And if you haven’t seen it, check out Margaret Talbot’s 2007 New Yorker profile of David Simon.
And if you haven’t seen it, check out Margaret Talbot’s 2007 New Yorker profile of David Simon.
You get up at six, you fix breakfast for the kids, you get them ready to go on to school. Leave home about eight. Most of the time I make biscuits for my kids, cornbread you gotta make. I don’t mean the canned kind. This I don’t call cookin’, when you go in that refrigerator and get some beans and drop ‘em in a pot. And TV dinners, they go stick ‘em in the stove and she say she cooked. This is not cookin’.
When I work, only thing I be worryin’ about is my kids. I just don’t like to leave ‘em too long. Wlien they get out of school, you wonder if they out on the street. The only thing I worry is if they had a place to play in easy. I always call two, three times. When she don’t like you to call, I’m in a hurry to get out of there. (Laughs.) My mind is gettin’ home, what are you gonna find to cook before the stores close.
They want you to get in a uniform. You take me and my mother, she work in what she wear. She tells you, “If that place so dirty where I can’t wear my dress, I won’t do the job.” You can’t go to work dressed like they do, ‘cause they think you’re not working—like you should get dirty, at least. They don’t say what kind of uniform, just say uniform. This is in case anybody come in, the black be workin’. They don’t want you walkin’ around dressed up, lookin’ like them. They asks you sometimes, “Don’t you have somethin’ else to put on?” I say, “No, ‘cause I’m not gettin’ on my knees.”
I had them put money down and pretend they can’t find it and have me look for it. I worked for one, she had dropped ten dollars on the floor, and I was sweepin’ and I’m glad I seen it, because if I had put that sweeper on it, she coulda said I got it. I had to push the couch back and the ten dollars was there. Oh, I had ‘em, when you go to dust, they put something . . . to test you.
You know what I wanted to do all my life? I wanted to play piano. And I’d want to write songs and things, that’s what I really wanted to do. If I could just get myself enough to buy a piano … And I’d like to write about my life, if I could sit long enough.”
[Photo Credit: Brandon Stanton/Humans of New York]
For the last six months, my magazines, once a beloved and essential part of my media diet, have been piling up, patiently waiting for some mindshare, only to be replaced by yet another pile that will go unread. I used to think that people who could not keep up with The New Yorker were shallow individuals with suspect priorities. Now I think of them as just another desperate fellow traveler, bobbing in a sea of information none of us will see to the bottom of. We remain adrift.
As Alexis Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic, “it is easier to read ‘Ulysses’ than it is to read the Internet. Because at least ‘Ulysses’ has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.”
Some days, when I board the bus or train to the city, I’ll stash a print copy of The Journal in my bag with a magazine or two, in high hopes of reading them. And after I settle in, I will check my email on my phone. The relevant message usually comes in faster than I can get rid of it. Sometimes when people ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to say that I write emails.
…Still, there was some trouble in paradise on the Ethan Allen Express. More than a few people around me were cursing the indifferent Wi-Fi as they desperately tried to remain tethered to the grid. Behind me, a passenger made serial phone calls in a mind-erasing loud voice. “I’m on the train!” he would always begin.
It struck me that part of the reason we always stay jacked in is that we want everyone — at the other end of the phone, on Facebook and Twitter, on the web, on email — to know that we are part of the now. If we look away, we worry we will disappear.
We are all on that train, the one that left print behind, the one where we are constantly in real time, where we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really. And there is no quiet car.
[Picture by Bags]
I tried to read The Hobbit when I was a kid but I thought it was boring and I didn’t make it too far. I never read J.R.R. Toilken’s famous Lord of the Rings triology. But I did enjoy Joan Acocella’s review of Toilken’s newly-published translation of Beowulf:
As an adult, Tolkien could read many languages—and he made up more, including Elvish—but the number is not the point. Even in secondary school, Carpenter says, “Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all.” Or, in the words of C. S. Lewis, his closest friend, for a time, in adulthood, he had been inside language. Perhaps he couldn’t come back out. By this I don’t mean that he couldn’t talk to his wife or his postman, but that Old English, or at least that of “Beowulf,” was where he was happiest. He knew how it worked, he loved its ways: how the words joined and separated, what came after what. Old English is where he spent most of the day, in his reading, writing, and teaching. He might have come to think that this language was better than our modern one. The sympathy may have gone even deeper. Like Beowulf, Tolkien was an orphan. (He was taken in by his grandparents.) He grew up in the West Midlands, and said that the “Beowulf” poet, too, was probably from there. He did not have difficulty living in a world of images and symbols. (He was a Catholic from childhood.) He liked golden treasure and coiled dragons. Perhaps, in the dark of night, he already knew what would happen: that he would never publish his beautiful “Beowulf,” and that his intimacy with the poem, more beautiful, would remain between him and the poet—a secret love.
[Picture by Jeffrey Alan Love]
Put the Needle to the Groove…
[Disclaimer: This mix is rated R for "Dirty Words." Not safe for work. Or, as Richard Pryor once put it: "Fuck censorship and its Mama."]
I listened to a lot of rap records starting in the late ‘80s throughout the ‘90s. I bought vinyl, collected mixtapes, and stayed up late to record mix shows on WNYU (89.1) and WKCR (89.9). I’d put aside enough material to make a half-dozen mixes, and so when my old chum Alan (a/k/a illchemist) approached me last December about doing another full-length mix project (our last one, Borough to Borough, was made in 2000), I had plenty of material to choose from.
My idea for this one was to re-create the feeling you get listening to late night radio show featuring beats, rhymes, and scratching, movie dialogue and comedy sound bites. At the start I had only a rough idea of how I wanted it to go: light and bouncy to start, boom bap head-bangers in the middle, segueing into an extended cool-out section to wind out.
The way Alan and I work is that I bring all the records and a whole bunch of scenes from movies and comedy albums. We start building one track at a time and then begin to stitch a few songs together and get an idea of blocks and what the overall form will be. There are at least 6 or 7 songs that we had in early versions of the mix along the way—songs that I was begging to find a place for like Primo’s original version of “Memory Lane” or my friend Jared’s remix of Freeway’s “How We Do”—but had to be cut because they didn’t fit. One of the many nice things about collaborating with Alan, is that we’re cool with losing something if we agree that it is not working.
Alan’s approach to adding samples to a mix is like returning a serve. He doesn’t have anything particular in mind but picks up on whatever I send him and then goes from there.
“That way,” he says, “the mix really becomes a dialogue instead of a debate. It really is like volleying back and forth, because you never quite know where it is going.”
While I love lyrics and the flow and quality of different rappers’ voices, Alan hears records more as collections of frequencies, and how they add up to make the right vibe. He concentrates on the sonic content than anything else” he says. “A mix can contain anything. Music is only part of the spectrum. The vibe is the overall directive, made out of everything put together: frequencies, rhythm, and cadence. The sound of a record speaks it’s own language. Everybody knows what bass and treble are, and you know what happens when you turn one up. Get a good bassline, get a good drum part and it becomes its own mantra.”
“Once you have a foundation,” he continues, “adding bits of spoken word gives new context to the track as well as to the bits of dialogue you use. Making these bits fall in rhythm adds a weight to them, like a speech or a sermon, or a lyric.”
The samples and dialogue we like never strays too far from a basic core of funky records, old movies, cartoons and funny, cool shit of any variety. Some of it is stuff that we’ve had stuck in our heads for decades. A sound bite might be an in-joke to us—all of our samples are autobiographical, really—but we think everyone will get it (and if they don’t, whaddya gonna do?)
When we made Borough to Borough, I’d bring records and videotapes to Alan’s house (we both lived in Brooklyn at the time). We’d digitize the material in real time and go from there. We spent about 120 hours working together on it. This time around, I thought we might be able to make a full-length mix album in half the time. Turns out we spent just as many hours on it. The difference is the ease of the workflow. If Alan thinks of an idea he doesn’t have to get up, go hunt around for the record, find it, bring it back, put it on the turntable…by the time he’s done all that the idea is gone.
Now, we had the luxury of having more time to think of it instead of laboring to do it. It’s a different time warp. We had more time to live with it. We could have done it in a month but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good. We needed to hear it repeatedly—me listening on my iPhone on my subway commute to work, and Alan, seemingly, just hears it in his head all the time, and is always thinking about what to add or subtract—before we could really fill in all the blanks.
The technology freed us up to ponder it. We were able to float for days at times and let things come us instead of fretting over it. And we didn’t spent one minute together in the studio. We Skyped every week but mostly I’d send Alan an email with notes, he’d take a pass at it, put it in Dropbox. I’d listen, give more notes, and back and forth like that we’d go, volleying until we were satisfied.
So, there you have it. We’ll post three singles and a mini-mix–12 minutes of just the sound collage stuff–throughout the week.
We hope you dig it. Happy Spring.
Another Fine Mess
Maracas Beach (1978)–Grover Washington Jr.
The Emcee (1998)–MC Lyte with Milk D
Illusions (1993?)–Cypress Hill (Q-Tip Mix)
Devotion ’92–Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf
Behind Bars (1992)–Slick Rick (Prince Paul Remix)
Skinz-Yabba Dabba Do (1992)–Pete Rock, C.L. Smooth, Chubb Rock
Moon River (1985)–Fletch, Nelson Riddle
Meat Grinder (2001)–MF Doom and Madlib
Time’s Up (1994)–OC (Jared Boxx Mix)
Friend or Foe ’98–Jay Z (produced by DJ Premier)
B Ball Interlude (1998)–The Beastie Boys
New York Love (1996)–Sun Dullah, Doo Wop (Stretch blend)
’95 Wake Up Freestyle–Tha Alkaholiks with Xzibit
Rework the Angles (1999)–Dilated Peoples, AG, Defari
Fargo Silence (1996)–Steve Buscemi
Lemonade (1992)–Gangstarr and Madlib (Al and Ill Blend)
Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka (1996)–Heltah Skeltah
Day One (1997)–D.I.T.C.
Maracas Beach Reprise (’78)–Grover Washington Jr.
Can I Kick the Wild Side? (1989)–Lou Reed and A Tribe Called Quest (inspired by J Rocc)
Soul Flower (We Got) (1993)–The Pharcyde and Quest (Gummy Soul Mix)
On Wid Da Show Skit (1996)–Kardinal Offishall
When it Pours it Rains (1999)–Diamond D
I am Me (1994)–Common
Eye Patch Skit (1993)–De La Soul
Open Your Mouth (1997)–Prince Paul
Haagen-Daz (1998)–The Blvd Connection featuring Tame One
Animal Crackers–Chico and Groucho Marx
Sunrays (2001)–Yesterdays’ New Quintet/Madlib
Another Fine Mess (Track By Track)
Maracas Beach (Grover’s Theme). In 1996, Siah and Yeshua daPoED, a duo from New York, released their LP Visualz on Bobitto’s Fondle ‘Em label. The first cut on the album used this Grover Washington record. I could never find an instrumental version though I knew one existed because I heard it one night on DJ. Riz’s show on 89.1. It felt like the perfect late night groove for a hip hop radio show. A theme song. I’ve wanted to use it ever since and it was the first thing I talked about with Alan for this project. I knew I wanted to use it at least twice, maybe even three times (in the end, we used it just the two times). I downloaded a re-created version of the Siah instrumental that I found on You Tube a few years ago and that’s what we use here.
We tried a few different movie bits to start the mix. The first thing we came up with was Myrna Loy and William Powell from The Thin Man. For a long time we introduced that with Bill Murray from Stripes. It was fine but not inspired. Eventually, we tried Lauren Bacall’s famous bit from To Have and Have Not. It wasn’t just her line—“you just put your lips together and blow”—that makes the scene memorable, it’s all the other dialogue leading up to it. I was leery at first about using such a well-known quote because we don’t want to hit things too squarely on the head, but Alan knew exactly what to do with the clip and when he rearranged it in a new order he made it shine.
The Emcee. This is something I came across on Oliver Wang’s beautiful site Soul-Sides. He ran a series of posts a few years ago called “The Great Rap Purge” featuring some lesser-known but quality songs. Lyte is one of my favorite emcees and this record spoke to me with its re-working of the “Top Billin’” beat. We augmented it with: Audio Two – “Top Billin’”; Carmen Miranda – “Mama Equiero”; The Dramatics – “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”; The Honeydrippers – “Impeach The President”; The Jacksons – “Blame It On The Boogie”; Public Enemy – “Bring The Noise”; Shirley Temple – “On The Good Ship Lollipop” and Shirley Temple – Poor Little Rich Girl.
Alan: On “The Emcee”, MC Lyte opens the track with the lyric “My my my ghetto” which is a twist on the song “Mama Equiero” which most people know as a signature Carmen Miranda song, often used in cartoons as well as a lip-sync routine that Jerry Lewis did at the beginning of his career. MC Lyte then quotes the melody from “The Girl From Ipanema” (coincidentally also Brazillian) but I didn’t want to cover all the vocals from the get-go. “Impeach The President” by The Honeydrippers has one of the most sampled beats in the hip hop lexicon and is at the root of where the MC Lyte track comes from.
Illusions. I first heard this on a compilation of Cypress remixes. Q-Tip did the production and the bounciness of it all always hit me right. I’d almost forgotten about this record but when we were first thinking about tracks for this mix I scoured my collection and was happy to find it again. The vocal is a clean edit so there are a few gaps that we filled in—with sound bites from Nina Simone, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Bill Cosby, of all people, saying, “Titties” from his For Adults Only LP (Hard to find, but funny as hell.) The last bit is an uncredited actor and Woody Allen from Take The Money And Run.
Alan: Stitching MC Lyte and Cypress Hill together is “On The Good Ship Lollipop” by Shirley Temple, and “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” by The Dramatics, which has lyrics that are common in the first two songs (“Some people.. are up to no good). This record has been a favorite of mine forever.
Devotion ‘92. Charizma had passed away by the time his production partner Peanut Butter Wolf put out the LP Big Shots on his Stones Throw label in 2003. Wolf also released a 45 with two different mixes of “Devotion” in 2000. “Devotion ’92” had a 3rd Bass kind of vibe and “Devotion ’93” has a Pharcyde “Otha Fish” feel. When I brought up the idea of using it Alan found a place between the transition we already built between “Illusions” and “Behind Bars” so we just stuck the first verse in the middle.
Alan: The organ part in “Devotion” reminded me a lot of “Whap!” by Brother Jack McDuff, which, if I ever had a talk show, would be the theme song (if only the first 30 seconds).
Behind Bars. I met Prince Paul one day in the late ‘90s at the office/studio of my pal Steinski. Paul had put out a small mix tape cassette to promote his concept album A Prince Among Thieves. The first portion was a highlight reel of his finest production. Sandwiched somewhere in there was this beat for “Behind Bars”, a version that had never been released. When I e-mailed Paul about it he said maybe one day he’d put it out and then ended his email with, “Muh-huh-ha-ha.” More than a decade later he made good on his promise and posted the song on Spotify.
Alan: The chord progression on “Behind Bars” is a little bit of vaudeville, so adding Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” to it seemed just right. We had used Nilsson’s “Me And My Arrow” in “Borough To Borough” so there was a bit continuity, even if it was only me and Alex who noticed. Billy Eckstine’s “I Love The Rhythm Of A Riff” is in there toward the end. One of the first swing records I ever remembered seeing on a “soundie”, the precursor of the music video. That’s Jackson Beck at the end, from Take The Money And Run.
Skinz-Yabba Dabba Doo. I always dug “Skinz” the final track on Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s debut LP and for a long time thought it’d be cool to see if it could be blended with the Chubb Rock verse from “Yabba Dabba Doo.” We tried it and it fit seamlessly. In order to extend the beat some, we went to the original sample, “Down Home Girl” by the Coasters, and laid over a bit from Young Frankenstein featuring Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn. That’s Allan Lane from “Mr. Ed”. The bell sound is from De La Soul is Dead.
Alan: As “Down Home Girl” by the Coasters was the foundation of “Skinz” and “Yabba Dabba Doo”, I added some extra Coasters (“Little Egypt”), and some extra Flintstones bits, from the episode “Ten Little Flintstones” where aliens who look like Fred are walking around saying the only thing they know how.
Moon River. There’s a bunch of stuff I thought about pulling from Fletch but this exchange between M. Emmett Walsh and Chevy Chase stands out, don’t it? Originally we tried it in the clear but Alan thought we should lay some music behind it. And since we already were messing with a segment from Lolita later in the mix, we tried the movie’s “Ya Ya Theme” by Nelson Riddle and that worked for us. Also threw in the “comedy is not pretty” line from Steve Martin’s stand-up album of the same name.
Meat Grinder. I first heard the Madvillian collaboration between MF Doom and Madlib on a bootleg CD six months before the record was released. My pal Jared Boxx at the Sound Library gave it to me and I prefer the less polished demo to the final album. Doom’s cadence and the vibe of this record is just so murky and different I thought it’d be a perfect transition record to the tougher part of the mix. We’d tried the Steve Martin “Comedy is not pretty” line in the intro originally but found it’s natural home following the Fletch routine.Doom’s line about Rod Lavers/quad flavors is so fresh it just called us to add something. I thought of the line from Bill Cosby’s street football routine: “Stop on a dime and give you nine cents change.” Alan added a little echo and it worked like a charm.
