[Photo Credit: John Weiss]
[Photo Credit: John Weiss]
Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.
Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.
He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
Slide on over to SB Nation Longform and check out Joe DePaolo’s profile of Mariano Rivera III:
The father is here to cheer on his 20-year-old son — a redshirt sophomore for the Gaels. Listed on the Iona roster as Mariano Rivera, the son’s legal name is actually Mariano Rivera III (although most everybody, including dad, refers to him as “Jr.”). Beyond the name and the fact that they both pitch, there are other similarities between the two. There are also many differences, one of which is that the son is a starter — at least while he is in college. “He’s too good to be a reliever at this level,” says Iona head coach Pat Carey.
That’s an assessment the scouts seem to agree with. After Rivera records the third out, the men put down their radar guns and dutifully record the pitch in their notebooks. They offer no expression, but can’t help but to have been impressed by what they’ve seen so far. This is a good lineup that Rivera has set aside in the first, all via strikeout. Seton Hall’s high-powered offense entered the contest averaging 7.8 runs per game. That offense has helped propel them to a 16-4 record and the No. 19 spot in ESPN’s unofficial power rankings going into today’s game. Iona, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, seldom plays a team of this caliber. It is a rare chance for the scouts to see what Rivera can do against a lineup with some punch.
As he makes his way back to the dugout, he avoids eye contact with the scouts, but he is fully aware of their presence.
“Twenty something scouts,” he says. “Most scouts ever in my life. Obviously, it’s in the back of my mind.”
Rivera takes a seat and grabs as much solitude as he can in the cramped Iona dugout. This is hardly out of character for him. Rivera is well liked among this group, and treated like just one of the guys. He is close friends with some teammates, but he tends to set himself apart, and sits alone between innings.
[Photo Credit: Holly Tonini]
Here’s some comedy for you from Paul Slansky, a regular contributor to The New Yorker. His work has also appeared in, among dozens of publications, The New York Observer, Spy, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Soho News. He lives in Santa Monica, California.
This story on Martin Mull was originally published in The New Times, January 1978. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
By Paul Slanksy
Martin Mull’s manager has forgotten to make a reservation, so we stand in the entrance to the Universal commissary waiting for an empty table while stars like Lily Tomlin and Sly Stallone march past us to immediate seating. “I guess I’ll have to do some speed eating,” he says.” “Just run my fingers over the food.” Ten minutes into our wait, a departing couple approaches and hands Mull their lunch checks and a $10 bill. He politely explains that he is not the cashier. “When I met Martin Mull he was accepting cash and checks at the Universal commissary,” he says wryly. “There’s your opening line.”
Through six years as a singer of loony tunes that found inspiration in the mundane (“Dancing in the Nude,” “Noses Run in My Family”) and earned him a diminutive but devoted following, Martin Mull maintained a mighty sense of self. If no one showed up at his gigs, it was their loss, not his. Out of a combination of defensiveness and egomania, he created a stage persona that exuded a smug arrogance totally out of proportion to the degree of success he had achieved—a character superficially similar to, but significantly smarter than, the one Steve Martin is currently overexposing. So when he was offered a part in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a show that exalted the banal, he certainly wasn’t about to let his total lack of acting experience stand in the way.
In the role of wife-beating PR man Garth Gimble, Mull developed one of the most odious characters since Cagney smashed a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face in Public Enemy. The damage Garth inflicted on his wife, Patty, was psychically as well as physically brutal: for Christmas he gave her a mop and pail—early, so she’d have plenty of time to use them. When a shirt button came off, Garth insisted that Patty fix it before she left for work. While she was sewing, he strolled out of the bedroom fully dressed. “You wore another shirt!” she said, to which he ad-libbed condescendingly, “A topless executive, Patty? I think that’s years away!” When Garth was impaled on an aluminum Christmas tree, he was mourned by no one but Mull fans.
Six months later Mull was back, hosting Norman Lear’s talk-show parody, Fernwood 2-Night, as twin brother Barth Gimble, a small-time hustler who had fled Miami on a morals charge, then pointed out that he has “a pretty darn good case of entrapment.” Barth Gimble was the perfect comic symbol for the seventies, a con man who revealed his ignorance even as he thought he was being incredibly hip. Here he is coming on to a nubile youngster who has been the spankee in a demonstration of corporeal punishment:
B: You have quite a talent there, Debbie. You know, we have “Rocket to Stardom” here on the show. Would you wanna be on that?
D: Well, the only thing I know how to do is sing our school song.
B: Sing! Perfect, you can come back and sing your school song. I love it.
D: It’s in Latin.
B: OK. Latin music. You guys know Latin music, huh? (The band goes into a samba.) That’s the stuff.
In the space of one year, Martin Mull brought to life two personalities who could be put into any situation and react true to character.
Martin Mull is almost famous. In the last few months he has done Merv, Dinah, Tom Snyder, the Rock Awards, Wonder Woman and Hollywood Squares. He is currently playing a disc jockey who gets laid on the air for in his first film, FM. (An appearance in Oh, God!, in which he briefly stepped in for John Denver—whom he has called “the Poland of music”—was cut from the final print.)
He is also finishing up work on his new album, I Haven’t the Vegas Idea, and a best-of collection, No Hits, Four Errors, has just been released. Next month he begins taping 13 more weeks of Fernwood 2-Night for an early-April air date. Time said he has the best sense of timing “since Jack Benny passed age 39.” Playboy wants him for the interview. So when, as he wolfed down his shrimp cocktail and beer before rushing back to the FM set, I told him that a random sample of 20 Californians turned up only five who knew who he was—plus one who thought he was “that guy who says ‘Excuse me,’ with the arrow in his head”— Martin Mull laughed. “That’s terrific,” he said. “When I walked into the house last night, everyone knew me.”
“Martin always had the demeanor of a star,” says his manager, Larry Bresner. “He’d go out and buy $200 shoes when he couldn’t pay the rent.”
“We don’t take on a lot of performances,” he continues. “You can only handle so much, and you’re really not interested in handling somebody who can’t go to the full limit of their potential, because it’s not fun. You book them into 50 dates a year and it’s boring. With Marty, there’s no such thing as boring. I’ve never met anybody that’s got a brain that’s full of more ideas. The man could be the number-one advertising executive in the country.” (When Earth Shoes recently asked him to do an ad for them, Mull came up with “Shoes: Fetish or Necessity?”)
“Martin is one of a kind,” says Al Burton, one of Norman Lear’s creative supervisors who caught Mull’s show at the Roxy in Los Angeles and signed him for Mary Hartman. “He has this unique hateful quality while still being an appealing performer.”
“Martin was a joy to work with,” he adds. “He is one of the quickest-thinking wits since the old days of wits. The nuances that he got out of those lines were incredible. I know very few actors who can make a written word sound as if it’s ad-libbed. I like Steve Martin, but I don’t think I would have gone after him the way I went after Martin Mull.”
In fact, Martin and Mull are good friends and have worked together on several projects. “There was a time when Martin and Steve seemed to osmose off of each other a little,” says comedy writer Harry Shearer, whose credits include Fernwood 2-Night. “I think Steve picked up a little of Martin’s arrogance, and I don’t know what Martin picked up from Steve—three or four good lines probably. With Steve it’s so obvious that he’s putting it on, but with Martin it’s a lot closer to home. You can never quite be sure whether he’s doing a character or whether that’s the guy, which is interesting.”
Eugenie Ross-Leming, co-producer of Forever Fernwood, is another Mull fan. “The Garth character was so grim that it was really hard on Martin,” she says. “The real tribute was that he carried it off.” How he did it, though, she’s not sure. “I don’t know, maybe Martin’s past is incredibly sordid and warped—we can hope.”
Martin Mull was born in Chicago in 1943 and grew up in Ohio towns not unlike Fernwood. “Up until the age of 16, I was the same as Taft,” he says. In 1959 the family moved to Connecticut, where Martin was the star place-kicker for the New Canaan High football team. He went on to become an honor student at the Rhode Island School of Design and receive a Master’s degree in painting in 1967. That same year, he made his acting debut before the Providence draft board.
Slicking his hair back with Vaseline and sporting a lumberjack shirt several sizes too small, Mull prepared a lunch of carrots, celery and a tuna fish sandwich. Each carrot stick and celery strip was individually wrapped in aluminum foil, as was the lump of tuna fish and each slice of bread. He carried it in an oversized grocery bag with his name scribbled all over. He claimed membership in every Communist group he’d ever heard of. After his hearing test, he pretended to be locked in the booth. When the psychiatrist asked him what he thought of the draft, Mull, chewing on his hand all the while, said, “Well, actually, I think it’s sort of chilly in here. Would you mind closing the window?” The Army brought on the hook.
By this time Mull’s interests were divided between art and music. He joined a conceptual-art group whose most notorious project was Flush with the Walls (Or, I’ll Be Art in a Minute), a 1971 exhibition in the men’s room of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
“We wanted to have a show at the museum,” he says. “But generally you had to be dead to be chosen. This was a price we didn’t really want to pay. So at 8 p.m. sharp, six of us, women as well as men, went in there and put up our work with masking tape while there were still people in there using it. In a matter of minutes we had over 300 people in the men’s room, including film crews for the 11 o’clock news. It was a terrific success.”
The following year, The Umbrellas of Pitchburg (mais oui serve vous) was sponsored by the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. The show consisted of hors d’oeuvres in the shapes of great works of 20th-century art, such as “Picasso on Rye,” which were eaten by the guests. (One doggie bag remained for years in the Institute’s freezer.)
Mull continued to produce his Fantasia-esque paintings, and was making some money—”I priced them very much like merchandise,” he says. “It wouldn’t be $500, it would be $499.99.”—but his career as a musician began to take up more of his time. In his senior year at RISD, Mull had formed a group called Soup, a band remembered less for its musical abilities than for its demented stage show. Mull, in a chef’s hat, was Captain Soup; the other costumes ranged from pajamas to a giant cigarette carton. The group recorded one unmemorable album before disbanding.
After getting his degree, Mull moved to Boston, where he lived in a basement apartment while working at a small recording studio. He was writing songs and thinking seriously about performing. When he married artist Kristin Johnson in 1970 (they are currently getting a divorce), he quit his job, collected unemployment and hired a manager with a special talent for securing nonpaying bookings.
“We had no money,” Kristin recalls. “Martin had to take public transportation to the gigs carrying his guitar, and not get paid, and play to an empty house. But he has a very large ego, and that sustained him for a long time.”
His songs would take a bizarre premise (What if I married a midget?) and extrapolate the logical results (“Walking hand and ankle/she’s got her arm around my sock”). They were strange but basically sweet—when he poked fun at something, it was good-natured. But when he began performing, another character developed between the songs, a character from which Barth and Gimble is a direct descendent. “I first started making music during the folk music scare of the sixties,” he says, “and I always felt that messages should be sent by Western Union, not by music. I would get in front of the audience and try to play these little alternative songs, and they’d look at me like I was half-baked. So I realized I’d have to introduce the tunes, and my tongue sort of went into my cheek, because that’s who I am. And out of that, certain things got great laughs and cumulatively built into an act.”
The laughs came at the audience’s expense. If they couldn’t appreciate a song like “Partly Marion” (“She was only 17/when she cut them off in the washing machine/she just reached for the wringer/and zap went the fingers/it was no consolation that they come off so clean”), it was their fault.
“Initially it was defensive,” he says. “I’d been told for years by my folks that I could not sing, and that’s quite a lot, to go on stage doing something you’ve been told you cannot do.”
He signed a contract with Capricorn Records and was soon on the road more that he was home. Then came Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture. “Standing up there in front of a stack of amps wasn’t really satisfying,” he says. “And when I’d sit around my living room and play with some friends, that did seem satisfying. I thought, ‘Maybe the catalyst here is furniture,’ so I figured, why not try it? It made me feel more at home, which would make the audience feel more at home. So I brought my home. It was literally my real furniture.” When he couldn’t schlep his own things, he rented old tables, chairs and lamps from local Salvation Armies.
The Mulls were then living in New York on Riverside Drive, and Martin’s career began putting a strain on the marriage. “He demanded an audience no matter where he was,” says Kristin. “Even if it was just me and him. It was, ‘Listen to this, no, wait, listen to this, what do you think of this?’ If there were more people, eventually we’d just be sitting around listening to Martin’s tunes. At one point I told him, ‘Martin, we’re living in a two-bedroom apartment and you’ve got a six-bedroom ego. I feel crowded.’ But I think that’s why he’s where he is now, because he’s so proud of what he does.”
Mull recorded four albums for Capricorn, and although he became close to the president of the company, Phil Walden, Mull claims the label had no idea how to market them. (“They were putting them out in fields and hoping people would find them,” he says) He had one near-hit, a single called “Dueling Tubas,” the Deliverance theme hilariously rendered by out-of-tune tubas. He was working steadily at colleges and clubs like the Boarding House—San Francisco and Boston have always been his best markets. But he wasn’t making any money, until he signed with Rollins & Joffe, the firm which also manages Woody Allen and Robert Klein.
“At that time he was traveling around with tap-dancers, a band, horns, craziness,” recalls Larry Bresner. “We could always get him work, but if he was getting paid $2,000, it cost him $4,000 to do it. We insisted on getting rid of everybody in the band. That wasn’t Martin Mull. Martin Mull was what he did sitting in a chair. The whole key was being able to expose him on a mass level.”
Mass level equals television. Mull did a couple of Cher shows and was offered the position of band leader on Saturday Night. “At that point, I didn’t feel it was quite enough for me to do, to sit there and say two or three lines a night,” he says, and turned it down. That may be one reason he has never been asked to host the show; another is more obvious.
A few years ago, Mull went to see the National Lampoon Show in New York. He sat right up front and talked with his friend, Peter Boyle, throughout the performance. When he went backstage afterward to congratulate the cast (which included John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray), Murray went berserk. He grabbed Mull around the neck and tried to choke him, screaming, “I’LL KILL HIM, I’LL KILL THAT FUCKER, HE TALKED THROUGH THE WHOLE THING, I HATE HIM!”
“As I recall, Bill had to be restrained by John Belushi,” says Michael O’Donoghue, who worked with Mull on an aborted project titled Lincoln: The Man, the Car and the Tunnel. “When Martin left the dressing room, Billy kept screaming after him, ‘Medium talent! Medium talent!’ Of such things show business legends are made.”
“I feel very bad about that show,” says Mull. “I’d had a bit to drink” (he doesn’t smoke grass), “and quite frankly, it was more amusing at that point to talk to Peter, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. I confess to having been extremely rude, though not quite as rude as Bill Murray trying to strangle me afterward.”
Then came Mary Hartman. “I thought they hired me because I was a comedian,” Mull says. “I was kind of surprised when all of a sudden we got all this Virginia Woolfish high drama. I didn’t like the character at all. I don’t care for violence, and wife beating is particularly repugnant to me, so it was quite hard.”
When Garth was killed off, the plan was to bring Mull back as a twin brother later in the season. But Al Burton saw him as the ideal host for Fernwood 2-Night. Norman Lear, however, had never seen Mull’s stage act, so a special night at the Roxy was arranged. In the middle of his act, Martin stopped and said, “Well, Norman, do I have the job?” He did.
Fernwood 2-Night was the perfect vehicle for Mull; he had been playing Barth Gimble since the first time he appeared on stage. The character incorporated some of the most basic comic schticks: the classic Gleason/Carney relationship between Barth and Jerry Hubbard (brilliantly played by Fred Willard, of the Ace Trucking Company), the exaggerated exasperation of Jack Benny, and the disgusted stare of Oliver Hardy, as lifted by Johnny Carson. (How long can it be before Mull is perceived as the obvious successor to Carson?)
“Martin was the one who realized that the show had to be more real,” says Harry Shearer, “as opposed to just raiding the files of topics taboo for TV. There was one meeting where one of Norman Lear’s vice-presidential flunkies said, ‘This reality shit is OK for Andy Warhol, but we’re doing TV.’ That was what he was up against.”
“What we didn’t do, that a lot of television does do,” says Mull proudly, “is we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘Whoops, we’re missing the dumb-belt contingent, we better make sure we have more tits and ass, or more fart jokes.’ Occasionally I thought I would get extremely antsy because I thought some of the acts were a little bit toward a Gong Show kind of thing, and to me, you don’t have to have a grandmother who plays the tuba and tap-dances at the same time—that’s not funny to me, because it’s a reach. To me, just having a grandmother, period, come on and talk about her grandchildren and show photos is much funnier. It’s not as obvious.”
What is obvious is the appeal of the concept to Mull. Like his songs, the show started with one absurd premise—what if the town of Fernwood decided to produce its own talk show—and took the idea to its limits.
So if you’ll beg my pardon
I’m goin’ out and start a garden
It’ll just be small potatoes
Just some lettuce and tomatoes
And if either one comes up, we’ll joint the Grange
What say you and I get normal for a change.
Martin Mull’s garden is a small sod lawn that cost only $38. (“It’s just back from the cleaners,” he says.) It is in back of the modest Malibu house he shares with his new love, Fernwood costume designer Sandra Baker, her two children and two dogs; the beach is a few hundred feet away. He clearly enjoys being normal for a change.
It’s 80 degrees out in the yard, but Martin is wearing brown pants, a green turtleneck and a tan jacket with a “Bah! Humbug!” button, in preparation for a photo shoot for the cover of the Christmas issue of Ampersand, a college monthly.
“Did you hear about the three Polacks who froze to death at a drive-in?” he asks. “They went to see Closed for the Season.”
His manager calls to discuss a possible book deal. “If it works out,” he says, “I’ll be limited to books, records, TV, movies, live performances and art.”
Martin is not above poking fun at himself—the cover of his latest album for ABC, I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved, shows him reclining on a couch gazing lovingly into a hand mirror, surrounded by signed photographs of himself. He is trying to get his stage persona more in sync with his private one, which he observes, “would not totally remove the smug arrogance.”
He is excited about the return of Fernwood 2-Night, mainly because the show allows him so much creative freedom. “I’m lucky,” he says. “The stuff that makes me happy has enough in common with enough people that it can become a commodity. There are a lot of people who, given compete license, can have the time of their life and have the communication of a rock.”
The Norman Lear organization is talking about a network sit-com after Fernwood runs its course. “I would have to have enough control over the thing that it wouldn’t compromise me,” he says. “I’m still very young, I’m still looking forward to making money, as opposed to trying to maintain some sort of lifestyle by selling out.” His managers want him to come up with a screenplay that he could direct and star in.
“What I really want to do with my life,” he says, “is take Sandra and the family to the south of France, fins a little château, set up the easel and paint.”
Martin Mull is a lucky man. He is getting paid for being funny, which is like a “normal” person getting paid for breathing. He is at last getting the recognition which, in his own words, he has so desperately deserved. He is unlikely to be spoiled by success—he’s been ready for it for too long.
Two women come by to shoot the photo. He walks over to the outdoor fireplace. “I could be hanging up a pair of panty hose and hoping that Santa fills ‘em with the proper item,” he suggests. They ask for a quote about Christmas. “I’m very hard to buy for,” Martin says. “Do you want a list of things? I think I should publish my sizes. Just a simple Christmas, and if all I receive is a Mercedes-Benz 280SL, hey, I was with my folks.
[From my man John Ed Bradley. Dig his 1991 GQ story about the Neville brothers.]
Tipitina’s in the warm blue fog, squatting beneath a crescent moon so sharp and clean you could shave a wild hog with it.
Art Neville enters the famous New Orleans honky-tonk wearing a hipster’s suit and studded leather boots, his wife, Lorraine, in hand. What resembles a fishing lure dangles from his ear, a spinner bait designed to attract bass. At 53, Art’s the eldest member of the Neville Brothers, a hometown band legendary for the kind of musical voodoo it practices on whoever comes to catch its midnight show. The Nevilles play Tip’s and a spooky magic happens: Fruit juice becomes a Hurricane cocktail, the fat of foot can suddenly hoof it, the blind, by God, can see.
“I’m tired,” Art moans, upstairs now, in the roped-off section reserved for VIPs. “I mean, I’m tired tired. I’m hurting tired.”
“He got in from Europe yesterday,” Lorraine says, “and at midnight we had a candlelight dinner: a big turkey with all the trimmings. It was very romantic, even if he could hardly keep his head up.”
Like his three brothers, Art, the Nevilles’ keyboard player, has his thing on the side—the Meters, the band he took to Europe. Saxophonist Charles has a jazz group called Charles Neville & Diversity; Cyril, the percussionist, has a funk-reggae outfit called the Uptown All-Stars; and Aaron, the one with the golden pipes, has himself.
“Been four, five, months maybe, since we played Tip’s,” Art is saying. “I don’t know how long it’s gonna go tonight. We start at midnight and we’ll probably play until around four. In the old days it sometimes was daylight before we got out of here.”
Downstairs, a band called Def Generation, composed mostly of Neville progeny, is killing the hour before the brothers come on. The opening act, their sound is part jazz, part rap, part second line, the bluesy brass-band music that traditionally accompanies black funeral processions through the streets of New Orleans.
“Don’t do drugs,” one of them keeps barking into a microphone; and an occasional drunken echo from the crowd barks back “Just say no!”
It’s so god-awful loud in here you have to shout to be heard. So Lorraine shouts: “This is their place, you know. The Nevilles play Tip’s and it’s crazy. They own it. So prepare yourself. I mean it.”
Tipitina’s opened about 14 years ago, the same year the Neville Brothers formed. Named after a song by the late New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, the club was started by a group of folks who liked to party hard and “gator.” To the uninitiated, gatoring is a dance that imitates coitus: It’s dry humping to a drumbeat. But to these people, it’s a religious rite ranked right up there with First Communion—or Mardi Gras.
