Photograph by Chuck Stewart.
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.”
This is the story that inspired Crowe’s movie, Almost Famous.
“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock n Roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney. Just as they’d done in England, they brought back reality.”
Cohn spent 7 weeks in the spring of 1968 writing his tour de force of pop music. He had just turned 22. “My purpose was simple,” he remembered years later, “to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on the subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prime importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved.”
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What better time to revisit Cohn’s chapter on the Fab Four? (Keep in mind that it was written before the band broke up.)
Cohn is a ton of fun even when–or especially when–you don’t agree with him.
By Nik Cohn
Next came the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?
In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarrymen, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them—John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five ‘O’-levels,.and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.
The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.
Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.
As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he’d been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to art school, he’d grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his putdowns could kill. A lot of people noticed him.
The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.
The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.
At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit—they’d made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they’d built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they’d become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn’t ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that’s what gave them their strength, that’s what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.
Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he’d wanted to be an actor and he’d gone to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but now, approaching thirty, he’d resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody’s identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.
Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he’d been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they’d got bored with him, they wanted him out.
Ringo Starr’s real name was Richard Starkey and he’d been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool’s top group of that time. Actually, he wasn’t too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.
Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling, but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.
From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please Please Me, made number one and the third, From Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.
By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day’s Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.
At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they’ve hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they’re coming up for their twentieth straight number one.
Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher—assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That’s how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who’d made it like that.
Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It’s a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.
Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.
There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren’t reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they’re most charming, but they’re never remotely involved, they’re private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren’t reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.
Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways—they are anti-stars and they’re superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they’re being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they’re distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.
For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses—it’s the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can’t ever get to them, they’re protected and finally, they only function among themselves. They’re in their own league and you’re insulted, you sneer but you’re hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.
This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they’d have been huge anyway, they’d have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.
Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.
Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments.. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.
Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.
Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they’ve been strong: I Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.
On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn’t see an inch without his glasses on, and he’d make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he’d rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He’d grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.
Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he’d then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.
He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance—Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.
In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic—She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.
My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn’t. He’s melodic, pleasant, inventive but he’s too much syrup.
Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon’s toughness plays off well against McCartney’s romanticism, Lennon’s verbal flair is complemented by McCartney’s knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.
Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen—Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home—but he has a certain saving humour and he’s usually just about walked the line.
At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he’s kept them that way, no matter what routines they’ve got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he’s always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.
More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.
America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.
Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: “I haven’t got a smiling mouth or a talking face.” He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault—he looked that way by nature and couldn’t change.
Every now and then, out of deep silence, he’d emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke—just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.
My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: “I go down to John’s place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.”
He’s solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no starlet, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser’s assistant. He’d known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.
Really, he summarizes everything that’s best in the English character—stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knows he’s not a great drummer and it doesn’t upset him. Not very much upsets him in fact: he only sits at home and plays records, watches television, shoots pool. Simply, he passes time.
He is hooked on Westerns and he loves new gadgets and he spends a lot of his time just playing. He sits with his wife and his children. Well, he may be slightly bored at times because he has nothing much to do any more but he isn’t too bothered and, quite genuinely, he would make out all right if the Beatles went broke on him and he had to get a nothing job again. No matter what, he ticks over.
George Harrison is more problematic.
To begin with, he wasn’t much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he’d set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he’d look cut off, vaguely bored.
His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they’d shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.
In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney.
At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.
Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.
First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.
Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they’d epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they’d been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they’d had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they’d made it so huge, they didn’t lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar. Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.
It wasn’t until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they’d done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Won’t See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I’m A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.
The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison’s Love You To wasn’t even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.
What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them—they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.
In the context of this book, it doesn’t matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.
Soon after he’d owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I’d ever read by him before. No putdowns, no jokes, no frivolity whatever—he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. “God is in everything,” he said. “People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.”
Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they’d renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.
Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison: it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. “This is going to last all our lives,” he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.
Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.
Inevitably, being so successful, he’d been the butt of much schnidery within the industry and, generally, he’d been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he’d gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he’d happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.
Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.
The main thing about him was that he wasn’t moronic, he wasn’t even entirely fascist. He wasn’t much criminal and he didn’t have people beaten up and he didn’t automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.
By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren’t necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.
Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies—Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963–4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilla excepted, they didn’t sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity—the whole bit.
Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn’t greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn’t flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.
Most important, he was a mother figure—he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they’d outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.