Alan: I added a bit of old Hawaiian music (Nelstone’s Hawaiians - “Fatal Flower Garden”) to add to the guitar in the track. Adding “Tom Sawyer” by Rush seemed obvious but it took up too much space in the track.
Time’s Up. OC’s debut single in 1994 is masterful. The Queens-bred Emcee reportedly spent a year writing the rhyme and it stands as one of the most fully-realized rhymes—let alone debuts—ever put on vinyl. In the early 2000’s, Jared made a CD of remixes—laying accapella’s over beats—and this one always spoke to me. The music is an instrumental version of Latee’s “Brainstorm” which was produced by the 45 King. The sound bite at the beginning is Harold Peary from Arch Oboler’s “The Laughing Man” routine and Mel Blanc from “Chow Hound”.
Friend or Foe ’98. My favorite track on Jay Z’s sophomore album. Like the original “Friend or Foe” it was produced by DJ Premier. The driving beat, the cinematic nature of Jay’s rhyme, the economy of it all—the full track is under two-and-a-half-minutes long—make it a favorite. That’s Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schruete at the head. Yeah, the goofiness of the sound bite is incongruous with the mood of the record but I just had to use his “Those are the money beats” sample somewhere and it fit here. After Jay’s verse, that’s Gene Hackman from Mississippi Burning. Gene’s good at punctuating, you know?
Beasties Interlude. This is two different bits from the Beasties’ fourth record, Hello Nasty. Just things I always earmarked to use one day. Figure why not mash them together? This was another case of something finding it’s proper place. I originally tried using Marty Feldman saying “Bluecha” with a horse neighing from “Young Frankenstein” earlier in the mix but Alan found it’s proper shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits place here. It’s our big fart joke of the record. The cheapest, slap you in the head funny.
New York Love. Back when the East Coast/West Coast tension was at its height, Sun Dullah, formerly King Sun—whose “Blackberry Brandy” was an underground favorite—put out this Tupac diss record. Doo Wop did the beat. It’s a real head-nodder and I love the directness and common sense of the lyrics. It became a cult favorite around New York. I recall being in Fat Beats, the record store on 8th Street, the day Tupac died and the house DJ spun this record.
The first time I heard it was on Stretch Armstrong and Bobitto’s radio WKCR radio show. It was late May, 1996 and I happened to be up late listening to the show—which ran from 1-4 am—with my finger on the pause button of my cassette machine. I taped Stretch’s blend and last summer I went through a box of old tapes, found it and digitized it. It still sounds great. So we used Stretch’s blend here, with a few edits. The routine at the start pits Kevin Hart against Romany Malco, with a little bit of Steve Carrell, from The 40 Year Old Virgin. I was looking for something hard, dialogue from a gangster movie or something, for this song. But when I heard the fight in The 40 Year Old Virgin I thought, Nah, this is even better.
Alan: The guitar and grunt part from the bridge “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” (the hit version by Hugo Montenegro as opposed to the original soundtrack) seemed a good add to “NY Love”, wild west shootout drama and all that. To the mix we added, “Dr. Jerry” Carroll from a “Crazy Eddie” TV commercial, Jay Bird singing “Rockaparty” and Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out Of My Life Woman”.
’95 Wake Up Freestyle. I first heard The Wake Up Show on vinyl. They pressed a few records featuring freestyles from the show. This one features tha Alkaholiks right around the time their second album, Coast II Coast, was released. I love the stripped-down beat and just how these guys jumped on it with their rhymes. The sound bite at the head comes from a skit at the end of “Smoke Budda” from Redman’s third LP, Muddy Waters.
Alan: The samples added to “’95 Wake Up Freestyle” were some of the last things we put in. Bits of late ’40′s and ’50′s R&B: “Such a Night” by the Drifters, “Happy Feet” by Red Prysock, “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66″ by the Nat “King” Cole Trio, and the original “In The Mood” by Edgar Hayes. Really brought a new context to this.
Rework the Angles. One of the last songs we added. I like all 5 verses on the record but we cut out the last two for economy not because they aren’t good. In fact, losing Rakaa’s verse (the fourth one) was one of the toughest cuts we had to make. I dig Xzibit’s final verse too but was able to live easier with cutting it because his verse ends the previous track. The spoken word at the start of the track is William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man.
Fargo Silence. We did a lot of work on this scene from Fargo featuring Steve Buscemi. A lot of cutting, rearranging, making sure the timing was just right. It was fun adding an old-timey Coen brothers kind of tune like “Will There Be Any Yodelin’ In Heaven” by the Girls of the Golden West in the background.
Lemonade Was a Popular Drink. I remember going to The Sound Library sometime in 2000-2001, and seeing a white label Madlib record. It was a compilation of beats and little sketches. This one, “Beat Number Ten” flattened me. A few years later, Alan and I were messing around and we blended Guru’s first from “Dwyck” with “Beat Number Ten.” We never did anything with it until now. After we came up with a name for the mix–”Another Fine Mess”–we figured we had to snake in a little Laurel and Hardy somewhere. So here they are, the dialogue is from Busy Bodies. And to close out, that’s Mel Blanc from 8 Ball Bunny.
Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka. This track was from Heltah Skeltah’s debut record during Boot Camp Click’s heyday in the mid-‘90s. The rhymes are fun but in this case we were looking for a transition beat from the more up-tempo songs that precede it and the more mellow beats that follow. That pitiful little “Yeah?” that we use at the beginning is Leo DiCaprio from The Wolf of Wall Street. And then Margot Robbie from the same movie (in a supporting role she stole the show). The come-on bit is Madeline Kahn from Blazing Saddles, followed-up by Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad Of Irving.”
Day One. Another mid-‘90s classic. A true head-nodder. This was the first single off the D.I.T.C album. It’s perfect backdrop for a sound collage sketch. I wanted to use the scene between Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor when she invites him to screw on the rug—“the Oriental.” We added the Catherine Scorsese stuff from Italian American. It’s one of my favorite Scorsese movies, a short documentary featuring his parents in their apartment in Little Italy talking about their lives in New York. His mother is especially hilarious. I love way she speaks and the way she sounds. I could listen to her talk all day. And since food is right behind sex as a preoccupation I figured what better way to introduce the love-making between Jack and Anjelica than to have Scorsese’s mom talk about meatballs and sauce. We also snuck in Lily Tomlin.
Grover’s Theme Reprise. This time we lace our theme with Cary Grant & Mae West from I’m No Angel, Jackie Gleason from The Honeymooners (“The Safety Award”), Margot Robbie from Wolf of Wall Street, Richard Pryor (“Have Your Ass Home By 11″), and Lord Buckley’s “The Hip Gahn” off Euphoria, Volume ll.
Can I Kick it? We ripped off this blend of Tribe’s “Can I Kick it?” and its source record, “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed from a J Rocc mixtape. It was one of the first selections for this project and initially we used a whole block of songs from the J Rocc mix. But as we worked on it we decided we didn’t need to grab so much from J Rocc just use it as a starting point. So we used his stellar work as inspiration and added our own thing to it. The refrain we built when Tip first sings “Can I kick it?” features the voices of Jack Nicholson, William Powell and Gene Wilder. When Phife sings, “Can I kick it?” the voices belong to Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth.
Alan : Expanding on the elements already present in “Can I Kick The Wild Side”, Lou Reed, A Tribe Called Quest” and Lonnie Smith, who’s record of “Spinning Wheel” is where the drums come from. If you’ve ever seen the ATCQ documentary, there’s a scene where Q-Tip takes out the album and plays it, and shows his reaction when he first heard that beat. That’s the kind of moment you never forget if you spend a lot of hours placing a needle on a record expecting something magical to come out. I’m also a big Lord Buckley fan, and his use of the phrase “spinning wheel” made it mandatory to use in the track. That’s how it is with sampling. When you find something that good, you HAVE to use it, it’s the LAW.
Soul Flower. This is from Gummy’s Soul’s remix project that blending vocals from the Pharcyde’s first record over instrumentals by a Tribe Called Quest. Gummy Soul always does good work but this mix is my favorite. There were a couple of songs we considered using but this one seemed to work really well out of the previous track. So we expanded the idea and made an 8 minute Quest tribute. This one went through a lot of changes. In the end, Alan added a patch of the awesome beat of “Don’t Change Your Love” by the Five Stairsteps (more famous for the record “O-o-h Child”) and some Sun Ra (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated”). Then brought back the “If you find earth boring” over the chorus. Alan also found a way to sneak in Richard Pryor, “Shot him in the ass on the down stroke.”
On Wid Da Show. I worked in L.A. from November of 1996 to April of ’97. I used to drive to east Hollywood and buy records at the small Fat Beats outpost that occupied a cozy second-floor space in the Beastie Boys’ clothing shop. That’s where I bought this single by Cardinal Offishall. The rhyme was fine but not memorable on its own but the beat was infectious. Another one I’ve always wanted to put to good use. We augmented it with “Luv Is” by Bill Cosby, “Around the Way Girl” by LL Cool J.
The dialogue blends Gerry Bednob’s hilarious advice from The 40 Year Old Virgin with Shelley Winters and James Mason from Lolita (with a touch of Albert Brooks from the “Phone Calls From Americans” off his Star is Bought album).
Alan: A little bit of “Rapper’s Delight” and “Hikky-Burr”, a Quincy Jones piece that was also used as the theme song for the first Bill Cosby Show, leads into “Luv Is”, a track from one the odd music albums that Bill Cosby did.
When it Pours it Rains. This came from the second Rawkus Soundbombing album. I’ve always been a sucker for Diamond’s rhymes. He isn’t profound but I like his phrasing and the sound of his voice. Plus, he makes me smile. That’s Sue Lyon counting at the start from Lolita.
I Am Me. Common’s second album, Resurrection, came out in 1994 when he was still known as Common Sense. It quickly became one of my favorites, partly for the clever and sometimes penetrating wordplay and mostly for the production. This was the final track we selected and really it was because I wanted another rhyme at the end of the mix. The sound clips towards the end of the track come from Bill Murray and Roberta Leighton in Stripes.
Eye Patch Skit. I love being able to use a skit as a transition and this was always a favorite queue off De La’s third album. I like the sheep sound and the French. Again, that’s Bill Murray from Stripes. I wasn’t sure about having it back-to-back skits. The next track is also a skit, but they were both produced by Prince Paul so I figured we could fuse them together as one.
Open Your Mouth. A skit from Pyschoanalysis, Prince Paul’s self-released record. Figured it’d be fun to work some food dialogue to play against the “Open your mouth, I’m going to put something nice into it” refrain. So I turned to my favorite scene from Fatso, Ann Bancroft’s 1980 directorial debut starting Dom DelLuise. The other voices are from Ron Carey and Richard Karron. And the Homer Simpson line is from Dan Castellenetta, of course, from “The Principal and the Pauper” episode of The Simpsons.
Haagen-Daz. I got this EP in the late ‘90s down at the Sound Library and my man Jared used to spin the instrumental all the time. It’s long been one of my preferred late-night, hypnotic tracks. Plus, I love Tame’s verse so had to include that. As for the spoken word, it was natural to think of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a possible source for this project. He died just a few months ago and even when he was alive was a guy worth searching on You Tube just to enjoy his robust, sometimes hammy acting. I thought there might be a good quote relating to music from his turn as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. I found this scene with him on the phone. It is in the clear, meaning there isn’t music in the background (one of the biggest considerations when hunting for movie clips is to get dialogue in the clear). I love Hoffman’s sweetness and vulnerability. The intimacy of his voice complemented the music nicely.
Also figured this was as good a time as any to slide in some Jeff Bridges as the Dude from The Big Lebowski. I worked as an assistant film editor on that movie and one of Ethan’s favorite lines while they were editing was the Dude moaning, “Awww, man.” (we also used to say, “Yeah, I gotta rash, man” all the time, too). So that’s why I used it here. And we finish the track with Robert DeNiro, Charles Grodin and Joe Pantoliano from Midnight Run with a “Hello?” mixed in there from Albert Brooks.
Animal Crackers. Chico and Groucho Marx from their second movie, Animal Crackers (1930). This is part of a longer sequence where Chico annoys Groucho even longer playing “I’m Daffy Over You.” It’s one of the great smart ass musical comedy bits of them all. Always wanted to use it for a mix. Joining them is Catherine Scorcese from The King of Comedy. We ended up cutting Chico and Groucho’s final lines when Alan found a better transition from The Seven-Year Itch. It was one of those cases where both pieces worked but we thought The Seven-Year Itch stuff was fresher and also made more sense with the rest of the spoken word material on the final cut.
Sunrays. We were stuck for a finale. Tried a bunch of different songs and nothing worked. I couldn’t get it off my mind for days. It wouldn’t let me alone. I knew once I stopped pressing I’d find the right song and that’s just what happened when I came across “Sunrays” from Yesterday’s New Quintet’s ep, Elle’s Theme. My friend Steven used to manage a bistro on 22nd Street and 2nd Avenue. Thursday night was DJ night and I use to play a couple of times a month. “Sunrays” was always part of my rotation. Hearing it again I was struck by how ideal it is for being lacing with spoken word, especially for the last track on the mix which we wanted to have an ethereal, dreamy intimate feeling. So we added the following: Marilyn Monroe & Tom Ewell: The Seven Year Itch; Henry Winkler: Happy Days (“Mork Returns”); Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda:The Lady Eve; Walter Matthau: from a documentary on Billy Wilder; Mae West and Cary Grant: I’m No Angel; Humphrey Bogart: To Have And Have Not; Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin: All Of Me; Notorious B.I.G.: “It Was All A Dream”; Myrna Loy and William Powell: The Thin Man, and Marvin Hatley: “Dance Of The Cuckoos”.
Complete list of samples:
Lauren Bacall & Humphrey Bogart: To Have And Have Not.
Myrna Loy & William Powell: The Thin Man.
Audio Two: “Top Billin’”.
Carmen Miranda: “Mama Equiero”.
The Dramatics: “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”.
The Honeydrippers: “Impeach The President”.
The Jacksons: “Blame It On The Boogie”.
Public Enemy: “Bring The Noise”.
Shirley Temple: “On The Good Ship Lollipop”.
Shirley Temple: Poor Little Rich Girl.
Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddamn”.
George Carlin: “Toledo Window Box”.
Cheech & Chong: “Pedro’s Request”.
Chris Rock: “Women”.
Bill Cosby: “Bill’s Two Daughters”.
(uncredited actor) & Woody Allen: Take The Money And Run.
Brother Jack McDuff: “Whap”.
Nilsson: “Gotta Get Up”.
Art Carney: The Honeymooners (“The Sleepwalker”)
Billy Eckstine: “I Love The Rhythm In A Riff”.
Jackson Beck: Take The Money And Run.
Allan Lane: Intro from Mr. Ed.
The Coasters: “Down Home Girl”.
Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder:Young Frankenstein.
The Coasters: “Little Egypt”.
(uncredited voice) from The Flintstones (“Ten Little Flintstones”).
U-Roy: “Wake The Town And Tell The People”.
De La Soul: “De La Skit”.
M. Emmett Walsh and Chevy Chase: Fletch.
Steve Martin: “Comedy Is Not Pretty”.
Nelstone’s Hawaiians: “Fatal Flower Garden”.
Bill Cosby: “Sneakers”.
Harold Peary from Arch Oboler’s “The Laughing Man”.
Mel Blanc: Dialogue from “Chow Hound”.
Rainn Wilson: The Office (“Money”).
Gene Hackman: Mississippi Burning.
Marty Feldman: Young Frankenstein.
Kevin Hart, Romany Malco and Steve Carrell:The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Hugo Montenegro: Theme from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.
“Dr. Jerry” Carroll: TV commercial for “Crazy Eddie”.
J. Bird: “Rockaparty”.
Lee Dorsey: “Get Out Of My Life Woman”.
Redman: “Smoke Budda”.
The Drifters: “Such A Night”.
Red Prysock: “Happy Feet”.
Nat “King” Cole Trio: “(Get Your Kicks) On Route 66″.
Edgar Hayes: “In The Mood”.
Yes: “Long Distance Runaround”.
Steve Buscemi: Fargo.
Girls Of The Golden West: “Will There Be Any Yodelin’ In Heaven”.
Laurel & Hardy: Busy Bodies.
Mel Blanc – Dialogue from “8 Ball Bunny”.
Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf Of Wall Street.
Madeline Kahn: Blazing Saddles.
Frank Gallop: “The Ballad Of Irving”.
Catherine Scorsese: Italian American.
Lily Tomlin – “This Is A Recording”.
Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston: Prizzi’s Honor.
Cary Grant and Mae West: I’m No Angel.
Jackie Gleason: The Honeymooners (“The Safety Award”).
Richard Pryor: “Have Your Ass Home By 11″.
Audience response from Lenny Bruce’s “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties”.