The Nevilles played their first gig at Tip’s, to an audience that gatored so long and furiously, the beer lights dimmed and dust rained loose from the walls. The Nevilles’ music, inspired by the ancestral rhythms of their city, is mostly pop, funk, and soul. One moment they’re likely to sing an original composition about wild Injuns or yellow moons, the next a Cole Porter standard or The Mickey Mouse Club song. A rap anthem lamenting racism and urban violence might follow, or maybe some gospel bit rarely heard even in church anymore. Their repertoire apparently knows no limits, nor does their energy onstage. While the debut at Tip’s is now regarded as damned near mythic, few people actually remember it. Most everyone, I understand, was drunk or stoned.
“Buy me a beer,” someone is saying now, “and I’ll give you everything you need to know about these guys—everything!“
The man introduces himself as Tyrone Lewis, a singer of gospel music. For enthusiasm alone, he’s awarded a draft with a two-inch head of foam. He winks, smacks his lips and frantically drains the go-cup.
“My new album’s called Look for God,” he says. “Me and Aaron’s son Ivan—you know Ivan, he’s a recording artist himself—we grew up together in the thirteenth ward. We used to steal shit from the Winn Dixie supermarket.”
A commotion has erupted in one of the dressing rooms, sparing me more reminiscences from Tyrone. On a wall already covered with graffiti, someone has written “AARON NEVILLE WEARS PANTYHOSE.” A couple of ladies, standing on tiptoe, are scribbling over it with eyeliner and lipstick.
“He’d laugh about it,” one of the women says. “But best he doesn’t see it at all.”
If Aaron Neville wears pantyhose, then I go for those pointy Madonna bras with little link chains hanging from the nipples. Aaron is a devotee of professional wrestling who drives an all-terrain vehicle and sports tattoos on his face, chest and arms—arms that from any angle resemble dimpled Sunday hams without the honey glaze. In 1967, he had a hit song called “Tell It Like It Is,” and two summers ago he scored big with Linda Ronstadt on “I Don’t Know Much,” a Grammy award-winning ballad that in one clean stroke seemed to resurrect the Neville name from oblivion. In the more than twenty years between the two hits, Aaron managed to pull a couple of hitches in jail, for attempting to rob a Los Angeles furrier.
Tonight he’s dressed all in black, except for his white half boots. He walks around muttering “Yeah, all right” to all the friends and family members who have come to celebrate the band’s triumphant return to Tipitina’s. He hugs his sister, Athelgra, hugs his daughter, Ernestine, hugs his niece Arthel. A man in a pinstriped business suit approaches and digs into his pocket. “Let me give you my card, brother.”
“Yeah, all right,” Aaron says.
“I tried to call you.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“But I never could get through.”
Apparently Aaron is in no mood for business cards. He accepts the token without looking at it, brushes past the man and walks right by the painted-over pantyhose rap. He enters a back room, sits at a round café table and sips from a bottle of mineral water. A curtain of smoke billows a few feet above his head, hugging the ceiling. In a minute he’ll yodel like the singing cowboys in the movies he loved so much as a kid. This, while limbering up his voice box, also demonstrates his range, which, in the idolatrous prose of than one music critic, sounds like that of “an angel singing unto the Lord.”
“Aaron and his brothers want to give a tough image,” a friend of the group’s is telling me. “It’s part of the mystique—like they could blow down the walls if they wanted to. But they’re really very nice men. They’re pussycats, in fact. You stroke them a little and they all start to purr.”
Before they cleaned themselves up, the Nevilles were thieves, thugs, and junkies. Practically everyone here tonight knows this, and most are delighted by it. The music is best heard live, and though it would be great played by a bunch of priests from nearby Loyola University, coming from a clutch of reformed outlaws it takes on an element of mystery and danger. Except for Art, the Nevilles were heroin addicts and alcoholics—hoodlums, even they have often said. Back in the neighborhood, it was not uncommon to see one of them on any given weekday morning sitting on the hood of a junked car, holding a gallon jug of high-proof wine. They fought a lot and stole things. They dressed like rogue gangsters and talked through tightly clenched teeth.
“Why didn’t Art mess up like all the others?” one of his pals is saying. “Because he was far too busy playing his music and screwing women is why.”
Def Generation is doing an encore, and the brothers, crammed into the back dressing room, are going over the payroll, ripping out checks and handing them to band members. Charles walks over to the corner and loosens up with some T’ai Chi Ch’uan exercises, Cyril’s making sure his Mother Africa outfit is all zipped and tucked, and Art, still full of midnight turkey, tries to keep from falling asleep.
“Showtime!” a yellow ponytail says now with more zeal than seems necessary.
Aaron stands and tugs at the bottom of his denim vest. “Yeah, all right,” he mutters, then follows his brothers out of the room, down a rickety flight of stairs and into the crucible.
* * *
It’s a few weeks earlier, and the brothers are staying in a Los Angeles hotel just up the street from the bare-assed Hollywood Hills. This is one of those incredibly hip places that looks like a low-rise apartment building. A hotel with attitude. Limousines line the curb; enormous men with walkie talkies mill around the lobby, looking for heads to crack. The Nevilles have come to town to play the Universal Amphitheatre as Linda Ronstadt’s opening act. This is high irony, that four hardened soldiers of the street have been embraced by a fading pop queen, but apparently yuppie chic knows no shame.
All their rooms are up on the third floor. Charles, on this resplendent morning, is telling me his life story. He’s wearing his usual beret, tie-dyed T-shirt and parachute pants. Charles is 52 and a great-grandfather, which in terms of simple mathematics is quite a feat. He has just finished relating the part about how he worked for a time as a porter in a bowling alley and how in the early ’70s he spent three years in the Louisiana state pen for possession of two joints of marijuana.
“I started using drugs when I was in the navy,” he is saying. “I started with morphine and codeine, then went to heroin. It took me more than 20 years to get out of it. When I started playing music, in the ’50s, if you were going to play bebop, you almost had to do it because all the other musicians were. To support my habit I stole; I was into shoplifting and got busted a couple of times for that. I’d steal clothes, whiskey, meat. Once, I put on a khaki shirt with ‘GEORGE’ over the pocket. I had a clipboard with a yellow piece of paper on it and a pencil over my ear. Me and this other fellow went to a store on Canal Street, strapped a refrigerator onto a hand truck and walked right out with it. One of the people who worked there actually held the door open to help us out. Just some black cats in khaki, they figured. They couldn’t be stealing.”
He tells a few more drug stories, then walks to the closet and returns with a load of books. One is on African primal religions, another on the tao of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, another on the path to total rejuvenation.
“I practice T’ai Chi every day,” he says. “It’s a martial arts form as well as a Chinese internal-healing system. T’ai Chi is internal and soft, versus karate, which is external and hard. T’ai Chi teaches you how to identify your internal life source and guide it with your mind, how to manipulate it to rejuvenate your system. Exercises in the system are called chi kong. Kung fu is not the name of a martial-arts form; it means ‘something with diligent applications.’ To learn a martial art requires kung fu.”
By now I’m so overwrought with chi‘s and fu‘s and kong‘s and kung‘s that my eyes have about crossed. But the point of it all is that T’ai Chi, along with a number of drug rehab programs and the loving support of his family, helped Charles Neville get off heroin and start his life again.
He’s talking about the music now. “I never really cared about recognition. Doing the music was the reward. I started with a minstrel show, making eight bucks a night, three nights a week. But even then there was a link with the others in the band, and it cycled around to the audience and came back, and that was the reward. It was a religious experience, and later it occurred to me that this was my way of communing with God.”
The phone rings and it’s Art, down the hall. “He wants to see you,” Charles says. “I think I’ll do more reading now.”
* * *
Art’s in room 346, talking to a maid in a neatly pressed uniform and a cardboard hat. For the last hour or so she’s been trying to get into his room to clean it. “Come back later,” he tells her. Then to me: “They’re just trying to do their job, I understand that. But I think I’ve finally learned how to keep them away.”
“Just answer the door without any clothes on. That’ll do the trick every time.”
The maid leaves, carrying her vacuum cleaner.
Art’s wearing a New Orleans Saints cap. Sitting in the den now, he says he’s a little concerned about the team’s quarterback situation but that there are too many other things in the world to worry about. The Persian Gulf mess, for one.
“It’s scary where our country’s going. I have to believe the end of the world is coming.”
Lorraine enters the room and puts a frozen cocktail on the coffee table. For the moment, at least, everything seems fine with brother Art. No war, famine, pestilence, disease, and all the hell else. But Phil Donahue comes on the television, and who is he talking about but Saddam Hussein.
“It’s all in the Bible, the Book of Revelation,” Art says. “You can see it all right there in black and white.”
As a kid Art went to Catholic schools, so it would follow that he’d know about that sort of thing. His first gig was with a drum-and-bugle corps put together by the parish priest. They marched through the neighborhood, everybody running outside to see what the racket was all about. He started a group called the Hawkettes, which in 1954 recorded “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a song still popular around New Orleans. In 1966, he formed the Meters, a hometown group that recently re-banded and is touring again. Art isn’t quite sure whether to trust the good fortune that has finally caught up to him and his brothers.
“In Europe, they always went insane over our stuff,” he says. “But here in America, no one would book us, except in Louisiana and Texas. We had a gold record in France and were practically unknown here. Even Japan paid more attention. Once we played in Seattle, and this Japanese group was there, and it sounded just like the Meters. A girl singing with the group said, ‘America is a wonderful country, but they don’t recognize and appreciate their own treasures.’”
A commercial comes on and Art calms down. He’s sounding more optimistic. “If I had to say what really got the Neville brothers to be a group,” he begins, “it’s our Chief Jolly, our uncle George Landry. He knew that if we got together as a family, it would happen. They called him Jolly because he was always happy, singing and whistling. When he died, all the black Mardi Gras Indians came out and kissed the ground in front of his house. He had one of the biggest funeral parades I’ve ever seen. I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to have one before I die—a second line, I’m talking about. That’s if I can afford it. I’ll be up in front with an umbrella, dancing. I figure you just as soon live to see your own funeral. If the end’s coming, why not have some fun?”
Maybe Art isn’t feeling so optimistic, after all. Presently, he gets onto the subject of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klansman from Louisiana, now a state representative, who received nearly 44 percent of the vote in a losing bid for a U.S. Senate seat and is running for governor this fall.
“When l heard you were a white guy and from home, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to talk you,” Art says. “You didn’t vote for ‘the boy’ did you?”
“No,” I say. “I did not.”
“It just shows you where the spirits and minds and hearts of people, where they’re all going.” Art and his brothers have threatened to move out of Louisiana if ever Duke were elected to a higher office.
“When you have family, you can pull together in times of crisis,” Art says. “Family is what’s important. Every time I look at my brothers I see all the people that’ve passed but are still with us spiritually. l see my uncle Jolly, my mother and my father. They’re all there, as my hands and feet are there. Two of my grandmothers lived at home with us when us I was growing up, and they’d always say, ‘Son, your pa ain’t never gonna die as long as you’re alive.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about until I had my son Ian, who’s 9 years old now. I have another son, 31, and a daughter, 28. But the little one, l see immortality in him. He will never forget about his father, the way I will never forget about mine.”
Yes, Art is hopeful now. The world might not end tonight after all.
The maid is at the door again, ringing the bell.
“Come in,” he calls to her. “Please, come in, come in . . .”
* * *
The next day, Cyril shows me the books he’s been reading. They’re all there on the coffee table, lined up in a row: The Holy Bible, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Koran, The Gospel of the Red Man, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America.
As he reaches to pick one up, his star-shaped Malcolm X medallion clatters against his necklace of wooden beads. People say this about Cyril: At 42, he’s the most outspoken and politically active of the brothers; he’s what conservative whites called a “militant black” 20 years ago. Ask him about the weather, and he’ll pound you with tales about white racism. Cyril dresses a little like a Rastafarian and almost always wears a hat, an expensive Italian job with a black velvet band and a red feather. While the hat is the kind Uncle Jolly used to wear, it also covers up Cyril’s ever expanding bald spot.
I have been in his room less than three minutes when Cyril commences what will be a two-hour-long history lesson. “Ethiopia,” he says, “was a Christian nation 150 years before Rome took it over.”
Ten seconds later, he adds, “The worship of the Black Madonna existed long before Michelangelo ever painted his things.”
Cyril is a teacher, he says, determined to pass on what he calls “the black people’s story” to future generations. Yellow Moon, the Neville Brothers’ 1989 album, includes a song he helped write thanking Rosa Parks for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Brother’s Keeper, their latest, contains a creation of his that canonizes a list of New Orleans musicians whose work inspired him and his brothers: “Saint Shine, Saint James Black, Saint James Booker, Saint Professor Longhair and Saint Gerald Tillman.”
“At one point,” he says, “I considered wearing a vest of dynamite and going into a police station and blowing up myself and as many cops as I could. Millions of black men in my generation have gotten to this point of total frustration, of committing revolutionary suicide.”
He explains that his anger is a result of the racism he witnessed as a youth. “I couldn’t walk a block away from my house without being harassed by the police—I mean humiliated,” he says. “In school I couldn’t go for them teaching me that everything evil was black and everything pure was white. The meanest person I ever met in my life was a white nun. Whatever desires you had as a young black person, the Catholic schools would pump it out of you. This is why I write the kind of stuff I do. One of my punishments was to kneel before a big white crucifix of Jesus, and sometimes it felt like the blood was dripping off of him and right onto me.”
One of Cyril’s oft-quoted lines is this: “The first shit I ever learned how to read was a ‘WHITES ONLY’ sign.” And he repeats it now, his voice filled with rage.
“I still fear for my life when I walk out of my house in New Orleans,” he says, “and I fear for my son’s life. I deal in reality, and I know that collectively in America the white man is the black man’s enemy … I have legal tablets full of names of people—black people—who are dead, locked in the penitentiary for life, or a member of the walking dead.” He points to his chest and taps it. “I could have been one of those casualties.”
This is one of the last things he tells me: “On every level, we as blacks are being attacked. At some point in the future the white Anglo-Saxon male ego will submit to the truth, and fairness will be shown.”
Cyril folds his hands into tight, hard knots and beats them quietly against his knees.
“Two hours have gone by,” I say, “and we still haven’t talked about the music.”
“Sometimes that happens with me,” he replies, sounding almost apologetic.
* * *
Aaron, down the hall, is in a different mood altogether. He looks as if I’ve just awakened him from a nap.
“No. I was watching Fred Flintstone on TV,” he says, muting the volume with the remote control.
Earlier this morning he and his wife, Joel, went driving around Beverly Hills, looking at all the beautiful houses, the palm trees that chase the sky. They themselves recently moved from Valence Street in Uptown New Orleans to a suburban-type subdivision in the eastern part of the city. Joel is here in the room, over by the bed with Aaron’s sister, Athelgra. They’re folding clothes and putting them away.
Asked if, like Cyril, he was harassed and humiliated as a kid, Aaron says, “Some drunk boys from Tulane threw eggs a few times, riding in their cars through the neighborhood, but nothing else I remember.”
He sits with his elbows on his knees, his jailhouse tattoos a pale blue against the field of copper flesh. Aaron wears sleeveless denim vests because he can’t stand to have his muscular arms confined. Of the four brothers, Aaron, 50, is easily known, mainly because of his work with Ronstadt.
“Success to me,” he is saying now, “is being together as brothers and still looking out for each other. We lived together as kids, and now we’re taking care of each other as men. I may get more attention than them, but it’s still Neville, it’s still the Neville name.”
* * *
Unlike Charles and Cyril, Aaron doesn’t have any books to show me. He likes to read, though.
“What’s the kind I like?” he asks Joel now.
“Inspirational and positive-thinking,” she replies, then names a couple of authors.
“The Greatest Salesman in the World,” he says. “You ever hear of it?”
“What about The Greatest Miracle?”
“I don’t know that one either.”
Aaron is a writer himself. Over the years, after playing Tipitina’s until early in the morning, he would scribble things down on scraps of paper and toss them under the bed. Years went by and all those scraps did was gather dust. Then his friend Dynne Batson typed them up and arranged them by subject matter. Poetic Works by Aaron Neville, she called the 4 a.m. scribblings, and placed them between cardboard covers.
He’s remembering when he first became aware of his voice, the power, the wonder of it. “I used to go to basketball games and to movies, and I’d sing to the cat at the door to get in. I had a friend named Buckwheat, and he could sing, too. They all knew us. ‘Sing us a song and we’ll let you in.’ I used to sing ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ It was pretty.”
I tell him I don’t know the song. And he starts to sing it, filling the room with his sweet, fragile tenor, shifting to a falsetto that cuts straight to the heart.
“Singing is an art,” he says, “so I guess I’m an artist. I used to sing just to do it, but then Art put together a doo-wop group. They used to sit out in the park and harmonize. I’d do a cappella. We’d beat on hubcaps and Coke bottles. We’d win talent shows at the theater. Back then when I’d try to hit a note, everybody’d say, ‘Get on out of here.’”
When he was 17, Aaron went to jail for six months for stealing a car. He sang a lot there, too, figuring it was better than the other thing people did to kill time, which was to fight. After he got out, he married Joel and landed a recording contract. Then, in 1966, he cut “Tell It Like It Is,” at a small French Quarter studio run by a fellow named Cosima Matassa.
“When I first sang it, I thought it was okay but not the best I could do. It was a simple song, real simple. And I was looking for something more up-tempo. But my brother Art was with me and he could feel it. He knew I had something. Now when I hear it, it’s like brand-new all over again.”
The single climbed to No. 2 on the charts. Aaron toured the country with Otis Redding and played the Apollo Theater in Harlem. But a year later he was back home in New Orleans and back on the docks, handling freight on ships bound for the Gulf of Mexico.
“I got paid for personal appearances but not for the record,” he says. “I don’t have time to be angry about it. I’m not vindictive. Sometimes now I see the guys who got all the money. I don’t tell them anything. They were friends then. But when the record came out and it was time to get paid, everyone all of a sudden claimed bankruptcy.”
He and his brothers continued to play music in a number of different bands—sometimes together, sometimes apart—mostly at college fraternity parties and high school proms, before small but enthusiastic crowds whose applause only served to remind Aaron that, come Monday, there would be another boat to load or house to paint or ditch to dig.
Like Charles before him, Aaron got hooked on heroin.
“I think back on them days and it was all supposed to be so hip,” he says. “l was taking that stuff for about ten years. l quit cold turkey a couple of times. I went through a methadone program and it helped, but then you get hooked on that. What finally kicked it for me was that I got tired of seeing all the people around me deteriorating. You saw guys with hands as big as boxing gloves from shooting up.” He pauses and holds his hands out in front of him.
“The worst time of my life was when I was separated from my wife and thought I would lose her. Then I started praying real hard. I’d go to the grotto at St. Ann’s Shrine. This is where you go up the steps on your knees. I prayed to St. Jude for hopeless cases. I made novenas. Finally, I was saved, and I can tell you it wasn’t for nothing.”
The Nevilles’ mother died in 1975, and about a year later Uncle Jolly talked them into helping him record The Wild Tchoupitoulas, an album of New Orleans party music that still is regarded as some of the best work the brothers have ever done. Of the many things old man Jolly would tell his nephews, none was more vital than this: “Your mother and father always wanted to see you work together as a band. Why don’t you do it?”
“All the stuff that me and my brothers went through to get to where we are now,” Aaron says, “now we can tell people behind us, ‘Hey, man, it ain’t cool to steal and do drugs, it don’t work.’ We’ve been saved for something, and we’ve got a message. People tell me, ‘Man, I hear your voice and it’s like medicine to me.’ I say, ‘Yeah, it’s like medicine to me, too. I can hear it, and even if I don’t have any money, I feel rich.’”
He’s been traveling for months now, he says he misses New Orleans, his own house and bed. When he returns he’ll drive around the old neighborhood in his Ford Explorer, play with his grandkids, sign autographs for all the schoolchildren, who call him “Mr. Aaron.” During the afternoon and evening hours, he’ll watch professional wrestling on TV. “I know when they’re going at it and when they’re not. I’ve seen them where there’s real blood squirting out of their heads.”
He is happy; the thought of the stars of the National Wrestling Association seems to invigorate him. “If ever I give up my music,” he says, “you might see me on the tube one day with a hood over my head climbing into a ring.”
“What would your name be?” I ask him. “You’ll have to have one, you know.”
“The Spoiler,” he answers. “I already got it picked out.”
Over by the bed his wife and sister are nodding their heads.
“He’d do it, too,” Athelgra says.
“Just you watch,” warns Joel.
* * *
Back at Tipitina’s, the brothers step onto the little piece of ground they know best, entering with arms raised. A man with a bushy black mustache is shouting into a microphone “Welcome back to Tipitina’s”—but the crowd, pressing close, drowns out the rest.
Sleepy-eyed Art gets behind his piano, Charles behind his horseshoe of saxophones, Aaron behind his mighty red tambourine and Cyril behind his congas. “Hey Pocky A-Way” is what they start with, a local favorite that Uncle Jolly helped make famous. The song is mostly chants accompanied by whatever noise the brothers choose to make, but it electrifies. A capacity crowd of about 1,000 has stuffed itself into Tip’s this night, and every last one is standing. Upstairs in the balcony, they’re doing a kind of stand-up version of the gator. I tell myself to keep still, goddammit, but there I go.
After a few minutes of this wretched nonsense, Tyrone Lewis sidles up to me and throws a hand on my shoulder. “How much is this magazine paying you? Anywhere in the vicinity of $20,000?”
“Depends on how big a vicinity you mean.”
“Lookee here, my man. For 50 bucks I’ll give you the rest of the scoop. Anything you want to know, it’s yours. I’ll tell you what Aaron’s like at home by himself. I idolize the man, I’ll even tell you that.”
“Leave me alone,” I say after a while, leaning in close. “Can’t you see I’m trying to dance?”
[Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen via Hey Reverb]
At the end of Fargo, Frances McDormand’s police chief, Marge Gunderson, captures the psycho played by Peter Stormare. He’s in the backseat of her police cruiser and she talks to him as she drives. We see that she cannot fathom the evil she’s just seen.
“And here ya are,” she says, “and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” It’s as true a piece of acting as you’ll find—Marge really doesn’t comprehend a certain kind of human darkness.