His major problem was anti-climax.
Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he’d been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic—he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.
Already, in the last days of Epstein’s life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them. Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi’s Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.
As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.
Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they’d shown Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they’d ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That’s just how secure they’d become—they were establishment, institutionalised, and nothing could touch them.
More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn’t get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.
Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.
Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project—there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon’s In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn’t, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.
In America and in England, they have become two entirely separate things: in the States, where pop is followed with great solemnity by almost everyone intelligent under the age of thirty, there are still many people who take them seriously, who see them as divinities and hang upon their every utterance, while in England, where pop remains mostly entertainment, they’re seen as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, maybe, but quite harmless.
Either way, they continue to sell records in millions, they’re still flying, they’re up so high by now that nothing can bring them back down again. Simply, they’ve gone beyond.
The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hardheadedness to get changed into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations—too much acid, too many ego-trips, too much money and success and wasteable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all but, myself, I’m not so sure, I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s only going to become clear in retrospect.
In any case, they’re still young, they have time to return inside their skulls and then, just possibly, they’ll do what they promised in the first place, they’ll purge pop of pretension. Meanwhile, though, they’ve only killed off one style in bullshit to replace it with another.
From here on in, I have only one or two final evaluations to make and then I’m through. First, their music.
What do I say? They’re good. They have talent and Lennon/McCartney are the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers pop has produced. They’ve added whole new dimensions to pop, they have introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties. And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their best album, really was quite an impressive achievement.
For all this, I don’t enjoy them much and I’m not at all convinced that they’ve been good for pop. So all right, the Beatles make good music, they really do, but since when was pop anything to do with good music?
Sergeant Pepper was genuinely a breakthrough—it was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I’m 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life, I’m Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn’t matter much—what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.
So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.
And why should the Beatles limit themselves to pop? Why can’t they just expand and progress as they want, not thinking about categories? No reason—they’re responsible only to themselves and they can work whichever way they like.
The only thing is that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots and then they’re human like anyone else, they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell. Admittedly, the posh Sundays say they’re Art and that’s true but, after all, what’s so great about Art? What does it have on Superpop?
The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.
And, in the beginning, that’s what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.
They’ve changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there but the mass teen public has been lumbered.
What’s more, because the Beatles are so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, most every group in the world pursues them and apes them and kneels at their feet, and that’s why there’s no more good fierce rock ‘n’ roll music now, no more honest trash.
And at least, with the Beatles, there has always been a certain talent and wit at work but, with their successors, there’s been little but pretensions. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly in America, they’re crambos by nature and that’s fine, they could be knocking out three-chord rock and everyone would be happy. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve got into Art and so they’ve wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions. And, who’ve lost out? Teenagers have.
In America, admittedly, kids have tended to take anything they’ve been given and like it, they’ve come to talk in the same crapola terms as their groups. But in England, they’ve mostly shrugged and walked away, record sales have crashed and everything’s gone stale.
It’s bad: originally, in the fifties, the whole point about rock was its honesty, the way it talked so straight after all those years of showbiz blag, and now it’s become just as fake as Tin Pan Alley ever was.
So it isn’t really their fault, you could hardly blame them, but, indirectly, the Beatles have brought pop to its knees. It’ll get back up again, it must do because somehow it’s needed, but I don’t think it’ll be the Beatles who’ll revive it, I think it’s already too late for that.
In some sense, they have opted out and they can hardly come back in again. They’ll keep progressing, they’ll make better music yet and they won’t ever fall. Only, in thirty years, I don’t think they’ll have meant so much as Elvis Presley.
In the end, Bert Berns may still have summed them up better than anyone.
As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Berns was a most shrewd man and he understood pop perfectly. And one afternoon, about three years ago, he sat in some decaying West Hampstead café and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. “Those boys have genius,” he said. “They may be the ruin of us all.”
A few years ago, he was picked up by the police in Long Branch, New Jersey, for the crime of walking in the rain, dressed in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt, and peering into the window of a home for sale in a dodgy neighborhood. The news was greeted with a lot of predictable headlines—NO DIRECTION HOME, A COMPLETE UNKNOWN, etc. But here’s the obvious question, asked by a friend of his: “Do you really think that’s the first time that he’s done that? He does a lot of walking no one would expect. He’ll walk through neighborhoods undetected and talk to people on their front porches. It’s the only freedom Bob Dylan has—the freedom to move around mysteriously.”