Lord Buckley: “The Hip Gahn”.
Lonnie Smith: “Spinning Wheel”.
LaWanda Page: “Husbands And Whores”.
The Treniers w/ Willie Mays: “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)”.
Jackie Robinson: “On The Eve Of The 1949 World Series”.
Babe Ruth: Fancy Curves.
Richard Pryor: “Eulogy”.
A Tribe Called Quest: “Pubic Enemy”.
Five Stairsteps: “Don’t Change Your Love”.
Sun Ra – “Outer Spaceways Incorporated”.
Sugar Hill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight”.
Quincy Jones and Bill Cosby: “Hikky Burr” (studio version).
Bill Cosby: “Luv Is”.
LL Cool J: “Around The Way Girl”.
Gerry Bednob – monologue from The 40 Year Old Virgin.
Shelley Winters and James Mason: Lolita.
(uncredited voice) from Albert Brooks: “Phone Calls From Americans”
Sue Lyon: Lolita.
Betty Wright: “I’m Gettin’ Tired, Baby”
Boogie Down Productions – “Build And Destroy”
Roberta Leighton & Bill Murray: Stripes.
De La Soul: “Eye Patch”.
Dom DeLuise, Ron Carey and Richard Karron: Fatso.
Dan Castellenetta: The Simpsons (“The Principal And The Pauper”).
Myrna Loy from Another Thin Man.
Del Close: “The Do-It-Yourself Psychoanalysis Kit”.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patrick Fugit: Almost Famous.
Jeff Bridges: The Big Lebowski.
Robert DeNiro, Charles Grodin and Joe Pantoliano: Midnight Run.
Albert Brooks from A Star is Bought.
Groucho Marx: “Hooray For Captain Spaulding”.
Chico Marx and Groucho Marx – “I’m Daffy Over You” from Animal Crackers.
Catherine Scorsese: The King Of Comedy.
Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell: The Seven Year Itch.
Henry Winkler: Happy Days (“Mork Returns”).
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda: The Lady Eve.
Walter Matthau: Dialogue from Documentary on Billy Wilder.
Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin: All Of Me.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not.
Myrna Loy and William Powell: The Thin Man.
Notorious B.I.G: “It Was All A Dream”.
Marvin Hatley: “Dance Of The Cuckoos”.
[All images by Alex Belth]
[From my man John Ed Bradley. Dig his 1991 GQ story about the Neville brothers.]
Tipitina’s in the warm blue fog, squatting beneath a crescent moon so sharp and clean you could shave a wild hog with it.
Art Neville enters the famous New Orleans honky-tonk wearing a hipster’s suit and studded leather boots, his wife, Lorraine, in hand. What resembles a fishing lure dangles from his ear, a spinner bait designed to attract bass. At 53, Art’s the eldest member of the Neville Brothers, a hometown band legendary for the kind of musical voodoo it practices on whoever comes to catch its midnight show. The Nevilles play Tip’s and a spooky magic happens: Fruit juice becomes a Hurricane cocktail, the fat of foot can suddenly hoof it, the blind, by God, can see.
“I’m tired,” Art moans, upstairs now, in the roped-off section reserved for VIPs. “I mean, I’m tired tired. I’m hurting tired.”
“He got in from Europe yesterday,” Lorraine says, “and at midnight we had a candlelight dinner: a big turkey with all the trimmings. It was very romantic, even if he could hardly keep his head up.”
Like his three brothers, Art, the Nevilles’ keyboard player, has his thing on the side—the Meters, the band he took to Europe. Saxophonist Charles has a jazz group called Charles Neville & Diversity; Cyril, the percussionist, has a funk-reggae outfit called the Uptown All-Stars; and Aaron, the one with the golden pipes, has himself.
“Been four, five, months maybe, since we played Tip’s,” Art is saying. “I don’t know how long it’s gonna go tonight. We start at midnight and we’ll probably play until around four. In the old days it sometimes was daylight before we got out of here.”
Downstairs, a band called Def Generation, composed mostly of Neville progeny, is killing the hour before the brothers come on. The opening act, their sound is part jazz, part rap, part second line, the bluesy brass-band music that traditionally accompanies black funeral processions through the streets of New Orleans.
“Don’t do drugs,” one of them keeps barking into a microphone; and an occasional drunken echo from the crowd barks back “Just say no!”
It’s so god-awful loud in here you have to shout to be heard. So Lorraine shouts: “This is their place, you know. The Nevilles play Tip’s and it’s crazy. They own it. So prepare yourself. I mean it.”
Tipitina’s opened about 14 years ago, the same year the Neville Brothers formed. Named after a song by the late New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, the club was started by a group of folks who liked to party hard and “gator.” To the uninitiated, gatoring is a dance that imitates coitus: It’s dry humping to a drumbeat. But to these people, it’s a religious rite ranked right up there with First Communion—or Mardi Gras.
The Nevilles played their first gig at Tip’s, to an audience that gatored so long and furiously, the beer lights dimmed and dust rained loose from the walls. The Nevilles’ music, inspired by the ancestral rhythms of their city, is mostly pop, funk, and soul. One moment they’re likely to sing an original composition about wild Injuns or yellow moons, the next a Cole Porter standard or The Mickey Mouse Club song. A rap anthem lamenting racism and urban violence might follow, or maybe some gospel bit rarely heard even in church anymore. Their repertoire apparently knows no limits, nor does their energy onstage. While the debut at Tip’s is now regarded as damned near mythic, few people actually remember it. Most everyone, I understand, was drunk or stoned.
“Buy me a beer,” someone is saying now, “and I’ll give you everything you need to know about these guys—everything!“
The man introduces himself as Tyrone Lewis, a singer of gospel music. For enthusiasm alone, he’s awarded a draft with a two-inch head of foam. He winks, smacks his lips and frantically drains the go-cup.
“My new album’s called Look for God,” he says. “Me and Aaron’s son Ivan—you know Ivan, he’s a recording artist himself—we grew up together in the thirteenth ward. We used to steal shit from the Winn Dixie supermarket.”
A commotion has erupted in one of the dressing rooms, sparing me more reminiscences from Tyrone. On a wall already covered with graffiti, someone has written “AARON NEVILLE WEARS PANTYHOSE.” A couple of ladies, standing on tiptoe, are scribbling over it with eyeliner and lipstick.
“He’d laugh about it,” one of the women says. “But best he doesn’t see it at all.”
If Aaron Neville wears pantyhose, then I go for those pointy Madonna bras with little link chains hanging from the nipples. Aaron is a devotee of professional wrestling who drives an all-terrain vehicle and sports tattoos on his face, chest and arms—arms that from any angle resemble dimpled Sunday hams without the honey glaze. In 1967, he had a hit song called “Tell It Like It Is,” and two summers ago he scored big with Linda Ronstadt on “I Don’t Know Much,” a Grammy award-winning ballad that in one clean stroke seemed to resurrect the Neville name from oblivion. In the more than twenty years between the two hits, Aaron managed to pull a couple of hitches in jail, for attempting to rob a Los Angeles furrier.
Tonight he’s dressed all in black, except for his white half boots. He walks around muttering “Yeah, all right” to all the friends and family members who have come to celebrate the band’s triumphant return to Tipitina’s. He hugs his sister, Athelgra, hugs his daughter, Ernestine, hugs his niece Arthel. A man in a pinstriped business suit approaches and digs into his pocket. “Let me give you my card, brother.”
“Yeah, all right,” Aaron says.
“I tried to call you.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“But I never could get through.”
Apparently Aaron is in no mood for business cards. He accepts the token without looking at it, brushes past the man and walks right by the painted-over pantyhose rap. He enters a back room, sits at a round café table and sips from a bottle of mineral water. A curtain of smoke billows a few feet above his head, hugging the ceiling. In a minute he’ll yodel like the singing cowboys in the movies he loved so much as a kid. This, while limbering up his voice box, also demonstrates his range, which, in the idolatrous prose of than one music critic, sounds like that of “an angel singing unto the Lord.”
“Aaron and his brothers want to give a tough image,” a friend of the group’s is telling me. “It’s part of the mystique—like they could blow down the walls if they wanted to. But they’re really very nice men. They’re pussycats, in fact. You stroke them a little and they all start to purr.”
Before they cleaned themselves up, the Nevilles were thieves, thugs, and junkies. Practically everyone here tonight knows this, and most are delighted by it. The music is best heard live, and though it would be great played by a bunch of priests from nearby Loyola University, coming from a clutch of reformed outlaws it takes on an element of mystery and danger. Except for Art, the Nevilles were heroin addicts and alcoholics—hoodlums, even they have often said. Back in the neighborhood, it was not uncommon to see one of them on any given weekday morning sitting on the hood of a junked car, holding a gallon jug of high-proof wine. They fought a lot and stole things. They dressed like rogue gangsters and talked through tightly clenched teeth.
“Why didn’t Art mess up like all the others?” one of his pals is saying. “Because he was far too busy playing his music and screwing women is why.”
Def Generation is doing an encore, and the brothers, crammed into the back dressing room, are going over the payroll, ripping out checks and handing them to band members. Charles walks over to the corner and loosens up with some T’ai Chi Ch’uan exercises, Cyril’s making sure his Mother Africa outfit is all zipped and tucked, and Art, still full of midnight turkey, tries to keep from falling asleep.
“Showtime!” a yellow ponytail says now with more zeal than seems necessary.
Aaron stands and tugs at the bottom of his denim vest. “Yeah, all right,” he mutters, then follows his brothers out of the room, down a rickety flight of stairs and into the crucible.
* * *
It’s a few weeks earlier, and the brothers are staying in a Los Angeles hotel just up the street from the bare-assed Hollywood Hills. This is one of those incredibly hip places that looks like a low-rise apartment building. A hotel with attitude. Limousines line the curb; enormous men with walkie talkies mill around the lobby, looking for heads to crack. The Nevilles have come to town to play the Universal Amphitheatre as Linda Ronstadt’s opening act. This is high irony, that four hardened soldiers of the street have been embraced by a fading pop queen, but apparently yuppie chic knows no shame.
All their rooms are up on the third floor. Charles, on this resplendent morning, is telling me his life story. He’s wearing his usual beret, tie-dyed T-shirt and parachute pants. Charles is 52 and a great-grandfather, which in terms of simple mathematics is quite a feat. He has just finished relating the part about how he worked for a time as a porter in a bowling alley and how in the early ’70s he spent three years in the Louisiana state pen for possession of two joints of marijuana.
“I started using drugs when I was in the navy,” he is saying. “I started with morphine and codeine, then went to heroin. It took me more than 20 years to get out of it. When I started playing music, in the ’50s, if you were going to play bebop, you almost had to do it because all the other musicians were. To support my habit I stole; I was into shoplifting and got busted a couple of times for that. I’d steal clothes, whiskey, meat. Once, I put on a khaki shirt with ‘GEORGE’ over the pocket. I had a clipboard with a yellow piece of paper on it and a pencil over my ear. Me and this other fellow went to a store on Canal Street, strapped a refrigerator onto a hand truck and walked right out with it. One of the people who worked there actually held the door open to help us out. Just some black cats in khaki, they figured. They couldn’t be stealing.”
He tells a few more drug stories, then walks to the closet and returns with a load of books. One is on African primal religions, another on the tao of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, another on the path to total rejuvenation.
“I practice T’ai Chi every day,” he says. “It’s a martial arts form as well as a Chinese internal-healing system. T’ai Chi is internal and soft, versus karate, which is external and hard. T’ai Chi teaches you how to identify your internal life source and guide it with your mind, how to manipulate it to rejuvenate your system. Exercises in the system are called chi kong. Kung fu is not the name of a martial-arts form; it means ‘something with diligent applications.’ To learn a martial art requires kung fu.”
By now I’m so overwrought with chi‘s and fu‘s and kong‘s and kung‘s that my eyes have about crossed. But the point of it all is that T’ai Chi, along with a number of drug rehab programs and the loving support of his family, helped Charles Neville get off heroin and start his life again.
He’s talking about the music now. “I never really cared about recognition. Doing the music was the reward. I started with a minstrel show, making eight bucks a night, three nights a week. But even then there was a link with the others in the band, and it cycled around to the audience and came back, and that was the reward. It was a religious experience, and later it occurred to me that this was my way of communing with God.”
The phone rings and it’s Art, down the hall. “He wants to see you,” Charles says. “I think I’ll do more reading now.”
* * *
Art’s in room 346, talking to a maid in a neatly pressed uniform and a cardboard hat. For the last hour or so she’s been trying to get into his room to clean it. “Come back later,” he tells her. Then to me: “They’re just trying to do their job, I understand that. But I think I’ve finally learned how to keep them away.”
“Just answer the door without any clothes on. That’ll do the trick every time.”
The maid leaves, carrying her vacuum cleaner.
Art’s wearing a New Orleans Saints cap. Sitting in the den now, he says he’s a little concerned about the team’s quarterback situation but that there are too many other things in the world to worry about. The Persian Gulf mess, for one.
“It’s scary where our country’s going. I have to believe the end of the world is coming.”
Lorraine enters the room and puts a frozen cocktail on the coffee table. For the moment, at least, everything seems fine with brother Art. No war, famine, pestilence, disease, and all the hell else. But Phil Donahue comes on the television, and who is he talking about but Saddam Hussein.
“It’s all in the Bible, the Book of Revelation,” Art says. “You can see it all right there in black and white.”
As a kid Art went to Catholic schools, so it would follow that he’d know about that sort of thing. His first gig was with a drum-and-bugle corps put together by the parish priest. They marched through the neighborhood, everybody running outside to see what the racket was all about. He started a group called the Hawkettes, which in 1954 recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a song still popular around New Orleans. In 1966, he formed the Meters, a hometown group that recently re-banded and is touring again. Art isn’t quite sure whether to trust the good fortune that has finally caught up to him and his brothers.
“In Europe, they always went insane over our stuff,” he says. “But here in America, no one would book us, except in Louisiana and Texas. We had a gold record in France and were practically unknown here. Even Japan paid more attention. Once we played in Seattle, and this Japanese group was there, and it sounded just like the Meters. A girl singing with the group said, ‘America is a wonderful country, but they don’t recognize and appreciate their own treasures.’”
A commercial comes on and Art calms down. He’s sounding more optimistic. “If I had to say what really got the Neville brothers to be a group,” he begins, “it’s our Chief Jolly, our uncle George Landry. He knew that if we got together as a family, it would happen. They called him Jolly because he was always happy, singing and whistling. When he died, all the black Mardi Gras Indians came out and kissed the ground in front of his house. He had one of the biggest funeral parades I’ve ever seen. I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to have one before I die—a second line, I’m talking about. That’s if I can afford it. I’ll be up in front with an umbrella, dancing. I figure you just as soon live to see your own funeral. If the end’s coming, why not have some fun?”
Maybe Art isn’t feeling so optimistic, after all. Presently, he gets onto the subject of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman from Louisiana, now a state representative, who received nearly 44 percent of the vote in a losing bid for a U.S. Senate seat and is running for governor this fall.
“When l heard you were a white guy and from home, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to talk you,” Art says. “You didn’t vote for ‘the boy’ did you?”
“No,” I say. “I did not.”
“It just shows you where the spirits and minds and hearts of people, where they’re all going.” Art and his brothers have threatened to move out of Louisiana if ever Duke were elected to a higher office.
“When you have family, you can pull together in times of crisis,” Art says. “Family is what’s important. Every time I look at my brothers I see all the people that’ve passed but are still with us spiritually. l see my uncle Jolly, my mother and my father. They’re all there, as my hands and feet are there. Two of my grandmothers lived at home with us when us I was growing up, and they’d always say, ‘Son, your pa ain’t never gonna die as long as you’re alive.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about until I had my son Ian, who’s 9 years old now. I have another son, 31, and a daughter, 28. But the little one, l see immortality in him. He will never forget about his father, the way I will never forget about mine.”
Yes, Art is hopeful now. The world might not end tonight after all.
The maid is at the door again, ringing the bell.
“Come in,” he calls to her. “Please, come in, come in . . .”
* * *
The next day, Cyril shows me the books he’s been reading. They’re all there on the coffee table, lined up in a row: The Holy Bible, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Koran, The Gospel of the Red Man, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America.
As he reaches to pick one up, his star-shaped Malcolm X medallion clatters against his necklace of wooden beads. People say this about Cyril: At 42, he’s the most outspoken and politically active of the brothers; he’s what conservative whites called a “militant black” 20 years ago. Ask him about the weather, and he’ll pound you with tales about white racism. Cyril dresses a little like a Rastafarian and almost always wears a hat, an expensive Italian job with a black velvet band and a red feather. While the hat is the kind Uncle Jolly used to wear, it also covers up Cyril’s ever expanding bald spot.
I have been in his room less than three minutes when Cyril commences what will be a two-hour-long history lesson. “Ethiopia,” he says, “was a Christian nation 150 years before Rome took it over.”
Ten seconds later, he adds, “The worship of the Black Madonna existed long before Michelangelo ever painted his things.”
