Category Archives: magic

Hardly Strictly Amazing: Warren Hellman and HSB


“Gonna play that shady grove, play that shady grove.” Steve Earle, “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.”

As regular, or even irregular, readers of this blog know, music plays a big part in my life. From my roots in Trenton NJ, listening to The Beatles on a cheap transistor radio, to wearing out the grooves in CSNY’s Carry On at the Jersey Shore, to catching emerging artists like Joe Pug at DC’s wonderful Hamilton, music has brought me some of life’s happiest moments. And no musical moments have been happier than the San Francisco mornings and afternoons I’ve spent with my son, his friend Greg D. and Greg’s Dad Spiros at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB as regulars call it).

HSB is the brainchild of financier Warren Hellman, one time President of Lehman Brothers, co-founder of private equity firm Hellman and Friedman, and HSB’s singular benefactor. Hatched as a small bluegrass festival 13 years ago, HSB has morphed into one of the country’s premier musical happenings, on a par with Bonaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. And it’s entirely free, regularly attracting hundreds of thousands of folks who come to listen or just graze in the grass. This year’s headliners for the event kicking off Friday, October 4, will include Bonnie Raitt, Steve Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers, and perennial closing act Emmylou Harris, this year performing with Rodney Crowell.

Crammed onto six stages over three days in the majestic urban preserve Golden Gate Park, HSB boasts a veritable who’s who of Americana, indie rock, and bluegrass acts, expertly curated by Dawn Holliday. I first attended HSB on a whim in 2005, as a father-son bonding adventure with Greg and Spiros, who I first met at the airport before boarding our jet to SF. The experience was transformative and transcendent. From the first time we entered Golden Gate park and breathed in the scent of eucalyptus and pine through the morning mist, we knew that magic was in the air.

That year, the artist I work with, Ana Egge, was on the bill, and snagged all-access backstage passes for our father/son band of four. The boys used their inside access to good use, filming interviews of everyone from Emmylou and Patty Griffen to bluegrass royalty Ricky Skaggs and Austin legend Joe Ely. The artists, too shocked and stunned by the boys nerve and pluck to object, gave candid and good-hearted quips and quotes to the enterprising young auteurs with their naive charm and handheld home video camera. Interspersing those interviews with deft concert footage, the boys created an award-winning documentary and sent a copy to Mr. Hellman. (You can watch it at ) Warren loved it, writing back that it perfectly captured the ethos and spirit of HSB. We’ve been invited back every year since as part of his “Friends and Family.”

With work and life taking center stage, we won’t be there this year. I’m feeling pangs of regret, but assuaging them with memories of HSBs past: Robert Earl Keen singing “The Road Goes On Forever (And The Party Never Ends) to close Saturday nights on the Rooster Stage, with its long narrow glen ending in a cathedral of tall trees rimming a natural amphitheater. Catching the world debut of Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, playing a thrilling, virtuoso set as they performed together live for the first time, with the late Amy Farris dazzling with her flaming red hair her muscular violin solos. Hearing Joan Baez mesmerize a crowd 40,000 strong, and feeling what it must have been like at Woodstock. Wandering backstage and watching from behind the main stage as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings weave intricate harmonies. Leaving the park as dusk as a chill descended, perfectly sated from wandering back and forth from stage to stage, wanting to drink in as much music as possible. Heading back to the quirky Del Sol Hotel in the city’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, running into Merle Haggard’s guitarist, Norm Hamlet, who couldn’t have been more gracious, having a wonderful moment in the early morning, sitting by the pool with a cup of coffee and waiting for the day to kick into gear, or running across the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise, watching the fingers of the sun caress the buildings along SF’s skyline.

Warren Hellman passed away last year, and HSB stalwart Steve Earle honored him with the song quoted above. Not only was Warren a master investor, he played the banjo too. He formed a band, The Wronglers, of like-minded folks who were passionate about life and music. Each year, The Wronglers performed at HSB’s smallest stage, The Porch. Nearly every year I went to hear them, figuring it was the the least I could do for the man whose generosity made possible the whole shebang. And each year, they improved, with Warren taking delight in every note, every song. They got so good that one of Texas’s geatest troubadors, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, agreed to perform with Warren and his band. And before Warren died, he fulfilled a dream that no doubt delighted him as much, if not more, than all his monetary triumphs. He recorded an album of classic Americana tunes with Jimmie Dale on lead vocals, and they went on tour, performing at music clubs and concert halls aroung the country. They were terrific. Seeing Warren Hellman beaming on stage and thriving, when he knew he was grievously ill, said all there is to say about the power of music. And of course, Warren lives on in HSB, his legacy, his gift.

Next year I plan to be in San Francisco, to reclaim my heart.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I describe [HSB] frequently as the world’s most selfish gift. It’s a fantastically selfish gift, but it is a gift. There are hundreds of thousands of people there who are appreciating it. Just being able to do something that is completely not commercial, that is pure, hopefully, pleasure for the participants–to create a surrounding where the musicians and professionals like it as much as the crowd does. How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?” Warren Hellman


Filed under magic, Right of Publicity, Uncategorized

Mississippi Burning Over Paris: Faulkner Sues Woody

“There’s a whole lot of magic when you’re in Paris. . . .I want to tell you ’bout all I see.  Stars in my eyes that you would not believe”  Midnight In Paris, Stephen Stills

It never occurred to me that Woody Allen and Stephen Stills shared the same aesthetic.  Stills, of course, achieved fame and notoriety as a member of The Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Still, Nash and (sometimes) Young.  He’s written and sung anthems for his generation–(“For What It’s Worth, Carry On, Woodstock)–and his battles, on and off stage, are the stuff of legend, including an episode in the early ’80s when Stephen’s then-bandmate Bonnie Bramlett  reportedly punched Elvis Costello in a Ohio Holiday Inn bar.

