Friday Five: Guns N’ Roses

There’s this whole big-hair-80s-hard-rock thing that happened in LA and kind of took over rock music for the 80s into the 90s. Guns N’ Roses were a part of that, of course, but they were also the real deal in an ocean of glam and glitter.

5. “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987): The second release off their mega-debut album Appetite for Destruction, this is a tight introduction to what the band would mean to rock.

4. “My Michelle” (1987): This was, for a time, my favorite song off the Appetite album. Gives you a flavor for the ways punk and other musical genres influenced their brand of metal.

3. “Patience” (1989): It’s a pretty ballad, a requirement for hard rock bands at the time. While there’s not much new here, the trope is on display in a masterful way. Maybe what makes this so good is that the intensity of Axl Rose can actual work with something so soft.

2. “Locomotive” (1991): From the 1991 album Use your Illusion II (which was really one album split in two), this song is a nice mix of early 90s hard rock with their 80s origins. It’s more than one song crammed into more than 8 minutes of guitar rock. Guns N’ Roses mastered a genre, even the genre’s demise.

1. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (1987): It’s one of the best songs ever. So much so you’ll probably never stop hearing it.

The Speech You Didn’t Hear on August 28, 1963

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Even if you are not familiar with the event, nearly every American knows about it because it is where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.


King’s speech is one of the most famous examples of oratory in the 20th century United States, as well as one of the defining events in our collective memory of him. Most of what we remember from the speech (in particular, the stirring conclusion) was improvised, as King embellished the written text with refrains he had used various times before from the pulpit or in smaller venues. Watched by millions on television (the event was broadcast live as well as re-broadcast that evening), it’s not surprising that most of the coverage this week will focus on King’s “dream.”

As a historian of the period, though, I don’t focus too much attention on the King speech when the event finds its way into my classes. The more important lesson I want students to grapple with is the larger context of the march within the civil rights movement.

One part of that is about the debate within Black America. King’s speech comes at a time when youth radicalism was eclipsing the influence of the “mainstream” movement within African American communities. This youth movement–contained most popularly in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (“Snick”)–was more inclined toward direct confrontation politics, possessed a strong sense of urgency, and expressed a more radical critique of US racism. King and other “establishment” movement leaders were trying to bridge this generational rift, to present their movement as simultaneously relevant to young Blacks as well as the wider (white) public.

To highlight that, I often share “the best speech you never heard” from that day–the original text of the speech John Lewis intended to give. John Lewis is a member of the House of Representatives, a passionate advocate of human rights, and a hero of mine. But back in 1963, he was a 23-year-old a leader in SNCC, and the youngest person to speak on the stage that day.

Lewis and other SNCC leaders collaborated to write his speech. Because of its incendiary tone and confrontational stance, Lewis was pressured to tone it down. You can read the text of the speech he did give that day here. Below is the text of the original speech:

We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages, at all.

In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, [for] engaging in peaceful demonstrations…

The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education. “One man, one vote,’ is the African cry. It is ours, too. (It must be ours.)

We are now involved in revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?

In some parts of the South we work in the fields form sun-up to sun-down for $12 a week. In Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by Dixiecrats but by the Federal Government for peaceful protest. But what did the Federal Government do when Albany’s Deputy Sheriff beat Attorney C. B. King and left him half dead? What did the Federal Government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?

It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the Federal Government and local politicians in the interest of expediency.

I want to know, which side is the Federal Government on?

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The non-violent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside any national structure that could and would assure us a victory.” To those who have said, “Be Patient and Wait,” we must say that, “Patience is a dirty and nasty word.” We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.

We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle we must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.

The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put in the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy, Listen, Mr. Congressman, listen, fellow citizens, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period.

We won’t stop now. All the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won’t stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own “scorched earth” policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!

Friday Five: Crosby, Still, & Nash (and Young)

One of the consistent things I read online is the blog of one of my friends, Steven Rubio. And, for as long as I have been reading him, he’s done some version of a music list every Friday. This is my homage to Steven’s great idea, but with a different purpose.

The Friday Five will be a list of five songs from one artist that I think people younger than me should know. Sometimes they’ll be my favorites, other times “the best,” other times just five to hear. Either way, a good excuse for me to share more music.

5. “Wooden Ships” (1968): Written by Crosby, Stills, and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, the song was recorded by both bands. It’s all about war, and apocalypse.

4. “Just a Song Before I Go” (1977): It’s drips the seventies, but with a kind of sadness that rings more genuine than most.

3. “Southern Cross” (1982): Just about everything Steven Stills does well is in this song. This might be their last great one.  (Sorry for dorky video.)

2. “Ohio” (1970): Neil Young’s song about the massacre at Kent State might be my favorite thing he’s ever done. Which is saying something. I like how the harmonies work here.

1. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (1969): If they had never done another thing this would have been enough. One of my favorite songs. It came in at #426 on the Rolling Stone list from a few years ago. Way off I say…

Food and History

This vignette on a recent food fair in San Francisco’s Mission District reminded me of the deep connections between food and history.

While I don’t consider myself a “food scholar,” I am a historian of community (Chicano/Latino community to be exact). Part of the challenge–and the fun–of research like that is that sometimes you are combing through the sources to see past the invisible. For example, I knew there were Latinos in the city in the early 20th century, but their small numbers (especially when compared to the ethnic Chinese population) and their diffuse settlement patterns left few traces in the traditional historical record of this “Pacific metropolis.”

One of the breakthroughs for me came with the discovery of a Spanish-language Catholic church, what was called a “national parish.” Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (on Broadway, in present-day Chinatown) was a spiritual, cultural, and physical hub of the dispersed population. It became a space within which they built community. (The full story is in chapter 2.)

This community’s existence was not only visible in the few boxes of remaining documents from the century of Guadalupe’s past, it was also visible in the businesses that I first discovered advertising on the pages of the parish’s weekly bulletin. Doctors, lawyers, and dentists who “habla español”; Spanish-language publishers, printers, and news vendors; and even a Latin dance hall all advertised to the parishioners at Guadalupe.


And so did markets and restaurants. The City of Mexico, La Novedad, and El Bule de Oro solicited customers with their promises of tamales, meats, candies, and baked goods. One celebrated their “complete assortment of Mexican effects, especially in salsas, chorizos, and all class of spices for making the best tamales” in their ads. Others, like Xochimilco Café and Azteca Grocery Store, reflected the dynamic community in the foods they provided them, culinary reminders of the past as well as their new, hybrid present.

As I wrote in the introduction to the book, food also had a lot to do with my first discovery of the topic:

In the summer of 1994 I arrived in the Bay Area as a graduate student. Having been born and raised (and educated) in Southern California, I initially felt isolated and alone as I made the necessary adjustments to a new environment. Seeking the familiar, I decided to make one of my favorite meals—enchiladas rojas, or red sauce enchiladas. My local grocery store in Berkeley provide most of the ingredients, but I reached a culinary roadblock when it came to finding the dried pasilla and ancho chilies I used to make the sauce, unquestionably the most important ingredient. In my short time in Northern California I had already made a handful of visits to “the city” via the use of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Almost all of those initial trips were to the Castro District, entailing a short walk from the 16th Street Mission District BART station. Walking down 16th for the first time, the assortment of markets with displays of fresh produce and the familiar smells of the streets of a barrio immediately struck me as familiar. On subsequent walks I noticed the small taquerías and panaderías, bars blasting oldies and Vicente Fernandez, and the church—Mission Dolores, the eponym of the district—overflowing with Sunday visitors. And so I ventured to the city once again, to the Mission, with the goal of finding my missing ingredient. I didn’t need to walk more than a quarter of a block from the station before I found a local grocery store selling a selection of dried chilies. As I stood in line it occurred to me that for the first time I didn’t feel out of place in the Bay Area. In the Spanish being spoken around me, in the look of the over-stocked corner grocery, and in the smells of the foods in my hands and on the shelves, I had a profound sense of the familiar if not the familial. While the barrios I knew from my upbringing differed from the one I stood in now, the cultural composition of the Mission allowed me to feel at home, even if only for a moment. At the same time, I recognized a distinct current of difference also flowing through this community. The observable difference within the Mission is as important as the sameness which binds it to other locales in the Chicano/Latino United States. As the impetus to my epiphanic encounter with the neighborhood, food also first illustrated the particularity of this neighborhood’s story to me. The Mexican and Mexican American favorites of my youth—the pan dulces, the dried chiles, oversized burritos—were all in ample supply in the Mission District of the 1990s. However, those Mexican flavors also share gastronomical space with popular items from Nicaragua and El Salvador. By no means a rare event in most Latin American enclaves, the presence of Central (and to some extent South) America in San Francisco is abundant. Restaurants carrying the Central American empanada or pupusa reveal the presence of a large Nicaraguense and Salvadoreño population within the district.

Elvis: 36 years later

Elvis Aaron Presley died 36 years ago today.

I remember August 16, 1977, even though I was only five. It was a rainy day in Los Angeles, as a summertime monsoon turned the summer sun into grey wetness. I remember hearing Elvis had died on the radio as my mom and I pulled into the parking lot of a local department store. When we went in, we did what lots of other people were also doing–we bought Elvis records.

The phenomenon of Elvis changes with each passing year. The further we get from his death, the less his meaning is based in the collective memory of those who experienced him first hand–who heard him on the radio in January 1956; who danced to him at their high school dances; who screamed for him in live shows; who sat in a theater to watch his memorable string of B-movies; and who remembered hearing the news of his death.

