Michael Goldberg, echoing an echo

09/07/2017

I met Michael Goldberg during the summer after graduating from journalism school, in 2014. A distinguished music journalist who spent a decade writing for Rolling Stone Magazine, he had just released his first book, “True Love Scars,” and was hosting a reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera. I attended in hopes of siphoning his wisdom and he agreed to grab coffee with me afterwards. At the time, I asked him about the interior of Rolling Stone’s San Francisco offices and about his coverage of Marvin Gaye’s shocking murder. We’ve kept in touch in the years since. 

Last month, Mr. Goldberg, who has done much of his writing while living in West Marin, released “Untitled,” the final book in a trilogy that follows Michael Stein, a fictional product of the counterculture movement who comes of age during the death rattle of rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1970s. Over the course of the three books, Mr. Goldberg dispels myths about the glamorized era while remaining faithful to cherished cultural details with countless references to bands, lyrics, movies and, of course, Bob Dylan. In the final volume, the college-aged protagonist enters a tempestuous relationship with a professor and spirals out of control with the help of heavy drugs and his own self-doubt. Michael’s voice evokes the timbre of Beatnik poetry and the tender pity of Holden Caulfield. 

I caught up with Mr. Goldberg on a recent morning over cups of tea outside Toby’s Feed Barn. We discussed the book, the unique approach it takes to exploring feminism through a male gaze, and how Inverness played a crucial role in his writing process. 

 

Silas Valentino: The first thing I’ll ask, for fun, is for you to finish this sentence for me: “The dreams of the ’60s died when…”

 

Michael Goldberg: Well, the easy one is with Altamont, as a symbol. But I mean, maybe it died when Janis, Jim Morrison and Jimi died. That was certainly part of it. When I was 17, I actually interviewed Jerry Garcia (I sort of fictionalized it in the first book). This was in 1971 and I asked Jerry Garcia about the counterculture and he basically said it happened for a moment. There was a moment back in ’66 when something really changed. And then that ended. Ever since then, it’s just been an echo of an echo. 

I was 13 in 1966 and I got my parents to take me to Haight Street. It was a sunny day and there were incredible posters in the windows of the shops, people were dressed in all kinds of ways—buckskin fringed coats, Salvation Army military jackets. All the men had long hair, the women wore kind of granny dresses. People had grown their hair out and there was a whole different vibe going on. It was just beautiful. 

 

Silas: What was that beauty that struck you? 

 

Michael: It was basically an idea that there was an alternative to the kind of straight, ’50s mentality that my parents and most of this country had accepted. A consumer society, so much focus on materialism and money. It was like, okay, there’s another way to live. It kind of portended this idea that this could spread and that we could have a different world. I associated it all together:—I didn’t separate the music of Big Brother and the Holding Company from these ideas of a different kind of society. 

 

Silas: And it is within this environment that the trilogy takes place.

 

Michael: One of the stories I wanted to tell was about this group of people, like the narrator, who were too young at the time. If the narrator had been 19 in 1967, he would have been in the thick of it, but as a 12-year-old living at home, he’s not. He’s an observer from afar. But by the time he’s at college in this town not dissimilar from Santa Cruz, he’s old enough. So he and his friends are trying to have their version of a different way to live. 

The narrator’s whole thing is about authenticity. Of course, part of the humor of the books, I hope, is that he’s wearing these boots that he’s constantly referring to as his Keith Richards snakeskin boots because he wishes he was Keith Richards. He’s got his lighter, [called] the Dylan, because he wishes he was Bob Dylan. He wishes he was Neil Young. Because he thinks if he could just be a rock star, then everything would just be perfect. And he has to learn—and as time goes on, he does—that that’s just bullshit. 

 

Silas: Mike is with his best friend and they’re dropping LSD when he has a realization at the beach that he is going to be a writer. When was your moment of realization that you were going to write these books? 

 

Michael: I decided at a certain point, somewhere in 2002, that I was going to write a novel, but I knew I needed a voice to tell it. When you do journalism, there’s not a personal voice. Sometimes there is, but usually there isn’t. Certainly, when I worked for Rolling Stone, there was. Everything had to be written and edited to fit the Rolling Stone style of journalism. I spent a year doing that, and then I started writing a novel. 