I am not surprised by violence or horror but still sometimes find myself struck, not unlike Marge, in a kind of a daze, unable to wrap my head around it.
Why do horrible things happen? That is the question at the heart of this disquieting story from the most-talented E. Jean Carroll. Elle’s longtime advice columnist, Caroll is a former contributing editor at Outside and also at Esquire, which she wrote this fantastic column about basketball groupies. She is the author of four books, including Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson and Mr. Right, Right Now!: Man Catching Made Easy. You can follow her on Twitter @ejeancaroll.
In the meantime, dig into “The Cheerleaders.” The story was published in Spinback in June of 2001, featured in The Best American Crime Writing 2002, and appears here with the author’s permission.
by E. Jean Carroll
from Spin, June 2001
Welcome to Dryden. It’s rather gray and soppy. Not that Dryden doesn’t look like the finest little town in the universe—with its pretty houses and its own personal George Bailey Agency at No. 5 South Street, it could have come right out of It’s a Wonderful Life. (It’s rumored the film’s director, Frank Capra, was inspired by Dryden.) But the thriving, well-heeled hamlet is situated on the southern edge of New York’s Finger Lakes region, under one of the highest cloud-cover ratios in America. This puts the 1,900 inhabitants into two philosophical camps: those who feel the town is rendered more beautiful by the “drama” and “poetry” of the clouds and those who say it’s so “gloomy” it’s like living in an old lady’s underwear drawer.
If you live in Dryden, the kids from Ithaca, that cradle of metropolitan sophistication 15 miles away, will say you live in a “cow town.” (“There’s a cow pasture right next to the school!” says one young Ithacan.) But Dryden High School, with its emerald lawns, running tracks, athletic fields, skating pond, pine trees, and 732 eager students, is actually a first-rate place to grow up. The glorious pile of salmon-colored bricks stands on a hill looking out on the town, the mountains, the ponds, and the honey-and-russet-colored fields stretching as far as the eye can see. In the summer, the Purple Lions of Dryden High ride out to the fields and the ponds and build bonfires that singe the boys’ bare legs and blow cinders into the girls’ hair.
In the summer of ’96, many bonfires are built. The girls are practicing their cheerleading routines and the boys are developing great packs of muscles in the football team’s weight room; everybody laughs and everybody roars and the fields around town look like they’ve been trampled by a pride of actual lions. In fact, the Dryden boys display such grit at the Preseason Invitational football game that fans begin to believe as the players do: that the upcoming season will bring them another division championship. This spirit lasts until about 6:30 p.m. on September 10, when Scott Pace, one of the most brilliant players ever to attend the school, the unofficial leader of the team, a popular, handsome, dark-haired senior, rushes out of football practice to meet his parents and is killed in a car crash.
It is strange. It is sad. But sadder still is the fact that Scott’s older brother, Billy, a tall, dazzling Dryden athlete, as loved and admired as Scott, had been killed in a car crash almost exactly one year before. The town is shaken up very badly. But little does anyone dream that Scott Pace’s death will be the beginning of one of the strangest high school tragedies of all time: how, in four years, a stouthearted cheerleader named Tiffany Starr will see three football players, three fellow cheerleaders, and the beloved football coach of her little country school all end up dead.
At a home football game, Friday evening, October 4, 1996, three weeks after the death of Scott Pace, townspeople keep talking about the team and the school “recovering” and “pulling together,” but the truth is, nobody can deal. To the students of Dryden High, it just feels as if fate or something has messed up in a major way, and everybody seems as unhappy as can be.
The game tonight, in any case, is a change. Tiffany Starr, captain of the Dryden High cheerleaders, arrives. The short-skirted purple uniform looks charming on the well-built girl with the large, sad, blue eyes. Seventeen, a math whiz, way past button-cute, Tiffany is on the student council, is the point guard on the girls’ basketball team, and has been voted “Best Actress” and “Class Flirt.” She hails from the special Starr line of beautiful blonde cheerleaders; her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, graduated from Dryden two years before. Their locally famous father, Dryden High football coach Stephen Starr, has instilled in his daughters a credo that comes down to two words: “Be aggressive!”
And right now the school needs cheering. Though her heart is breaking for Scott, Tiffany wants to lead yells. But as she walks in, the cheerleading squad looks anxiously at her, and one of them says, “Jen and Sarah never showed up at school today.”
“What?” says Tiffany.
Tiffany taught Jennifer Bolduc and Sarah Hajney to cheer, and her first thought is that the girls, both juniors on the squad, are off somewhere on a lark. Tiffany knows Sarah’s parents are out of town and that Jen spent last night at Sarah’s house. For a moment, Tiffany imagines her two friends doing something slightly wicked, like joy-riding around Syracuse. “But then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute….’”
“Being a cheerleader at Dryden is the closest thing to being a movie star as you can get,” says Tiffany’s sister Amber. “It’s like being a world-class gymnast, movie star, and model all in one. It is fabulous! Fab-u-lous! It’s so much fun! Because werule.”
The Dryden High girls have won their region’s cheerleading championships 12 years in a row. The girls’ pyramids are such a thrill, the crowd doesn’t like it when the cheer ends and the game begins.
“I’m like, ‘Hold on, Jen and Sarah would never miss a game,’” Tiffany continues. “So the only thing we can do is just wait for them to arrive. And we wait and we wait. And finally, we walk out to the football game and sit down in the bleachers. We don’t cheer that day. Well, we may do some sidelines, but we don’t do any big cheers because you can’t do the big cheers when you’re missing girls.”
Jen Bolduc is a “base” in the pyramids (meaning she stands on the ground and supports tiers of girls above her), and Sarah Hajney is a “flyer” (meaning she’s hurled into the air). At 16, Jen is tall and shapely, a strong, pretty, lovable girl with a crazy grin and a powerful mind. She is a varsity track star, a champion baton-twirler, and a volunteer at Cortland Memorial Hospital.
“Jen is a great athlete and a wonderful cheerleader,” says Tiffany. “Really strong.And she’s so happy! All the time. She’s constantly giggling. And she’s very creative. When we make Spirit Bags for the football players and fill them up with candy, Jen’s Spirit Bags are always the best. And she’s silly. Joyful. Goofy. But she’s a very determined person.”
“Jen is always doing funny things,” says Amanda Burdick, a fellow cheerleader, “and she’s smart. She helps me do my homework. I never once heard her talk crap about people.”
Sarah Hajney is an adorable little version of a Botticelli Venus. She’s on varsity track and does volunteer work for children with special needs. “She’s a knockout,” says former Dryden football player Johnny Lopinto. “I remember being at a pool party, and all the girls, like Tiffany and Sarah, had changed into their bathing suits. And I was walking around, and I just like bumped into Sarah and saw her in a bathing suit, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, Sarah! You’re so beautiful!’”
As the football game winds down to a loss, and Sarah does not suddenly, in the fourth quarter, come racing across the field with a hilarious story about how Jen got lost in the Banana Republic in Syracuse, the anxious cheerleaders decide to spend the night at their coach’s house. “And we go there, and we begin to wait.” says Tiffany. “And we wait and we wait and we wait and we wait.”
Before the game is over, a New York state trooper is in Sarah Hajney’s house. “I get a phone call on Friday night, October 4, at about—I should say, my wife gets a phone call, because I’m taking the kids to a football game and dropping them off,” says Major William Foley of the New York State Police.
Major Foley (at the time of the girls’ disappearance he is Captain Foley, zone commander of Troop C Barracks, which heads up the hunt) is a trim man in enormous aviators, a purple tie modeled after the sash of the Roman Praetorian guard, and a crisply ironed, slate-gray uniform. The creases in his trousers are so fierce they look like crowbars are sewn into them.
Sitting with Foley in the state trooper headquarters in Sidney, New York, is the young, nattily dressed Lieutenant Eric Janie, a lead investigator on the girls’ disappearance. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Bolduc because I lived in Dryden,” says Foley. “Ron Bolduc calls me because he’s concerned he’s not going to get the appropriate response from the state police. A missing 16-year-old girl—this happens all the time. So I call Mr. Bolduc back and say I will look into it. And what I do is, I ask that a fellow by the name of Investigator Bill Bean be sent. This is unusual for us to send an investigator for a missing girl. We’d normally send a uniformed trooper who’d assess the situation, but in this case [as a favor to Mr. Bolduc], Investigator Bean is the first to arrive at the Hajney residence. And hequickly determines there’s cause for concern.”
The Hajney house, a snug, one-story dwelling with a big backyard, is outside Dryden, in McLean, a hilly old village settled in 1796. The village houses are done up in pale gray and mauve and preside over lawns so neat and green they look like carpeting. Wishing wells and statues of geese decorate the yards, flags flutter on porches, and there’s a farm in the middle of town.
“There are a lot of people, concerned family members, inside the house,” says Janie. “And the first obvious fact is: There’s a problem in the bathroom.”
“There are signs of a struggle,” says Foley. “The shower curtain has been pulled down: the soap dish is broken off.” On the towel rack is Jen’s freshly washed purple-and-white cheerleading skirt. Sarah’s skirt is discovered twirled over a drying rack in the basement.
We start treating it as a crime scene,” says Janie. “Sarah’s parents have gotten the call [they are in Bar Harbor, Maine, for a four-day vacation] and are on their way back.”
The first break in the case occurs almost immediately: The Hajney’s Chevy Lumina, which was missing, is found about seven miles from the house in a parking lot of the Cortland Line Company, a well-known maker of fly-fishing equipment. “The trunk is forced open by one of the uniformed sergeants,” says Foley, “because we don’t know, of course: Are the girls in the trunk?”
The trunk reveals that the girls have, in fact, been inside. Investigators tear the car apart and find, among other things, mud, pine needles, charred wood, blood, and diamond-patterned fingerprints suggesting the kidnapper wore gloves, meaning this wasn’t some freak accident or a hotheaded crime of passion. This was planned.
Outside the Hajney home, waiting behind the yellow police tape in the cold night, is the other flyer on the cheerleading squad, Katie Savino. Small, with sparkling dark eyes and the merriest laugh, more like a sylph than a human girl, Katie is Sarah’s best friend. She watches the troopers go in and out of the house, and waits—full of hope—to speak to an official. What no one knows yet is that Katie could have been the third girl in the trunk. She had made plans to spend the night with Sarah and Jen but, at the last moment, decided to stay home.
Saturday dawns with diaphanous skies. The day is so sunny, so clear, that the natives, accustomed to clouds, find the silver-blue blaze almost disorienting. “It’s a beautiful day,” says Kevin Pristash, a student affairs administrator at State University of New York at Cortland, which is near McLean and Dryden. “And suddenly these posters go up all over town. GIRLS MISSING! It’s very eerie. Rumors are rampant. State troopers are everywhere. Helicopters are flying overhead. I go to get gas, and an unmarked car pulls up, and two guys from different police units get out. They’re everywhere.”
Gary Gelinger, an investigator with the state police, is in McLean interviewing the neighbors of the Hajney family. The first kitchen table at which he is invited to sit on Saturday morning belongs to John and Patricia Andrews. Their six-year-old son, Nicholas, attends Dryden Elementary. From an upstairs bedroom, one can look down into the Hajneys’ bathroom.
“John Andrews is not behaving appropriately,” says Janie. “Isn’t answering questions appropriately, doesn’t seem to be aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood. Investigator Gelinger reports back and just says: ‘Nah, this isn’t good. The next-door neighbor isn’t good at all.’”
Back when he attends Dryden High, John Andrews is a bashful boy. The love of his life is cars. His old man has won a Purple Heart during one of his three tours in Vietnam: he’s a “USA all the way” kind of religious alcoholic who believes in the belt and is strict about his rules. He beats John and his sisters, Ann and Deborah.
At Dryden, John finds a sweetheart, classmate Patricia McGory. They marry, and John joins the Air Force. At his German base, John allegedly, on two separate occasions, dons a ski mask and gloves and viciously attacks women who are young, attractive, and petite. They have long, fair hair and are his neighbors. He’s found guilty of the second assault, dishonorably discharged, and sent to Leavenworth.
When John is released, he and Patricia (who, along with his family, insists on his innocence) buy a house in McLean, and he begins working the third shift as a lathe operator at the same company where his mother is employed, the Pall Trinity Micro Corporation, in Cortland. A year later, in August 1996, the Hajneys purchase the house next door to the Andrews, and John quickly becomes obsessed with their beautiful and dashing daughter.
While the troopers are trying to get ahold of military justice records and follow up leads on other suspects, the massive search has alarmed Tiffany Starr and the cheerleading squad. “We keep hearing different rumors all day Saturday after we go home from the coach’s,” says Tiffany. “The house where I live is five minutes from the place where Sarah and Jen have been kidnapped. Of course I go wild, thinking they’re coming to get me next. We’ve been imagining that they’re after cheerleaders. And Saturday night and Sunday it’s just me and my mom at home [her twin sisters, Amber and Amy, are away at college], and everybody knows that. By Sunday, I’m freaking out. And I say, ‘Mom, we have to leave now! We have to get out of here!’ And my mom says, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ And we throw our stuff in a bag. I can’t be in that house another minute. I’m terrified. I’m sure somebody is gonna break in, and we just get in the car and go.”
To fully understand Tiffany’s dread, we must turn the clock back two years, to 1994, when Tiffany is a sophomore, her sisters are seniors, and their father is the Dryden High football coach….
The Starrs live in a lovely two-story house at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac in the country village of Cortlandville, which, like McLean, feeds into Dryden High. In the backyard is a swimming pool where neighborhood kids scramble and laugh, and on the garage is a basketball hoop, where Stephen Starr shoots baskets with his girls. Coach Starr is admired; his wife, Judy, is clever and good-looking, and his three daughters are the goddesses of Dryden High.
“My family is perfect,” says Tiffany. “Besides being the Dryden High School football coach, my dad is the assistant Dryden High girls’ track coach, and he is a sixth-grade teacher at Dryden Elementary. With all his jobs, it’s years and years before he finishes his master’s degree, and I remember the day he comes home; he brings champagne, and he pops it, and my mother and he are so excited! They dream about growing old together and sitting out on our back porch. Mom wants to get one of these swings so they can sit out there while Amy, Amber, and I are at college.”
“Dad’s so funny,” says Amy Starr.
“Dad sitting at dinner—” says Tiffany, laughing.
“The hat backward,” says Amy.
“One of those mesh hats,” says Tiffany, “backward, kind of sideways backward—”
“He calls me Pinny because I was so skinny,” says Amy.
“Amber he calls Amber Bambi,” says Tiffany, “and I’m Shrimp or Shrimper.”
“And mom’s Turtle, and he’s Turkey,” says Amber.
“Dad loves cookies,” says Amy. “You come down to the kitchen, and there he is in the middle of the night, standing with the refrigerator door open. He can eat awhole bag of Oreos or Nutter Butters. He loves peanut butter.”
“He dips the peanut butter out of the jar,” says Tiffany, “and then dips the spoon into the vanilla ice cream. He’s a very happy man.”
“So I’m on my way up to bed,” says Amber, “and he’s on his way downstairs, he has a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, and for some reason this really overwhelming feeling comes over me. And I say, ‘Dad! Wait!’ And I say, ‘Stop! I love you!’ And I give him this really big hug, and he’s like, ‘I love you too, kiddo.’ And he goes on downstairs. And that’s the last time I see him alive.”
In the fall of ’94, a moody young boy from Truxton, New York, appears on the scene. A sulky rogue with dead-poet good looks, his name is J.P. Merchant and, needless to say, he’s irresistible to young women. But romance has a trick of turning ugly when it comes J.P.’s way, and his last high school love affair ended in catastrophe.
Then he meets Amber Starr. She is not like the clingy, docile girls he’d known before. Amber is a Dryden cheerleader and a queen. They start dating. He falls in love; she doesn’t. She breaks it off; a hole is burned into his life. Merchant starts calling. He shows up. He knows Amber’s schedule, her whereabouts, her friends. He tells her if they do not get back together he will kill himself. Amber is kind; she speaks with him for hours on the phone, “letting him down gently.” In late December, he threatens to kill Amber’s new boyfriend. Coach Starr is out of town, playing in a basketball tournament at his old high school, so Tiffany and Judy go to the Cortland County Sheriff on December 27 and file a complaint.
“Merchant is stalking my daughter!” says Judy. She asks for an order of protection. The sheriff arrests Merchant. Merchant’s family posts bail: $500. Upon his release, he calls Amber and threatens her. Again, Tiffany and Judy go to the sheriffs department, this time with Amber. It is December 28. Judy begs the sheriffs department for help and protection.
On December 29, a sheriff’s officer watches the Starrs’ house. The officer goes home when his shift ends. No officer replaces him.
“Our day raised us to be aggressive, says Tiffany. She lowers her voice in an impression of her father: “‘Where’s the aggression? Dive for the ball! Get in there!’”
“I don’t know bow many times I heard that!” says Amy.
“‘I don’t want to hear the word can’t,’” says Amber, imitating her dad. “‘That’s not part of our vocabulary in this house.’”
Late on December 29, Stephen Starr returns home, eats a plate of cookies, drinks a beer, and goes to bed. Early the next morning, as the family sleeps, J.P. Merchant shoots the locks off the Starr’s back door, climbs the stairs, and is startled to see Tiffany standing in her bedroom doorway.
He aims the Ithaca 20-gauge shotgun at her. “I am ready to die,” Tiffany recalls. “I think for sure this is it. But something as simple as shutting my door keeps me alive. He is not after me. He wants Amber. He just isn’t going to let anyone get in his way. And I don’t try. I shut my door and let him go.”
Forever after, Tiffany dreams of stepping into her closet, retrieving her baton, surging up behind him and striking him over the head. But J.P. Merchant moves on quickly—a matter of mere seconds—to Amber’s bedroom. As he tells Amber to wake up, her father comes running to protect her.
J.P. shoots Stephen Starr dead with two blasts of the gun.
Somehow the girls and their mother manage to flee the house in their nightclothes. Merchant reloads his shotgun and follows. He fires into the woods at the edge of their house, believing they are hiding there. But the family goes in the opposite direction instead, racing across the yard to a neighbor’s. J.P. starts to follow….
Amy Starr suddenly grabs the tape recorder out of my hand and yells into it. “This is reality, people!” she says. “This really happened! Okay? We were straight-A students! We had friends. We were cheerleaders. We played sports. We had great lives!”
The Starr sisters are visiting my room at the Best Western Hotel outside Dryden. We have been out for an Italian dinner at the A-1 restaurant, and now the girls are sitting on the huge double-king bed in my room, looking through their high school scrapbooks, doing their best to sort through the painful memories. They’ve since moved on, entered college (Tiffany is graduating this month from the University of Maryland), and they work every day. “We’ve not done one thing to mess up,” says Amy, who is engaged to marry a “terrific” young man next spring.
But the girls carry scars. They do not talk to strangers now. They do not give out their telephone numbers. They fasten their seat belts to drive one hundred yards across a parking lot. They bolt their bedroom doors. If Russell Crowe appears with a sword, they walk out of the theater. It’s six years later, and they still wake in the middle of the night, their hearts beating wildly. But the Starrs are prevailing. Not the growing-up sort of prevailing that most 21-year-olds experience, but the kind of prevailing that comes from being trampled and standing back up.
As for J.P. Merchant, he leaves the cul-de-sac by the Starr home and drives to the grave of his high school sweetheart, Shari Fitts. Shari had committed suicide three years earlier, while she was dating Merchant. There, he puts the gun to his head, pulls the trigger, and kills himself.
“The biggest mistake I made was not cutting off contact with J.P.,” says Amber, who is dating now and seems quite happy. She takes the tape recorder out of Amy’s hand and starts looking for the volume control, “Now I know, and I can tell other people.” She finds the control, turns it up as high as possible, and yells:“Cut off contact and get professional help!”
There is silence for a moment. The girls are huddled together over the recorder, surrounded by pictures of themselves in their purple and white track uniforms, basketball uniforms, and cheerleading outfits, their long Alice in Wonderlandhair tied up in white ribbons. But one picture, from early 1997, is different. It is of Tiffany’s cheerleading squad. On each of their uniforms, the ribbons are black.
So is it any wonder Tiffany and Judy pack their bags and drive all the way to Tiffany’s grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania when Jen and Sarah disappear? As they’re driving, the police are narrowing the suspects down to four—the Hajneys’ neighbor, John Andrews, and three others. The hour is now approaching 10 P.M. on Sunday. A call comes in…like hundreds of other calls. It’s a woman in her early 30s named Ann Erxleben, and she holds the key that will solve the case.
Ann is a pleasant brunette, a former class officer, yearbook editor, and member of the softball team at Dryden High. “I’m working at the hospital with Cheryl Bolduc, who is a nurse,” says Ann. “And when I hear about the girls missing, I can’t even begin to imagine the pain Mrs. Bolduc’s going through. Then something strange happens.
“My fiancé, Bruno Couture, and I own a hunting camp out in Otselic. [In this part of the country, the word camp is used to describe a cabin or lodge on rustic acreage.] A friend of ours, Marcus Hutcheon, has gone up to stay there Friday night. And when he walks in, the place is dark, but he notices a puddle on the floor. A friend of his comes in and shines a flashlight on it and says it looks like blood.
“So I say, ‘I think we need to go up there and check it out.’ So we get a hold of Marcus, and we drive up to the camp. It’s a small place—a basic hunting camp, one room, a loft, a wood stove. Marcus shows us the spot on the floor. It looks like somebody—” Ann’s voice falters.
“There’s been a puddle, a dried puddle, and I’m scared. So we drive to the troopers’ barracks in Norwich. There isn’t anybody there, so we have to call somebody to come. I’m the one who calls. I say, ‘Look, we’ve found blood in our camp.’ I feel suddenly guilty. Call it instinct.
