Not every author can do this. You need a big name, connections, or both. But at the end of 2008, I attended two book events that didn’t take place in anything resembling a bookstore.
The first one was for Grateful Dead 365, by Holly George-Warren, a dear friend of mine dating back to the early ‘90s, when she served as my research assistant and driver (through Southern towns) for Hickory Wind, my biography of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Since then, she’s published a half-dozen books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Gene Autry. Anyway, she somehow scored a party for the Grateful Dead book at John Varvato’s stylish men’s shop in downtown San Francisco. (Varvato has two locations in New York City, and others, elsewhere.) Varvato is a rock devotee; his store walls are studded with prints of rock, blues and R&B icons, and he offers selected music books (including another of Holly’s books, Punk 365) along with cool threads.
And so it was that the store ordered five or six dozens copies of her book, broke out the champagne, and hosted a signing party for her. Aside from Holly, the stars of the evening were Wavy Gravy, the MC at the Woodstock Festival (the subject of yet another book Holly’s working on), and several photographers represented in the Dead book, including Jay Blakesberg and Susana Millman.
By evening’s end, the piles of books were reduced to mini-stacks. And Dianne, my wife, had browsed downstairs and found a jacket I just HAD to have. Everybody won.
A few days later, still in December, Quincy Jones came to town, promoting his book, The Complete Quincy Jones.
He did do a bookstore appearance, at Book Passage in Marin County, one of the crown jewels among indie shops in the Bay Area. But, the night before, he was at the Herbst Theatre, as part of the City Arts & Lectures series, for which people pay $20 a pop to listen to authors and other creative artists talk on stage, usually with an interviewer.
In this case, I was asked to ask the questions. Partly because I’m working on my own book with Quincy; partly because, since meeting in 2001 (for another onstage chat), we’ve been friends, and have an easy time talking.
Which is what happened at the Herbst. “Q,” as his friends call him, was so impressive that, after our hour together, he faced a long line of fans who bought his book and wanted his signature. Such a long line, in fact, that they ran out of books. Again, everybody won.
From what I heard, during our time on stage and afterwards, the audience got its money’s worth. (You can hear for yourself, if you’re near one of the 170 public radio stations that will be carrying our event on or around February 15th; check your listings for "City Arts & Lectures." Meantime, www.fora.tv, which videotapes many literary events, captured part of our chat. Just search for Quincy and me.)
In a theater setting, I was able to conduct not just an interview, but added musical interludes, snippets that reminded listeners of Quincy’s many musical milestones, from his early productions with Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra to his roles with Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, “We Are the World,” and hip-hop.
But I especially liked it when, after our chat, the audience joined in with their questions. When one audience member asked if Quincy ever got burned out producing all that music, from bebop jazz in the ‘40s to hip-hop today, he replied: “Man, I haven’t even started yet!” As the audience applauded, he added: “Burnin’ it UP! Not out!” He revealed that he hopes to speak with Barack Obama about creating a new cabinet post: Secretary of the Arts. “We need a minister of culture,” said the globe-trotting Q, to encourage music education in schools. “The whole world loves our music and we don’t know anything about it.”
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