Cyril is a teacher, he says, determined to pass on what he calls “the black people’s story” to future generations. Yellow Moon, the Neville Brothers’ 1989 album, includes a song he helped write thanking Rosa Parks for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Brother’s Keeper, their latest, contains a creation of his that canonizes a list of New Orleans musicians whose work inspired him and his brothers: “Saint Shine, Saint James Black, Saint James Booker, Saint Professor Longhair and Saint Gerald Tillman.”
“At one point,” he says, “I considered wearing a vest of dynamite and going into a police station and blowing up myself and as many cops as I could. Millions of black men in my generation have gotten to this point of total frustration, of committing revolutionary suicide.”
He explains that his anger is a result of the racism he witnessed as a youth. “I couldn’t walk a block away from my house without being harassed by the police—I mean humiliated,” he says. “In school I couldn’t go for them teaching me that everything evil was black and everything pure was white. The meanest person I ever met in my life was a white nun. Whatever desires you had as a young black person, the Catholic schools would pump it out of you. This is why I write the kind of stuff I do. One of my punishments was to kneel before a big white crucifix of Jesus, and sometimes it felt like the blood was dripping off of him and right onto me.”
One of Cyril’s oft-quoted lines is this: “The first shit I ever learned how to read was a ‘WHITES ONLY’ sign.” And he repeats it now, his voice filled with rage.
“I still fear for my life when I walk out of my house in New Orleans,” he says, “and I fear for my son’s life. I deal in reality, and I know that collectively in America the white man is the black man’s enemy … I have legal tablets full of names of people—black people—who are dead, locked in the penitentiary for life, or a member of the walking dead.” He points to his chest and taps it. “I could have been one of those casualties.”
This is one of the last things he tells me: “On every level, we as blacks are being attacked. At some point in the future the white Anglo-Saxon male ego will submit to the truth, and fairness will be shown.”
Cyril folds his hands into tight, hard knots and beats them quietly against his knees.
“Two hours have gone by,” I say, “and we still haven’t talked about the music.”
“Sometimes that happens with me,” he replies, sounding almost apologetic.
* * *
Aaron, down the hall, is in a different mood altogether. He looks as if I’ve just awakened him from a nap.
“No. I was watching Fred Flintstone on TV,” he says, muting the volume with the remote control.
Earlier this morning he and his wife, Joel, went driving around Beverly Hills, looking at all the beautiful houses, the palm trees that chase the sky. They themselves recently moved from Valence Street in Uptown New Orleans to a suburban-type subdivision in the eastern part of the city. Joel is here in the room, over by the bed with Aaron’s sister, Athelgra. They’re folding clothes and putting them away.
Asked if, like Cyril, he was harassed and humiliated as a kid, Aaron says, “Some drunk boys from Tulane threw eggs a few times, riding in their cars through the neighborhood, but nothing else I remember.”
He sits with his elbows on his knees, his jailhouse tattoos a pale blue against the field of copper flesh. Aaron wears sleeveless denim vests because he can’t stand to have his muscular arms confined. Of the four brothers, Aaron, 50, is easily known, mainly because of his work with Ronstadt.
“Success to me,” he is saying now, “is being together as brothers and still looking out for each other. We lived together as kids, and now we’re taking care of each other as men. I may get more attention than them, but it’s still Neville, it’s still the Neville name.”
* * *
Unlike Charles and Cyril, Aaron doesn’t have any books to show me. He likes to read, though.
“What’s the kind I like?” he asks Joel now.
“Inspirational and positive-thinking,” she replies, then names a couple of authors.
“The Greatest Salesman in the World,” he says. “You ever hear of it?”
“What about The Greatest Miracle?”
“I don’t know that one either.”
Aaron is a writer himself. Over the years, after playing Tipitina’s until early in the morning, he would scribble things down on scraps of paper and toss them under the bed. Years went by and all those scraps did was gather dust. Then his friend Dynne Batson typed them up and arranged them by subject matter. Poetic Works by Aaron Neville, she called the 4 a.m. scribblings, and placed them between cardboard covers.
He’s remembering when he first became aware of his voice, the power, the wonder of it. “I used to go to basketball games and to movies, and I’d sing to the cat at the door to get in. I had a friend named Buckwheat, and he could sing, too. They all knew us. ‘Sing us a song and we’ll let you in.’ I used to sing ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ It was pretty.”
I tell him I don’t know the song. And he starts to sing it, filling the room with his sweet, fragile tenor, shifting to a falsetto that cuts straight to the heart.
“Singing is an art,” he says, “so I guess I’m an artist. I used to sing just to do it, but then Art put together a doo-wop group. They used to sit out in the park and harmonize. I’d do a cappella. We’d beat on hubcaps and Coke bottles. We’d win talent shows at the theater. Back then when I’d try to hit a note, everybody’d say, ‘Get on out of here.’”
When he was 17, Aaron went to jail for six months for stealing a car. He sang a lot there, too, figuring it was better than the other thing people did to kill time, which was to fight. After he got out, he married Joel and landed a recording contract. Then, in 1966, he cut “Tell It Like It Is,” at a small French Quarter studio run by a fellow named Cosima Matassa.
“When I first sang it, I thought it was okay but not the best I could do. It was a simple song, real simple. And I was looking for something more up-tempo. But my brother Art was with me and he could feel it. He knew I had something. Now when I hear it, it’s like brand-new all over again.”
The single climbed to No. 2 on the charts. Aaron toured the country with Otis Redding and played the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But a year later he was back home in New Orleans and back on the docks, handling freight on ships bound for the Gulf of Mexico.
“I got paid for personal appearances but not for the record,” he says. “I don’t have time to be angry about it. I’m not vindictive. Sometimes now I see the guys who got all the money. I don’t tell them anything. They were friends then. But when the record came out and it was time to get paid, everyone all of a sudden claimed bankruptcy.”
He and his brothers continued to play music in a number of different bands—sometimes together, sometimes apart—mostly at college fraternity parties and high school proms, before small but enthusiastic crowds whose applause only served to remind Aaron that, come Monday, there would be another boat to load or house to paint or ditch to dig.
Like Charles before him, Aaron got hooked on heroin.
“I think back on them days and it was all supposed to be so hip,” he says. “l was taking that stuff for about ten years. l quit cold turkey a couple of times. I went through a methadone program and it helped, but then you get hooked on that. What finally kicked it for me was that I got tired of seeing all the people around me deteriorating. You saw guys with hands as big as boxing gloves from shooting up.” He pauses and holds his hands out in front of him.
“The worst time of my life was when I was separated from my wife and thought I would lose her. Then I started praying real hard. I’d go to the grotto at St. Ann’s Shrine. This is where you go up the steps on your knees. I prayed to St. Jude for hopeless cases. I made novenas. Finally, I was saved, and I can tell you it wasn’t for nothing.”
The Nevilles’ mother died in 1975, and about a year later Uncle Jolly talked them into helping him record The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album of New Orleans party music that still is regarded as some of the best work the brothers have ever done. Of the many things old man Jolly would tell his nephews, none was more vital than this: “Your mother and father always wanted to see you work together as a band. Why don’t you do it?”
“All the stuff that me and my brothers went through to get to where we are now,” Aaron says, “now we can tell people behind us, ‘Hey, man, it ain’t cool to steal and do drugs, it don’t work.’ We’ve been saved for something, and we’ve got a message. People tell me, ‘Man, I hear your voice and it’s like medicine to me.’ I say, ‘Yeah, it’s like medicine to me, too. I can hear it, and even if I don’t have any money, I feel rich.’”
He’s been traveling for months now, he says he misses New Orleans, his own house and bed. When he returns he’ll drive around the old neighborhood in his Ford Explorer, play with his grandkids, sign autographs for all the schoolchildren, who call him “Mr. Aaron.” During the afternoon and evening hours, he’ll watch professional wrestling on TV. “I know when they’re going at it and when they’re not. I’ve seen them where there’s real blood squirting out of their heads.”
He is happy; the thought of the stars of the National Wrestling Association seems to invigorate him. “If ever I give up my music,” he says, “you might see me on the tube one day with a hood over my head climbing into a ring.”
“What would your name be?” I ask him. “You’ll have to have one, you know.”
“The Spoiler,” he answers. “I already got it picked out.”
Over by the bed his wife and sister are nodding their heads.
“He’d do it, too,” Athelgra says.
“Just you watch,” warns Joel.
* * *
Back at Tipitina’s, the brothers step onto the little piece of ground they know best, entering with arms raised. A man with a bushy black mustache is shouting into a microphone “Welcome back to Tipitina’s”—but the crowd, pressing close, drowns out the rest.
Sleepy-eyed Art gets behind his piano, Charles behind his horseshoe of saxophones, Aaron behind his mighty red tambourine and Cyril behind his congas. “Hey Pocky A-Way” is what they start with, a local favorite that Uncle Jolly helped make famous. The song is mostly chants accompanied by whatever noise the brothers choose to make, but it electrifies. A capacity crowd of about 1,000 has stuffed itself into Tip’s this night, and every last one is standing. Upstairs in the balcony, they’re doing a kind of stand-up version of the gator. I tell myself to keep still, goddammit, but there I go.
After a few minutes of this wretched nonsense, Tyrone Lewis sidles up to me and throws a hand on my shoulder. “How much is this magazine paying you? Anywhere in the vicinity of $20,000?”
“Depends on how big a vicinity you mean.”
“Lookee here, my man. For 50 bucks I’ll give you the rest of the scoop. Anything you want to know, it’s yours. I’ll tell you what Aaron’s like at home by himself. I idolize the man, I’ll even tell you that.”
“Leave me alone,” I say after a while, leaning in close. “Can’t you see I’m trying to dance?”
[Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen via Hey Reverb]
There is a lot of good stuff to be found in Andrew Corsello’s GQ profile of Louis C.K. (never mind the “genius” part if you can). I especially like this:
“All of that”—the death of the New York club scene in the early ’90s, the Pootie Tang debacle—”has helped me form what I call my 70 Percent Rule for decision-making.” C.K. then describes a practical application of a worldview laced into many of his best routines—that “everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” If we just wrest our eyes, literally and figuratively, from our digital gizmos and the shitty, spoiling impatience they instill, we’ll see that this life, this planet, is amazing. That it is something just to be in the world, seeing and hearing and smelling. That for trillions of miles in every direction from earth, life really is blood-boilingly, eye-explodingly horrific.
“These situations where I can’t make a choice because I’m too busy trying to envision the perfect one—that false perfectionism traps you in this painful ambivalence: If I do this, then that other thing I could have done becomes attractive. But if I go and choose the other one, the same thing happens again. It’s part of our consumer culture. People do this trying to get a DVD player or a service provider, but it also bleeds into big decisions. So my rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over.
“And,” he continues, “when you get to 80 percent, you work. You apply your knowledge, and that gets you to 85 percent! And the thing itself, especially if it’s a human being, will always reveal itself—100 percent of the time!—to be more than you thought. And that will get you to 90 percent. After that, you’re stuck at 90, but who the fuck do you think you are, a god? You got to 90 percent? It’s incredible!”
This is worth reading. Ben Smith on Tom Lehrer:
If you get hooked on Tom Lehrer as a kid, it’s not because you think he might be a sweet old man. It’s because beneath the cheerful tunes is an edge, a sheer nastiness and even sadism, that kids have always loved. It’s the same edge that makes Roald Dahl so appealing to children and disturbing to their parents.
Lehrer saw this Peter Pan in himself, joking about it before one of his last performances, in Copenhagen in 1967. “All of these songs were part of a huge scientific project to which I have devoted my entire life,” Lehrer said. “Namely, the attempt to prolong adolescence beyond all previous limits.”
But when Lehrer is the nostalgic music of your childhood, you want to like him. He always replies politely to his fans, no less when they are journalists seeking to profile him. Earlier this year, he put up with a brief telephone conversation with a BuzzFeed reporter, whom he referred to “Mr. Google” for further research. Told that search results concerning him are full of gaps and contradictions, he just laughed. “It doesn’t matter if the answer is correct — who cares?” he said. “And I lie a lot too.”
He then replied to our letter full of nostalgia and curiosity with a genial dismissal. “You seem to have devoted so much thought to the questions you ask that you should perhaps just write what you think is the truth, even if it’s just speculation, which — judging by today’s commentators on TV — is the easiest and therefore the most common form of punditry. I neither support nor encourage your efforts, but I shall not try to thwart them,” he wrote. And he was true to his word. He didn’t respond to a second letter, nor to a fact-checking email sent to his AOL email address; his email handle includes a phrase along the line of “living legend.” When we stopped by his Sparks Street house on a cold night in February, a light was on and a Prius was in the driveway, but nobody answered the door and Lehrer wrote that he had left town for California.
Photograph by Chuck Stewart.
Biblioklept is just a great site. Bookmark it.
[Picture by Heinz Straeter via Lushlight]
Dig this cool post from Messy Nessy Chic on the last Japanese mermaids (and heads up, there’s some nudity involved):
For nearly two thousand years, Japanese women living in coastal fishing villages made a remarkable livelihood hunting the ocean for oysters and abalone, a sea snail that produces pearls. They are known as Ama, and if you’ve dipped into Messy Nessy’s archives, you will have already met the few ladies still left in Japan that still make their living (well into their 90s) by filling their lungs with air and diving for long periods of time deep into the Pacific ocean, with nothing more than a mask and flippers.
In the mid 20th century, Iwase Yoshiyuki returned to the fishing village where he grew up and photographed these women when the unusual profession was still very much alive. After graduating from law school, Yoshiyuki had been given an early Kodak camera and found himself drawn to the ancient tradition of the ama divers in his hometown. His photographs are thought to be the only comprehensive documentation of the near-extinct tradition in existence.
Just as a quick follow-up on Grover Lewis. Check out this memoir piece he wrote in 2005.
In 1943 my parents—Grover Lewis and Opal Bailey Lewis—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. Big Grover had stalked us for a year, fighting divorce tooth and nail, and when he finally cornered Opal alone and pulled the trigger, she seized the gun and killed him too. They’d started out as Depression kids who had eloped from the Trinity Heights area of Oak Cliff, where they’d both been friends with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Like Clyde, my father was an unschooled country jake who fell—or jumped—into low ways in the big city. Opal, like Bonnie, was a bright student who left school early to help support her family—a moral girl with high ideals. Like Bonnie’s, Opal’s main crime seems to have been picking the wrong guy. In the end, she managed to save my father from everybody but himself.
The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight, and I became the ward of a brutish Fort Worth in-law who amused himself by trying to break my body and spirit. By today’s standards, he would have been deemed abusive enough to serve jail time. After five years, when I realized that my options were either suicide or homicide, I ran away and refused to return if I died in the process. Many of my mother’s kin considered me unsalvageable because I was a “pure Lewis.” They’s give me that look: “Just like his daddy.…”
Spook—my great uncle, C.E.Bailey—saved my life. When he took me in, I was badly damaged—withdrawn, lacking confidence, blind as a bat, smart as fire, dumb as hell. Still, with a friendly home base only a block’s walk from my high school classes and the local library also close at hand, I began to mend. My case was extreme but hardly singular in a workingman’s district where a lot of families got blown to smithereens.
A sagging condo pile with a “No Drugs” sign out front occupied the lot where our old family boarding house had steed. Spook and I had lived upstairs in a bare room with a bare bulb above the iron bedstead. When I started working after school, I bought us reading lamps, feeling grown-up about pitching in.
Spook’s insight—his special grace—was to treat me as a younger brother instead of a ward. In is fifties by then, a union machinist and a lifelong bachelor, he kept his mind sharp by studying the Bible and parsing out “the lies in the papers.” Half a Wobbly in his secret heard, he taught me a multitude of useful things, one of the germinal ideas being that decency and common sense were most likely to be found in common people. He offered general advice, specific if asked, and never raised his voice or hand to me. In the long haul, I think I was less trouble to him than his batty sisters, both of whom constantly schemed to lure him into their religious cults.
If Spook was our family Samaritan, Matthew Bailey—my mother’s father—was our scourge. A Snopesy little jackleg-of-all-trades—he had been Bonnie and Clyde’s favorite bootlegger—he worked for thirty-odd years as a maintenance engineer at the Wholesale Merchants Building in downtown Dallas, where he routinely slept with maids as a condition of their employment. With a flame of rage perpetually flickering in his head, he once put a black man off a city bus at knife point for sitting in front of him. I loved the old devil regardless and helped him out sometimes on weekend plumbing jobs, mostly just handing him his bottle. Matthew approached everything with a maximum violence required for the job, he never swatted me around, because as a rule, he only beat on the people who lived under his own roof.
Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show): I don’t remember how Grover got on the set, obviously through Larry [McMurtry]. He introduced him. And at some point we decided he’d be good to play Sonny’s father. I had written something, and we told Grover what the lines were, and he did it. I don’t remember that I was told that he was going to write a piece about the film until it was a fait accompli. Because I never saw him take notes. No tape recorder. No interview. I was surprised when I saw the piece. At the time, I remember being very unhappy with it and thinking that it was ungenerous, unkind, and inaccurate, if well written. And I remember being rather angry about it at the time. I don’t believe I ever saw Grover again.
