In those years of the late 70s and 80s, when I was living next to Berkeley, and working in the city, I’d invade the Berkeley used bookstores over the weekends and often on weeknights. Of course Moe’s was really the place to go for book needs. At least on Telegraph Avenue, just a few blocks from campus. But across the street from Moe’s, down Telegraph a block or so, was Shakespeare Books. In the early 80s, I was a new father and remember taking my sons on excursions to Shakespeare Books many times with my sons during those years. I first took Alex in that baby backpack of the 70s called a Snugley. He never slept in his Snugely but always looked out, surveying the surrounding world, like a sea captain. This little sea captain in his Snugely on my back. My oldest son.
Time passed. I continued by daily commute over the Oakland Bay Bridge into my work in San Francisco. I increasingly hated working for the big corporation, one of the largest in the world headquartered in San Francisco. I became increasingly bored with the whole thing and spent nights in Berkley and Oakland, hanging out at jazz clubs and getting to be friends with people at the Berkeley jazz station at the time, KRE. There was a hot pianist in the Bay Area at the time who was a classically trained Russian pianist who was the talk of the jazz community at the time. He had grown up in Moscow listening to the jazz from America broadcast into Moscow. I became a close friend of the Russian pianist and ended up recording him live in Berkeley at Larry Blakes with Rob Fisher on bass and Eddie Marshall on drums. Andrei’s trio was causing a stir in the jazz community and I took a recording engineer into Blakes one evening to record two hours of music. Around this time, I had started writing a Jazz Newsletter about some of the music I was discovering. Like the music of Horace Silver. Or Miles Davis. Bobby Hutcherson. But the greates discovery, the music of McCoy Tyner and through Tyner, the music of John Coltrane.
All of this happening in the late 70s and early 80s.
My trips with my two boys to Berkeley would use various maps. There was our hike across the UC Berkeley campus. Our ride up the bell tower on campus. Walking down to the creek that runs through the campus. Then, going back to Telegraph and watching the lady who was always blowing bubbles or the fortune tellers or sellers of jewelry and trinkets on dark velvet matts. It would usually take a turn off Telegraph to go to a few of the great used jazz album places in the city. Leopolds Records. I carried my oldest son here in his Snugely and then brought both boys here, my youngest in the Snugely like my oldest. But also, never sleeping like all the photos of the Snugely in advertising. All parents were supposed to want their child to sleep in that Snugely. But my second son was like his older brother: always looking out, not from a sleepy, baby state. Rather, surveying it like some wisened sea captain.
Looking back on it, I would say that this was my main form of parenting for my boys. Not telling them things as much as taking them places with me. Letting them see my world from a Snugely at first to then walking with me into the places I went in those years.
After looking over the used albums at Leopolds, I usually came away with at least five new albums. At a little over a dollar a piece, they were great deals and allowed me to listen to a lot of jazz and explore more the music of McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. My discovery of the music of John Coltrane was through the music of McCoy Tyner.
It started with the discovery – in the used rack of Leopolds – the latest album called Inner Voices by jazz pianist, and former pianist for John Coltrane – McCoy Tyner. I have always loved music and my father had a jazz band in college at LSU. I was brought up listening to big bands of the 40s. I remember buying the album with a number of others from Leopold’s that weekend Saturday with my two boys. The album Inner Voices album was released in 1977 and I was lucky to find an almost new Inner Voices in the used record bin at Leopolds. Just a few months after its release. It probably doesn’t sound like any big deal to you. But it was a life-changing event for me.
After getting the Inner Voices album on that particular day in 1977, when my oldest was with me on my back, only a few months old. When I bought Inner Voices at Leopolds. Reflecting back on this period of time, I recall some definite events associated with the purchase of Inner Voices that day. We went back to Telegraph and continued on down the street towards Moe’s bookstore for a few minutes. It was always good to check it out but it seldom had stuff really out of the old mainstream. After Moe’s,I would often go to the big Krishna Kopy on Telegraph that printed my Jazz Newsletters. I had them printed on different colors of 11×14 legal paper where my review of a particular album appeared. Circulation continued to grow and I was almost thinking of turning it into an actual business. It was the cheapest way to print things up at the time. The whole copy place was a communal housing establishment for the families of the workers at Krishna Kopy.
After picking up the 300 copies of my Jazz Newsletter at Krishna Kopy, I would walk across the screet to Shakespeare’s Books. It was the Holy Grail of Berkeley used bookstores at the time.
I started frequenting the place around the time my oldest son was born and continued over the next five years with the birth of my second son.
It was on the corner, right across from Krishna Kopy. Not much of a sign announcing itself to the world. But the bookstore had little interest about announcing itself to the world.
This was one of the things that made Shakespeare Books so unique. So unusual. There was a feeling of belonging to a special group out there. The customers of Shakespeare Books. One of the largest customers was also one of the largest donors of books to the bookstore. This group consisted of the UC academic group, the professors who wanted to unload their books. Sometimes just a few books. Sometimes, entire libraries. Important books in my life seemed to have a way of arriving in the dusty shelves of Shakespeare Books. I recall that same day I purchased Inner Voices I bought one book at Shakespears also. It was the orignina edition of a 1939 book titled The Face of A Nation by Thomas Wolfe. I picked the book out after browsing in the bookstore with my oldest son in the Snugley for maybe half an hour. I had tried to read Wolfe before but simply couldn’t confront the number of words in his novels. Yet I knew I loved the images of America that he was able to invoke through his words. He was always a poet in the form of a novelist. He ws perhaps one of our greatest poets.
