Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Herb Caen Story and why the Mighty Chronicle Columnist was Great



Peter Hartlaub, the pop culture writer for the Chronicle is doing a feature on what it meant to be mentioned in the Herb Caen column in the same paper.

I told Hartlaub that a Caen mention was the equivalent of a young comic getting a shot on the Johnny Carson show. And depending on the length of the mention, a shot at the couch. A Carson thumbs-up might have included the ultimate: Johnny asking you to come over and chat a little on the Tonight Show panel.

Caen cache, particularly on the local SF PR/social scene was not only big, but great for business. A restaurant plug was magic, (just ask the folks who ran Tadich); an endorsement of a politician was political nirvana, (call John Garamendi and Willie Brown).

And yes, I had the pleasure of making Herb's column a few times. It carried significant weight. It was like instantaneous wow and legitimacy. It sure helped too to get that good seat at the Venetian Room when seeing a show.

Here's a story involving me that made Caen's radar. I was interviewing George Benson after a performance of his at the Oakland Paramount in 1988. At the same time, BB King was in the middle run of a two-week stint at the Fairmont. I knew the PR lady at the Venetian Room and suggested how great it would be to get Benson to show up and jam with Mr. King during a late show. A surprise. Of course, that was predicated on Benson agreeing to perform after his Oakland gig. I asked Benson. He said he'd be thrilled. So after the interview, we all made a trip across the bridge over to the Fairmont and Benson sat in the packed room. Word was relayed to BB that Benson was in the room. After a brief nod, Benson went up on stage near the end of the cocktail show and he and BB King jammed together for twenty or so minutes. The crowd went wild. Lucille, (King's guitar mate name), was enthralled.

A few days later, Caen noted the event. And he made sure to mention that I was involved in the Benson-King impromptu show. Was I juiced? Dang right! A story and event that I'll never forget, and oh, by the way, the show was a killer. You should have been there.

The greatest thing about Caen was his ability to write a massive thousand words or so six days a week. Sure, he had helpers, but he still had to knock out a piece. Day after day. And yes, his love affair with Willie was occasionally boorish but still entertaining. And yes, Caen never had to lift his wallet out while dining in a nice restaurant, but hell, everybody was in on it and nobody seemed to care. If Caen said you were good, the ensuing throng more than made up for Caen's comp. It was part of the program.

I had a chance to meet Mr. Caen at Tadich one day; shortly before he died in 1997. He was charming, overly-friendly, and made a point of mentioning how "persistent" I was at calling in to his assistant, Carole Vernier. I told Caen it was because you "always complain you need items!" So there! Laughter. And a handshake from the captain of vitamin V and shreaded wheat. Now that was cool.

Still miss you, Mr. Caen. There is, to this day, nobody like you.



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18 comments:

  1. Strange De Jim,disappeared as soon as Herb passed away. He never got internet? Or..a Herb invention?. Possible.

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    1. He's still around...

      http://www.strangebillions.com/

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  2. Fall 1989: Married, baby on the way and I am trying to get my bachelor's degree. Meanwhile the Giants are surging toward the World Series. My afternoon dose of sanity was reading Herb Caen each day at lunch.

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  3. I was thinking this morning about how SF isn't quite the same without Herb around anymore. And now I read your column. I remember watching the public memorial service for Herb on TV with Robin Williams, Willie Brown & the previously mentioned Strange du Jim delivering eulogies. Have to wonder what he'd be writing about if he was still here.

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  4. Yes. One of a kind. Wonderful. Good thing Cumulous didn't buy the Chron or he would have died a very early and untimely death. He was the newspaper equivalent of the radio community that was KGOne. Sad sighs.

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  5. Mr. Caen and Johnny Carson got me through many a tough morning and night.

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  6. It's tough to convey today just how big Heb Caen was. My mother was a PR person, first informal but later professional, who knew Herb so her stuff , usually plugging a charity event, got in. And it always worked. People came. And takled about it. His column was takled about every single day. Reading it gave everyone a sort of shared experience-reading him every day0-that doesn't exist in today's fragmented world..
    And remember he was part of a fantastic group of columnists at the Cron:Art Hoppe, Stan Delaplane, Charles McCabe, many more.

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  7. Meteorologist Mike PechnerOctober 4, 2012 at 7:25 PM

    I heartedly agree, the Town is not the same without him. He was a tremendous influence on politics, culture, the Arts and society in general. I first heard the name " Rich Lieberman" in Herb Caen's column.
    I knew Jess Hamlin, who was Caen's his assistant before Carol and got an item and mention back in the late 60's and was fortunate to "get in" several times a year until he passed on. There is no doubt that seeing my name in his column helped my radio career at legacy KSFO with Gene Nelson, KYA with Russ the Moose and Al Collins, KNBR, with Frank and Mike and KCBS with Dave McElhatton and Al Hart. Caen also answered his own phone on occasions when I called in and was always tongued tied when doing so. While I think he could prop up the Chronicle single handedly, I also think he would not be happy the way the internet has made major inroads into print media. I only wish he could be lasted longer and died of old age instead of cancer. Bruce Bellingham is the only person I know along with Chris Caen who could pick up the torch...........

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  8. Rich, that was a great column. Terrific history and fine writing. I know a lot of us have kind of been asleep for a few years, like 20 or 30, but God knows we needed the rest. I hope this means you are ready to re-engage.

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  9. A mention in Herb Caen's column could be a career highlight or a shot of cred. But it's doubtful he'd have the same impact today as back then. Newspapers were still a dominant force and there wasn't really an internet to speak of. Those were the days!

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  10. He helped tie the whole weird thing called The Bay Area together. Didn't matter if you were a flaky New Ager in Marin, a debutante in SF, a bartender in Oakland or a beat cop in San Jose - he made it seem like one neighborhood.

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  11. You have shared really amazing info regarding Mighty Chronicle thanks for posting.

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  12. Yes, and I remember those good old days when the town crier stood in the town square shouting out all the exciting news of the day.

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    1. Dumb response from a baby that no doubt did not learn respect for other people as a child. I blame your dumb fuck parents for not knottingbyou fucking head when you popped off to your elders. Suck on that 9:36. And no matter what you say back everyone will know what a asshat you are for even opening your mouth. Oh have a nice day baby.

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  13. Rich. Nothing beats meeting your hero and they turn out to be cool! I've met my rock idol and he was a total awesome guy.

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  14. check out my Herb Caen tribute piece that ran in the Huffington Post

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barry-salberg/annika-sorenstam-debuts-s_b_667791.html

    Barry Salberg

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  15. I loved Herb Caen talking about his famous gin cocktails and ther revitalizing qualities: "vitamin V!" he called them.

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