“So a trooper arrives, and we drive back up to the camp. The trooper goes inside. He’s very nonchalant. He comes out and asks, ‘Do you know any people from McLean?’ Well, obviously, Bruno has been raised there, and I grew up around there. And he asks us if anybody from McLean has been up there. And I answer ‘friends and family.’ And the trooper says, ‘Well, I’ve called the barracks in Cortland, and we need to wait for them to come.’
“The Cortland troopers come. It’s very dark now. They take a look in the camp and start interviewing Marcus. Then they interview Bruno. Then they turn to me and ask me who I am. I say I’m Bruno’s fiancée. And one of the troopers asks if any of my family and friends live near the girls.
“Both Bruno and Marcus look at me. They’re waiting for me to make the call as to what to say. I’ve decided beforehand—it’s the only way I can live with my conscience—that I will volunteer no information unless they ask me directly. And I look at the trooper and I say, ‘Yes, my brother.’ And the trooper says, ‘Has anybody you know that lives near the girls been up to this camp?’ And I say, ‘Yes, my brother.’ And he says, ‘Who is your brother?’ And I say, ‘John Andrews.’
“And the trooper flies by me so quickly he almost knocks me down. He runs into the camp and starts screaming for the senior investigator. And at that point I just want to vomit. Because my gut instinct is right. I love him, but the kidnapper is my brother, John.”
“Ann’s done the right thing, says Major Foley from behind his oak desk in the state trooper headquarters. “When the sun comes up at the camp, of course, it’s obvious. Because we start to find….”
“Parts of the girls,” says Lieutenant Janie. “Body parts.”
Foley adjusts himself in his chair and tilts his head away with a rush of emotion. “Well, I will tell you what,” he says, quietly. “Here is something we will never go into. The details of the torture of those two lovely girls.”
“We arrested John Andrews,” concludes Janie, “Monday at work.”
Three days earlier, the day the girls never show up to the football game, John Benjamin Andrews, wearing a dark T-shirt and jeans, ducks under the Hajneys’ garage door. He cuts the phone wires. Over his thinning dark hair and fleshy cheeks, he pulls a brown ski mask. He knows there is going to be a mess, so he puts on yellow rubber gloves, the kind people wear to wash dishes. The door to the kitchen is unlocked. He enters, turns, and creeps down the steps to Sarah’s room.
What does this grotesque, greasy-eyed nightmare carrying a bag holding duct tape, extra yellow gloves, and six knife blades look like to her? He weighs close to 250 pounds. His bulk must overpower the small, vibrant girl. He binds the little flyer with black plastic ties and seals her mouth with duct tape.
Is he surprised to hear the shower running? Does he realize two girls are in the house? Does he know that Jen Bolduc—whose might and muscle have tossed entire squads of cheerleaders in the air—does he know that courageous Jen will stand and fight? He must be amazed when he lurches into the bathroom and Jen claws him, kicks him, and, who knows, slams him in the face with the shower caddy. John Andrews is out of shape, but he has many knives; she is naked and outweighed by well over a hundred pounds. Sarah and Jennifer are soon trapped in the trunk of the Lumina.
Going the speed limit, the trip to the Otselic camp takes an hour. It is a curvy, up-and-down road. One of Sarah’s greatest pleasures in life is to lie down full-length in the back of her brother’s pickup, gaze up at the stars, and, as he drives round and round, guess where she is. Now they are passing June’s Country Store in Otselic. Now they are turning up Reit Road. It is bumpy. They are passing a farm. The farmer’s dog must be barking. The girls are disciplined athletes, trained to think under pressure. Are they planning an escape? Are they making a pact? They are folded together like fawns, and no matter what, as Tiffany and the cheerleading squad say, “These two girls are there for each other.”
The cabin and its pond are about a thousand yards off Reit Road in Otselic, on the edge of Muller Hill State Forest. At some point John Andrews builds a bonfire. At some point he tortures the girls. He cuts Jen and Sarah into small pieces. He drives back down Reit Road, throwing bloody body parts out the window. He heads toward a state game land and disposes of more. He sloshes motor oil over himself, the front seat, and the dash to conceal clues and leaves the car at Cortland Line Company. He tosses the yellow gloves in a trash can.
“Well, what can I tell you?” says Major Foley. “There’s a driving force. A lust. A desire. Mr. Andrews was going to attack those girls. Whether he knew Jennifer was there, we’ll never know. But he was going to commit this crime. What drove him to do it? The easiest answer is a three-letter word: Sin. People do things that are wrong because they want to. That’s all.”
“What makes us do things?” says Ann Erxleben. “What makes us not do things? What pushed my brother over the edge? The police tell us it was some kind of woman-hate crime. Because of the way the bodies were mutilated. But Johnidolized my mother.”
In 1985, John Andrews’ father, Jack, was accused of sexually abusing young girls. He killed himself three years later with a 12-gauge shotgun. Did the son blame the girls? Was he so ashamed and angry that he took revenge against young women for his father’s suicide?
Looking for answers about her brother and father has not been easy for Ann. But she is not grim, not somber. She smiles and says what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. She has baked delicious blueberry muffins for me to eat during this interview. She is relatively happy now, the mother of four comely young daughters—a toddler, twins who are athletes, and her oldest daughter, now in college, who was a cheerleader. “It’s a little scary for me to think that, in a lot of ways, we both were caring, giving people,” Ann says of her brother. “We both were raised the same way; we both were taught the same values, we both were told to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I said it’s scary because I don’t know what would make him do what he did.”
When word comes on Monday, October 7, Dryden High decides to send notes to the classrooms. “Each teacher has to read to the students that Sarah and Jen have been found and that they are definitely dead,” says Tiffany. “When the teachers read the notes to the classes, people jump out of their seats and run down the hallways, screaming. Everybody gathers in the gym and just screams and just cries and cries. And then people speed out to the parking lots, and they just, like… leave.”
Superintendent of Schools Donald Trombley is quoted in The Ithaca Journal: “It is unbelievable hysteria.”
“I’ll never get over it,” says Tiffany. “As a female, it’s the most terrifying thing to imagine happening to you. Sixteen! They are 16! Young women are so protective of their bodies, about being touched… and then the way they’re killed is so bad. And the question we keep asking is: Why does it keep happening to us, our town,our group of people?”
Before the school makes the announcement to the students, Katie Savino, Sarah’s best friend, the raven-haired, high-bouncing flyer, the third girl, is taken out of class and told privately. On hearing the news, she runs toward Sarah’s locker and collapses.
On Saturday, November 2, one day after being indicted on 26 counts of murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse, auto theft, burglary, and criminal possession of a weapon, John Andrews hangs himself in his jail cell with his shoelaces.
Scott and Tiffany’s class graduates in 1997. Sarah and Jen’s class graduates in 1998. In June 1999, Gary Cassell, the young Dryden High athletic director and the man who became a surrogate father to the Starr sisters, dies of a sudden heart attack. Three days later, Judy comes home from work and softly knocks on Tiffany’s bedroom door. She asks Tiffany to get Amy and to come out to the living room. One glance at her mom’s pale, twisted face, and Tiffany is terrified.
“And we come out in the living room and we sit down. And mom just says… ‘Katie Savino.’”
Only two prisoners are receiving visitors today at the Tioga County Jail in Oswego, New York. One prisoner is a young curly-haired woman who is accused of killing her three-year-old child. The other is Cheryl Thayer, who has pleaded guilty to killing Katie Elizabeth Savino.
Katie graduated from Dryden and went on to the State University of New York at Oswego. When news of her death roared across the Finger Lakes region on the morning of June 11, 1999, the home of the Purple Lions was forced to shut down completely. Students simply could not believe Katie was dead.
“We felt like we’re living in the Village of the Damned,” says a student who described Katie as “the most popular girl who ever lived.” “We were mad,” says Tiffany. After standing strong through her father, Billy, and Scotty, this one was “just way too much”—she became physically ill upon hearing the news. “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’”
Twenty-three hundred people attended the memorial service for the cheerleader who pulled a whole school back to something like normality after Jen’s and Sarah’s deaths. “She really believed Sarah and Jen were with her,” says her mother, Liz Savino. “She was always smiling. I mean, she always glowed. Katie didn’t make friends; she took hostages. She never left a room without a hug and a ‘Bye. I love you!’ I miss her terribly. I miss her horribly.”
“Before Jen and Sarah died, Katie was so innocent,” says Tiffany. “I don’t think she’d kissed a boy until she was a senior in high school. If then. She was very smart, did really well in school, and she was friends with everybody. Then when Sarah died, Katie took a lot of her clothes and wore them. She wore Sarah’s belt every day. I think it really terrified her that she was supposed to have been [at Sarah’s house the night of the kidnapping]. And then on top of it, she lost her best friend in the most painful way that you could possibly imagine.”
Katie’s killer is tall and slender with lovely, dark, deep-set eyes, black eyebrows, and dark hair pulled high in a ponytail. Long wisps fall across her forehead as she sits very straight on her stool, her narrow shoulder blades drawn back elegantly. She is 19 and pretty enough that, even in her orange prison pants and top, she looks like she stepped out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad.
“Katie was my best friend,” Cheryl says, and immediately a large tear fills the comer of her eye. “I was leaving for California the next day, so Katie stayed and partied with me at a place in Cortland that serves kids drinks.”
The tear falls against the side of her nose and begins to roll down—not down the type of burly, pockmarked face one sees in prison movies, but the face of a young girl with her hair pulled up in a scrunchy. It is disconcerting. “Katie and I were refused service because of our age.” Cheryl says. “So we both just drank out of our friends’ drinks. We left around two o’clock in the morning. When we got to the car. I could feel alcohol in my system, so I called shotgun. And Katie would neverdrive if she’s even had one sip of a drink.
“I told the three guys we were taking home that one of them should drive,” she continues. “But the guys all said they were too wasted. So that’s how I ended up behind the wheel, even though I’m from Ithaca and I didn’t know the roads. Also the seating arrangement was weird. Katie was sitting in the seat behind me. The guy in the middle was huge. Normally, Katie would have been in the middle.
“I was driving her home first. She told me to take the back roads because they were quicker. I had no idea where we were going.” It was so dark, Cheryl had the creepy feeling that if she stuck her arm out the window she would never see it again. Curves appeared suddenly, but even worse were the hills. She missed a turn. Katie laughed and made her stop the car and turn around. Cheryl lost all sense of direction but dutifully took the road Katie told her to take. A minute later….
“I didn’t see the stop sign,” Cheryl says, “and we got hit by the truck. It was sodark!” It’s half a cry, and it strikes terror in my heart to hear it. “I didn’t know the roads! I didn’t see the sign! It’s 2:30 in the morning. The roads are deserted. And here comes this truck out of nowhere! We were dragged a couple hundred yards under the truck and the car caught on fire. As soon as the truck got stopped, the three guys climbed out. There were flames. My door was wedged closed. The truck driver pulled me out. The moment I was taken out of the car, it exploded.”
“Cheryl,” I say, “people in Dryden are saying Katie’s screams could be heard as the flames shot through the car.”
“No,” Cheryl says. She waves her hand in vigorous denial. A yellow plastic ID band circles her thin, girlish wrist. Burns are still visible on her slender arms.
“I know Katie didn’t die afraid,” says Liz Savino. “But I have many, many nightmares about whether she was awake at the end. If she was, that would have been horrific. Absolutely horrific.”
“Was Katie conscious at the end, Cheryl?”
Her upper lip trembles, but she speaks with certainty. “I think she was killed the moment the truck hit us. Katie was my best friend. I loved Katie. Everybody loved Katie. Katie was always laughing or shouting. We would have heard her if she were alive.”
Liz, a small, personable woman, says she does not want to punish Cheryl Thayer. She remembers that when Katie was applying to colleges, one of her essays talked about sitting at Scott Pace’s funeral and holding Jen and Sarah’s hands. Liz Savino would like to think “that Katie’s life was not in vain,” and she believes that if Cheryl is given a chance, she will “teach others a lesson”: Don’t get in a car with someone who’s been drinking. So Liz and her ex-husband, Jim Savino, working with the Cortland district attorney, have asked that Cheryl be released from prison in six months and begin five years’ probation. (She was released last summer and is taking classes at Tompkins-Cortland Community College in Dryden.)
“I tried to do what Katie would have wanted,” says Liz. “Katie was a true, loyal friend. My way of handling my daughter’s death is to live the legacy she would have wanted… to try to open myself up to others and be less judgmental. I’m not certain I’m as successful as she was, but I’m certainly trying. I truly believe she is guiding me.”
Visiting hour is over. Cheryl must return to her cell. She stands with reluctance. She squares her slender shoulders and turns to go. There is a half moment to ask one last question: Katie escaped fate the first time by not spending the night at Sarah’s….
“But fate made sure it met Katie.” says Cheryl.
Three months after attending Katie’s memorial service, her good friend Mike Vogt, the class clown and Dryden High’s IAC Division All Star middle linebacker, walks out to a cabin in the woods. Mike is red-haired, big-muscled, fast, born to play football. He’s funny, a musician, and absolutely notorious in Dryden for his pranks. Mike drinks real beer onstage in a school play. Mike takes Chris Fox’s car, parks it at the school’s archery center, and covers it with condoms he steals out of the nurse’s office. Mike loves “mudding” and buries all kinds of vehicles up to their axles in the big open fields around Dryden.
“Mikey’s my best friend since first grade,” says Johnny Lopinto, who played football with him. “I never remember doing anything without him. We could be in the shittiest place in the world, and we would hate to be there, but as long as we were together, it was like everything was a big show and we were the only ones watching it. But Mikey was complicated,” Johnny adds.
Mike was depressed by Katie’s death and probably never got over the loss of his Dryden teammate Scott Pace three years earlier. “Maybe he wanted to protect us from his pain.” says Johnny. “The morning after my 21st birthday, he walked out to the woods to the cabin that we built when we were younger, and he put a 12-gauge to his head.”
“Jill [Yaeger, Tiffany’s best friend and fellow Dryden cheerleader] called me at school,” says Tiffany. “She was hysterically crying. She was like, ‘I’m gonna tell you straight out: Mike killed himself.’ It was the last thing I thought I was ever going to hear. I never prepared myself to have one of my friends kill themselves.” She sighs. “When I think about Mike,” she says with a sad chuckle, “I can’t think about anything but his red hair.”
That is the end of the story.
The last Dryden High class that really knew Billy, Scott, Sarah, Jen, Katie, and Mike is graduating this year. And the town? “It’s weird, but young death almost seems to be the norm here,” says the mother of a Dryden Elementary School student. The town’s dead boys and girls live on in legend now. How mythic, how beloved they’ve become is seen at the graves of the three cheerleaders. They are buried together high on a hill outside McLean.
The graves are simple, but they’re laden with a blanket of every kind of memento the townspeople can carry up to the cemetery—stuffed bears, angels, flowers, lighted candles, crosses, butterflies, letters wrapped in see-through sandwich bags, photographs, lip balms [Katie was known for wearing three or four different flavors at a time], poems, ribbons, purple lions, megaphones, sparkle nail polish, and on and on.
On a cold, gray day, Tiffany and Jill agree to take me on a drive. As we go, Tiffany and Jill stare dejectedly out the windows.
“It’s gloomy here,” says Tiffany.
“It has to do with the elevation or something,” says Jill.
“It’s usually overcast.” says Tiffany.
“Too many corn fields,” says Jill.
“Tiffany,” I say, “when you get married, do you want to live here?”
“No!” says Tiffany. She smacks the steering wheel lightly.
“Jill, do you want to live here when you—”
“Absolutely not!” says Jill.
Indeed, when Tiffany pictures the future—she’s a 4.0 student with several job offers—the town of Dryden doesn’t even enter into it. She can’t afford to buy a car at present, but her “biggest freedom thought,” she says, is this:
“I see myself flying down some highway in my new Mustang convertible with the Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ blasting. I can just see myself flying down the highway, far away, with my hair blowing and just being happy and free! That will be the day that I take this cleansing breath. And life will have been good for a while. And it will be forever.”
Albert Brooks’ second album, A Star is Bought, is the best comedy record most of you have probably never heart. It was never released on CD and it’s not available on ITunes. And that’s a shame because the record—which was made in collaboration with Harry Shearer—is one of the finest comedy albums ever made. Never mind that it was nominated for a Grammy or that it was in many ways a precursor to faux-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap, it Albert in top form. You know, hilarious.
According to Paul Slansky, who wrote “Everybody Should Have an Albert” for The Village Voice in March 1979, Brooks owns the rights to A Star is Bought, he just isn’t motivated to re-release it. What would get Brooks to reconsider, I wonder?
C’mon, Albert: Please.
As for Slansky, his profiles, essays, and humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker (where his political and cultural quizzes have been a frequent feature for the past dozen years), the legendary Spy magazine, and, among dozens of other publications, The New York Observer, The New York Times, Newsweek,The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Esquire (where he co-ordinated the annual Dubious Achievements Awards feature throughout the 1980s). He is the author of six books, including My Bad: The Apology Anthology (2006),Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues and More Idiots: Five Decades of Political Infamy (2008), Slansky also edited Carrie Fisher’s first book, Postcards From the Edge (1987), and her most recent, Shockaholic (2011). He is currently working with legendary producer Norman Lear on his memoir.
He knows funny when he sees it which is why he was a beauty fit to write about Albert. This story appears here with the author’s permission.
“Everybody Should Have an Albert”
By Paul Slansky
On February 4, 1974, Albert Brooks walked on the stage of the Tonight Show for the 22nd time. His past performances had included some of the funniest bits ever seen on the show: an impressionist whose imitation of various celebrities all sounded like Ed Sullivan; a mime who came out in whiteface and proceeded to describe, with a French accent, his every action (“Now I am walking down ze stairs, now I am petting ze dog”); and an elephant trainer whose elephant was sick, forcing him to substitute a frog.
But this time Brooks’s normally genial face wore a troubled expression. He explained that his appearance on the show was an unfortunate mistake, that he had only come because his manager insisted it was time to do another Carson show. “Let’s just talk philosophy for a minute,” he said earnestly. “A lot of us have a game plan. We don’t want to give too much of ourselves too quickly because, you know, then it’s all gone. Here I am, five years into my career, and my game plan is all off. I have no material left. While you folks were having turkey dinner last week, I was down to my last bit.”
This was no laughing matter, as the silent audience clearly recognized. There hadbeen those rumors of a recent breakdown on stage in a Boston nightclub, and didn’t Johnny always call him “Crazy Albert Brooks?” God, was the guy about to crack up on national television? A few uneasy coughs broke the silence.
He then went through a scornful recitation of all the things he could do if he wanted to settle for cheap laughs. Sure, he could get a laugh by dropping his pants, he said, dropping them and getting an enormous (and relieved) one. Sure, he could break people up smashing eggs on his head, but who couldn’t? Sure, he could draw a funny face on his chest…
A few minutes later, with his pants around his ankles, whipped cream and eggs dripping from his head, a cake on his face, and a face on his chest, he stared into the camera and said, “This isn’t the real me.” He pulled an 8×10 glossy out of his shorts, declared, “This is the real me!” and stalked offstage a la Jimmy Durante. The audience responded with a solid minute of applause.
So whatever happened to Albert Brooks? Three years ago it looked like he was going to make it big. His short films were appearing on Saturday Night Live. He made his motion picture debut as the pushy campaign worker in Taxi Driver. His second album, A Star is Bought, received a Grammy nomination, and Timecalled him “the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.” Enormous success seemed within his grasp, if only he would reach for it. Instead, he dropped out of sight.
He has spent the past three years working on Real Life, his first feature film which Paramount is distributing. Real Life is the most original American comedy in recent memory. Brooks wrote the film, with comedy writers Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson. He raised the money for it—under $1 million—from a man who didn’t even read the script. He directed it and spent six months in the editing room with it, designed the print ad and created the TV and radio spots. In short, total control.
“When he was younger,” says Harry Shearer, “he really sat down and mapped out five-year plans—he was like a communist government. One of the ways Albert is smarter than most of the people in the business is that he’s held out for total control over the things that are important to him.”
Brooks called Real Life “a staged documentary comedy.“ In it, he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who joins forces with a scientific research institute and a major Hollywood studio to make a film about a year in the lives of a typical American family. (Remember the Louds?) Wall cameras sensitive to body heat, and portable devices worn over the heads of the film crew will capture every moment’s bit of activity.
The Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona, are chosen: veterinarian Warren, his first wife Jeanette, and their two children. Unsurprisingly, their lives immediately begin to fall apart under the scrutiny. Their first dinner sets the mood, with Warren and Jeanette arguing about her menstrual cramps while cameramen diligently circle the table.
Things get worse. Jeanette visits her gynecologist, whom Albert recognizes as a baby broker exposed on 60 Minutes. Warren loses a patient—a horse. Jeanette’s grandmother dies, and Warren talks about the dead horse during her funeral service. Finally, an article about the family appears in a local newspaper, and they are besieged by TV cameras whenever they leave the house. Throughout the family’s ordeal Brooks reassures them, even as he manipulates them to ensure the success of the project. (When Jeanette says her children are afraid to go to school, Brooks counters, “That’s normal, trust me.”)
The Yeagers are victims, not villains. Their irrational desire for celebrity—and Brooks’s—is the result of society’s celebration of it as the only goal worth attaining. Real Life operates on so many levels and takes on so many subjects, with such attention to detail, that it demands to be seen more than once. Brooks’s cynicism is aimed at our affectations, not our aspirations, and he trusts his audience to join him in acknowledging—and enjoying—the utter silliness of it all.
“Albert is a national treasure,” says Charles Grodin, who plays Warren Yeager in the film. “I’m delighted that we’re alive at the same time. I’d like to see him have everything. He’s so damn good, you just have to feel that way.”
When I call Albert Brooks to set up a meeting for the following day, he suggests getting together immediately. Unfortunately, my tape recorder has a dead battery, and I don’t want to sit down with him without it.