Rae Lewis: The thing about Grover—I saw this time and time again—was he had a reporter’s instinct for relaxing his subjects. By the time he’d interview them, he had researched them. When he talked to Robert Mitchum [for Rolling Stone ], he knew about Mitchum’s short stories. He would start talking and point out that he was taping the conversation. He wanted them to understand that they would be quoted. But he just had a way of talking so they’d relax, and next thing you knew they were going to town.
Robert Draper (correspondent at GQ; former writer at Texas Monthly; met Lewis while researching Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History): Around the time I interviewed him for the book, he hadn’t really done any work at all for two or three years. His confidence was shot. Maybe, to put a finer point on it, his ability to reconcile his standards with the realities of the publishing business had gone the way of the buffalo. Not to give myself too much credit, but in his eyes my book had restored his rightful place in magazine journalism, and it was only after that that he started to churn out magazine stories again. Although by churn out I mean three stories a year rather than one a year.
Kenneth Turan (film critic for the Los Angeles Times; worked with Lewis at New West): Posterity is so quirky. Grover was as good as anyone who wrote nonfiction journalism in his era. You can hold his stuff up against anybody’s. Who knows why some people get to be better known than others? But in terms of quality, Grover took second place to no one.
Dolly Parton reminds me of Yogi Berra because they both have personas that often overwhelm their great talent. Yogi is a lovable clown not one of the 2 or 3 greatest catchers to ever play; Dolly is the brash straight shooter with the big boobs, wigs, and plastic surgery, not a beautiful songwriter and fine singer.
Anyhow, I got to thinking about Dolly the other day after I read a profile on her written by the late Chet Flippo for Rolling Stone in 1977. It’s not available online but a few years later he interviewed her for the magazine and that can be found here.
In addition to her many talents Dolly was–and is–a tremendous character (unlike Yogi whose public character was largely manufactured).
What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?
DP: The most outrageous thing? [Laughs] Boy, that could be a number of things . . . A lot of this stuff I can’t hardly tell you about. Sometimes one of the great thrills is just to go ahead and do something nobody would expect me to do.
I have a real stubborn, mischievous streak. And I have a girlfriend, Judy, who thinks she is just as stubborn and as mischievous, but she backs down a little easier than I do.
So this happened while I was doin’ Nine to Five. Judy and I were coming home one night; we’d been out to Lucy’s El Adobe restaurant, and we’d had a couple of Margaritas. Judy and two friends of hers were in one car, and me and Gregg [Perry, her keyboardist-producer] were in his car. Well, Judy started doin’ silly little things – they started givin’ me the finger or something. Then it got to where we were trying to top each other. Judy thought she was gonna flash me; she started unbuttoning her blouse. Anyhow, I just pulled up my shirt and I flashed them with one of them. Well, they just about wrecked; they just about died because they thought it was so funny. So anyhow, they did something else, and the next time around, I mooned them [laughs]!
Judy was tryin’ to top this, and I thought, “What else can we do?” I thought, “Now I know Judy. She’s gonna think she can pull one on me; she’s gonna really get one on me.” So I thought, “I must take off all my clothes.” And I thought, “Well, now how can I?” Because this next stop we were gonna make was a stop sign going toward the Bel Air Hotel. So I said, “Gregg, I’m gonna ask you to do something that I don’t think anybody should ever ask another person to do. I’m gonna take all my clothes off – I have to – but you can’t look. You’ve got to look straight down the road!”
He thought I was kidding. I said, “Now I ain’t kidding!” I was getting upset ’cause I had to get this done real fast. I just had to do this, because I knew that Judy was gonna get out in her panty hose or something.
So I started takin’ off my clothes. And I tell you, I had ‘em peeled off. I had my clothes layin’ on the side and I was just threatening Gregg at all times. All I could think of, mainly, was that stop sign, because I knew Judy was gonna get out in her panty hose or something. I knew she was gonna think she had really done something. When we stopped, I saw the door scramblin’ open, and they were letting Judy out. She took off her pants, so she was gonna come out in her panty hose as if that was some big deal. So I waited, then I just casually got out. I opened up the door and I started walkin’ around the car in the moonlight. Here I was, just Snow White – you know how fair my skin is. There I was, and I tell you, I thought the girls were absolutely goin’ to die. I just did it real casual, and then I just flew back in the car.
And then it was like I was immediately exposed! It was like nothing had mattered until then. Then all of a sudden I realized I was naked. I was so embarrassed, but feelin’ so proud that I had done it – that’s the kinda stuff I’ll do. Is that good enough?
Good enough for me.
[Photo Credit: Keystone/Getty Images]
Shortly before Duane Allman’s fatal motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, Grover Lewis spent a week on the road with the Allman Brothers on assignment for Rolling Stone. He turned in his story two days before Allman’s death. Lewis had already helped give the magazine credibility with his sprawling account of the making of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show but he’d never write another story as controversial as the one on the Allmans. Truth is, Gregg Allman hated—and still hates—the piece.
According to Lewis’ widow, Rae, “I know it was [Rolling Stone editor] Jann Wenner, not Grover, who made the decision to run the piece in the immediate wake of Duane Allman’s death. Frankly, I’ve always thought Gregg’s beef about the story—and the timing of the story—was just puerile nonsense rooted in some sentimental attachment to southern notions of valor and honor and the sanctity of the dead. Also, and maybe I’m just being cynical here, it is much easier for someone to be pissed off about a negative story if they can shift the emphasis so that its publication becomes a breach of good taste and not just a negative story. You can’t even really blame Jann. No editor or publisher I can think of would have pulled that piece under the circumstances. When Grover’s collected work, Splendor in the Short Grass came out it was reviewed by Roy Blount Jr. in the New York Times Book Review, Gregg (or maybe it was his attorney, on his behalf) sent an irate letter about the grievous injury that story did to the memory of his late brother. Wow, I thought, this guy really knows how to nurse a grudge.”
From 1971, originally published in Rolling Stone—and reprinted here with permission—here is one of Lewis’ most memorable stories (followed by an epilogue by W.K. Stratton, co-editor of Splendor in the Grass):
Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band
By Grover Lewis
There are sixteen seats in the first-class compartment of the Continental 747 flight from L.A. to El Paso, and the tushy blonde stewardess greeting the boarding passengers beams the usual corporate smile until she does a fast snap and realizes that a full baker’s dozen of the places are being claimed by this scruffily dressed, long-haired horde of… Dixie greasers. Her smile congeals, then goes off like a burnt-out light bulb when one of the freaks asks her matter-of-factly for a seatbelt extension and starts packing guitar cases—seven of them—upright in seat 1-D.
“Well, now, wait, I don’t know,” she stammers, fidgeting from foot to foot. “Who are you, anyway?”
“We’re the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia,” Willie Perkins, the band’s road manager, announces in a buttery drawl. He searches patiently through his briefcase and produces a round-trip ticket for the seat in question. “It’s OK,” he assures her, “we paid cash money for it. It’s the only safe way to transport our gittars. We do this sometimes six days a week. Now would you please get the extension; please, ma’am?”
Reluctantly, the stewardess fetches the cord, and Willie finishes lashing the vintage Gibsons into position. Then, just before takeoff, he does a quick head count of the entourage to be certain that no one’s been left behind. The members of the band—Duane Allman, Gregg Allman, Dicky Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, Jai Johany Johnson—all are present and accounted for. The three roadies—Joe Dan, Kim, and Red Dog—and the sound technician, Michael Callahan—all aboard. The proud bird with the golden tail lifts skyward to Texas.
By the time the No Smoking sign flashes off, both of the Allmans are fast asleep, their mouths characteristically ajar. Duane, whose nickname is “Skydog” but who resembles a skinny orange walrus instead, looks bowlegged even when he’s sitting down.
Dicky Betts, alternate lead guitar to Duane, whiles away the flight swapping comic books with the bassist, Berry Oakley. Butch Trucks, the group’s white drummer, pores over a collection of sci-fi stories by Philip Jose Farmer. Jai Johany Johnson, the black drummer, who’s also known as “Frown,” stares somberly out the window the entire trip.
Willie Perkins, wearing a faded Allman T-shirt, offers a fellow traveler a filter-tip and concedes that yes, there’re quite a few hassles involved with being on the road almost constantly. “Coordination is the key to the whole thang,” he says as if it’s just occurred to him. “Gettin’ all the people and the equipment to the right place at the right time. Then, too, I’ve got to mess with gettin’ us paid, all that shit. These days the band averages about $7,500 a gig, and we don’t ordinarily have no trouble gettin’ our money. When the band was younger, though, playin’ smaller clubs, sometimes I had to… well, lean on some of the shadier promoters.
“Sure, there’s a bunch of headaches. Me, myself, I wouldn’t do my part of it if it was just a pure-dee ol’ gig. I wouldn’t do it at all unless I really dug the band. Business-wise and musically, see, the boys are all equals. Unofficially, Duane is the leader—everybody looks to him for makin’ the major decisions. Family is an overused word, I reckon, but here it fits just fine.”
While a second, less nervous stewardess serves lunch, Willie points out the three married members of the group—Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley, and Butch Trucks—“Gregg just got married two weeks ago, was you aware of that? Yeah, sweet little ol’ girl, too. But the wives don’t travel with the band ‘cept on special occasions. Everybody has purty well adjusted to the situation, you might say.” Willie signals to the stewardess that he needs some help with his tray. “Would you fix this doohickey for me, please ma’am?” he asks pleasantly.
“You bet,” she says, bending to the job. “Did you fellows play someplace last night? Everybody looks pretty sleepy.”
Willie grins. “Naw, we was up all night, but we wasn’t workin’. Truth is, we up all night purty near every night.”
From the seat behind, Red Dog reaches forward to tap Willie on the shoulder, jostling Gregg awake in the process. “Hey, brother,” Red Dog asks Willie excitedly, “is that snow down there on them hills?” Gregg squirms angrily in his seat. “Kiss my dyin’ ass, brother,” he mumbles. Willie peers out the window for a second and shakes his head at Red Dog: “Naw, brother, that’s the desert. That’s a right smart of dust down there.”
As the plane makes the descent to El Paso, Berry Oakley squints down at the brown, hilly town. He nudges Butch Trucks: “Hey, my man, this is where the Kid got it, you know that?” Butch dog-ears a page in his book and yawns, “Billy the Kid?” “Naw, brother, that cat in the Marty Robbins song. Marty Robbins is my hee-ro, man.”
Inside the terminal, after Willie and the roadies have rounded up the group’s thirty-odd pieces of luggage, Joe Dan rubs his palms together in a parody of lustful anticipation. “Man,” he crows to Michael Callahan, “I can’t wait to put skates on the ass of some of these nice Texas ladies.” Callahan tells him that the night’s gig is in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and that they won’t be in Texas more than a few minutes in transit. “Well,” Joe Dan says philosophically, “they got nice ladies in New Mexico, too, I reckon. We’ll put skates on their asses.”
Under a lowering sky, the entourage crowds into two Hertz station wagons for the sixty mile drive to Las Cruces. During the ride, Jai Johany plays lacy Afro jazz on a cassette machine, frowning, saying nothing. At the wheel, Willie reminisces to the fellow traveler about the band’s gig on the last paid-admission night at the Fillmore East: “Oh, my God, the boys was hittin’ the note for sure, brother. They smoked up the place till seven in the mornin’. That was a great place to play. The World Series of rock and roll.”
In the backseat, Duane leafs boredly through a copy of Cycle magazine and grumbles about the group’s travel arrangements. “It’s a drag not to have your own plane, man. That way you could go where you wanna go when you wanna go. Jesus, I’m wasted.” He falls asleep almost instantly, as does Berry Oakley. The wasteland miles roll past, and the first quarter-sized spatters of what will turn into a furious rainstorm blur the windshield.
Las Cruces is the kind of vanishing Western town where you can leave your motel room safely unlocked, except almost no one ever does because most of the people in the motels are from places where you can’t leave anything unlocked. At the Ramada Inn, where the Allman menage disgorges for a rainy afternoon of sleep, TV-viewing, card-playing, comic-book reading, coke-snorting, and pure listless boredom before the evening’s concert, there is a stenciled sign on the door to the hotel’s cocktail lounge. It reads:
N. Mex. Law:
ALL CUSTOMERS MUST WEAR
SHOES & SHIRT
Wearing neither, Dicky Betts sits in his room just before the show, strumming his guitar and softly running through the lyrics of “Blue Sky,” a muted country-style air he’s just written in honor of his Canadian Indian lady friend, Sandy Blue Sky. Joe Dan, one of the roadies, sits hunkered on the carpet across the room, sipping a can of beer, and when Dicky has finished singing, Joe Dan nods and murmurs respectfully, “That’s hittin’ the note, brother.” Betts acknowledges the tribute with a sober bob of his head; he has just cut his hair short, and he has the kind of bony, backcountry face that calls to mind the character Robert E. Lee Prewitt in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity.
“Hittin’ the note,” Betts muses, cradling his guitar snug against his bony chest, “it’s kinda hard to explain to anybody outside the band. It’s like gettin’ down past all the bullshit, all the put-on, all the actin’ that goes along with just bein’ human. Gettin’ right down to the roots, the source, the truth of the music. Lettin’ it happen, lettin’ that feelin’ come out…
“See, we got a lotta blues roots, the old-timey blues players—Robert Johnson, Willie MeTell. Myself, I do a lot of the old white country players like Jimmie Rodgers, some of those fellows…. Hell, I’m a big fan of Merle Haggard. The truth be known, I bet ol’ Hag set down with his manager and schemed out ‘Okie from Muskogee’…
“Ten years from now? Well, I’ll still be playing music. That’s just in me to do. Where I’ll be at or what kinda music I’ll be playin’…shit, I don’t know. Naw, this band won’t be together by then. I don’t see what point there’d be in tryin’ to keep it together that long. Everything’s got to change. The times’ll be completely different. But I’ll still be playin’, somewheres or other.”
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Willie Perkins, rounding up the boys for the gig. It’s time to go hit the note.
But it doesn’t happen this night. At the Pan American Center of New Mexico State University, a cavernous, sweltering-hot gym where the concert is scheduled to begin at 9:45, there’s a forty-five-minute delay while Gregg Allman’s rented organ is located and installed on stage. During the wait, Gregg and Duane Allman and Dicky Betts sprinkle out little piles of coke on a table in the backstage locker room where the band is sequestered and sniff it through rolled-up hundred dollar bills. Duane calls it “Vitamin C,” and after his second snort, he buttonholes the fellow traveler in expansive praise of Betts’ guitar-playing: “Brother Dicky’s as good as there is in the world, my man. And he’s gonna be smokin’ tonight. Listen to him on ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.’ Fuck, he wrote that fuckin’ song after he fucked this chick on a fuckin’ tombstone in a fuckin’ cemetery in Macon. On a fuckin’ tombstone, my man!” The other members of the band sprawl listlessly about the room on wooden benches, drinking Red Ripple and reading comic books in a tableau that will be ritually repeated every evening for the next six days.
When the band finally files on stage and Duane kicks off “Statesboro Blues” to a scattering of cheers and applause, the principal revelation of the occasion is that Gregg Allman is not, after all, a stone catatonic, as he appears to be everywhere except in front of a microphone. His voice rises and swoops, circles and jerks the old blues staple to a frenzied, hair-raising climax that’s explicitly sexual enough to be rated “X.” The usual contingent of snowbirds and total-loss farmers, massed ten-deep in front of the towering amps, howl their pleasure—“Boogie mymind, motherfuckers!” a pudgy cockatoo in head-shop plumage screeches as the band runs through its more or less standard repertoire: “Elizabeth Reed,” “Please Call Home,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Stormy Monday,” “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” “Dreams,” and “Hot ‘Lanta.”
But the crowd in the farther reaches of the hall seems considerably less enchanted. For one thing, the sound is soggy at the rear, and a long-haired kid who says he’s majoring in Police Science (yes) estimates the crowd as “25 percent freaks, 25 percent cowboys, and 50 percent who don’t give a fuck.” The band manages one encore, “Whipping Post,” but halfway through the number the audience is busily streaming toward the exits.
Afterwards, back in the locker room, Gregg Allman morosely doles himself out another dollop of coke. “I couldn’t hear shit,” he snorts, and snorts. “Sounded like we’us playin’ acoustic,” Dicky Betts chimes in disgustedly. “Coulda been a dynamite gig, too, man,” Berry Oakley laments. “Coulda been, but it wadn’t,” Duane snaps. He sinks down on one of the benches, frowning. “I thank mebbe it was the audience,” he sighs, “but then again… it coulda just been too much fuckin’ coke. You know what I mean?” He snuffles and reaches for the coke vial.
Off to one side, Red Dog is whispering in the ear of the lone groupie who’s shown up, a big-nosed redhead with deep acne scars. The girl listens expressionlessly, then finally nods yes to whatever, sucking on a joint as if it were the last sad drooping cock in the world.
