first then asking questions later.

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Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.