“Maybe I should just jot down some of the things I might say,” he says. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring a tape recorder, I’ll bring batteries, I’ll even bring cassettes. What size shirt do you wear?” Twenty minutes later, he walks into the El Padrino Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a recorder and a cassette of Emmy Lou Harris’s Elite Hotel. “It’s the only tape I could find,” he says. “You’ve got 40 minutes.”
We begin by discussing the genesis of some of his early routines, including the out-of-material bit. “It was time to do another Carson show,” he says, “and I really didn’t have anything to do. So I thought, this is interesting, maybe I can get something out of this. Most of my bits come from what’s really there. You turn it into entertainment by making it a little more interesting.”
He points to a horse behind our table. “Sometimes I like to make up names for the horses of famous people,” he says. “Like if Burt Bachrach had a horse, what would he call it? Maybe, ‘Where’s Angie?’ If we stop now, you get the rest of Emmy Lou’s album, you know.”
The waiter brings my drink, and a chef’s salad and iced coffee for Albert, who says that he might be going to Hawaii for a vacation in a few days. “Maybe I shouldn’t see you again before you go,” I say. “Then I’ll have to go to Hawaii to finish the piece.”
“Will your editors pay for it?” he asks. “Because if they will, here’s what we’ll do. When you get to Hawaii, there’ll be a message waiting for you saying I’ve gone on to Japan. Then we’ll go to China, and…” He stops himself. “What am I talking about?” he practically moans. “I’ll never leave. I’ve been talking about a vacation for five years, I just never leave. It’s sick, it’s not healthy.” He suddenly brightens. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I’ve always wanted to put a lung in a suitcase and send it through an airport security check. In effect, the guard would be looking at an X-ray of a lung.
Aside from Albert’s comic instinct, the most striking thing about him is his confidence in it. His jokes are delivered as casually as they occur to him. It’s clear that if he thinks something is funny, he goes with it—getting a laugh is a pleasant but nonessential bonus.
“I‘ll leave the tip,” Albert says loudly when the check arrives. “Not really. That was just for the tape recorder.”
Two days later, I arrive at Albert’s Hollywood office intending to observe an average day in his real life, but he has other plans: a trip to Magic Mountain to ride Colossus, this year’s World’s Largest Roller Coaster.
Albert calls Magic Mountain, lowering his voice in an approximation of the sort of simpleton who doesn’t find the very notion of such hype ludicrous: “Hullo, uh, I’m not going to be coming up there, but if I were, what time does Colossus open? And how long is the wait? Thank you.” He hangs up and laughs. “She said, ‘It opens at 3 and there’s a two-hour wait. Let everybody go on and then it’ll clear out and you’ll go later in the evening.’ She’s planning our evening! ‘You’ll have dinner here, you’ll buy bumper stickers, we got a hotel room for you…’ Let’s go.”
An hour later, we pay $17 at the admission gate, stop to buy Sno-Cones, and join the line about a quarter-mile from the ride. “It’s amazing how this place generates absolutely no excitement of its own,” Albert says. “The frightening thing would be if they said we could never leave here. Aside from all the things you’d never be able to do again, you’d have to eat every meal here.”
Two young girls walk by wearing Fonzie T-shirts. “I bet half the kids in this park know the name Freddie Silverman,” Albert says. “What other era could you live in where kids know the name of a head of programming?
“But I can’t think of any time I’d rather be living in, because of the technology. It’s just amazing.” (Few of his friends understand his fascination with technology, which is much in evidence in Real Life. But Harry Shearer, who shares the obsession, has an explanation: “Albert is basically an optimist, and if you want to be optimistic about the future, technology is the only refuge you’ve got.”)
“Catalina was the last place in the country to get a phone system that didn’t need operators,” Albert continues. “Everyone in town used to know each other through the operator, and now that way of life is gone, just gone,” he says wistfully, then interrupts himself. “Who cares? I wanna go on Colossus!” He breaks into a Bob Hope parody: “Now I don’t wanna say that it was a long wait, but the kid in front of me learned to read on the line. I don’t wanna say I was scared, but… you finish it.”
An hour after getting on line, we pass under the Colossus sign, and Albert begins his countdown “Six minutes, six minutes! Four minutes!” Albert screams and waves his hands in the air as our car plunges along the tracks, but the ride is unworthy of its hype. “Weightless 11 times, they said—I only counted four,” he says as we walk down the ramp. “Three good drops, no good banks. If we’d waited two hours, I would have been disappointed.”
We stop at a souvenir stand to buy buttons that proclaim I RODE IT! “We rode it,” Albert says, “but only because you wanted to know what my average day was like. I do it every day. See what my button says, I RODE IT A MILLION TIMES!”
Looking for a place to get a salad, we pass a gift shop with a rack of dresses near the doorway. “Who buys clothes here?” Albert wonders. “Hey, that’s nice, where’d you get it?’ ‘Magic Mountain.’”
The salad hunt proves futile. “I didn’t really want one anyway,” Albert says as we leave the park. “I wanted to get the button that came with it—I ATE SALAD AT MAGIC MOUNTAIN.”
“Every kid should have an Albert,” says comedy writer Monica Johnson. “He’s the kind of person you’d want to be locked in jail with. You know, you don’t have a game, you don’t have any cigarettes, what could be better than having Albert Brooks in there?”
Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyakarkus, a Greek-dialect radio comedian), finally couldn’t resist the joke—he named his fourth son Albert. “My father was very sick around the time I was born,” says Albert, sitting in the living room of his rented Benedict Canyon home and leafing through a bound volume of Parkyakarkus’s radio scripts. “The doctors thought he wouldn’t live.
“He did recover, but I don’t remember him as very active. I do remember lots of schtick around the dinner table. Generally he and my brothers and I were all laughing at the same thing my mother did not find funny, whatever that was.
“I guess I was the class clown—with a name like Albert Einstein, you don’t hide in the back. I’d read the school bulletin to the class and I’d add activities and make stuff up. It was good, a good 10 minutes every morning.”
When Harry Einstein died in 1958, 11-year-old Albert, who had grown up around Hollywood comedians, already had a reputation among them as a budding comic genius. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest men he knew, Mel Brooks and a high school kid named Albert Einstein were the two that he mentioned.
In the summer of 1965, after graduating from Beverly Hills High, Albert went to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to perform in summer stock. “Albert wanted to be a serious actor,” says Rob Reiner, a close friend since high school. “He went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh for its drama department and he was talking about doing all this dramatic theater. We’d say, ‘Albert, you’re funny. What you do best is make people laugh.’ He fought that for the longest time, and finally he started doing it and liking it.” He left college after three years, took the name of Brooks (“It sounded good with Albert,” he says) and returned to Los Angeles to start his career.
The traditional comedy formats became his targets. The first bit he came up with was “Danny and Dave,” an inept ventriloquist act that he performed on the syndicated Steve Allen Show in 1968. The Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, and Ed Sullivan shows followed, and other offers were coming in, but even then Albert was wary of losing control of his life.
“If I’d wanted to be a big star, I could have done the dummy bit 40 times, and everyone in the country would have known me,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be known as the guy with the dummy, so I forced myself to keep coming up with new stuff.”
In February 1971 Esquire ran an article called “Albert Brook’s Famous School for Comedians,” a take-off on all those correspondence schools that promise to turn you into another Van Gogh if you can trace the outline of your hand. The article—which Albert later turned into a short film for PBS’s Great American Dream Machine—presented the faculty (Joe Garagiola and Totie Fields, among others), key campus sites (the Don DeFont Mall) and the curriculum, which included courses in dialect, the double take, and the importance of choosing a disease to help eradicate. At the end came a comedy talent test which the reader could to take to see if he qualified for enrollment. A sample question:
Take my wife ______.
A. for instance.
B. I’ll be along later.
The magazine received over 200 serious inquires about the school.
He did his first Tonight Show in mid-1972, and quickly became a Carson favorite. Instead of adopting bizarre, negative personae that would exploit the audience’s hostilities, Albert performed as himself, using his feelings rather than disguising them and talking as if the audience were sitting in his living room. So sure was he of his instincts that he didn’t even audition his new material for friends. “I tried out all my stuff on national television,” he says. “After doing two years of TV, I felt confident enough to put together a live bit.”
Albert spent three years on the road, headlining in small clubs and opening for rock stars like Neil Diamond in larger halls. The anxiety and boredom created by doing the same material night after night finally got to him during a tour to promote his first album, Comedy Minus One, and a gig at Paul’s Mall in Boston was literally the end of the road. “I was just real tired,” he says, “and the record wasn’t even in the stores. I remember doing an interview with a disc jockey who said to me, ‘Jonathan Winters went crazy, you think that’s ever gonna happen to you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s happening right now.’” In the middle of the one-week engagement, he flew back to L.A.
Around this time, he began going out with Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that lasted two years. “I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her,” he says. “We lived together for almost a year. We liked each other because at that time we had the exact same fear of performing—whatever that fear was, we shared it.”
(Albert is reluctant to discuss his personal life, but Penelope Spheeris, who produced Real Life, says, “Albert’s women are usually real serious. His love affairs are always like The Tempest.”)
By the end of 1975, his films were appearing regularly on Saturday Night, ostensibly the ideal vehicle to catapult him to stardom. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a smooth one.
“Albert, to put it in its mildest form, is sometimes intolerant of other people’s problems,” says producer Lorne Michaels. “We couldn’t edit, we couldn’t have audience laughter on the soundtrack. He had complete creative control. I had asked him for three-to-five-minute films, he got me up to five-to-seven minutes, and eventually they came in at 10. And you couldn’t say they were too long, because he would say, ‘They’re brilliant.’”
Well, they were. “The Impossible Truth” featured an interview with a blind cab driver: “Damn right, I still drive. What should I do, sit home and collect welfare?” Another film had Albert fulfilling a lifelong dream—performing heart surgery. (“I pray it doesn’t hurt, I pray it doesn’t hurt,” says the patient as Albert, who has forgotten the anesthesia, prepares to make the first incision.)
But the best of the lot was “Super Season,” an elaborately filmed parody of network promotion spots previewing scenes from three “new” shows: Black Vet (a black Vietnam veteran takes up practice as a veterinarian in a small southern town); Medical Season (“But it’s unnecessary. This man does not need surgery,” a doctor says as a patient is wheeled into the operating room. Replies his colleague: “It’s too late. He’s already paid for it and we’ve already spent the money.”); andThe Three of Us, a sitcom about a man living with two women—a premise which apparently was not too ridiculous for ABC, which built a real series around it two years later.
When the six-film contract expired, neither party was inclined to renew. “Viewer mail rated my films the least popular part of the show,” says Albert. “The Muppets were the audience favorites.”
Instead of becoming a superstar, he went to work on Real Life. “The groundhog came out today, laughed, and scratched ‘See Real Life’ in the dirt,” he says. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“You rode the ride, now hear the commercial,” Albert says, as an ad for Colossus comes on the radio of his Honda Civic. A Mercedes with a RUNNERS MAKE BETTER LOVERS bumper sticker on its trunk moves in front of us as we drive to a Japanese restaurant for sushi, Albert’s favorite food.
“Wouldn’t it be great if cars came equipped with screens like that thing they have in Times Square that spells out the news? He asks. “You could punch out your own instant messages: WILL THE SMALL RED CAR WITH THE UGLY DRIVER PLEASE STAY A LITTLE FURTHER BEHIND?”
“Night Fever” comes on the radio. “A few months ago, you literally could not turn on the radio without hearing this,” he says. “If someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Find the Bee Gees in 30 seconds,’ you could do it.”
What about his plans for the future? “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Albert says. “I haven’t started writing another film yet. I want to see what the climate is like for Real Life before I decide.
“It only makes me anxious when I think ahead. I mean, some things you have to plan, but if you think far enough ahead, you’re dead. Hey, that sounds like a slogan. Let’s put in on the bumper.”
Everything is material for Albert Brooks—a lawn sprinkler watering an area of grass the size of a paper plate, a squashed coyote on the side of the road that “might just be taking a nap,” the president of the United States saying that “as far as sovereignty goes, I have no hang-ups about it.” His comedic vision encompasses everything he sees. Nothing is wasted, not even a pit stop to buy cassettes for the drive up to Magic Mountain, as I realize days later while transcribing my tapes.
There’s Albert, talking about why he doesn’t smoke or drink, describing how uncomfortable he felt the time he leased a Cadillac, saying he’ll wait in the car while I get the cassettes.
And then there’s this: “You’re in the record store now, Paul, so this’ll be a surprise for you, because right now you’re buying tapes and we’re going to Magic Mountain. What’s going to happen is that I intend to kill you at Magic Mountain. This will happen right before we go on the ride. I’m only doing it to get new movie ideas, ‘cause, you know, I owe it to the people. Bye bye.”
I have to admit that if I was a major league pitcher today, and Jeter was at the peak of his game, Derek Jeter would be the one shortstop I’d want to play behind me. Why? Simple. Jeter’s always caught the ball. J.J. Hardy, the Orioles’ Gold Glove shortstop told me the cardinal rule of playing shortstop is, “You can’t throw the ball if you don’t catch it.”
[Photo Via: Bleeding Yankee Blue]
Twenty-two years ago a revival of the beloved musical Guys and Dolls captured the affection of theatergoers in New York. The smash hit more than somewhat restored Damon Runyon’s vision of Broadway in our hearts and the production was lovingly captured in this profile by Ross Wetzsteon for New York Magazine.
Wetzsteon was a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City for 35 years. From 1966 until his death in 1998, he worked at the The Village Voice as a contributor and editor, and for several years as its editor-in-chief. During his tenure at the Voice, Wetzsteon oversaw coverage of everything from politics to sports, but his abiding interest was the theater. For 28 years, he was the chairman of the Village Voice Obie Committee, responsible for bestowing awards for excellence on Off- and Off-Off Broadway artists and writers. Wetzsteon also contributed articles to New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times, Inside Sports, Conde Nast Traveler, Mademoiselle, and many other publications. He edited several anthologies, including The Obie Winners in 1980 and The Best of Off Broadway in 1984. He also wrote the preface to a collection of playwright Sam Shepard’s works, Fool for Love and Other Plays, and he was the author of Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960. He also wrote a memorable profile of Dick Young and this winning portrait ofMorgan Freeman.
Dig in to his account of “The Great New York Show.” Reprinted here with permission from Wetzsteon’s estate.
Michael David got the call in the middle of a meeting at the Dodger Productions office at 1501 Broadway. Delicate negotiations had been going on for months, the rights were notorious for being the most closely held in show business, and several other producers were anxiously awaiting the same call. “This is Biff Liff,” the caller said. “I’m sitting here with everybody—and we’ve decided it’s yours.” David thanked Liff, quietly excused himself from the meeting, walked down the hall, poked his head into his partners’ office, and, holding back for a few more seconds the surge of joy that would have everyone in the company popping champagne corks within minutes, announced as calmly as he could, “Well, we’ve got it.”
Faith Prince got the message at a pay phone on the corner of 75th Street and Broadway. Holding a bag of groceries, she called home to tell her fiancé she was having some packages delivered. “Your agent wants you to call,” he told her, so she stuck in another quarter. “The role’s been cast,” her agent said. “Who got it?” she asked nervously. “Someone named Faith Prince.” She started whooping at the top of her lungs. Everyone on the sidewalk looked at her like she was a lunatic, but she didn’t care—she wanted that part.
Nathan Lane got the call the week he opened on Broadway in On Borrowed Time and in the filmFrankie and Johnny. A gossip column had reported months earlier—long before he’d even auditioned—that he’d already been cast, and every time a news item about the show appeared, his name seemed to be linked to it. “The director’s office kept calling to apologize and tell me it was premature,” he says. “But when I finally did read for the part they finally did call to say I had it, I screamed for a minute or two, then said to myself, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you can’t fight public opinion.’”
Peter Gallagher also got the call long after reading about himself in the papers. “I kept hearing I was the guy,” he says, “but that just made me nervous, because in the past that always meant I wasn’t the guy.” But when his agent finally called with the good news, he could only say “Oh, my god” and reflect that he had just a few last-gasp days of freedom before the Spartan existence of rehearsals began. “I also remember the color of the phone and my mouth hanging open,” he says, “but other than that, I went completely blank.”
No one called Jerry Zaks. They were all waiting for his call. The project had been so closely associated with his name for years that most theater people erroneously assumed he’d been in on the deal from the first. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to do it,” says Zaks. “But I kept hedging. People’s expectations were so high. I began to feel intimidated. I kept thinking, what they’re really saying is,‘Don’t mess it up.’ But finally I decided either to do it or shut up about it, so I called Michael and said yes.”
Michael David knew how Jerry Zaks felt—it even got to the point where he hated it when people excitedly congratulated him on landing the rights. “Just one thought kept going through my mind,” he says. “We can only screw it up.”
* * *
Michael David didn’t screw it up; Jerry Zaks didn’t screw it up; the cast didn’t screw it up; choreographer Christopher Chadman and set deigned Tony Walton and costume designer Paul Gallo didn’t screw it up—no one screwed it up. And when, on the night of April 14, a press agent chased a New York Times truck for four blocks, managed to grab a copy of the next morning’s issue, saw the picture on the front page over the caption MISS ADELAIDE AND NATHAN DETROIT RETURN, turned around and raced back down 45th Street toward the Martin Beck Theater, dodging traffic, waving the paper over his head, screaming “We did it!”, they all realized they hadn’t just successfully staged a revival of Guys and Dolls, they’d given reverent rebirth to an icon of the American theater.
“The cherished Runyonland of memory is not altered,” said the Times, “just felt and dreamt anew by intoxicated theater artists. No doubt another Broadway generation will one day find a different, equally exciting way to reimagine this classic. But in our lifetime? Don’t bet on it.” Bells were ringing at the other dailies, too. “My heart sings, my soul roars, and I feel tingly good all over,” raved the Post. “This is a revival to treasure,” said the News under the headline WE GOT THE SHOW RIGHT HERE. And from Newsday: “Everyone always says Broadway’s a crap shoot, but this Guys and Dolls is as close as the theater gets today to a sure thing.”
The show became such a sure thing, in fact, that Phantom of the Opera no longer holds the record for opening day sales. By the time the box office at the Martin Beck Theater finally closed at 10:15 p.m. April 15, more than two hours later than usual, and phone orders were shut off at midnight, the take had reached $396,709.50, breaking the Phantom record by more than $35,000. By the end of the week, sales had topped the million-dollar mark. Adding these figures to a $1.7-million advance sale makes the Dodgers feel a bit better about their $5.5-million budget, and they are anticipating a run of perhaps five years.
In the days that followed the opening, it became clear that the revival of Guys and Dolls was not just a show but one of those pivotal events in the city’s history around which coalesce facts and fancies, statistics and hopes, newly discerned trends and long-repressed aspirations—in short, a phenomenon. The show has radiantly renewed the love affair between New York and the Broadway that for decades was a symbol of the city’s vitality and in the past several years has mirrored its “decline.”
“We were made the foster parents of an icon,” says David, recalling the problems in producing the revival. There was the steady stream of tough questions Jo Sullivan Loesser (Frank Loesser’s widow) asked of potential producers, the difficulties of casting such iconographic roles, the trauma of replacing the leading lady of a $5.5-million show two weeks into previews, the sudden wave of anxiety upon realizing, only ten days before the opening, that the show hadn’t yet come together—no, that wasn’t a sure thing at all. There were times when everyone involved would have been satisfied if the reviews had simply said “Can do, can do.” What were the odds that the producers would roll the dice and have not only a megahit but in Faith Prince and Nathan Lane two “star is born” stories in a single show?
* * *
In 1950, the Roxy was still open, and Klein’s, and Rogers Peet, and you could still find action at the Jamaica Raceway. On Broadway, South Pacific, Call Me Madam, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes were playing to packed houses—at $6.60 tops. In Times Square, you could still see, in George Jean Nathan’s words, “the cheesecake-eating, crap-shooting, bookie haunting, sartorially inflammatory riffraff of the bedizened highway of Runyon’s fancy.”
On November 24, a new musical called Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Leosser and book by Abe Burrows (based on a story by Damon Runyon called “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown”) opened at the 46th Street Theater. And in the Daily News, John Chapman wrote: “Here is New York’s own musical comedy—as bright as a dime in a subway grating, as smart as a sidewalk pigeon, as professional as Joe DiMaggio, as enchanting as the skyline, as new as the paper you’re holding.”
Frank Loesser’s father was a classical piano teacher who hated popular music, so some of the first music the young boy set to words was the clickety-clack of the elevated train that ran past their apartment windows. But in Guys and Dolls, Loesser, who had flunked out of City College and worked for a time as a newspaper reporter before turning to music, recalled the classical forms his father so loved. He brought Bach to Broadway in “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere”), and Handel to his mock-solemn hymn-cantata “The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York.” The city’s paradoxical vision of itself—innocent and cosmopolitan, courtly and corrupt, naïve and cynical—found renewed energy in Loesser’s gorgeous score and Burrow’s vivid book.
Abe Burrows was the eleventh writer to tackle the project. A radio and TV writer with no previous musical comedy experience, Burrows almost instantly solved the problems with the book. Working fabulous characters from several stories by Runyon, “the Boswell of Broadway,” into a plot line as old as Shakespeare, he created double love stories, one sentimental (between a high-rolling gambler and a sergeant from a sort of Salvation Army), the other comic (between a high-minded lowlife and the nightclub floozy to whom he’s been “engaged” for fourteen years). Since Burrows was a Times Square denizen himself, he gave the show a bustling pace and sidewalk wit that brought Runyon’s 42nd Street knights and adenoidal chorines to life in a kind of urban idyll.
Just one example of Burrow’s snappy sophistication: Miss Adelaide had originally caught her famous cold from stripping in her nightclub act, but he decided her ailment should be the psychosomatic symptom of Nathan Detroit’s resistance to marriage—and a solid number was transformed into a showstopping classic, “Adelaide’s Lament.”