In time, Elvis is less about those who experienced some aspect of his story as it unfolded and more about the collective memory of pop culture history.

In contribution to that history, I want to share five of my favorite Elvis performances, just some of the evidence future generations will use to frame his place in rock and roll music.

5. Medley from the NBC television special “Elvis” (1968)

4. With Frank Sinatra (from his 1960 television special)

3. “Suspicious Minds,” performed live in Las Vegas (1970)

2. “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” from Blue Hawaii (1961)

1. “Today, Tomorrow & Forever,” from Viva Las Vegas (1964)



Who is a “historian”?

Chances are you’ve seen at least part of this video of author Reza Aslan being interviewed about his new book on FOX News.

The substance of the “debate” in this viral video has garnered its own “viral” status in a host of articles and blog posts debating Aslan’s actual merits as a scholar and the quality of his book to the larger field of religious history.

None of them stood out to me until this nice overview of the story from The Nation. What struck me most was the author’s critical take on Aslan’s use of the word “historian” to describe himself and his work.

I think Elizabeth Castelli does a great job examining some of the complexities of this story, especially from an academic perspective. I was also really intrigued by her reference to Albert Schweitzer, who makes the point (Castelli tells us) “that efforts to reconstruct the life of Jesus are bound to fail both because the historical archive is so irreparably fragmentary and because every life of Jesus inevitably emerges as a portrait with an uncanny resemblance to its author.”

I also think, however, that we “academics” can invoke our position to assert a kind of inflexible certainty to debates like this. By exposing how Aslan doesn’t work in the recognized ways scholars of history are trained, and by discussing just some of the shortcomings this produces in terms of final product, the matter seems settled.

As somebody who is a trained scholar of history, and as somebody who has spent their professional life working in Chicano/Latino Studies (where oral histories and community histories are valued, and questions of memory are interrogated), I do feel the need to chime in a bit on the defense of the histories preserved in our collective memories–the kinds of history that say as much (or more) about our present than about our past.

Schweitzer’s caveat about scholarship of Jesus doesn’t read to me as much as a criticism of the validity of that scholarship (although clearly that is how he meant it). To me it presents a lot of use for us as a critical framework in trying to understand what historical works often are really about–the debates of the present.

In John Sayle’s great 1996 film “Lone Star”–probably the most historical (or historiographical) film I have ever seen–one of the characters, a man named Otis Payne (played by Ron Canada), introduces his grandson Chet (played by Eddie Robinson) to some of his own personal history. Though visible African American, Otis tells the younger Payne that he is also part Seminole. When he grandson asks in amazement, “So I’m part Indian?” Otis replies, “By blood you are. But blood only means what you let it.”

That phrase packs a lot of meaning for me as a scholar. It says a lot about the issues of race, memory, and power that are at the heart of the above film, but it also says a lot about history more generally. The past is always mitigated through our decisions in the present. The usefulness of the “truth” from back then is always measured through our needs in the here and now.

I haven’t read Aslan’s book but that would be one general way I would defend what he does. Doesn’t that defend almost any story somebody tries to write about Jesus, you might ask? Well, maybe, I would say. But so what?

Graveyard Shift

I attended college from 1990-1994. Beginning with my first Christmas break and lasting until my last, for a month every winter and three months every summer I worked with a fantastic group of people processing loan and credit card payments for an assortment of small banks.

We worked from 2:00 in the morning until the work was done, generally between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. It was one of the best jobs of my life, for a few reasons. First, as I mentioned, the people were great. We had great camaraderie, conversations, and pot lucks. Second, the graveyard shift is a great way for a night owl like me to earn money. You sleep all morning & early afternoon, go out at night, then go to work. And third, the job was about numbers and sorting numbers, and that always gave my mind a bit of peace.

One of my favorite aspects of the job was that we could listen to a walkman when processing mail at our workstation. For me, that was about 80% of the job. The other 20% also had music, but the kind that was playing in the entire building, usually an adult-contemporary station called K-BIG. And so I associate music with that particular time of my life.

Back in the early 90s, nighttime radio in LA was still filled with a lot of music, very little talk, and an eclectic mix of music on some stations that didn’t play a lot of variety during the day. My soundtrack for those years was rather rock-based–I listened to a lot of metal and older 80s rock on cassette tape–but when I got tired of that, I turned on KISS-FM, KLOS, and a now defunct station called “Pirate Radio.”

I made a playlist that samples the songs I most associate with this time and place. I created it on Spotify and you can listen to it here. It has a large selection of the songs I remember working to from the radio, both the one in my earphones and the one being broadcast over the speaker system.

I can’t say they’re all great songs, or even good songs. I’m not sure I’d put too many in my top 100 either. But I find each listenable and, for me, powerfully able to transport me to another (younger) time in life.