Under Willie Perkins’ persistent proddings, the Allman retinue is out of the Ramada Inn and settled on a flight back to L.A. by noon the next day. Again, most of the boys spend the travel time dozing or poring over comic books. Before zonking out on the plane, Duane shows Berry Oakley a crumpled letter he’s just received.
“Know who this is from, brother?” he crows. “Ol’ Mary—You ‘member Mary? Man, I hitchhiked 2,500 miles to see that chick one time, and then her daddy caught me fuckin’ her in the garage and throwed me out. Sheeit, I’m still in love with that chick, man… I… thank.” Within seconds, Duane is snoring, and when a saucy-hipped stewardess stoops to pick up his letter from the aisle, Red Dog leans over and says to her conversationally, “Honey pie, you got the sweetest lookin’ ass I’ve looked at all year. Lawd, I wish you could sang: We’d take your sweet-lookin’ little ass right along with us.”
“Oh, I can’t even carry a note in church,” the stewardess sings out, flustered and flattered.
Red Dog is the undisputed king of the Allman roadies. He’s been with the Allman Brothers Band since its earliest permutations—first, with the Allman Joys in 1965; then with the short-lived Hourglass, a West Coast-based studio group in ’67; still later, when the present band was formed, principally from the personnel of the earlier groups, from ’69 on. Red Dog was there toting instrument cases when the Allmans cut their three LP’s to date—The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, and The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East—and he’ll likely be around as long as there are any Allman instrument cases to tote.
Right now, he winks slyly, orders three cocktail-sized bottles of Jack Daniel’s Black Label from the stewardess, serves himself one, and pockets the other two. “Gawddamn,” he cackles to me, “I gotta whole suitcase full of these leetle fuckers. Why not? They free when you fly first-class.”
Rubbing his back, he complains that he feels achy all over, “See, I tuck and fell off the fuckin’ stage last night while I was settin’ up Butch’s traps. One or the other of us is always fallin’ off the fuckin’ stage. And I got a pimple on my ass, too, man. Hurts like hell. This just ain’t my trip, brother.”
Teasing his scruffy red beard with a swizzle stick, Red Dog remarks that the band’s success has brought some changes. “Aw, it’s still fun awright, but not anywheres the way it used to be. Time was, we’d blow our last five bucks on a case of beer in Flagstaff or someplace. Now it’s big bid-ness.” He makes a face, then laughs aloud: “I still get off behind the chicks, though. Man, we get chicks ever’where we go. What really knocks me clean smooth out is to get head. Did I tell you? This weird chick was eatin’ me on stage at the last Fillmore East blast. Naw, the audience couldn’t see it, but all the boys could.
“Another time, in Rochester, I was standin’ against the stage wall while the band was hittin’ their note and some chick come up and unzipped me and started gobblin’ me alive, man. The cat in the booth saw what was happenin’, and he flashed a spotlight on us. Shit, man, I didn’t know what to do. Three thousand people out there, see, but goddamn, it felt so good. I thought, well, fuck it, and I grabbed her ears and said, ‘Let it eat!’”
A black-suited, middle-aged limo chauffeur named Artie, self-styled “driver for the stars,” meets the band at L.A. International Airport, helps Willie round up the mountain of luggage, and drives the boys to the Continental Hyatt House high atop Sunset Boulevard. During the ride, he prattles on cheerily about what groups are playing in Vegas and Tahoe, and he looks away discreetly as Duane snorts coke through a short-stemmed surgical straw.
At the hotel, Bunky Odum greets the group with bear hugs for all. A bluff, hairy grinner with a build like a crocodile wrestler, Odum books the band in the East and South and serves as second-in-command to Phil Walden, the Allmans’ sharp young manager. In a poshy suite on the fifth floor, he seizes the fellow traveler’s hand and pumps it like a hydraulic jack. “Gawddamn, boy,” he booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and get laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and get you laid and feed you somedown-home collard greens.”
In another suite on the same floor, Berry Oakley orders a meal from room service, then kicks off his boots and plops heavily on the bed. “Tourin’,” he grimaces, “I’m gettin’ just a little tired of it, but that’s what I been doin’ ever since I could do anything on my own. Started playin’ gigs eight, nine years ago when I was about fifteen, and I been more or less livin’ on the road ever since.
“I can’t say what’s gonna happen with the band . It could be somethin’ great, and then again it might just go away like all the rest of ’em. We could do ten times more than we do, actually. There’s so much that’s in us that we haven’t played. We’re gonna have to start rationin’ ourselves out, like goin’ on the road and then goin’ home and workin’. Lately it’s been just goin’ on the road.
“All of us like to play to an audience and get response back. That’s what we call hittin’ the note. How should I say it… Hittin’ the note is hittin’ your peak, let’s say. Hittin’ the place where we all like to be at, you know? When you’re really feelin’ at your best, that’s what you describe as your note. When you’re really able to put all of you into it and get that much out of it. We just found it out along as we did it. We learned some from the audience, and they learned some from us, and things came together that way. It happens, I’d say, 75 percent of the time. There’s some special places we play where we’ve done it before, and everytime we go back, the vibes are there and it ends up happening again. We’ll end up playin’ three or four hours, and when we finish, I’ll be so high I can hardly talk. When you start hittin’ like that, the communication between the members of the band gets wide open. Stuff just starts comin’ out everywhere.”
Stuff starts coming out everywhere that evening at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, beginning with the little white piles of coke backstage. This time around, though, the acoustics of the hall are crisper, the audience is more responsive, and the band’s music flows more smoothly, although there’s little if any variation from the previous evening’s program. The crowd bawls its approval, but begins to disperse after one encore.
Afterwards, there’s a party like an open running sore in Phil Walden’s tenth floor suite at the hotel. The booze flows, the smoke blows, the coke goes up, up, and away. Around midnight, a trio of female freaks, including a Grand Guignol-painted dwarf, crashes the festivities, chanting gibberish, doing stylized little dance numbers, groping cocks. Somebody says they’re part of Zappa’s grass menagerie. When the hotel manager finally flushes them out of the room, Dicky Betts nudges the fellow traveler and guffaws: “Haw! You better get out yo’ pen and pencil and write down their names, my man!”
The next morning, while Artie and Willie Perkins are loading the black limo with luggage and instruments, Gregg Allman sidles up to the fellow traveler in front of the hotel and palms off a plastic vial containing a quarter ounce of white powder. “Hey, brother,” Gregg mutters, “hold these goods for me till we get to Frisco, will you do that? I’m scared of them fuckers at the airport, man. They got them gun detectors and all, and they down on people that look like hippies.”
On the way to the airport, more comic books and boredom. As the car passes the Super All Drugs, Butch Trucks cranes around to stare at a flamboyant leather dyke. “Well, theh’s ya big city,” he philosophizes. Willie is fascinated by the dizzying onrush of traffic. “These California people all got to be good drivers,” he drawls, “or they’d all be dead by now.”
At the airport, Duane draws Dicky Betts off to one side. “Did you hear them tapes of last night, brother?” he asks, shuffling excitedly from foot to foot. “Man, I wasinspahred. Listen, we got to get at least six more killer tunes right away. My composin’ chops are gettin’ rusty. What say when this tour is over we woodshed and write for a coupla weeks?”
“I dunno,” Dicky says, looking dubious. “I was thankin’ about goin’ to Canada to see Sandy.”
“Aw, come on, man,” Duane groans.
An hour and a half later, in a rented station wagon headed for what turns out to be a fleabag tourist warren near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Dicky is reading aloud the marquee billings along Broadway in North Beach: “Cal Tjader, hmn… the Modern Jazz Quartet… hey, Mongo Santamaria. Shit, I thank I’ll bop in there and ast ol’ Mongo when he’s gonna record ‘Elizabeth Reed.”’ He double-takes at a sign above a topless joint that reads NAKED SEDUCTION. “Crap on that stuff,” he wheezes. “I druther do it than look at it.”
Pausing at the hotel only long enough to drop their gear, Duane and Gregg and Berry Oakley race back to North Beach on a shopping binge. In a super-expensive leather shop, Duane freaks over a hand-tooled shirt with a colored panel on the front that resembles a drive-in theater facade in, say, Ponca City, Oklahoma; he eagerly pays $200 for it. Within minutes, he and Greg have dropped over $500 for a few shirts and trousers, and then Butch Trucks, accompanied by his slender, shy wife, Linda, briefly joins the group and buys a cowboy-style coat. Then Dicky shows up, looking for a maxi-length white leather dress for his Indian lady friend. After Butch and his wife have paid for the coat and drift on to rubberneck the bizarre upper-Grant Street mise-en-scene, Gregg curls his lip derisively: “Shit, you see that ratty-lookin’ coat ol’ Butch bought? Fucker didn’t even fit him.”
Duane shrugs contemptuously: “His ol’ lady probly put him up to it. She don’t know shit. She made him buy that Dee-troit car, too, man, and he coulda bought a fuckin’ Porsche for the same bread. Shit, man.”
“Yeah, shit, man,” Gregg agrees.
The band plays for a near-capacity audience at Winterland that evening. Before the music starts, while Bill Graham’s rent-a-goons are nastily hassling reporters on what seems to be sheer lunatic principle, Gregg draws on a joint backstage and mumble-explains his concept of hitting the note: “Uh, achievin’… the right… frame of mind, man. You smoke enough grass, you’ll get there. Uh… three joints, maybe.”
Ten minutes later, Gregg is squalling out the opening lines of “Statesboro Blues,” and a joy-transfixed chickie in the balcony shoots to her feet in a writhing dance.“Oh, baby,” she screams, “joy up and jump on me!”
Early the next afternoon, enter the photographer, looking cheery. An easy-going zaftig lady, she’s been promised a two o’clock shooting session with the band, but whatever else they’re doing, the boys are not hitting the note today. Half of them, in fact, are still asleep at the appointed time, and to a man they resist being roused. “Aw, Duane and Gregg’ll do that, you know,” Willie Perkins explains sheepishly. “They’ll stay up for three, four days, and then crash like they’us dead.”
Bunky Odum promises solemnly that he’ll deliver both Allmans to the photographer’s studio before the evening’s concert at Winterland. “Gawddamn, honey,” Odum booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and git laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and… uh… feed you some down-home collard greens.”
But Odum fails to deliver on his promise that evening when both the Allman brothers balk at the notion of being photographed apart from the rest of the group. They seem, in fact, outraged by the notion. They seem, in fact, like cranky, petulant children, coked to the gills. “Fuck, man, we ain’t on no fuckin’ star trip,”Duane snarls. “Naw, man, we ain’t on no fuckin’ star trip,” Gregg echoes. Trying to smooth things over, Odum arranges for the photographer to join the group’s swing back to Southern California the next day.
Exit the photographer, looking addled.
Exit the fellow traveler, looking for a movie far from the madding goons at Winterland.
Sleepy and hanging over, the group assembles in the hotel parking lot the next morning for the drive to the airport and an early flight to Santa Barbara. Only Dicky Betts seems in high spirits; after last night’s gig, he’d gotten a new tattoo at Lyle Tuttle’s south-of-Market studio—a dove entwining the name “Sandy” on his right bicep. “Ever’body in the band got one a these, too,” Dicky says proudly, pulling up his pant leg to show a tattoo of a mushroom on his calf. Willie Perkins nods shortly, “It’s the band’s emblem. We all got one, and we use the same design on all our litachoor, too.”
Dicky catches sight of Duane and guffaws: “Hey, brother, you got coke all over in your muss-tache.” Peeved, Duane rakes the white grains out of the hair on his lip and glares steadily at the photographer, who’s snapping individual candids of the band members. When she moves in toward him, he turns his back with a growl.
On the drive to the airport, Berry Oakley is literally holding his head with both hands. “I run into this ol’ girl last night who had a whole purseful of tequila,” he groans. “Then when that run out, we got into some Red Ripple. Jesus.”
On the flight south, Butch Trucks reads the opening chapter of D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism. “You read this un?” he asks Dicky Betts. Betts’ eyes flick over the title. “Yeah, good, ain’t it,” he grunts. An hour later, one of the stewardesses remonstrates repeatedly with Duane to return his seat to the upright position for landing. Irritably, he complies, but when the stewardess moves on, he reclines the chair again, muttering balefully under his breath. “The boys are gettin’ pretty tahrd,” Willie Perkins sighs.
The band puts up for the night at the Santa Barbara Inn, a poshy beach resort for the middle-aged rich, where, once again, Duane refuses to show up for a picture session with the photographer. Looking positively shell-shocked by now, she pleads her case to Bunky Odum. “Goddamn, honey,” he booms, “you gonna have to come down to Macon and git laid back with us when this bid-ness is over. We’ll take you ridin’ on our motors and feed you some down-home collard greens.”
That night’s concert is held in Robertson’s Gym at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The band plays a tight, subdued set that sets a gaggle of braless nymphets near the stage to jiggling like fertilized eggs frying in the ninth circle of hell, but the general ambience in the hall—high humidity, surly security guards, a surfeit of bum acid—gives the evening a jagged, unpleasant edge, and streams of people begin leaving before the set is done.
Duane and Dicky lope backstage afterwards to “do some sniff,” as Dicky terms it. Duane grabs a towel and mops his streaming face while Dicky spoons out the coke. “Goddamn, I’m sopped, brother,” Duane complains.
Dicky snorts the powder and bobs his head in pleasure, “Sheeit, my man, I druther sniff this ol’ stuff than a girl’s bicycle seat.”
Jo Baker, a black singer with the Elvin Bishop Group, hovers nearby, eyeing the coke. Duane fixes her with a cold stare. “Looka-here, sister,” he says loudly. “I’m sorry, but I got just a little bit of this shit left, so I can’t give you none.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” Jo says, looking embarrassed. “Sure, as a musician, I understand.”
Early the next morning, “Frown,” Jai Johany Johnson, is living up to his nickname in the hotel restaurant. Slurping a triple Gold Cadillac, which is a positively depraved concoction of liquor and liqueurs, he growls, “Bullshit, my m’an. I’m into playin’ music, not this sittin’-around bullshit. Seems like when we was unknown, all we did was play. Now all we do is get publicity…. Ten years from now, if I be livin’, I expect to be playin’ music…. Naw, not with this same band…. I got my nickname, the full thing of which is ‘Jaymo King Norton Frown,’ from drinkin’ Robitussin H-C, that cough syrup. It makes you nod and frown. All the cats in the band used to drink that shit, so they finally got me to drink it, too…. Shit, I don’t know what my attitude is towards dope. I don’t guess they ever gonna stop it comin’ in the country and all that shit. Sure has caused a Iotta hang-ups, if you can dig what I mean…. Hittin’ the note is—well, that don’t be nothin’ but a phrase. What the cats in the band mean by it is… gettin’ out of it whatever you’re lookin’ for…”
Bunky Odum has again promised the photographer that he’ll line up the boys for some shots when the group checks out of the hotel, so she stations herself near the parking garage and nervously waits for them to show up. Soon, Butch Trucks and his wife join her, and Butch apologizes to her for the runaround she’s been getting. “Aw, ol’ Gregg and Duane don’t mean no harm, I reckon, but they still ortn’t to act that a way,” he mutters, looking pained. “We been on the road too long, I guess. It’s been five weeks now, and you get awful tahrd and wore out bein’ out that long, playin’ the same tunes every night and all. It gets to where sometimes it ain’t any fun. And this definitely ain’t the kind of business to be in if you ain’t havin’ no fun.”
One by one, the boys straggle out to the cars, again looking sleepy and hung-over. When they’ve assembled in a loose semicircle, the photographer explains that she’d like to get a group shot showing the tattooed mushrooms on the calves of their legs. There’s some grumbling, but they begin to fall in line and raise their pant legs. Then Duane shakes his head angrily and stomps out of camera range. “This is jive bullshit, man,” he rasps, “it’s silly.” “Yeah, silly,” Gregg echoes, and follows suit. “Jive bullshit,” Dicky Betts agrees, stuffing his pant leg back into his boot. At my teasing suggestion that it’s no sillier to shoot a picture of everyone’s tattoos than it is to have them put on in the first place, Duane coldly offers to punch me out on the spot. Well, what the fuck, hare krishna; Duane is, after all, the walrus.
The entourage crowds into two rented cars for a tensely silent ride down the coastal highway to L.A. Along the way, Duane gruffly agrees to stop for a last try at the photos on a beach road. When the photographer tries to position the group around the cars so all their faces will be visible, Duane goes out to lunch entirely. “Fuck it,” he bellows at her, “either take the fuckin’ picture or don’t take the fuckin’ picture. I’m not gonna do any of that phony posin’ shit for you or nobody else.”
He’s still grumbling and snuffling when the cars swing back onto the highway. “I don’t like any of that contrived shit, man. We’re just plain ol’ fuckin’, Southern cats, man. Not ashamed of it or proud of it, neither one. Ain’t no superstars here, man.” When he finally shuts up and falls asleep, the fellow traveler gladly crouches down toward the floorboard so the photographer can shoot both the Allmans with their mouths agape in the rear seat. It’s uncomfortable for a few miles, but it beats the hell out of getting punched.