I had done a bunch of that work in a place in Inverness. I was here from 2006 until the end of 2007 and then we were splitting our time between here and Portland. We were up there until 2009 and then back here basically until 2011 and I was working on this all that time. We had a house up on Douglas Drive and we also had two additional buildings. One was my wife’s art studio and one was my writing studio. I must have spent at least two years working pretty much full-time writing the first draft, which was 1,700 pages. And it was one book! 

One thing that I was attempting to do, and I think I succeeded, was I wanted every sentence in the book to sound like it could only come from the narrator. That there would be no sentence that was a piece of journalism. Nothing like “the man walked into the room.” It would at least be “the f*!%$#@ guy walked into the room.” It immediately gives you an attitude from the guy who is telling you about it. 

 

Silas: Out here is definitely a writer’s hub. Do you think you could have written these books without Inverness?

Michael: I can write in any place, but the beauty and the quiet of being up on Douglas Drive and being able to go out into my writing space… it’s just a beautiful view of Elephant Mountain. I could just focus in on what I was doing. 

Being in that space, I think it really helped to be able to go as deep as I needed to go. There are so many cultural references in the book that I really needed to research. Definitely Inverness is a huge part of these books existing. 

And one thing that is interesting—I don’t know if it’s true—but I was told that before we had this house up there, it was a bed and breakfast and Michael Chabon had finished “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” while there. When I was told that, I was like, whoa! The magic dust was floating around. He lives over in Berkeley, so it would make total sense: he needs to get this thing done and needs to be by himself, with no one around and no distractions. That’s the scene up there.

 

Silas: I know you grew up in the Bay Area and went to Tam High School. What was your relationship like with West Marin prior to moving out here?

 

Michael: When I was in high school, my friends and I came out here a lot. We’d hike the Bear Valley Trail and go out to the beach. We’d drive to South Beach and have campfires out there. And in 1971, I interviewed Banana from The Youngbloods. I had published one issue of a rock magazine when I was 17, called Hard Road. We were preparing the second issue, which we never published, and The Youngbloods lived out here. 

 

Silas: One thing I found interesting that you explored in this book was feminism. It felt like you really wanted the narrator to dive in and figure it out for himself. 

Michael: In the early ’70s, the second wave of feminism kind of hit hard. If you were 18 and out here attempting to have a relationship, you could not avoid it. You have to remember, in the ’60s, these books started coming out like “The Feminine Mystique” and “Sexual Politics,” and women were leaving their husbands. They were reading these books and waking up to the fact that they had been oppressed and used. It was like, “I’m out of here.” That was the attitude. By the early ’70s, young women didn’t want to be a second fiddle to guys and be used. 

I wanted guys who read this book to get a real dose of what sexism is and what it’s like for someone to be objectified. So I flipped the whole thing. The classic thing is the college professor who seduces the most beautiful girl in the class and they have this relationship for a semester and at a certain point he breaks things off and picks another one. And so I flipped it: let’s put the guy in the position of that 19-year-old girl and let’s have [him] talk about it [from his perspective].

 

Silas: As a journalist, you’re telling somebody else’s story all the time. This is the first time you’ve created a piece of art and now somebody gets to tell your story. Have you ever thought that this is a culmination of journalism, now that you’re the story?

 

Michael: One of the funny things I discovered about journalism, at least early on, was every story was really about me. Not intentionally, but I would find that there were certain themes that I was really interested in and would explore. I would step back from a lot of my stories and see certain themes. It was like what I cared about. Underneath the conscious story was this other story. 

 

Silas: Any themes in particular?

 

Michael: One of my themes was about the pursuit of success: the years you spend not successful when you’re working to get to this goal, and what happens after you get there. And how you maintain your situation. It’s basically, I swam out to the deep end and now I’ve got to keep afloat. Those themes would show up. You’ve got a story of the rise, the fall and the resurrection. Those themes were there long ago, when I was writing journalism. But with this, it was really telling the story I wanted to tell for once up on the surface. Not telling James Brown’s story or Robbie Robertson’s story or Lindsey Buckingham’s story or Black Flag’s story. 

 

Silas: You get to tell yours.

 

Michael: Yeah, I got to the point where I was tired of telling all these other stories. 

 

“Untitled,” the third book in Michael Goldberg’s Freak Scene Dream Trilogy, is available at Point Reyes Books.