People say that a lot about Dylan: His privacy is all he has. It’s an odd thing to say. It assumes he’s powerless and needs to be protected. But Bob Dylan has never been powerless. Even when his songs stood up for the powerless, he was always pioneering new ways to use the power of his fame, of which the two-way mirror of his privacy is the ultimate expression. Yes, it’s cool when Ron Delsener says, “I’ve seen Dylan walk down Seventh Avenue in a cowboy hat and nobody recognize him. I’ve seen him eat at a diner and nobody come over to him”—it makes you think that Dylan is out among us, invisible now, with no secrets to conceal, and that at any time we might turn around and see him. But we never do; nobody ever does, even where he lives. What a woman who works the tunnel between the buses and the backstage area at an arena outside of Atlanta remembers about Dylan is not that she saw him; what she remembers is “I was not allowed to look at him.”
He was, of course, on his way to the stage when he passed her averted eyes—on his way to be looked at and listened to. It sounds like a paradox typical of Bob Dylan, worthy of Bob Dylan, but it’s really pretty straightforward as an exercise of star power. The crossed relationship between Bob Dylan and his audience is the most enduring one in all of rock ‘n’ roll, and it keeps going—and will keep going to the last breath—because from the start he laid down a simple and impossible rule:
We don’t go to see Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan goes to see us.
[Picture Via: Like a Rolling Stone]
Phish meets the NFL?
Dogs and cats, living together.
The end of the world as I know it. And I don’t feel fine. How could I? What if you had two overriding passions that eclipsed everything else in your life, including your family (as they’d surely attest), and each passion (or, to be frank, religion) represented the two totally opposite sides of your bipolar psyche, and somehow balanced it into sanity…and, surreally, they then decided to collaborate?
How could this be a good thing? Look at it this way: If your beloved old family physician let drop that he was dating Lady Gaga would it make you feel warm and fuzzy? So: When your favorite Pentagonian/George Patton-inspired sporting corporation, whose 32 franchises are largely symbolized by drunks who take off their shirts in blizzards and then beat people up in the parking lot because they’re wearing apostatic jerseys, enlists, in a marketing moment, your favorite anarchic jam and, which is largely symbolized by a few million stoners who believe in nothing except the axiom “Rules Are Irrelevant”…what else could this mean other than that the universe has collapsed into itself? That The End f Days was upon us?
The specifics: On New Year’s Eve morning, and the following afternoon, ESPN2 will air an NFL Films segment about how Seattle Seahawk fans have adopted a Phish song. Which said event tears a hole in the universe.
Background to this unholy miscegenation: In the Eighties, Phish’s insanely creative and eminently likeable guitarist Trey Anastasio, before formally forming the band, wrote a musical thesis as a senior at Goddard College — a legendarily leftie institution in rural Vermont — called “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” His work featured a song called Wilson, which has not only endured, for we Phishfanatics, but has taken a rightful place in the band’s pantheon of Pure Phish Songs.
(Full disclosure: A few years ago, when I had to drive to Buffalo to interview a quarterback on assignment — seven hours by way of the New York State Thruway — I structured the trip around the day when I knew that the Jam On channel on Sirius satellite radio would be playing the top 50 Phish songs, from 50 to one. I wanted to hear them all. In order. Wilson cracked the top 10. No, it’s not their best, by any means. It’s no Fluffhead, or Possum, or Chalk Dust Torture, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a pretty cool song.
Well, okay, it’s not a “song,” exactly. Lots of the time, Phish plays “songs” in the manner of a team which might play a game of “baseball,” only in their game, everyone stands wherever they want to after they take the field, facing in whatever direction they prefer, while making up their own rules as the game goes along. And then adopting new rules the next time they play a game.
So anyway. the “song” Wilson includes a refrain wherein, for the last two decades, every Phishfreak in whatever sold-out arena they’re playing sings, in a delightful call-and-response to the band’s cues: “WILLLL-sonnnnn”. If you listen to it, it goes from e-flat to C, I think.
Yes, that arena, from Delaware to Oregon and everywhere in between, will be sold out; the band grossed more than $18 million on this summer’s tour. The last four years’ total: $120 million in ticket sales).
So you can see where this is going, right? Last spring at a solo concert in Seattle, and later at another featuring the whole band at a venue in George, Wa. (Yep; that’s a Phish venue if there ever was one), Trey urged the crowd to start chanting “Wilson” at Seahawk games, in honor of Russell, this year’s quarterback flavor of the season — and, perhaps, for many a season to come.