Quartered once again at the Continental Hyatt House on the Karmic Strip in L.A., the Allman group whiles away the afternoon snorting coke, reading comics, mounting a seek-out-and-buy raid on Tower Records, and watching The Thief of Baghdad on color TV. When it’s time for the evening’s gig, Willie Perkins rounds them up and herds them toward Artie’s black Cadillac limo for the half-mile ride down Sunset Boulevard to the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. “C’mon, brothers,” Michael Callahan, the soundman, calls out as the band mills about the driveway, “they gonna eat you alive at the Whuskey-a-Dildo.”
In the upstairs dressing room at the Whiskey, amid the usual groupie babble and turmoil, the photographer determinedly tries to shoot some final pictures. Politely, she asks a busboy to replace some burnt-out light bulbs in the ceiling. When the busboy fetches a ladder and the bulbs, Gregg Allman saunters up and mumbles, “Don’t screw that bulb in, my man. I like it in here the way it is.”
“Please screw the bulb in,” the photographer entreats.
“Don’t screw the bulb in, man,” Gregg says to the busboy stonily. This happens a few times.
“Oh, screw it,” the photographer says finally in exasperation and leaves.
When the band’s set gets under way downstairs, the usually comatose Strip crowd yells its lusty approval from the first chorus of “Statesboro Blues.” By the time Dicky Betts thunderballs into his solo jam on “Elizabeth Reed,” people are standing on their chairs, yodeling cheers. As the band jam-drives to a sexy and demonic close, sounding not unlike tight early Coltrane, a flaxen-haired waitress is passing up draughts of beer to the screaming patrons in the second-story gallery. The beer is streaming amber and glistening down her bare arms, and the Allman Brothers Band from Macon, Gawgia, is—what else—hitting the note.
EPILOGUE by W.K. Stratton
Back in the day, I marshaled some of the rare coins I had in junior high and took out a subscription to Rolling Stone. At the time, it came out biweekly on newsprint and unfolded into a tabloid format, so it was really not exactly a magazine in the sense of what one expected from, say, Esquire, with its slick pages. It also seemed to balance itself between a newspaper and a magazine in terms of content. Much of the material up front was very weekly-newspaper-like, but there was tons of editorial space between the ads as you moved through the remainder of the publication, and this space was filled by features, some short, some long, some very very long — and even some poetry.
I was already interested in writing at that time, reading a lot of Steinbeck, for instance, and I had a sense that different writers could write in different ways. Then as now Rolling Stone was about more than just music, and the features could take in a lot of different things that might have been of interest to young Baby Boomers, who made up its primary reading audience. The editing hand seemed to be light, allowing different voices to deal with different topics in different ways. I remember well reading the Hunter Thompson pieces, and remembering his name. I remember reading a piece by Joe Eszterhas about a band of rural hippies in Missouri and remembering his name. And I certainly remembered the bylines of Chet Flippo and Ben Fong-Torres.
But there was this one guy, who seemed to write about movies as much as anything, whose style captured my fancy more than anyone’s. I didn’t really connect with his byline until after the horrible death of Duane Allman; shortly after Allman’s death, Rolling Stone carried this long piece about the Allman Brothers Band. And it was by that guy whose style I liked: Grover Lewis. I remembered it thereafter. As for the piece itself, at the time, I thought it portrayed the band as real and it did so not in any sort of derogatory way. It never occurred to me then that anyone could see it in any other way. But I was, what, 15 at the time? What did I know about the emotions of brothers and other family members, and friends, and devoted fans?
I did not realize that the story caused a shit-storm of controversy for the magazine until I read Robert Draper’s history of Rolling Stone years later. A number of years after that book came out, my good friend Jan Reid and I were compiling Splendor in the Short Grass, an anthology of Grover Lewis’ writing. We both read the Allman Brothers Band piece and thought it was fine, but we also thought Grover had done finer writing during his career. We toyed with the idea of omitting it in favor of some of his later work, such as the heartbreaking piece he wrote about Gus Hasford, the author of the novel that was the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
But people familiar with Grover and his work insisted: We had to include the Allman Brothers piece. It was his most famous article from Rolling Stone. So we did. Ironically, when Roy Blount reviewed Splendor for the New York Times Book Review, the Allman Brothers Band article was the one he particularly pointed out. Well, within a few weeks, Butch Trucks, the drummer for the Allman Brothers Band, wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of the Book Review stating, essentially, the band’s disdain for the article and Grover. No one could have been more surprised than I at the reaction. After all these years… I learned this much from working on the collection itself: The back story is that Grover never seemed to be that big on the article himself. He finished it and filed it and it was set and ready to go when Duane Allman died. He was fine with withdrawing the article under the circumstances. It was Jann Wenner who insisted that the magazine run it.
As far the prose goes, I think the article is a fine piece of writing, for my money not as good as Grover’s writing on Peckinpah, for instance, but good. Is it a fair assessment of the Allman Brothers Band and Duane circa 1971? The Allman survivors would say no in thunder. Grover, if he still walked among us, would most certainly insist yes. One thing that’s clear from Trucks’ letter is that the whole project was a bad match of writer and subject from the very beginning:“Lewis joined our tour in 1971 at the insistence of our management. We were a very close-knit group of musicians and had little use for all the interviews, photo shoots and other such nonsense that went with the image building that made for big-time rock ‘n’ roll success.” As to its place in Grover’s canon, it is indeed the best known of his Rolling Stone pieces.
[Photo Via: Phil Ochs archive]
Not everyone gets Humphrey Bogart to play them in the movies. Harold Conrad did. In Mark Jacobson’s pitch-perfect story of the ultimate been-everywhere-done-everything knock-around guy, Conrad and a bygone era of gangsters, boxers, and movie stars are brought to life.
Jacobson has long been one of our finest magazine writers. He’s most famous for the stories that were the basis of the TV show Taxi and the movie American Gangster, as well as the brilliant profiles of Dr. J and Sonny Rollins. He called Conrad “a prince of a man, and a good friend” and this piece features Jacobson at his best. It’s featured in the essential collection Teenage Hipster in the Modern World. Originally published in Esquire in 1992, it appears here with the author’s permission.
Dig in, this is a treat.
The last time I saw Harold Conrad, he was lying in a hospital bed wearing dark sunglasses. Leave it to Harold to stake out a small territory of cool amid the fluorescent lighting, salt-free food, and stolid nurses bearing bedpans. The results were in by then, a tale told in black shadows on X-ray transparencies: one in the lung, the other in the head. But Harold always had an angle, and even now, a step from death, the cancer throughout his 80-year-old body, he sought an edge.
He motioned me closer, rasped into my ear, “Did you bring a joint?”
A few weeks later, after Harold died, I told this story at a memorial service. It got a laugh. Several of Harold’s old friends were there, telling Harold Conrad stories. Norman Mailer recalled the evening Harold once saved his life. Mailer was drunk that night, he didn’t notice the television set falling off the shelf above him, hardly even saw Harold, stronger than he looked, snatch the machine out of midair.
“Harold Conrad preserved half my head,” Mailer said.
Budd Schulberg (author of What Makes Sammy Run?) talked about a wild week in Dublin, where Harold found himself promoting a Muhammad Ali fight and how everyone lost money when the crowd stormed the gates because, people said, “It is an insult to ask an Irishman to pay to see a fight.” Bill Murray recollected a particularly gelatinous massage and steam bath procedure Harold once directed him to. “I was trapped. Melting away. Soon I would be a wet spot on the floor. And I said: I used to be somebody before I met this Harold Conrad.” These stories got laughs, which was only right. Harold would never tolerate a wake that didn’t turn into a celebration; that would go double for his own.
You could say this about Harold Conrad, newspaperman, superflack, friend to bard and bozo, custodian of a bygone age—he went out on his forever-bent shield. It was Harold’s life mission: to be in his own particular vision of the right place at the right time.
Like just two months before he died, when we were in Vegas.
Harold had been to Vegas before, of course, about 9 million times. In fact, along with almost every other bit of semi-off-brand action worth a tumble in this hot-breathed century of ours, Harold Conrad was in Vegas at the beginning, before they even threw the switch on the first neon sign. Ground-floor kind of guy, Harold. It was Bugsy Siegel (Ben to you) who got him out to the desert back in ’48, when the Strip was nothing but a dusty two-lane highway between here and L.A.
“I need you. Today,” Siegel summoned. In the way of Aeneas, Bugs was possessed by a revelatory calling to found a great city. His Flamingo Hotel, all pink and heat-waved in the sun’s blare, was ready to open, and he needed a mouthpiece, a PR sharpie to sling his ink, say how wholesome and all-American the slots and hookers were going to be. Harold had the bona fides. He’d handled the publicity for Meyer Lansky and the boys in Florida when they bought the Broward County sheriff and ran a Colonial Inn-cum-gambling joint down near Lauderdale in ’47; he was wise as to what to put in the papers and what to keep out, how to smooth over the rough spots.
There was the time Harold helped the boys, fixing that dicey scene with Walter Winchell. Winchell was on a gangbusters kick, making noise in his column about blowing Lansky’s whole operation. Winchell was big, you couldn’t muscle him. No one knew what to do until Harold, just out of the Air Force’s 101 Bomber Command, was riding in the car with Meyer, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis. Never shy, Harold told the mobsters they had it wrong if they thought they could get tough with Winchell. The columnist was a royal prick, but he had this soft spot for Damon Runyon, who was dying at the time. A five-thousand-dollar check to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, of which Winchell was the chairman, would help, Harold suggested. It did, too, but a well-placed word that a cute little number from Kansas City—whom Winchell had been known to eyeball—was working in the Colonial chorus line didn’t hurt either.
But the truth was, Harold didn’t really care to work for gangsters, which is why he turned down Bugsy Siegel. “Can’t help you,” Harold said to Siegel as the gangster showed him around the Flamingo’s best suite, the one with the escape chutes in the closets and steel shutters on the windows. “I’m a writer. This PR stuff’s on the side.”
“You can be a writer, too. I own Hollywood,” Bugs said. “That’s no problem.”
Great, Harold thinks, that’s all I need: to show up in Zanuck’s office with my typewriter and say, “Bugsy sent me.” Again he refuses. So Siegel shakes his head and says all right, if Harold doesn’t want the job, that’s good enough for him. That’s Harold: He turns down Bugsy Siegel and lives.
Yeah, like Kathmandu and Monte Carlo, Maine and Monrovia, Harold had been to Vegas before. In ’63, when he was hyping the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight there, he drove out from New York in his Ford woody, along with his wife, the fabulous Mara Lynn, his son, Casey, and the family cat, which ripped up all the upholstery. They stopped off along the way, took in a few sights: the Grand Canyon and Eisenhower’s birthplace. Took six weeks. Flackery had a more unhurried aspect back then. Not now. This week they got Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock over at the Mirage, where the fake volcano blows up every twenty minutes.
“Fucking town,” Harold grumbles as he reconnoiters the tourist-dense casino. Forty-five years ago Runyon referred to Harold as “my good friend, the tall and stately columnist for the New York Mirror.” Now, even as Harold remained seemingly eternally tall and stately in his dapper safari suit and pencil moustache, the Mirror was long gone, along with every other sheet he had ever worked for, including his beloved Brooklyn Eagle. Just the month before, after decades of smoking and drinking and staying out all night long, he turned 80. He’s not nuts about the idea. “You know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see the big eight-oh looking back?” Conrad imagined if he got this far it’d be enough time to “get revenge.” Instead, he opens his address book and “there’s two dead guys on every page.”
We went over to the Riviera coffee shop and talked with Gene Kilroy. Harold and Kilroy, a giant, raucous man who now works as an “executive casino host,” go back a long way. Together they went around the world with Muhammad Ali, to Zaire, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. It was the most perfect party, a road show no one thought would end. Harold first ran into Ali at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami back in ’61. He was working the third Patterson-Johansson fight, using every huckster’s wile to propagate the notion that the shopworn Swede actually had a chance. Johansson needed a sparring partner, and a young, brash man, just a year out of the amateurs, volunteered. Pop, pop, pop, Ali—then Cassius Clay—surrounded the lumbering Scandinavian with zinging leather. “Sucker,” the young man taunted, “I should be fighting Patterson, not you.” Harold’s eyes opened wide. He’d covered fights back to when they ran weekly cards in little dives like the Broadway Arena, where Murder Inc. had the first row on permanent reserve. Right off, Harold knew what he was looking at. “I saw the new champ today,” he told anyone who’d listen. Later, after they took Ali’s title because, as he said, war was against his religion and besides he didn’t have “nothing against no Cong,” Harold went around the country trying to get the Champ’s license back; persistent guy, Harold—he was in 20 states before Georgia said yes and Ali got to knock out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.
Being with The Greatest was always electric, the most vital place to be, like the time in the Philippines when Ali leaned across Imelda, over to Marcos, and asked, “You the president? President get a lot of pussy?” “Much pussy,” Marcos nodded, with a curt smile. “You’re not as dumb as you look,” Ali returned.
Everyone figured Ali would be coming in for Tyson-Ruddock. He usually shows up for the big heavyweight fights and often picks up a few Gs from the promotion just for waving when they say his name. But the Champ’s not here. The Parkinson’s is getting worse, he’s too sick to travel. “Last time I talked to him on the phone I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying…” Harold says, softly. Kilroy nods glumly.
So it goes. In Conrad’s neo-autobiography Dear Muffo, a wry and passionate chronicle of his near-lifelong interface with celebrity large and small, he talks about how, in the service of hawking the first Ali-Liston fight, he got the Louisville Lip together with the Beatles, who were then on their first American tour. Taking his accustomed long view, Harold noted: “The Beatles and Cassius Clay—the two hottest names in the news, worldwide. They are all about the same age. I wonder how posterity will treat them.”
“I never expected to find out,” mutters Harold, who for the last 25 years of his life lived in the Oliver Cromwell on West 72 Street, his window overlooking the entrance of the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. “At my fucking age you’re supposed to be dead, or at least sitting on your ass in Florida getting stoned. I didn’t know I’d still be out here hustling, trying to make a goddamned living.”
For Harold, that was a big part of the disappointment at Ali not being in Vegas this week; he’s supposed to be doing a piece on Muhammad for Rolling Stone,which probably made him the oldest freelance magazine writer in the world. A couple of years before, he had applied his special broth of piquant newspaperese to the pages of Spin magazine. Seventy-eight years old! Working for a low-life rockrag like Spin magazine! Getting cut for space between the Iron Maiden and Megadeath profiles. High blood pressure and arthritis—working for Spin magazine!
“What am I supposed to do?” Harold shouts in his ratchety voice. “I need the scratch.” Then he smiles and his eyes come on like star sapphires. “Also the action.”
Action. Harold’s unquenchable desire, the axis mundi of his existence.
Action. Something genuine happening. People coming together, energy pouring into a room until your head’s light and you can’t breathe right. It doesn’t happen every day, not the real stuff, Harold knew. He’d been in on more than his share of fakes and hustles. He was the point man in the promotion when Evel Knievel swore he’d soar across Snake River Canyon in a sawed-off rocket ship. He once put Casey Stengel on high-top skates to hype a roller derby in Oakland. He flacked for numerous wrestlers and six-day bicycle races. The smell of the unkosher come-on was not unknown to the less-than-petite Conrad honker. Legitimate action is a rare thing, eminently perishable. It can be a heavy jones.
Right now, here in Vegas, the tingle’s beginning. The crowd torsos past the slots, a crush of velveteen, a sheen of sequins. Here comes Tyson’s team, a dozen bodyguards, growly and hard, in black leather hats that say KICK ASS. Ruddock’s people are wearing Day-Glo baseball jackets. They’re singing Bob Marley songs, because Ruddock is from Jamaica. Harold has seen it before and better, way, way better. But shabby as it is, compared to the days of Sugar Ray and drinking coffee with George Balanchine (as Harold used to do), this doesn’t get old. Not this—that time before the bell when the drumbeating and backbiting and cadging suddenly cease and, for an instant at least, there’s a chance of witnessing something absolutely pure.
“Six forty-four, Pacific Time,” Harold says, looking at his watch. “Six forty-four, and there’s no place on earth where they have action like this. And we’re here. This is what there is to live for.”
Let me say, flat out, that Harold Conrad was the single most happening, been-everywhere/done-everything cat I ever met. For certain he had the best resume. I mean, sure, there’s that business about being Meyer Lansky’s press agent, and all those days and nights hanging with his particular rogue’s gallery of rats, badhats, and plutocrats, Runyon, Charley Lucky, Joe Kennedy, George Raft, Sonny Liston, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle (“the biggest pecker in Hollywood”), Marilyn Monroe, John Huston, Howard Hughes (he tried to pick up Mara Lynn), and Mike Todd, not to mention Mailer, Murray, James Baldwin, and Hunter Thompson.
Besides, how many guys can say Humphrey Bogart played them in the movies? It happened back in ’54, when Budd Schulberg wrote his novel about an even seamier side of boxing, The Harder They Fall, using his good friend Conrad as an exceedingly convenient model for the central figure of the somewhat dissolute, wholesomely cynical sports reporter Eddie Lewis. When they got around to making the movie, Bogart took the Lewis role.