Now, after close to two years into the pandemic, I pull the book I bought that day in Berkeley off my office shelf and reflect back on those forty years ago. The book is on my desk, called out from its station on the bookshelf. For some reason the author is not entirely sure of right now.
I read the Wolfe book in the next week after buying it as McCoy Tyner’s Inner Voices played on my stereo system with the new JBL speakers. I read the book as Inner Voices played over my stereo system. There was a type of alchemical binding of the two I felt but never could grab hold of figuring out. I just knew that the two were pulled together in memory. An important piece of music discovered and an important piece of literature. Two at the same time. The workings of synchroncitiy? I later asked myself when I had read a number of books by Jung. An example of what is called symbol correspondence or a time that brings various symbols from various genres and mediums together at one time.
One wonders how to approach this sacred little text, a collection of the most poetic passages from Wolfe’s writings. I was so grateful for these after attempting to wade through Wolfe’s grand sea of words.
Perhaps more than anything else, this book is Wolfe’s love letter to America. All the most poetic passages from his great books about that grand symbol of America. In the mind of a true poet of America. In the body of a novelist.
More than anything, we all need this symbol of America to be conjured up again. Once it was natural for citizens. But today it takes some efforts to bring this symbol to the forefront of our lives.
The book The Face of a Nation, a collection of Wolfe’s most poetic passages, put together a year after his death were not reviewed very kindly by places like Kirkus Reviews.
“There are seventy-odd passages of varying length selected from the novels and short stories of the ‘enfant terrible’ of our literary era. We cannot feel justified in appraising this as it should be done. Thomas Wolfe has universally met with conflicting critical verdicts. This staff feels, in conjunction with some of the leading critics that Wolfe’s emotional energy, intensity, self-bound fecundity, marred his prose — that he was perhaps ‘the Tarzan of rhetoric…enamored with ‘the altitudinous, swooning prose of the 17th century’ (Alfred Kazin) and that his poetic instinct unbuckled on a kind of week-end debauch (Robert Penn Warren). Anyhow, for your record, here are the prose-poetry passages which will find a place among your Wolfe collectors, but, in other cases, only dubiously.”
They were not happy with the book.
But I discovered this review (and pretty much general response from the literary establishment) later. After I had read The Face of a Nation in 1977. And, listened to McCoy Tyner’s Inner Voices.
And knew that the two – the music and the words – had somehow melded together at the time. It certainly seemed like this to me.
It’s the memory of this time in my life that I’ll often put on something from Inner Voices and open my copy of an original 1939 edition of The Face of a Nation. And then, open up copy of The Face of a Nation.
And collect my favorites from those presented?
Perhaps a publishing project. A type of Idiot’s Guide to Thomas Wolfe’s The Face of a Nation. A collection of his poetic passages assembled after his death and not by Wolfe.
Yet still, some of the most beautiful and lyrical words ever written about America. Wolfe was a modern John Muir in the sense his desire was to express this vision of America (nature) he saw and wanted to convey to others.
The collection of Wolfe’s poetcial passages in The Face of a Nation offer a very accessibility into Thomas Wolfe’s vision of America. It is beautifully captured in this book with over 70 passages from his novels creating chapters in the book. It is some of the most gorgeous and eloquent and beautiful words ever put to America in our modern times. No one has capured the spiritual aspect of America in words better then Thomas Wolfe.
Now, it’s on the old desk tonight with the music of McCoy Tyner’s Inner Voices in the background. The book and music connected again like they were when I first discovered both of them on that day in Berkeley.
Story about the closing of Shakespeare & Co. Books after 50 years in business.
2 thoughts on “The Face of a Nation”
At the same time you were walking the streets of San Francisco with your son tucked on your back I was stocking the shelves of a bookstore in a college town on the East Coast. It was my first real job that came with a paycheck- although by the end of each week I almost always ended up in the hole due to the stack of books I’d accumulate behind the front counter during the week, one of which was The Face of a Nation. I had fallen into Look Homeward Angel and loved the flow of his prose, the way he littered the floor with words and opened up windows on a world you could look right into. And in the background there was always the sound of WRVR, NYC’s jazz station playing a never ending stream of new albums- like McCoy Tyner’s Inner Voices.
Reading this with my morning coffee brought me back through time instantly and I was, for a moment, a teenager with the world ahead of me rather than a stiff old man looking towards the back forty of my life. I carried my son in one of those rigs too every day when I went for my walks across the fields, rain, snow, sunshine, it made no difference. He was my cargo and I was his ship and I treasure those memories and the relationship we have to this day, rooted in those moments together, Father and Son.
Thank you for a wonderful reflection that literally brought a tear to my eye.
Those kid backpacks were cool. I had one too fir my kids.
Great story, John. Great memory.