Woody Allen, on the other hand, has always favored wits over fists.  When Stills was telling the crowd at Woodstock that he was “scared shitless” before breaking into Suite:Judy Blue Eyes, Woody was probably playing Dixieland clarinet at his regular weekly gig at Michael’s Pub in Manhattan while pondering  the absurdity of life.  The auteur claims to have been thrown out of college for cheating on his metaphysics exam (“I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me”).  In Annie Hall, when he dates the wispy Rolling Stone writer (Shelley Duvall), his absolute disdain for the entire Rock genre is palpable.

Yet when it comes to France’s City of Lights, Woody and Stephen see eye to eye, with Woody taking a title out of the Stephen Stills songbook.  Stephen’s 1976 solo album contained “Midnight In Paris,” with lyrics celebrating the joy and wonder of that magical place.  Woody’s 2010 film by the same name not only won praise from critics and audiences, but also exuded the same spirit of awe and wonder as Stills’ song about “stars in your eyes that you would not believe.”

Woody’s Paris, too, is populated by an unbelievable constellation of stars.  When struggling writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is stranded by his shallow fiance on a gaslight Paris lane, he soon finds himself whisked upon a journey to past–to the literary salons and speakeasy of jazz age Paris, where he encounters a who’s who of the era’s cultural elite.  Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and even Dali!, populate Gil’s nightly jaunts.  When he returns to the present, aglow with  heady banter and bon mots, he’s eager to share his new-found enlightenment.  In one scene, Pender exclaims, “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”

This line added to the picture’s panache, but hardly was a defining moment.   With so many literary and artistic heroes crowding each frame, and with the Hemingway character itching for a fight in every scene, Woody’s nod to Faulkner hardly stood out.

But it didn’t escape the attention of Faulkner’s estate.  And unlike Woody’s many fans, Faulkner’s folks did not see this as a laughing matter, even though the line merely paraphrased Faulkner and gave him attribution.  They’ve sued.  Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC, the owner of William Faulkner’s literary properties,  filed a complaint in the US District Court in Mississippi against Woody’s studio, Sony Pictures Classics, Inc. for copyright infringement, violation of the Lanham, and commercial misappropriation. Faulkner’s estate asks for “damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorneys fees.” The complaint states, “The Copyright Act grants Faulkner the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the Book and the Original Quote.”  The complaint also alleges that, “The use of the infringing quote and of William Faulkner’s name in the infringing film is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and/or to deceive the infringing film’s viewers as to a perceived affiliation, connection, or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand.”

Sony’s response so far has been terse and emphatic:   “There is no question this brief reference (10 words) to a quote from a public speech Faulkner gave constitutes fair use and any claim to the contrary is without merit.”

The merits of this literary/cinematic stand-off will now be played out in a Mississippi courtroom.  Whether it will be all sound and fury, signifying nothing remains to be seen.  But even though Woody Allen may appear diffident, Faulkner should not take him lightly.  As he showed when playing Fielding Melesh in Take The Money And Run, Woody can be a  formidable interrogator.   Perhaps Mr. Allen will invoke the literary conceit from Midnight In Paris and journey to the past himself to confront his accuser, where he’d surely use his signature line of cross-examination: Are you being coy, Mr. Faulkner?

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It seemed the world was divided into good and bad people. The good ones slept better… while the bad ones seemed to enjoy the waking hours much more.Woody Allen


Filed under copyright, IP, magic, Uncategorized

Shock and Oz: Nikolai Tesla, The Forgotten Wizard

“He was a master of the art of electricity He lectured on tours and circuitry.  . . He had a room full of switches and dials and lights and a head full of clouds and eyes full of sight.”  Randolph Street by Bruce Springsteen

Thomas Edison is revered as the father of electricity.  Inventor of the light bulb.   But as this fascinating article in UVA Today reveals, a less heralded, more flamboyant,tragic figure, Nikolai Tesla, may have been the true genius, the man ahead of his time.

Tesla pioneered Alternating Current, today’s standard in the U.S.  Working at the turn of the century at the dawn of the electric age, Tesla was a true dreamer of pictures.  He envisioned a world where people communicated over long distances wirelessly.  While perhaps he did not imagine the dominance of iPhones and texting mania, his vision of the future uncannily matches our world today.

Tesla was also a showman–famous in his day for staging elaborate demonstrations of the power–and safety–of his Alternating Current.  In his New York quarters, he would leave guests awestruck as electric current coursed harmlessly through his body, or as he seemingly hurled or cradled lightning bolts in his bare hands.

Tesla was also ahead of his time in making Intellectual Property, patents in his case, the currency of his business ventures.  Tesla battled Edison repeatedly in the courtroom and repeatedly won, taking cases all the way to the Supreme Court.

Sadly, Tesla’s business acumen did not match his mastery of science and law.  He dreamed big, and his biggest ventures failed.  Investors such as JP Morgan abandoned Tesla, and he fell into the shadow of history.

But his story lives on, and as the UVA article suggests, it is high time that Hollywood took note.  Another industry already has–when a maverick auto maker decided to extravagantly launch the world’s first totally electric performance sports car, and then tag it with a sticker price guaranteed to shock, they must have figured that only a brand name that paid homage to a similarly outlandish visionary would do.  So of course, they named their $100,000 plus electric car the TESLA.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “Electricity is really just organized lightning.”  George Carlin

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Filed under IP, magic, Uncategorized