Guys and Dolls ran for 1,200 performances and won a ton of Tonys—musical, score, libretto, Robert Alda for actor, George S. Kaufman for director, Michael Kidd for choreography. (Trivia question: Which actress from the original production won a Tony? No, not Vivian Blaine, for her performance as Miss Adelaide, but Isabel Bigley, for her performance as Sarah Brown.) The show would have won a Pulitzer, too, but the Columbia trustees, alarmed by Burrow’s recent run-in with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, refused to ratify the drama committee’s nomination. Another intriguing fact about the original is that Sam Levene, who played Nathan, couldn’t sing a lick and said so. Burrows refused to believe this until Levene started to sing to the writer in the middle of a crowded midtown restaurant. Burrows, after a stunned pause, grimly agreed with Levene.
* * *
Sold to the movies for a then-record $11 million, the musical was sluggishly directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and glamorously but crassly cast by Sam Goldwyn. Stubby Kaye, Dan Dayton, and Johnny Silvers got the film off to a rousing start with their tinhorn trio, but Jean Simmons quickly brought the show to a halt with her conventional good girl performance as Sarah. Frank Sinatra, who might have made a perfect Sky Masterson, made a perfunctory Nathan Detroit. As for Marlon Brando, for whom Loesser wrote the relatively undemanding “Your Eyes Are the Eyes of a Woman in Love”—well, Loesser actually liked his singing but found his acting lackadaisical and couldn’t bring himself to sit through the entire movie, especially when he learned that Goldwyn had scrapped several of his songs. Burrows fared just as badly—as Orson Welles told him after an early screening, “Abe, they’ve dropped a turd on every one of your lines.”
Loesser was pained by the experience of the movie, and because of that, Jo Loesser—who met and married Frank when she starred in The Most Happy Fella—has kept a tight rein on the rights. She has shrewdly allowed the numberless high school and amateur productions that have kept the show a legend in people’s memories but she has carefully monitored the commercial productions that maintain its mythic Broadway reputation.
“We considered several producers on and off over the years, all well respected,” says Jo Loesser—”we” being herself; Harold Orenstein, the lawyer for the Loesser estate; Burrow’s widow, Karen; and Biff Liff, who manages the Burrows trust. “The main thing we wanted,” she continues, “is that it be played the way it was written. I mean, even down to that line about two pairs of pants—no man buys two pairs of pants with a suit these days, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s what was in the script, and that’s the way it was going to be done.”
In Crazy for You, the “new” Gershwin hit, George-and-Ira standards have been loaded in from a half-dozen other shows. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want,” says Jo Loesser with some heat. She recalled a producer wanted to revive one of her husband’s earlier shows, Where’s Charley, and asked for “more songs.” “More songs?” says Jo Loesser. “Why did he want to do it if he didn’t like the way it was? So the things I was looking for with Guys and Dolls had everything to do with not making arbitrary changes. I was more concerned with the right director than the right star.”
If Jo Loesser was as far as possible from a “Just send me the check” guardian of her husband’s legacy, Michael David and his Dodger colleagues were ready to write out whatever cheeks it took to do the show properly. “We do our damnedest to produce things with some sense of continuity,” David says of the Dodgers. Starting out Off Broadway at the Chelsea Theater Center in the early seventies, David’s producing background includes Allen Ginsberg’s Kadish and Jean Genet’s The Screens, not exactly Harry the Horse country. But after such shows as Candide, Big River, and Secret Garden, they felt “we’d paid a high enough tuition to say we’d learned how to do a big musical.
“When we learned that the rights for Guys and Dolls were going to be made available,” says David, “we got in line. Producing is a lot like fishing—you set out a number of lines and rush to the one that gets a bite.” David met several times with Jo Loesser at her apartment on the Upper East Side, and with other rights holders at the Russian Tea Room, and the Music Theater International, and the Dodger office. “The meetings were comfortable, I’d even say collegial,” he recalls, and while they weren’t exactly grilling, “everybody asked about everything—who’d direct, who’d be in the cast, what we planned for the road, how many violins we’d have in the pit.”
David and his colleagues had their own ground rules. They wanted an ensemble cast rather than a show driven by a few stars. “Remember that rumor that Tom Selleck wanted to play Sky Masterson?” he asks with a rueful grin. They didn’t want to do a cutting-corners production but the best one they could manage, and they didn’t want to fall back on a road show to recoup any losses. (A road show isin the works; it will visit some 35 cities beginning in September.) “In a sense, it was financial lunacy,” David says. “It’s almost a law around this office not to use the word ‘revival.’ No revival has ever played over two years, most under one year. And with the budget we were proposing, well, we were flying in the face of reason.”
* * *
Jo Loesser was impressed. “But then, I was impressed by almost all the proposals,” she says. “In fact, Michael and his group came in fairly near the end, and we almost gave it to another person.” For all of David’s careful presentations, her decision finally came down to something that had never even crossed his mind. “I remember seeing him at meetings of the Tony-administration committee,” she says. “I watch people very carefully at those meetings. I liked him. I liked the things he stood for. And I guess what I really liked,” she says with a laugh, “is that he always voted for the same things I voted for.”
“The more I hoped we’d get it, the more the Guys and Dolls virus or narcotic or whatever it is began to take over my life,” says David. “And then the minute we got it, I almost felt trapped. What I mean by that,” he explains, “is that when you’ve made a deal like this, when you’re given the guardianship of one of the most singular works in the musical theater library—well, you can’t be sort of honorable. It’s a privilege, sure, but it’s also an enormous responsibility—a responsibility to do it as fresh and yet as respectful as possible.”
“Fresh and respectful”—that’s the responsibility that was handed over to Jerry Zaks when he was signed on as director. Zaks had to find the delicate poise between vivid restating and slavish reenactment. “Well,” Zaks says with his usual brisk ebullience, “no one ever came to me if they wanted Shakespeare on roller skates, and yet the one thing I never want to be accused of is predictability.”
Zaks is the most audience-oriented director in the business, but when he began work on Guys and Dolls, he first had to please an audience of one‚ Jo Loesser, who wasn’t about to fade away just because the contracts had been signed. Though easygoing and affable, Zaks does have a few rigid rules—no outsiders in rehearsals and no comments on the actors’ work from anyone but him. “Even a compliment can be destructive,” he says, “if it makes an actor self-conscious.” But after sitting through the first run-through and after seeing several early previews from the last row, Jo Loesser had plenty of comments, written out in copious notes.
One thing in particular annoyed her—in the scene in which Sky Masterson bets Nathan Detroit he can’t tell what color tie he’s wearing, Nathan wasn’t wearing a blue tie, as in the original, but a polka-dotted tie, as in the movie. Jo Loesser made it pointedly plain she wanted that blue tie back. “And she was right,” admits Zaks. “Polka dot was trying too hard to be funny.”
Zaks listened respectfully to all of Jo Loesser’s suggestions—this wasn’t Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta, embalming her husband’s work; this was a woman as passionately committed to precision as he was. “They got it right back in 1950,” he says, “so I’d be awfully stupid not to be guided by that.” David agrees: “The more we worked on it, the more amazed we were by the thought the creators obviously put into it. Almost every time we considered even the smaller changes, we discovered they wouldn’t work as well as what was there—they’d already figured that out.”
Still, Zaks has tinkered with the text. In the original, for instance, Nicely-Nicely comes in with a bag of groceries in Act One, Scene Seven, and Zaks spent hourstrying to make the moment funny. He finally realized that it was easy for the tubby Stubby Kaye of the original to get a quick laugh and that since they’d cast a thinnish actor, it was no longer funny. Out went the scene. You’re right, said Jo Loesser. Out.
“Maybe your watch is fast,” says one of the Salvation Army-type soldiers to the general as it seems the sinners aren’t going to show up after all. “That line never got a single laugh in previews,” says Zaks. “I became obsessed with finding out why. Finally I found the answer—a couple of the soldiers laugh uproariously at the line and the general whirls on them, and that’s when the audience laughs. It’s just the tiniest thing, of course, but this material doesn’t have any weaknesses—if something doesn’t work, it’s our fault, not the creators’.”
Zaks experienced an epiphany of sorts a couple years ago, when he was looking through a book of Tony Walton illustrations. “Guys and Dolls was already firmly lodged in the back of my mind,” he recalls, “but when I saw what Tony could do with a brush—I already knew what he could do with a set—I had this sudden sense of the look that would work, the kind of quick-dissolving unity he could bring. And from that moment on, the show wasn’t just a fantasy, it was alive. And when I told Tony, he went crazy. All he could talk about for hours was bold colors.” The sets by Walton are a Valentine to Jo Mielziner’s originals; Long’s costumes, a shriek of Technicolor; and Gallo’s lighting, a brash blaze—honoring the creators not by imitating their work but by saluting it.
Zaks interviewed several choreographers before signing Christopher Chadman. “I asked them to do presentations at the Broadway Dance Center showing me their version of Runyonland,” he recalls. “And Chris had exactly the style I wanted—energetic, sexy, and with a strong sense of storytelling.”
But the success of the show was hardly preordained. Up until ten days before opening night, in fact, Zaks was afraid they might be rolling snake eyes. “The difference between clicking and not clicking is often infinitesimal, and too much wasn’t clicking,” he recalls.
* * *
They’d already gone through a traumatic cast change, replaced Carolyn Mignini with her understudy, Josie de Guzman, when it became apparent during early previews that the chemistry between Sky and Sarah was fizzling. They realized the tempo was way off on several numbers—the legendary Pat Rooney Sr. number “More I Cannot Wish You,” for instance, had to be slower, but the preceding number had to go faster. And the opening ballet between the overture and “Runyonland” wasn’t working; it was out, it was back in, it was out again. Finally Chadman fixed it days before opening night. It’s now a mere 90-second scene instead of the original seven minutes, but an enchanted 90 seconds, a bridge that allows the audience to cross over into “Runyonland.”
But worst of all, the actors were uncomfortable in their costumes, stiff on the set, stunned by the lighting. “No one was bold enough yet,” says Zaks, still sweating at the memory. (This was especially true of Peter Gallagher, say those who saw early previews.) “No one was matching the energy of the design; no one was stepping forward and taking charge. Then,” says Zaks, “at the last moment they all did.” And from the moment Benny Southstreet (J.K. Simmons), Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Walter Bobbie), and Rusty Charlie (Tim Shew) open the show with the “Fugue for Tinhorns,” orchestrated and sung, as is all the music, with a kind of luminous brassiness, the audience ecstatically inhabits Runyon’s Times Square dreamscape.
Meticulous tinkering is only a small part of Zak’s genius—as theatergoers well remember from such shows as Anything Goes, Lend Me a Tenor, and Six Degrees of Separation. Comic precision, narrative conviction, ensemble performance—those are the signatures of the Zaks style.
“Jerry pulled a lot out of me I didn’t know was there,” says Prince. “He’s the greatest director I’ve ever had at breaking down comedy and finding out why things work or don’t work. He gives a ton of notes. Everything’s under a microscope. He’s so precise. So specific.” Those are the words most people who have worked for Zaks invariable use. “I’m very intuitive myself,” says Prince, “so after he makes the smallest change, I go backward for about three performances—but then I go further.
“Just one small example. In the carnation scene, where I say how I’ve been engaged for fourteen years and at last we’re getting married and the next line is, ‘Time certainly does fly.’ People were laughing, but not very much, until Jerry had me speed up the first sentence and slow down the second one.”
That little Marilyn Monroe squeak in her voice? Prince brought that to the role herself, “but Jerry monitors it very carefully to make sure I don’t overdo it.” She also sings in two slightly different voices, she says, one for Adelaide the nightclub floozy, the other for Adelaide the character, “a very cutesy Kewpie doll at the Hot Box, a very strong woman in her personal life. Linda Wier in Newsday was the only critic who wrote about that. She said I go for a ‘cross between Betty Boop and a dainty lady trucker,’ and that really nailed what I’m trying to do.”
Prince tries to avoid the two-dimensional in other areas as well. “One of the reasons for the huge success of this show is that it’s not about a chandelier or a helicopter, it goes back to the human part of theater. Adelaide isn’t just a doll letting things happen to her, she’s a complicated and centered character with a lot at stake. She and Nathan have a terrific sex life—it’s not even referred to, but it’s there. And yet she’s also very proper, very respectable in her way. She’s had a good upbringing, and for a woman to be unmarried at that time—well, she’s finally had it with Nathan; it all avalanches on her at once; those 48 hours are the most crucial time in her life. We’re playing the comedy of all this, obviously, but what really makes it work is that the comedy comes out of the drama. And Adelaide wins! We’ve made this journey with her and she wins!”
* * *
Vivian Blaine. The name keeps coming up when people talk about Prince’s performance. As one theatergoer puts it, “This is the year Vivian Blaine finally wins her Tony.” “It’s funny,” says Prince, “the way people keep saying I’ve got her down when I hardly knew who she is. My family gave me the movie for Christmas, but I barely watched it, and some of her songs are cut anyway.” And that voice with the Blaine-like accent? “I’m from Virginia. I don’t know where I got this accent, but it probably has more to do with my sister-in-law than it does with Vivian Blaine,” says Prince.
If Faith Prince seems to have emerged from nowhere, Nathan Lane has been a familiar and favorite face to New York theatergoers for close to a decade, especially in his endearingly grouchy and hysterical performances in The Lisbon Traviata and Lips Together, Teeth Apart. At 21, and then called Joe Lane, he first played Nathan Detroit at Cedar Grove’s Meadowbrook Dinner Theater in New Jersey—”The all-children’s version of Guys and Dolls,” Lane says wryly. But it seems there was another “Joe Lane” in Equity, so the young actor had to make a quick decision. Off the top of his head, he chose the name of the character he was playing: Joe Lane became Nathan Lane. “My family still calls me Joe,” he says, “but when my mother’s mad, she’ll call me Nathan in quotation marks.”
Lane talks about laughter as a matter of “grave concern.” “One of the primary rules of comedy is that the stakes are high. You have to immerse yourself in the character as if you were in Peer Gynt or Long Day’s Journey. Sure, somewhere in your head you’re aware of the technical side, too—and Jerry’s the captain of a very tight ship that way—but all the while you’re mining a scene for laughs you’ve got to base it on real truths.
“I think of Nathan as a small businessman,” Lane says. “He ekes out a living, but he can never get ahead of himself. He’s aware that what he does for a living is illegal, but he feels he’s providing a service to the community. It’s a rough crowd, but he’s a decent person—it’s just that he has this crisis to deal with, finding a place for his crap game.”
But the key to his characterization, Lane feels, is “how deeply Nathan cares for Adelaide. By today’s standards, I suppose you’d have to say they have a very successful relationship. When she finally stands up to him, he realizes he can’t live without her. And when she accuses him of not loving her, he gets mad—not funny mad but really mad. It’s absolutely crucial that I show the depth of his love—otherwise it’s just jokes.” “Comedy?” Lane asks with a rhetorical flourish. “It’s not about getting laughs, it’s about telling the story.”
Josie de Guzman’s story has a Runyonesque twist of its own—fired as a supporting actress in the season’s biggest flop, Nick and Nora, she became a leading lady when another actress was fired from the season’s biggest hit. “I went through a lot of difficult emotions,” she says, “but many great actors have been fired in this business. I was in good company in both cases.”
Her take on Sarah Brown? Like Prince she stresses strength, and like Lane she stresses love. “To me, the key moment in establishing her character is when she first meets Sky. It’s important that though she’s flustered she knows his number and stands up to him as his equal. She has strong conviction, she believes in the Mission and in saving souls, and unless I bring out that side of her, his conversion at the end doesn’t make any sense.”
Peter Gallagher and his wife danced to “I’ll Know” at their wedding, but he hardly knew the show itself until after he was cast. The movie? “I looked at parts of it,” he says, adding with wry self-deprecation, “I didn’t see much benefit in comparing myself to Marlon.” But Zaks had him in mind virtually from the beginning. “Peter has that combination of macho and sensitivity that’s just right for the part,” he says.
In the Sky-Sarah plot line, says Gallagher, an important transformation occurs: “A guy and a doll save their souls.” In Gallagher’s view, Sky isn’t just a guy who looks smooth tilting his fedora, “he’s a gambler who loves the long shot.” In fact, he’s even a kind of modern-day Orpheus, descending into the sewer to bet his life and find redemption.
* * *
There’s something ineffable about the way the success of Guys and Dolls has captivated the city’s imagination, something far beyond the arrival of one more don’t-miss show. Most members of the company—still a bit dazed from their raves—attribute the Guys and Dolls phenomenon to nostalgia for a time when criminals were colorful and the sex wars ended at the altar, or to the desire of audiences to feel good during bad times, or to the recapture of Broadway from the special effects spectacle of the Brits, or just to the fact that it’s a damned good show.
These are all part of it, of course, as are a number of other trends and events—the angry cynicism about electoral politics, the sense of paralysis about the city’s vanishing amenities, the ill-concealed West-of-the-Hudson contempt for our “helluva town,” and even the John Gotti trial, its audiotapes sometimes sounding as if they’d been written by a latter-day Runyon.
There’s no Nicely-Nicely Johnson hanging out in Times Square these days, no Harry the Horse, no Angie the Ox. There’s no cop on the beat tipping his hat as you take a 4 a.m. stroll past the drug dealers and transvestite hookers and pause to window-shop for porno sleaze. Runyon was born in Kansas, after all, and his Times Square was a fantasy even in 1950.
But for better or worse, New York’s vision of itself has always been linked to its vision of Broadway. Raucous, romantic, feisty, gallant, cutthroat, and softhearted, “people with bumps,” as producer Cy Feuer instructed the casting director of the original Guys and Dolls. “Fine, upstanding, dishonest people,” as Jimmy Breslin wrote of Runyon’s New Yorkers—for all his sentimental distortions, that kid from Kansas sure nailed us.
No fanfare—it’s only a show—but in this “musical fable of Broadway,” as Guys and Dolls is subtitled, the denizens of “the devil’s own city” find a kind of redemption and perhaps the transfixed theatergoers at the Martin Beck feel they’re hearing the faint first note of the overture to their own hopes that their sinful city can find a kind of rebirth.
[Photo Via: Masterworks Broadway]
Greg Hanlon is talented reporter and writer. His latest story is for Sports on Earth. It is about former Yankee Chad Curtis:
Chad Curtis didn’t tell his lawyer that he’s doing this interview, he admits with a sly smile. Obviously, she’d be angry, because he’s appealing his conviction, and talking to a reporter is likely not in his best interests. But Curtis is still upset that he didn’t get to take the stand at his trial. He sees himself as a man for whom telling the truth trumps calculated self-interest.
That’s why, he believes, he has sat in prison since October on a seven-to-15-year conviction for molesting three teenage girls at the rural Michigan high school where he volunteered. He says he could have taken a misdemeanor plea, served a year and a half in county, and been home with his wife and six kids by now. But he’s an innocent man in his own mind, so he couldn’t bring himself to swear on the Bible — which he quotes frequently and encyclopedically during our two-hour interview at the Harrison Correctional Facility — and admit to a crime he didn’t commit.
As a major league baseball player, he wore a bracelet that said, “What would Jesus do?” Now that he’s a prisoner, he tells me, “Jesus lived the perfect life, and that got him crucified.” By this, he means there’s historical precedent for the harsh judgments of human beings to be 180 degrees wrong, and that he’s in good company.
He asks if I’m familiar with the show Pretty Little Liars. He says he prays daily for his teenage accusers, all of whom had similar athletic builds and All-American good looks. He says all he was doing in that locked, windowless, dungeon-like training room was helping those girls recover from sports injuries. He says he took the same all-out approach to treating sports injuries as he did to playing baseball — “whether it was running into an outfield wall or breaking up a double play.”
As for why the girls thought otherwise, and accused him of touching their rear ends, breasts and, in one case, genitals, he doesn’t want to speculate: “I’ve been really discouraged by how often and how wrong people have assumed my motivations, so I’ll extend them that same courtesy,” he says.
He doesn’t mention that not a single boy testified to having gone down to the trainer’s room for similar treatment.
Don’t miss this one. It’s really strong.
[Photo Via MLive]
Here’s more baseball-related fun for you, Pat Jordan’s 1989 GQ profile of Tom Selleck.
Tom Selleck is faced with a dilemma. He is being forced to make a decision that will annoy at least one of three people.
“Well, I don’t know, Esme. What do you think?”
His publicist, Esme Chandlee, who is seated beside Selleck on a sofa in his office at Universal Studios, folds her arms and says, “If it’s what you want, Thomas!”
“We could maybe try it, Esme,” Selleck says.
“I don’t know why,” she says. “I’m not bothering anyone.”
Selleck now looks beseechingly at me. “What do you think? Esme really hasn’t interfered.”
“It inhibits me,” I say. “I’ve never interviewed someone with their publicist sitting in.”
Selleck now looks beseechingly at Chandlee. “Gee, I feel comfortable with him, Esme. Maybe we could try it. Just him and me.” Chandlee stands up and glares at me. Selleck adds quickly, “If you don’t mind?”
“All right, Thomas,” she says. “If that’s the way you want it! But give him just ten more minutes. Do you hear Thomas?” Selleck nods like a chastised youngster as Chandlee leaves the room.
“Gee, l hope I didn’t offend her,” he says. “That’s the way she’s always done it with me.”
Esme Chandlee is in her late sixties. A savvy, schoolmarmish woman with rust-colored hair. She has been a Hollywood publicist for more than thirty years. She remembers Ava Gardner as a teenager in a halter top and tight shorts. “She breezed into the studio without makeup or shoes,” says Chandlee, “and every head turned.”
That was a time in Hollywood when actors were not actors, but stars. The stars deferred to their publicists, who kept a tight rein on their careers and lives. They built their stars’ careers less upon acting talent than on a distinctive, unwavering persona that satisfied their fans’ needs. These fans went to the movies to see John Wayne play John Wayne, not some fictional character.