“You can imagine how proud I am,” Harold says. “Bogart, my favorite actor, playing me in the movies! So one night I’m in a Sunset Strip joint, and I see Bogart sitting at a table. He’s got his head down over his glass, and I say, ‘Mr. Bogart, my name is Harold Conrad. I just want to tell you how proud I am that you’re playing me in The Harder They Fall.’ Now he raises his head, and I can see how skulled he is. His eyes are barely open. I repeat my line about how proud I am.
‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself,’ he says and drops his head back down over the glass … I was never so crushed in my whole life.”
The coda to the story is that Bogart later apologized, saying Harold caught him on an off night, that they both had a laugh about it. Good thing, too. Because, as Harold says, “If I hadn’t got that squared away with Bogie, I don’t think I would have ever been the same.” And that makes you happy, because Harold was the sort of fellow for whom you want (after appropriate duress, of course) everything to turn out right.
Born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1911, the only son of Romanian steerage travelers, graduate of Franklin K. Lane High School, Harold Conrad swaggered a broken field through the century with the consuming immigrant pluck that told him anything was possible as long he thought fast, talked faster, and kept his head down in the clinches. To me—one who has never been able to casually say, as Harold did so frequently, “So one night I walk into Lindy’s,” Harold Conrad was a conduit to another, more vibrant, infinitely more colorful age. In a sea of retro-gimmicked, James M. Cain fashion knockoffs in slouch hats, he was the legitimate article, a guy with a capital G, a gaudy-pattered, Basie-rhythmed remnant of a time when people made buildings with spires lurching to the sky because they believed their works were beautiful and assumed the heavens would concur.
Hanging out with Harold was never a sweat. You’d go up to his apartment, look at the photos on the wall—Harold with the young Joe Louis, Harold with the old Joe Louis, Harold sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Havana with Hemingway, Harold sipping tea in Cairo with King Farouk—and light up. Harold, you see, was always what they used to call “a viper.” He shared his first joint with Louis Armstrong and Dickie Wells backstage at Three Deuces on 52 Street. Armstrong told Harold that reefer was “medicine for headaches, toothaches, and the blues,” advice Conrad took to heart. He smoked marijuana every day of his life for the next 55 years. The haze lingered. In Vegas, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted Harold with the shout, “Hey man, you still with them funny cigarettes?”
Once you’re properly blasted, the stories can commence. Forever positioning himself as the bemused adjuster of bollixed-up situations, the sane everyman set down amid the messes of majesties and morons, saints and liars, Harold unveils his dense, textured oral history with snazzy syntax and much wingy body English. You hear of Harold’s days on the newspapers, immerse yourself in the dense incense of the dripping lead type in Hildy Johnson’s city room. Harold worked the Broadway beat and wrote sports. He covered the Dodgers for the Brooklyn Eagle, where they set the box score on the front page by hand.
It was frantic back when 12 dailies hit the New York streets with half a dozen editions each. Harold scored his own kind of scoops. Once he was sitting in a bar and everyone was talking about how tough Capone was, and someone said, “Yeah, but he ain’t as tough as the guy who gave him the scar.” Got to find that man, Harold vowed, and he did, locating an unassuming barber in South Brooklyn. The story was, the young Capone felt the barber hadn’t given him the best cut. An argument ensued. Capone reached for his gun, but the barber was quicker with the razor. Slice. The fact that Capone never came back for revenge led Harold to conclude that Scarface didn’t need a PR team to tell him the value of a good nickname (“Nick-name, Some pun, ha, ha”).
The sagas go on from there, an eclectic, free-associated torrent owing nothing to chronology or rote, seamlessly stitched together by Harold’s singular baritone scrape. Tales of Roy Cohn and Cardinal Spellman’s strange liaison, days and nights with Ray Robinson, accounts of a month spent with Lucky Luciano in Naples, during the gangster’s melancholy deportation. “You don’t know what I’d give to go eating a hot dog behind third base at the Polo Grounds,” Harold quotes Charley Lucky as mournfully saying over a double espresso.
Often the reverie rolled on deep into the night, an unflagging, unredundant product of the raconteurial mind. You could be walking down the street, and apropos of nothing Harold would say, “So I was screwing Jack Webb’s girl…” Then he’d be back to Ali, talking about the time he had to hide the Champ in his apartment before the Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium. Ali was running around “trying to give away all his money to every Boys’ Club in town,” looking peaked; he had to be taken out of circulation—after all, Norton was tough, he’d broken Ali’s jaw back in San Diego. Harold tells how Dick Gregory came around with his health therapies and blenders. “You have to neutralize your poisons, Ali. You have to drink your own urine,” Gregory said, demonstrating with a beaker of his own bodily fluids.
“Drink my own piss?” Ali boggled. “He poured out everything Gregory gave him after that, the vegetable juices, every elixir,” Harold says. “Gregory never knew. But he kept raving, ‘See! He looks better already.”‘
Assessing the veracity quotient of Harold’s stories, Norman Mailer, Conrad’s friend for more than three decades, said, “I suspect they are more true than you might expect. They are true because we want them to be true, and it would break our hearts if they’re not.”
You wonder if it even matters anymore. Like Mailer says, we accept them because they’re better than most other stories, tales handed down from a previous generation we here in the pygmy land of corporate spin can only regard as godlike. People like Harold hailed from a pre-TV day when it seemed as if American giants strode the earth, a time when wiseacres and sharpies, suddenly free of the shtetl, Sicilian village, and failed potato farm, were given free rein to self-invent a wholly new urban ethos (“action”) in the hitherto-unexplored marginalia of the cityscape. In that way Harold, profoundly unsentimental with his faintly detached yet undeniably firsthand merge of style and substance, performed a patriotic service; he, alone, it seemed, survived for so long to tell thee of a time when the national spirit appeared to strike a bolder, more heroic chord. With the dekiltered surrealism Harold brought to that telling, he’d sometimes break through to what can only be called Art.
Like the time his first wife threw a lamp at him.
It goes, more or less, this way: “Yeah, I was living on 32 Street at the time. Right near Sixth. Across from the Empire State Building. My first wife was a great babe. Great body. Eurasian. But sometimes she’d get crazy. So she picks up this lamp and throws it at me across the room. Did you ever have a lamp thrown at you? It takes a little bit of time to get there. So I’m looking at this lamp coming at me, and I’m thinking, That plane outside the window is flying pretty low. Really low. Low and loud. I’m thinking all this as the lamp is coming. Then it goes by my shoulder, smashes against the wall with this tremendous crash. Bam! A lot louder than I would have figured. I’m thinking, wow, she’s really got a hell of an arm. The whole building shook. And know what? I didn’t find out until later that it was right then that that plane smashed into the Empire State Building.”
Ever offhand, relentlessly imperturbable, Harold was typically diffident about his appeal to the younger generation of would-be hepcats. He’d narrow his brown eyes (which so many women less than half his age found irresistible), puff on his cigarette (only adding to the aura of understated octogenarian sexuality), and unfurl his most compelling half-sneer. “I know about you guys, why you want to hang around with me, you fuckers. You see these pictures of me on the deck of the Queen Mary with a bottle of champagne, and you get all misty; you know there’s nothing you can do about getting that. No amount of money buys it back.”
But then, in the form of a disclaimer, he’d say, “Just stop me before I get to be one of those creaky fucks who sits around talking about how great the old days were. That’s the worst. Of course the old days were better. In the old days, you didn’t have arthritis. In the old days, you could get a hard-on. What scares me is when I can’t help thinking: It was better then. I mean: look at it, on paper. Then against now. Forget about it. I don’t want to let myself think like that. Instead I say, you just have to look harder to find the action now.”
So that brings us back around to Vegas, where Mike Tyson is driving Razor Ruddock into the ropes, and the referee, Richard Steele, is stopping the fight. This denouement is not appreciated by the Ruddock camp, which all week long has been predicting that something exactly like this would happen, since Steele’s got a track record for quick triggers, and besides he works as a pit boss for Steve Wynne, who owns the Mirage and happens to have a deal for Tyson’s next fight with Iron Mike’s paramour, the indefatigably skulduggerous Don King. Right now Murad Muhammad, Ruddock’s smarmier-than-thou promoter, is in the ring kicking Tyson’s trainer Richie Giachetti in his ample gut as a form of protest.
“Another black eye for boxing,” Harold remarks with his seasoned sarcasm as he watches the ensuing riot, referring to the headlines he knows will appear in every paper tomorrow. “Boxing’s like the night. It’s got a thousand eyes, all of them black.”
Harold gets up with a grunt. He’s been feeling crappy since we got to Vegas, tired. It’s a pulled muscle in his side, he keeps claiming, taking out another joint, playing craps until three in the morning. “It’s all fucking downhill after 80,” he groans. It’s not exactly like you’d notice, however, since Harold hasn’t looked his age for years. As the decades wore on, Harold took increasing delight in telling people, especially women, his age. No squint-eyed carny could ever guess it; it’s a shock to find out he’s 20 years older than you always thought.
Mailer says, “I first met Harold in ’61. I was 38 and he was 50. He looked 50. Then he didn’t age a day in the next two and a half decades. It’s only since Mara died that you began to see a change. That was a blow. Mara was in every way Harold’s equal.”
About that there can be no argument. Mara Lynn was, by all accounts, a piece of work, a doll with a capital D. Twenty years of study with Balanchine, she made her mark dressed in funny costumes hoofing beside Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, playing a zany with Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love, and pouring a rum and coke over the head of an excessively raging Jake LaMotta. Budd Schulberg refers to her as “a one-girl riot.”
Mailer, who featured Mara in his movie Wild 90, says with a stab of reverence, “She was a blond witch and a blond angel, she could be both, often at the same time, depending on her mood. She could get a guy agitated. Like every man married to a beautiful woman, Harold, I think, was always a little in awe of her.” Others, too. As one story goes, Bianca Jagger, impressed, once made a plaster cast of Mara’s posterior.
Harold first met Mara back in ’48, when he was doing a Broadway column for the Mirror. She was dancing at a place called the Hurricane Club. A deadly entry at any price, they got married in 1950, divorced in ’56, got back together a couple of years later, and lived together for decades more. Life with Mara apparently could be quite stormy. Once, when he was doing the second Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, Harold and Mara had an all-time argument. He stomped out of the hotel room and found a French Quarter bar to get drunk in. Sometime during the night, he fell in with a shipload of sailors and found himself inside an all-night tattoo parlor getting a tricolor severed heart affixed to his bicep. MARA, it said. Mara was shocked—after all, 67-year-old Jewish men are not known for getting tattoos on their arms in the middle of the night. It’ll keep you out of the cemetery when you die. But Mara was swayed. She said Harold’s tattoo was the greatest tribute of love she’d ever seen.
The fun stopped when Mara got sick, and Harold spent all his money trying to save her, which is how at age 80 he wound up writing articles for Spin magazine. As horrific as the end must have been, it was in keeping with the romance of a certain romantic age. Harold and Mara remarried after nearly 30 years of living in sin, smoked a last joint together, and that was it.
“Been faking it since then,” Harold would admit grudgingly. “I’m all front.”
In Vegas, you could tell things weren’t right. Even Don King—Harold’s collaborator on several Ali fights, whose incessant effulgence of “wit, grit, and bullshit” Conrad approvingly recognizes as being in boxing’s scalawag tradition—noticed. Nattily attired in a baggy red, white, and blue ONLY IN AMERICA sweatsuit, King was in the middle of swearing on a metaphorical stack of his dead mother’s Bibles that the Tyson-Ruddock battle would “separate the pugilistic wheat from the chaff,” quoting Frederick Douglass, George Bush, and Plato in the same sentence when he sees Harold. Losing no beat, the promoter abruptly launched into an apparently heartfelt, equally loud reverie about “Harold Conrad—the legend!—a man of much moxie, the nonpareil of sell!” But then King stops, tilts his multipronged coif, and says, “Hey, Harold, you all right, man?”
He’s not. Maybe he shouldn’t have had those couple of drinks with the Brit sportswriters, Harold says with the deep embarrassment of someone forever finicky about appearances, because when he got back to the hotel, he slipped in the lobby, fell down between the dollar slots, and his head’s been spinning ever since. It’s just his luck that there’s a chiropractor convention at the hotel, because before he even hits the lobby floor, six guys are pushing cards at him.
The next morning, walking through the casino lobby, a woman in a stretchy orange dress comes over and asks Harold (who never ceases to look like a somebody), “Are you a movie star?” “Sure, I’m big,” Harold replies. She takes out a piece of paper and asks for an autograph. Harold writes “Best wishes always, Ramon Navarro.” She looks at the paper, back up at Harold, and asks, “Aren’t you dead?” Harold only bugs his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, walks on.
A week after Harold’s return to New York, however, with merciless diagnostic secession, the pulled muscle mutates to “a small stroke” and then inoperable cancer. Plenty of times Harold would talk about how he spent day after day at Damon Runyon’s bedside, how one time Runyon, who couldn’t speak near the end, once wrote him a crotchety note followed by three exclamation points. “You don’t have to yell at me, Damon,” Harold replied.
After that, Harold hated hospitals. Now, so soon after Mara’s death, he was in Mount Sinai, the same place, “just about the same room,” where a couple of years earlier he visited his longtime friend Buddy Rich, when the famous drummer was dying. It was terrible, Harold recalls, watching the great basher who only went one speed—fast—stare up at the ceiling. Then Harold raises his right arm, and real pain crosses his face. “That’s what Buddy did,” he says, “raised his arm and said, ‘If I can’t play I don’t want to live.”‘
This gets very sad because soon the tumor is pressing on Harold’s brain, making it next to impossible for him to talk. Impossible to tell the stories, to rekindle the grander times. So you sit beside Harold’s bed with his son, Casey, next to the flowers sent by the Friars Club (“Frank Sinatra—Abbot”), watching him alternately doze and glance at the muted television, where the Mets are getting shut out, and the silence is awful, because three weeks ago Harold never would have tolerated such emptiness on the soundtrack.
A few days later Harold is on a plane to Mexico, going to a clinic seeking an alternative to the chemotherapy he was certain would kill him. It doesn’t help. And a few days after that, the New York Times has a three-column-inch item headed by the phrase HAROLD CONRAD, BOXING PROMOTER. The obit indicates that Harold was “a colorful character.” Likely, Harold would have accepted the short shrift with his usual cynic’s grace. He knew they always screw you on space.
As a storyteller he would also know that you can’t stop the tale there. So, allow me one more story about my old friend Harold Conrad. It was a night a few months ago when Harold and I went over to watch Sugar Ray Leonard fight an upstart named Terry Norris at the Garden. Harold, of course, has been to the Garden before, about 9 million times. Mostly he went to the old Garden, the one on 49th Street and 8th that was torn down back in the late ’60s. That was where the real action was, standing underneath the giant curve of the marquee, waiting for something to happen, sensing that this night—like so many before it—was magic. The new Garden, except for that one ecstatic evening when Ali fought Frazier 20 years ago, and a basketball game or two, has never had the same juice.
Tonight’s event is typically desultory, overpriced, the half-filled building little more than a TV studio, the backdrop for the cable-TV broadcast. The canned music, heavy on the sampler machine, is blaring. Leonard has been a great fighter, no argument, and you can’t knock a guy for getting rich, but with his viciously cute smile and bitchy demeanor, he’s always been a tinny presence, especially now that he’s a half dozen years past his prime. Harold’s never been a fan. He wouldn’t even have come to the fight if it wasn’t for that outside chance, that possibility, that something, something memorable, might happen. It’s the action, Harold’s addiction.
The result is an upset. Leonard loses, but where’s action in that? He was in there only due to his innate hubris and not knowing when enough’s enough. As when Ali and Joe Louis had that one last, unnecessary fight, the whole thing is mostly depressing. Harold knew it in the first round. A minute in, he turns and says, “He’s got nothing.”
So the fight’s over, and we’re walking over to Broadway in the cold night air. We’re at Herald Square, it’s Saturday night, and the town’s dead, no one moving except for some ragged figures over where the big welfare hotel used to be. “You could shoot a cannon off out here,” Harold snorts. “Used to be, on a big fight night, by now everyone would be going up to Toots Shors: Winchell, Joe D if the Yanks were in town, the Fischetti Brothers, who ran Chicago, right next to J. Edgar Hoover. People would be all decked out, up and down Broadway from here to 57th Street….”
We walk on, freezing. Years ago Damon Runyon wrote a column about how Harold never wore a hat. Everyone else wore one then, why didn’t he, Runyon asked Harold. “Because I do not look good in a hat,” Runyon quoted Harold as replying. Tonight, however, Harold is wearing a hat, crammed down over his outsized ears. “Got to,” he says, “my head gets cold.” Then, reminded that when Runyon died he had his ashes thrown out of a plane so they sprinkled over Broadway, Harold says, “Not for me. Dust in people’s eyes? No thanks. It’s against my religion. Besides, you never know, maybe I’ll live forever.”