The ritual caught fire, and now the sound of “WIL-son” can be heard waterfalling out of the stands at CenturyLink Field several times a game: when Wilson takes the huddle for the first time in the game, and again at the beginning of the third, and, throughout the game, interspersed with bits of the song on video board.
So who could blame NFL Films from filming a Phish concert, and filming the CenturyLink chant-ritual, and getting it aired on ESPN 2? Where’s the rub? Why am I Grinching this joyous collaboration?
No. 1: Every man has two sides: The roid-rage/road-rage madman who needs to see athletes try to kill each other legally every Sunday for six months a year, vicariously experiencing what it used to be like to get up in the morning and say to your buddies, “What do you say we attack that tribe over the hill and kill them all? I mean, after we eat raw antelope for breakfast”…
….and the gentle soul who wants to step back, cool out, find his Metroman side and try his damnedest to be a court jester in a land that takes itself way too seriously…and, not incidentally, do so in a place where he might be surrounded by, um, you know, stoned girls.
But nature never intended the two sides to meet. Hence the term “yin/yang” — or, in moderndayspeak, “bipolarism.” Once they overlap, they both lose their power to entrance.
But No. 2 is way more important. In “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” Trey’s man Wilson is not a man to be admired. In fact, in Anastasio’s college script, the original Wilson is the arch-villain of all time: a greedy, powerlusting fascist who enslaves the peace-loving Communist lizards of a land called Gamehendge, changes the name of their land to Prussia, and steals the book of goodness given to them by their god Icculus. Wilson destroys their forest, builds a castle where he keeps the book, and executes a rebel by hanging. One of the lyrics from the song’s chorus? “Wilson, king of Prussia, I lay this hate on you.”
Basically, young Trey was writing about a monstrous entity spoiling everyone’s fun. But now, as ESPN and NFL Films will have it — with Trey’s worrisome consent — Wilson is an anthem celebrating a football player who, according to the Goodell/Boys Life Magazine metric for what a young man should be, scores off the charts: Russell Wilson is the great-great grandson of a slave, the grandson of a former university president, the son of a Dartmouth graduate, part Native-American, endorses Levis, Nike and Alaska Airlines — and posts bible verses daily on his Twitter account. (As I write, watching him slice and dice the Giants: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:13”) No argument there, Russ. Anyway, you’re just a pawn in this game.
Okay, yes, I have a soft spot for Wilson. But who, given my memories, wouldn’t? The first time I heard Wilson played live was at The Clifford Ball in 1996, Phish’s first multi-day festival, held at the decommissioned Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force Base. I was backstage, doing a story for a slick magazine about the band that had lured me in because they seemed to sell out Madison Square Garden every New Year’s Eve — without ever actually, like, advertising. People kept passing me joints. So Wilson sounded very good that day — as, did, well, everything they played. From AC/DC Bag to Reba to Weekapaug Groove. Even 2001.
Much later that night, lying in my tent, surrounded by 60,000 overly polite Phishkids (although the philosophy major from Oberlin vehemently and almost aggressively disagreed with my assertion that the pan-European Rationalists had it way over the stupid All-Anglo-Empiricists), I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head — until the next morning, when the young woman in the adjacent tent stepped outside into the morning sun wearing nothing but blue jeans, and smiled “Hi,” and went off toward the showers.
That day unfolded as the day before had, in Shangri-La fashion: plentiful hugs, plentiful nugs.
Behind the stage at a picnic table that afternoon, during an interview with the band, the drummer, John Fishman, who wears dresses on stage, told me that this was the only job he had never been fired from. His last job had been cutting out patterns for women’s bathing suits. Then Trey told me he’d briefly considered seeding the festival crowd with ladies of the night imported from New York, but had quickly discarded the idea. After they all left to go back to their trailers, I finished writing in my notebook, then noticed the large roach on the table, and considered leaving it be, in case one of them had left it by mistake. But I quickly discarded the idea.
But you just have to know that ESPN and NFL Films are patting each other on the backs after a few brews, despite their home library of “Eagles” CDs” “What is hip? We are!”
I don’t know if they’ll show the whole song in the TV show, with its true lyrics. I do know that I won’t be watching. Because if this is the beginning of a friendship, it won’t be beautiful to me.
I’d sure hate to have to turn to professional golf and the String Cheese Incident to find new religions. But I sure as hell won’t sit around watching my life’s passions go up in smoke.