It was also the publicist’s job to make sure that the John Wayne seen in the movies was consistent with the John Wayne seen in the press. Publicists often selected the magazines their stars would appear in, even setting the scene where an interview would take place (“Thomas will take batting practice with the Dodgers this afternoon,” says Chandlee. “You can watch.”) and writing the script (“Tom always hits a few home runs in batting practice,” she adds). When the scene didn’t quite play as written (Selleck swings through the first twenty pitches thrown him, hangs his head and says, “This is humiliating!”), they simply stuck to their script (“Thomas! What are you talking about? You hit some good ones.”).
They also determined the questions to be asked and not asked, and just to make sure their rules were followed, they sat in on each interview, nodding, smiling, frowning, pointing a long finger at the reporter’s notebook (“Come on! Come on! We don’t have all day!” says Chandlee) and even, on occasion, interrupted their star with a clarification (“l don’t think Tom said he was opposed to abortion. Did you Thomas?”).
Most of Esme Chandlee’s stars are now dead, like John Cassavetes, or semiretired, like Vera Miles. She still has Selleck, though, and, to a lesser extent, Sam Elliott. Her boys. She fusses over their careers, both of which were based more on masculine images than on acting ability and were established in television rather than in feature films. Television is the last bastion of the old star system. Careers are founded there—stars are made there—by forging a captivating persona that never wavers from week to week. TV stars are so closely identified with their characters (Magnum, Rockford, J.R., Alexis) that fans often refer to them by those names.
Which is fine for TV stars as long as they remain on TV, as Tom Selleck did with Magnum, P.l. for eight years. But Magnum is gone now, at Selleck’s request, and he is trying to build a film career from his new home near L.A.
“L.A. has changed a lot in the eight years I was in Hawaii,” says Selleck. “L.A. jokes are more valid now. There are a lot more people full of shit here. I don’t mean to get into L.A.-bashing, but I was lucky to be isolated in Hawaii. It was the most wonderful experience of my life. I just worked.”
As a TV actor in the hinterland, Selleck was removed from the pressures and critical scrutiny of Hollywood. Television also afforded him the luxury of not needing the press, since his face appeared onscreen weekly rather than in a movie once a year. “In films, you can get a career-ending momentum from one film,” he says. Which is why movie actors make themselves accessible to the press: to keep their public presence alive in between screen appearances. Now that Selleck is solely doing films, he finds himself in the same position. “It’s new to me,” he says. “In-depth interviews. I don’t know how to do them yet.”
Selleck’s success in film has been limited. Of his nine movies, only Three Men and a Baby, in which he shared the spotlight with Ted Danson and Steve Guttenherg, was a critical and financial hit. Much of the criticism leveled at the failures (Her Alibi, Lassiter, Runaway, High Road to China) centered upon Selleck’s insistence on playing himself, or, rather, the self he had created with Magnum. Amiable. Jocky. Bumbling. Insecure. Unthreatening (to men and women). And disbelieving of his very substantial physical charms.
The problem is that Selleck’s characters in Lassiter and High Road were each supposed to have had a certain hard edge: In High Road, for instance, Patrick O’Malley was a drunken, conniving mercenary who exploits women in a way not dissimilar to that of Burt Reynolds’s film persona. (Burt and Tom are good friends. Selleck is listed as executive producer of Reynolds’s ABC-TV series, B. L. Stryker, and he is probably the only actor alive who will lower his eyes modestly and say “Thank you“ when compared to Reynolds as an actor.) But Selleck didn’t totally mask his Magnum amiability in those roles. Like Reynolds, Selleck is of the acting school that insists that no matter what character he portrays onscreen, he must never let the audience forget the image he has off-screen. “I think it’s a compliment if the audience only sees me,” he says.
It just goes against Selleck’s nature not to be amiable. “I don’t see any reason not to be nice,” he says. “It can be one way, and an effective one, of achieving certain ends. Still, it bothers me when people equate niceness with being dull and wishy-washy. It makes me sound like a wuss.”
Even the success of Three Men and a Baby was predicated on his playing… an amiable, bumbling, love-struck architect—the one twist being that rather than a 25-year-old female in a bikini his love interest was a 6-month-old female in diapers.
The Boston Globe once wrote that Selleck was the only actor who appeared big on the small screen and small on the big screen. Actors who get away with playing the same character type in movie after movie (Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford) do so because they have developed compelling personas that are bigger than life, which is what moviegoers demand. More intense, passionate, mysterious, heroic, screwy, even threatening. It was precisely Ford’s nutty quirks that elevated the seemingly normal professor into the obsessed adventurer Indiana Jones. Selleck, originally offered that part, had to turn it down because of Magnum commitments.)
But Tom Selleck is mercilessly normal, either unable or unwilling to take the risk not to be. For a human being, that’s admirable. For an actor, it can be fatal. TV viewers are drawn to the normal for their heroes (Selleck/Magnum, Cosby/Huxtable) because it reassures them about their own everyday lives. TV heroes are comforting because they are not bigger than life, which is why TV actors often have difficulty taking the leap to film. Those who do either create memorable characters, like Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” or simply learn how to act, like Steve McQueen and James Garner.
In his new movie, An Innocent Man, Selleck is still playing “normal,” an ordinary guy wrongly accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
“As an actor, Tom’s underrated,” says Bess Armstrong, his costar in High Road to China. “l don’t feel the material he’s chosen is up to his ability. I believe there’s a lot of potential there that hasn’t been tapped. Maybe he’s biding his time. Tom is aware of every step, aware of staying in power. He’s very savvy. Tom always has a plan.”
* * *
Tom Selleck’s dilemma, then, is obvious. How far would he distance himself from Magnum—at the risk of losing his fans—in order to succeed in film? Rather than make that painful decision, Selleck is doing what he usually does. He is trying to maintain a precarious balance.
“My biggest fear,” he says, “is not to be wanted. I don’t know if I’ll want to act in five or ten years, but I’d really like for people to want me to work. You can be loyal to your fans without pandering to them. But you also can’t take them for granted. I’ve always felt it was easier to get women fans than men. But you have to have the guys to be successful. I’ve never liked guys who pandered to women fans.”
Many women swoon over Selleck/Magnum’s good looks and nonthreatening sensitivity, while others echo the sentiments of one of his leading ladies, who says, “What was lacking for me was a certain messiness, a certain passion. Everything with Tom is in its box.” It was Magnum’s male viewers who made the show a success; they identified with Magnum’s flaws, not his strengths. It was significant that the red Ferrari he drove was his boss’s, not his own. What was even more significant was that Magnum’s pursuits of beautiful women more often than not ended in failure, just like those of his male viewers. Selleck sustained an eight-year TV run out of those weaknesses, ultimately earning almost $5 million a year, and he is loath to lose that career now.
“Every actor gets put in a box,” Selleck says. “It’s not a curse if you’re working. If it’s a small box, though, I don’t think you can buck it. I’d just like to make my box a little bigger. I try not to approach my career as if I’m some mythical personality; because that personality changes with people’s perceptions of it.
“I like to think that every film part of mine has been a stretch. I’m very happy with them. No matter how safe people thought my choices were, they were a big risk for me. I just have to balance those stretches with my limitations. I can’t ever play Quasimodo just to prove something, but I can push my parameters or else there will be a sameness to my work. I have to be willing to fail. You can’t have it both ways. Still, I can’t do a movie without thinking of my career. I wish I could, but I can’t. That’s the trap. When you start calling what you do ’a career,’ that’s when you start feeling the pressure.”
Selleck relies a lot on Chandlee to protect his career. He is loyal to her, he says, because she did a lot of free work for him thirteen years ago, when he was a struggling actor known more for his modeling (Salem cigarettes, Chaz cologne) than for his thespian exploits (he played a corpse in the film Coma). Selleck is ashamed of his modeling past and tries to distance himself from it by denigrating talk of his being a sex symbol. “I hate that!” he says. “I hate to work out with weights just to stay in shape. I never did like to throw it around. Too much muscle takes away from your character onscreen.”
Like many actors, Selleck is more than a little embarrassed by what he does for a living. He considers it unmanly. “It’s easy to stare someone down with a gun when you know that after they shoot you dead you can get up again. Now, a big left-handed pitcher throwing me curveballs, ouch! That’s real!”
Selleck, at six feet four, 210 pounds and 44 years of age, is proud of his athletic ability. He is an Olympic-caliber volleyball player and claims his greatest achievement was recently being named to an all-American team for men 35 to 45. He also likes to talk about his college basketball days, and how he could really leap. “l didn’t have white man’s disease,” he says. “In one episode of Magnum, we ended the show with me dunking a basketball. It was really important for me to do that without camera tricks.”
It’s important, too, for Selleck to take batting practice at least once a year with a major league team. He has done so with the Orioles (“l hit a few out at Memorial Stadium“) and with the Tigers (“A few players were screwing around in the outfield. When I hit one between them, they just looked.”) and, this past season, with the Dodgers. This time, it did not go well.
Selleck stood behind the batting cage with the pitchers, waiting to take his swings against the easy lobs of one of the team’s older coaches. The pitchers kidded around, occasionally including Selleck in their jokes. He laughed nervously. This was obviously an important moment for him. He had spent the previous day at a batting range in preparation and did not want to look foolish.
Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman, walked onto the field accompanied by his latest wife, a striking cotton-candy blonde. Garvey, dressed in a navy blazer and tan trousers, looked less like a ballplayer than an actor. One of the Dodgers said to another, “Who’s that with Garv?”
“His new wife.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s the one who’s not pregnant.”
Selleck went over to talk to Garvey. They chatted under a bright sun, two men who have embellished their careers by being “nice.” Finally, it was Selleck’s turn to hit. For the next hour he struggled, sweating and lunging, foul-tipping or just missing pitch after pitch. There was a lightness to his swing. He didn’t attack the ball, driving toward it with his shoulders, but swung only with his arms.
“You swing pretty good,” said one pitcher, “…for an actor.”
Selleck tried to smile.
When batting practice was over, Selleck heard a stern voice calling him from the seats behind home plate, “Thomas! Thomas!” He went over to Chandlee, who was seated alongside Selleck’s elder brother, Bob.
“That was humiliating!” Selleck said.
“Oh, Thomas!” Chandlee said. “That pitcher was throwing hard.”
“He was,” Selleck said. “Wasn’t he?”
“Pretty hard,” said Bob, who had been a pitcher in the Dodgers organization years ago. Bob is a boyishly tousled, Alan Alda sort of guy, who stands almost six feet six. Selleck is close to his brother, and to all of his family, whom he refers to as his best friends. He also has a younger brother and a sister; they, along with their father, Bob Sr., and mother, Martha, make a strikingly beautiful family. “Heads just turn when they all enter a room,” says Chandlee.
* * *
Born in Detroit, Selleck moved with his family to Sherman Oaks, California, when he was 4. His father was a real estate executive and president of the Little League. His mother was a den mother for the Cub Scouts and Brownies. There was a tradition in the family that if the children did not drink, smoke or swear until the age of 21, they would be given a gold watch. Selleck got his, although he claims he did lapse a few times.
Selleck excelled in sports and won a basketball scholarship to USC. He mostly sat on the bench, but when Pepsi was looking for a basketball player for an ad, he landed his first modeling job. He began pursuing acting after that, doing a little modeling on the side, until he received his draft notice. This was in 1967—the height of the Vietnam war. After taking his physical, Selleck was told that within three months he’d probably be sent overseas. Although Selleck “firmly believed in my military obligation,” he wanted to continue acting. So his father helped him get into the National Guard. He claims it was a very scary time to be in the Guard, given all the student riots across the country. Meanwhile, he appeared on the TV program The Dating Game twice. He wasn’t chosen either time, but he was noticed by executives at Twentieth Century Fox and given a studio contract. The rest is history. Salem. Chaz. Magnum. An Emmy. People’s Choice Award for favorite male TV performer, four times. A film price that is now in the millions. In 1986, his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And in August, a multi-picture deal with Disney similar to those of Bette Midler, Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.
It is not clear whether Selleck truly defers to Chandlee in decisions about his career or just wants to give the impression that he does. When Chandlee sits in on interviews, Selleck insists it’s her demand, not his. Yet when he did a Playboy interview some years ago, he told the reporter that a CBS publicist had to sit in because the network insisted. He didn’t want to offend them, Selleck said, because they had been so nice to him. Afterward, he called the writer a number of times to clarify a few points he had made. Selleck likes to make these personal follow-up calls. It’s his way of softening his various refusals to writers during interviews. No mention of his family. No talks with his wife. No visits to his home. No questions about his salary.
Such passive aggressiveness seems to be the way he conducts every facet of his life. “Eventually, l guess l got to know Tom,” says Laila Robins, who plays his wife in An Innocent Man. “I just didn’t feel he wanted to schmooze with me. I felt bad, because I’m a professional and know enough not to cross that personal line. He just didn’t trust me enough to let me not cross that line on my own. He always had people around to protect him, to serve as buffers. I’d go our to dinner with him and his makeup man and driver/bodyguard. I never felt they shut me out. It wasn’t that blatant. I just felt there was a point when he didn’t want to go that extra step.”
“Actors need buffers,” says Selleck. “We need people to say no for us.” Chandlee says no a lot for Selleck. It takes the burden off him so he won’t have to sully his image not being “nice.” Then, too, Tom Selleck is truly a “nice“ man who does have trouble saying no to people. Even when he does, he will do it in a way that appears so painful for him, it doesn’t really seem like a no. Back in the late Seventies, as his marriage of ten years to Jacquelyn Ray was collapsing, he couldn’t bear to go through with the actual divorce for four years. “It’s one of the great sorrows of my life that we won’t be together,” he said at the time. “We’ve worked out an agreement to live separately, but we haven’t made any moves toward divorce.”
When Selleck goes out to dinner with his second wife, actress Jillie Mack (they’ve a 10-month-old daughter, Hannah Margaret Mack), he refuses to sign autographs while eating. But he takes great care to explain to his fans his reasons for saying, “Sometimes, it would just be easier to sign them,” he says. “Then when they left, I wouldn’t feel guilty.”
Selleck also felt guilty when he announced he was leaving Magnum after his seventh year. He felt he, personally, was pulling the plug on his crew’s careers. So he signed for an eighth and final season (at a considerable salary increase) just to give the crew one last big paycheck, and to give himself peace of mind.
Selleck loves to smoke cigars. “Obscenely large ones from Cuba,” he says. His favorite poem, by Rudyard Kipling, tells the story of a man forced to choose between the two great loves of his life: his fiancee, Maggie, and the beloved cigars Maggie demands that he give up. He wavers, debating the pros and cons of each love, until finally he makes his choice:
And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke.
Light me another Cuba—I hold to my first-born vows,
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!
It is ironic that Selleck’s favorite poem is about a man who makes a painful decision in a decisive way. Despite his own love of cigars, Selleck won’t smoke them in public for fear of offending his fans. When he is offered a cigar while seated in the crowded Dodgers bleachers, where no one has recognized him, he looks around quickly before saying, “I’d better not.”
In his political convictions, Selleck is equally equivocal, though they are of a conservative bent. He believes that socialism is a failed economic concept that limits wealth, while capitalism breeds it. “I benefit a lot of people by making a lot of money,” he says. “It doesn’t make me feel guilty. I can afford to be principled now because of my wealth. If you’re struggling with a family and you sell out, it’s understandable, but if you have wealth and you sell out, there’s something wrong.”
Selleck feels that women’s lib is “just an excuse for women to get even” and that abortion is not only a woman’s issue but a man’s, too. “It takes two people to have a baby,” he says. “And since there’s been no national consensus on it, one way or another, l don’t think the federal government should fund abortions. I would never encourage anyone to have an abortion, but you won’t see me pounding the streets one way or another about it. I don’t think I belong out there just because I did Magnum for eight years.”
Selleck also resents the fact that white Americans are often given the blanket label of racist, held responsible for sins committed 200 years ago. “I’m not responsible for slavery,” he says. “When that poor girl was raped in Central Park this year, Cardinal O’Connor said we were all responsible. I’m not. O’Connor said that God forgave those kids who raped the girl. God might have forgiven them, but I don’t think He forgave them right away.”
When Robert Bork was rejected by the Senate in his attempt to become a Supreme Court justice, Selleck thought it such an outrage that he sent a letter to each of the congressmen who had voted against Bork. Selleck never made that letter public, for the same reason he refuses to campaign for conservative political candidates. As he once said, “Flat out from a business point of view, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get involved. Yet at the same time you don’t want to compromise.”
* * *
It is the seventh inning of the game at Dodger Stadium, and Selleck has yet to be recognized as he sits in the home plate bleachers. It has been a rare treat for him to watch a game without fans assailing him for autographs. The last time he went to the stadium, he sat down below and was immediately spotted. He had to sign so many autographs that he never saw the game. He debated this time whether he should sit in the Stadium Club, where his privacy would be respected. But he rejected that possibility because looking through a glass partition is not like “really being at a game.”
“I’ve always been a private person in a public job,” he says now. “If I give all my privacy away to the public, l won’t have any left as an actor. l won’t have anything to show in my work. Still, I want to be able to do normal things, or else you get isolated and lose touch with reality. I miss all the rudimentary things other people do, like going to the beach and reading a book. I force myself to do these things sometimes, like this game. If I don’t, then privacy becomes the ability to lock yourself in your home, and you’ll never experience reality.”
Suddenly he stops talking and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, look at that girl!” He points down below to a beautiful girl in a tight sweater returning to her seat behind home plate and whistles like a schoolboy. “That’s all right!” he says. There is something of the schoolboy about Selleck when he talks about women. He claims he is “painfully shy with girls“ and often had to be set up on blind dates. When he asked Jillie out for the first time, he sat in an upstairs bedroom, sweating and hesitating before finally mustering the nerve to dial her number. He was so tongue-tied that eventually she had to say, “Do you want to ask me out?”
“Gee, I hope she gets up again to go for popcorn,” Selleck says, still staring down at the girl. Then he catches himself. “Isn’t that silly?” Despite his adolescent ogling, Selleck is almost prudish about sex. When he’s told that one of his favorite actresses, Kim Basinger, gave a magazine interview recently in which she talked brazenly about wearing a see-through skirt without underwear, Selleck just shakes his head. “That’s too bad,” he says. When his brother Bob tells him an off-color joke that ends in oral sex between two men, Selleck slinks down in his seat, scrunches up his features and mutters, “Yuck!”
The ultimate impression Selleck gives is of a man either physically unable to let himself go or of a man hiding some terrible secret. In either case, he’s still so nice that it seems a waste of his energy to be so protective. He’s the kind of guy who would probably be even nicer if he just stopped acting that way and let himself be naturally so.
Selleck sits back now to enjoy the rest of the game. He looks around. It dawns on him that the fans’ attention is glued to the action on the field. “Hey, this is great!” he says. “Nobody asked me for an autograph. I’m escaping…. Oh, my God! Maybe they forgot me already! Maybe I should stand up or something. Turn around, let them see me.”
He laughs, only half-kidding.
Here’s an Opening Day treat from my pal Paul Solotaroff. “The Last Yankee” is a story he wrote about Don Mattingly for the National Sports Daily back in 1990 and at the time it rang true. Of course, this was before Derek Jeter. Still, dig this trip down memory lane as we get ready for the season to begin tonight in Houston.
“The Last Yankee”
By Paul Solotaroff
The National Sports Daily, July 6, 1990
It begins, of course, with Babe Ruth, the god of thunder, who invented the home run and the 12-hot dog breakfast. It runs through Lou Gehrig, the first baseman built like a center field monument, and through Joe DiMaggio, the center fielder straight from central casting. It culminates in Mickey Mantle, that beautiful wreck who played hard, lived hard, and once remarked in his forties that if he’d known he was going to live so long, he’d’ve taken better care of himself. “It,” of course, is the lineage of the One Great Yankee, the player who taught his generation about class and success, and set boys everywhere dreaming about pinstripes.
It wasn’t, God knows, anything like virtue that made Ruth an icon. What signified him to his age was his invincibility—he won everything in sight, and devastated teams doing it. His 500-foot shots were like bombs over Nagasaki; whenever he hit one, the other side just collapsed.
But the mythos of the Great Yankee has as much to do with heart as muscle. DiMaggio played on crippled heels; Gehrig, the last couple of years, could hardly bend to take grounders, so ravaged was he by ALS; Mantle hobbled through much of his career, his knee done in by a sprinkler head. Nonetheless, they endured like soldiers, Gehrig for 17 years, Joe D. for 13, the Mick for 18. Gehrig lasted through ’39, by which time DiMaggio was securely established; DiMaggio until ’51, when Mantle broke in. No one, alas, stepped up for Mantle but his legacy of courage and pride survived, in trust, for his eventual heir.
Beyond the monster home runs and memorable catches in center, though, what the One Great Yankee did was set absolute standards—Yankee standards. DiMaggio must have uttered all of 10 words his entire career, but his mute ferocity put the fear of God into his teammates. He once cornered Vic Raschi, who was 21–8 that year but had a nasty habit of squandering big leads, and told him that if he ever blew another one, he’d beat the hell out of him then and there. Nor was there any malingering permitted. If DiMaggio was going to go out there every day on splintered shins, then, believe it, everybody was going to play. One shudders to think what would have happened if Joe D. had ever played with Rickey Henderson.
Mantle may have been the culmination of the line—no one has ever had his combination of lefty-righty power and speed—but he was not the last of the Great Yankees. Reggie, with his drink-stirring swagger, was as true a son of Ruth as any of them. Forget the fact that he was only there for five years. They were titanic years, full of glorious theater; no one since the Babe has so enlivened the franchise.
And then, of course, there is Don Mattingly. All line drives and silence, he is the very incarnation of Gehrig: solemn and single-minded and as untaintable by George Steinbrenner as Gehrig was by Ruth. But this is where the lineage ends. When Mattingly goes, there will be no more like him. Rome is burning, the royal family disgraced. Soon, nothing will remain but the mad fiddler and his running slaves.
“My place in Yankee history?” sniggers Donald Arthur Mattingly. ”I’ll tell you what my place in Yankee history is. It’s hitting .260 on a struggling ballclub, and letting everyone down in here. At the moment, I don’t exactly feel too much a part of Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio.”
It is three hours before game time, and Mattingly, sheathed in sweat and silver bike shorts, is sitting in his corner cubicle, the place d’honneur in the Yankee clubhouse. The other players loll about, most of them still in street clothes, grazing on fruit or playing three-handed rummy, but Mattingly has already put in a fierce hour in the batting cage. His black bat propped beside him, he looks like he wants nothing so much as to go back there now, to the temple of his solemn devotions.
In the batting cage, there is the pure release of hard work, and the pleasure of attacking one baseball after another. But mostly, there is the relief of being away from this team, a collection of can’t-win don’t-care, no-account strangers, the most faceless bunch to ever set foot in here. Two years ago, this room was electric with the likes of Henderson, Willie Randolph, Jack Clark, and Dave Winfield. Now, peopled by Velardes and Leyritzes, it’s got all the flavor of a bus station. Surveying the scene, Mattingly’s eyes say, “Can these guys really be Yankees?”
“Man, oh man, this is just so tough,” he says. “It hasn’t been like this since I was 13 playing for a Babe Ruth team. We were horrible. Awful. Plus, we had bad uniforms. Ugly green things. It was terrible.”
Mantle-Maris-Berra-Howard. Munson-Nettles-Jackson-Gossage. Those teams won because they were star-laden,yes, but also because they were blood-and-knuckles competitive. Year in, year out, they played as tough as pirates, tromping on good teams of lesser wills. Not so these Yankees. They give up before the first shot rings out.
“By the seventh inning we’re getting pounded again, or we’re down a run and we don’t expect to win, and you think, ‘This is another night we’re not going to get over the hill,’” he laments. “We’re not even making tough outs. . . . It’s really pretty ugly, to tell you the truth. What they need to do is get rid of anyone who doesn’t care. I take it home every night, and some guys just leave it. That ticks me off, to see a guy laughing and joking around when we lose. . . . You don’t want any of those kind of guys on your team.”
It is hard to say which is sadder, the dismantling of all this glorious tradition, or the desolation of Don Mattingly. Once the centerpiece of the gaudiest lineup in baseball, he is, for all intent and purposes, alone out there now. In ’88, he hit behind Henderson and Randolph, who, regardless of their averages, drew 100 walks apiece, and were constantly dancing off of first and third for him. Now, he hits behind Roberto Kelly, who walks about as often as Mario Andretti, and Steve Sax, an opposite-field hitter whom American League pitchers seem to have figured out.
“It was such a different situation with Rickey and Willie,” he says wistfully. “They put pressure on the pitcher. When there’s nobody out there, the pitcher doesn’t feel any tension. The only thing that’ll hurt him is a home run.”
The loss of Henderson and Randolph, both of whom Steinbrenner essentially gave away, is only the half of it, though. The other half is the subtraction of Clark and Winfield, who combined for 200 RBI behind Mattingly in ’88. In baseball, this is called protection, and without it you stand about as much chance as a stray blonde in a biker joint. In Mattingly’s first five full seasons, only four players hit more homers than he did (137); near the halfway point of this one, he has exactly five. And nobody in baseball had more RBI over that stretch (574); to date, he has 33. Thanks entirely to George’s machinations, the Yankees are dead last in the league in hitting, slugging, runs scored, total bases, and on-base percentage. And so the team that won more games than anyone else in the ’80s stands every chance of losing 105 this year. If this were any other kind of business, federal investigators would have been called in long ago and a conservator appointed.
None of which is to exempt Mattingly from blame, or to suggest for a moment that he exempts himself. His recent castigation of the team was the first of its kind, an outburst after a disastrous sweep in Boston during which manager Bucky Dent got canned and the wheels came off this abysmal club. By nature, Mattingly is unceasingly upbeat (read, deluded) about his teammates, and brutally hard on himself. Never mind that all the talent has gone elsewhere—to his mind, the losing this season is somehow his fault, his particular responsibility. On a team batting .240, it is not enough anymore to hit the ball hard and field his position flawlessly. He has to drive in every runner, though he hasn’t had a pitch to hit in weeks; he has to turn this team around, though no one has a clue what direction it’s headed in the first place; he has to take outfield practice, extra batting practice, more extra batting practice . . .
“I have no excuses for this year,” he says, despite the built-in excuse of a chronic back problem, which flared again this week. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You haven’t been getting it done, have you?’ I’ve swung at bad pitches, I haven’t been patient—there’s a whole lot of things I haven’t done. Naturally, you try to do too much, but I’m not even doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
He bites the sentence off, chewing on his self-acrimony. He is generally about as expressive as prairie grass, disclosing as little about himself as is humanly possible. But this year he’s been even quieter than usual, stewing in a broth of exasperation. “If you’re around him every day, you can tell,”says first base coach Mike Ferraro. “He has a lot of anxiety to succeed. He’s a very intense person, a perfectionist. Mantle was exactly the same. A quiet guy, but boy, you didn’t want to be anywhere near him when we lost.”
“I can tell you exactly where this season went south on him,” says Tony Kubek, the Yankees’ color man extraordinaire. “It was about a month ago in a game here against K.C. The Yankees are getting one-hit, 3–0, it’s the bottom of the ninth, they’ve got men on first and second and Mattingly up. [K.C. manager John] Wathan runs out and tells his reliever, ‘Do what we did to [Wade] Boggs last year—walk him. I don’t care if there’s no base open and he’s the tying run—put him on. He goes back to the dugout, [Steve] Farr throws Donnie a curve that just does break over the plate, and he hits it back into the right field seats. The next day, the word goes out around the league: ‘There’s nobody else on this team that can beat you—do not pitch to Mattingly. I don’t think he’s had a ball to drive since.”
For the last six years Don Mattingly has simply been the best player in baseball. Over that stretch, he is first in the majors in total RBIs, third in hits, fourth in BA, fifth in HRs. He’s won a batting title, an MVP, five Gold Gloves, set a consecutive-game home run streak, has been the AP Player of the Year three times running and an All-Star every season. He didn’t get here on talent—not, at any rate, the sort of head-turning talent with which superstars are usually favored: the blinding bat speed, for instance, of Canseco, or the magic eyes of Ted Williams. No, Mattingly is the first self-made Great Yankee, a 19th-round draft pick from Evansville, Ind., who, through the alchemy of smarts and desire, turned modest gifts into exquisite skills.
“Don Mattingly’s the best first baseman I’ve ever seen,” Kubek says, “because he practices harder than most guys play. Intensity pays in the game, and Donnie’s focused from the minute he gets to the ballpark. Offensively, defensively, he’s just so tuned in. It’s his mental sharpness more than anything that makes him so special.”
Mattingly’s hitting coach, Darrell Evans, agrees. “A lot of guys work hard. The great ones work smart, know themselves backwards and forwards. I saw that in Atlanta, with [Hank] Aaron, and in Detroit, with [Alan] Trammel. Other guys may realize their potential, but the Mattinglys exceed theirs.”
Baseball people extol the work habits of Dave Stewart and such, but no one in the sport puts in the hours Mattingly does. He grew up in the mirror, emulating his hero, Rod Carew—hands back, knees bent in that old man’s crouch—and has been perfecting and refining the stroke practically every day since. Like a guy with a vintage car, he always has it up on the blocks, sweating the little things like the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his hips.
But something has gone wrong with his swing this year that no amount of tinkering has fixed. Jumping at the bait of that enormous contract he signed in April (five year, $19.3 million), he has tried to be the savior of this team. Instead of taking what the league is giving him and lining the away pitch to left, he is contorting himself, trying to jerk it into the short porch in right. That is breaking faith with his one commandment to himself, to hit the ball hard, and never mind where it goes.
“Donnie had fallen into some pretty bad habits before I got here,” says Evans, who came over as hitting instructor when Champ Summers was fired with Dent. “Normally, he’s the most patient hitter in baseball, but this year he’s just lunging at balls. I guess it’s easy enough to see why.”
That it is, though not without a little history. In ’88 when Mattingly signed his last contract (three years, $6.7 million), he got off to his habitual slow start and was roundly savaged by Steinbrenner for “lacking leadership,” George’s code word for wimpishness. The belittlement stunned and ate away at Mattingly, and at the All-Star break he exploded, telling the national press that he’d never “gotten it [respect] around here.” A hideous snit between the two ensued; for days, the back pages were bloody with George’s threats to trade him.
The whole business deeply embarrassed Mattingly, who is, as Kubek describes him, “Yankee class from head to toe—and I mean the kind you don’t see around here anymore.” Whether Mattingly knows it or not, he is surely trying to pre-empt another strike by George, flexing muscles he doesn’t have, breaking his back to be The Man. It is an old, old story—Steinbrenner signing someone to a fat contract, then promptly and publicly impugning his manhood—but it is the last time we shall see it play out here. None but the lame (Pascual Perez) and desperate Dave LaPoint will take his money anymore, though the Mark Langstons will of course be happy to use him shamelessly to drive their price up elsewhere. Money is money, and every owner in baseball has it. What George has frittered away is the only capital that mattered: the cachet of being a Yankee.
It spoke to Mattingly this spring—”It would kill me if I left and two or three years later the Yankees won”—just as it had spoken to Reggie Jackson 15 years before him, and 50 years before Reggie, to a strapping architecture student named Lou Gehrig. “Just putting on a Yankee uniform gave you confidence,” Gehrig once said. ”It made you better than you actually were.” The pride of the Yankees was no insubstantial thing; it was the team’s precious equity, built up over time by a succession of the greatest men ever to play this game. Now it is gone, squandered by the little man from Tampa, and New Yorkers are immeasurably poorer for it. They cling to Don Mattingly, cheering even his pop flies and groundouts, because he is the last Yankee, and he is all they have left.
[Illustration from the 1986 Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue]
This piece originally appeared in the 8th issue of The Classical Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
The Great Seduction: The Writing of “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”
They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’ last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sportswriters, and a deeply committed researcher here—made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.
Richard Ben Cramer did.
He had only 15,000 words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’ life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story—”What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”—reached out from the pages of Esquire‘s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence—”Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those”—you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.
It began at an editors meeting in Esquire‘s Manhattan offices. The magazine’s American Male special was up next and they needed a monster piece on which they could hang the issue. Why not Ted Williams? His hatred of the press was legendary but he had the necessary stature. Still, he’d be hard to get—impossible, maybe.
There was one guy that wouldn’t be scared off, though. If anything, Richard Ben Cramer would relish the challenge.
“They know if they really get me going on an idea, well, I just can’t come home without it,” Cramer later explained in Robert Boynton’s incisive interview collection, The New New Journalism. “It might take years, but I’ll eventually get it.”
Seven years earlier, Cramer had won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. He got to the story, got people to talk to him and was a natural storyteller. Sure, his prose blushed a shade of purple at times, but that’s not the worst sin, and Cramer could be forgiven because his excesses were the product of his enthusiasm. He had a reputation in some quarters for being loose with facts, but nobody doubted his talent, or his desire to tell a good story, or, at least in the big picture, to get that story right.
Cramer turned to writing for national magazines when he’d exhausted everything he could do at a newspaper. By this time he had a clear voice and his first three features—two for Esquire, the other for Rolling Stone—announced the arrival of a major talent who was gunning for Halberstam, Talese, and Wolfe. He was a star, and he carried himself like one, and nobody much held it against him because he was self-deprecating and generous, a real charmer. Cramer wasn’t movie-star handsome, yet women loved him. He was a man of big appetites—thick, rare steaks, full-bodied red wines, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and five cups of black coffee the next morning. He wore linen suits and Panama hats and had the most disarming accent, dese-and-dose guttural, the flat A’s from his native Rochester mixed with a Southern drawl picked up during years of reporting in Baltimore.
But underneath all that wooly shit Cramer was an Apollonian kind of dude.
He jumped at the chance to write about Williams. Aside from a few stray newspaper columns, Cramer had never written about his favorite sport. His editor at Esquire, Dave Hirshey, called the Boston Red Sox and inquired about access. They laughed at him. Williams was such a pain in the ass that the Red Sox had long stopped trying to facilitate any publicity.
“I went back to Cramer and told him the news,” Hirshey told me, “and he was more adrenalized than ever, because he lived for outsized challenges like this. He knew he could get to anyone on the face of the planet, and since the Red Sox weren’t assisting in any way he wasn’t indebted to them.”
Impossible, my ass.
“After I got the assignment from Esquire,” Cramer told Boynton, “I just went down to the town he lived in in Florida. I didn’t want to know anything, I didn’t want to read all the received wisdom of the last fifty years, because then I’d be spouting the same crap as everyone else—which was exactly what pissed Ted off about journalists in the first place.”
Williams wasn’t around Islamorada, a small town on the road to Key West, when Cramer arrived, which was fine by Cramer. He wasn’t on a newspaper deadline and was in no great rush. In the tradition of Gay Talese, he practiced the art of hanging out. His approach to a celebrity profile wasn’t any different from how he reported events Beirut or Pakistan, really: You see the flash and you go towards it when everyone else is getting out of there. You know it’s risky, but you want to see it—you want the truth.
Cramer had a gift for putting people at ease. “You could sit down with Richard,” his friend and Baltimore Sun colleague Tony Barberi told me, “whether it was you or me or somebody he’s interviewing for the first time, and he would sit there and smile and nod and laugh in the right places and tell you at the end this is the greatest story he’d ever heard. He was just a wonderful listener.”
“I’m gonna go one step further,” said Hank Klibanoff, who worked with Cramer in Philadelphia. “What made Richard special was that he didn’t seem to always have an end game in mind, which was writing a story. My impression is that Richard separated the two things so that people didn’t feel like they were just pawns in his writing game. They came away thinking he really liked them. And I think he really did.”
So he made himself a part of Williams’ world while Williams wasn’t there. “I met all his fishing buddies,” he said, “and I really got to know them. Once in a while I’d ask a little about Ted, but I didn’t push it. So by the time Ted comes back everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, Ted, have you heard about this odd guy who’s been hanging around for weeks?’ And pretty soon, Ted had to check me out for himself.”
Once Cramer got his hooks into Williams, he didn’t let go for three months. It didn’t matter if Esquire was paying him enough to justify that kind of investment of his time. (Cramer later claimed to have lost money on every magazine article he ever wrote.) What mattered was to get something that no one else could get, that no one else could write.
“In his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see,” wrote Cramer:
He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is ‘IT’S HORSESHIT.’ Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because ‘THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,’ after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: ‘YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.’
He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: ‘WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?’ Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.
Cramer often didn’t even take notes when talking to a subject, but he once told former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun that to capture an extended riff by Williams during a long car ride, he had Williams stop the car while he went in a convenience store and bought a small tape recorder. He returned and stuck the recorder in full view on the dashboard, making it clear that this ride was on the record and that there would be no confusion as to the accuracy of the reporting.
“Believe me,” says Klibanoff, “if he made anything up Ted Williams would have let the world know.”
Cramer stayed in Florida until he exhausted Williams’ patience. In Dan Okrent’s telling of the story, Williams drove Cramer to the Miami Airport. As they stood at the curb, Cramer thanked him for his time, explained that he might call to clarify some things that might arise in the writing, and that magazines had these people called fact checkers who would be in touch as the piece was ready to go to press. Williams looked at him and said, “Cramer, I’ve got two things to say to you. First, get a haircut. Second, I never want to see you or speak to you again.”
The Williams that Cramer encountered was coarse, gregarious, and sympathetic. Cramer’s choice to capitalize some of Williams bellowing was reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s expressionistic prose style but in this case it didn’t serve to distract the reader only to punctuate character. Cramer himself appeared in the piece but only as a foil for Williams; unlike other new journalists the writer didn’t become the story.
“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” upset people’s expectations after decades of having read about Williams as remote and forbidding. Cramer humanized Williams to such an extent that you could actually imagine sitting down and having a beer with Teddy Ballgame. And Cramer plied his considerable charm to make sure he got every one of the 15,000 words he wrote into print. Hirshey says that Cramer wouldn’t accept the 1,500 words that Esquire‘s managing editor demanded be cut. As the final touches were being put on the issue, Hirshey was at a black-tie affair and couldn’t be reached when Cramer struck.
“His first stop was the copy department,” said Hirshey, “where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that I had given him permission to restore the trimmed 1,500 words and that she could call me at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new 15,000 word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them I had given him permission and they were welcome to check with me. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’”
The next morning Hirshey arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of long stem red roses at the receptionists’ desk addressed to the copy, art and production departments. All three had the same note attached: “Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.”
In The Best Sports Writing of the Century, David Halberstam picked “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” as one of four stories considered “The Best of the Best.”
“It’s hard to write a magazine piece that stands out from other magazine pieces,” Cramer’s friend, the writer Mark Jacobson told me. “At that time a lot of the best journalists were working in the magazine business. So there was a high degree of difficulty in pulling off a piece that really stood out like that. I think it’s the best thing Cramer ever wrote.”
Cramer didn’t have anything left to prove in magazines after Ted Williams. He moved on to books, first writing about presidential hopefuls in What it Takes and then debunking the popular sentiment of another American icon in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. He wrote the occasional magazine piece to pay the bills; they were solid, professional, but not etched in memory.
The Williams profile appeared in the 1991 coffee table book, Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid. After Williams died in 2002, Cramer revisited the subject for a standalone volume that included a 1,700-word introduction and a 5,800-word afterword. His return to Williams enriched the original article, and showed off Cramer at something like his full power. The coda charts the reinvention of Williams’ reputation in his later years, during which he became beloved, a living incarnation of the American century, and ties this to the man Cramer knew. Evaluating what made Williams great, Cramer wrote:
It wasn’t his eyes, it was the avid mind behind them, and the great heart below. Ted was the greatest hitter because he knew more about that job than anyone else. He studied it relentlessly. If you knew something about it, he wanted to know it—and RIGHT NOW! He ripped the art into knowable shards, which he then could teach with clarity, with conviction (something he was never short on), and with surprising patience and generosity. That’s how he was about anything he loved. It was the love that drove him.
It wasn’t just a love for hitting, or his old opponents, or fishermen, but his children, and his old friends, too:
He fell in love with showing his friends that he loved them. The urge grew more poignant and pressing as he lost them to old age—he outlived so many of his generation. When he lost his old Florida Bay fishing-guide buddies, Jack Albright and Jack Brothers—and then, too, his north-woods fishing companion, the Maine newspaperman Bud Leavitt—Ted fretted that he might not have told them well enough, often enough, how much they meant to him. So he’d call up their kids—apropos of nothing in particular: ‘You know, I loved your dad—LOVED ‘IM!’
This, perhaps, is why Cramer wrote so well about Williams. He loved the old guy, and when Cramer loved a subject—whether it was Williams or Bob Dole or Joe Biden—he could do them justice on the page. (When Cramer’s charm failed to win the confidence of a subject, when the love wasn’t reciprocated, as was the case with DiMaggio, Cramer could be unforgiving, even sour.)
A small library of books are devoted to Williams, biographies that reveal more facts about the Red Sox great than Cramer’s Esquire article, even in its expanded version. And Williams is one of the few athletes who merit such lavish biographical attention.
But nothing else that’s been written in any form, at any length, has ever gotten through to Williams himself. This was no caricature. Cramer rendered the man in three dimensions. Others tried but they didn’t ingratiate themselves the way Cramer did so they couldn’t get the nuances down. They wrote from the outside in; Cramer wrote from the inside out.
“I’m out there to clean the plate,” Cramer told Boynton.
And he did.
[Photo Credit: Paul Plaine]
I met Chris Archer for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on my first night in North Carolina. He showed up with a handsome black man in his 40s, whom he introduced as “Ron Walker, my mentor.” The hostess led us to a booth in the far corner of the room. As we sat down, Archer said, “Wow! This is the same table where I met my father last February.” He meant his biological father, Magnum. Walker had helped facilitate that first-ever meeting between father and son. It did not go well. Archer peppered his father with questions. Why had he never tried to contact his son? That sort of thing. Archer did not like the answers.
By the time his father had left, Archer said, he had already decided, “I had no intention of ever seeing him again. The type of person he was. He had three children with three different women. Zero of which he is in their lives. He couldn’t tell what school his kids went to. I had no intention of trying to change a grown man who didn’t want to be in my life.”
I told Archer that I hadn’t planned to ask him about his biological parents until tomorrow, after we’d gotten to know each other a bit. He smiled and said, “Yeah, I came out throwin’ heat right off the bat.”
When the waiter came to take our order, Archer discussed with Walker what he should eat. Walker suggested fish and steamed broccoli, nothing fried or with butter. One night, before Archer was to pitch a minor league game, he had called Walker and told him he was eating a pizza. Walker said, “You’re eating what? Don’t put that in your body. Spend $30 on something healthy.”
Now, at Outback, Archer said, “He didn’t want me to put regular gas in my high-performance engine. We talk all the time.”
“We always dialogue back and forth,” said Walker. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
“He’s like my brother,” said Archer.
Walker looked at him sternly and said, “Uncle.”
[Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports]
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.”
Head on over to Victory Journal and dig into Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story on our man El Duque (lavishly illustrated by Mickey Duzjj).
This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.
Muhammad Ali in Excelsis
By Peter Richmond
He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.
On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.
As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.
It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.
He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.
“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”
“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.
It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.
After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.
“Do you believe that phone made itself?”
No, I say.
“Do you believe the chair made itself?”
“Do you believe the table made itself?”
“Do you believe the sun made itself?”
“The Supreme Being made it.”
The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.
It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.
“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.
“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.
“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.
“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”
“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.
All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.
His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.
I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.
But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.
Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.
On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.
Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.
Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.
The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.
In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.
In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.
When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.
“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.
Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.
“There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.
That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.
Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.
I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.
Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.
Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.
When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.
The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.
I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The dancing, I said. The shuffling.
“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”
He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?
Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.
“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”
And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.
What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.
“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.
“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”
Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.
“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.
What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.
It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.
It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.
And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.
Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.
So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”
Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”
The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”
I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”
And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.
We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.
“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.
In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.
My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.
He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.
“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.
He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.
“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.”