Saturday, September 24, 2005

Another Anniversary

It occurred to me the other night that another milestone in my life is going to occur sometime right around now. Pardon me for not knowing the exact date, but I wasn't really keeping track of things back when this happened.

Nonetheless, sometime in late September, 40 years ago, I wrote my first article and it got published.

It sort of happened in a daze. I'd been off to Antioch College for a few weeks, and was beginning to realize that things weren't what they seemed. We -- the group of guys in my dorm, and a sister group in another dorm -- had been enrolled in a rather vague experimental program, and about two weeks into it, our factuly advisor, the only one among us who knew how it worked, was offered a trip to Russia by some Quaker organization he belonged to and snapped it up. "I know you'll all get along fine without me," he said, and vanished. Given the way the rest of my academic career turned out, I sort of hope he was arrested for spying and sent to the Gulag, but I never heard about him again.

Anyway, it was three or four weeks into the College Experience, and I was bored. I had a bunch of time on my hands, and a wee bit of money, and I'd bought a few albums. One of them, Elektra's Singer-Songwriter Project, I rather liked, so I sat down and tapped out a short review of it. Who on earth would be interested in this? I wondered, and then put it in an envelope and sent it to Broadside magazine in New York. A few weeks later, I got my subscription copy of the magazine and in it was a personal note asking if I had any more stuff I wanted to write. Well, sure I did! Next, I sent them a review of a Richard and Mimi Fariña album. Hey, this was easy!

I'd been published in the folk press before, in high school, but it was just a letter to the editor of Sing Out!, nothing serious. Still, this was fun, and it gave me entry into a magazine that had published the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and many more -- although with them, they published sheet music. I didn't realize it at the time, but Broadside was run by two Communists from Oklahoma, Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, and their rather unyielding political agenda would eventually spell the magazine's doom as a must-read in the folk community. But for the moment, it was a magnificent place for a 16-year-old kid to be.

That winter, I was based in Princeton, New Jersey, working at the McCarter Theater as part of Antioch's work-study program. Being so close to New York, I dropped in on the Broadside crew on a visit to New York, and they asked me if I'd be able to do a profile for them: Len Chandler, a folksinger who was not only topical, but Negro, to boot! He was an early friend of Bob Dylan's, a master at making songs out of newspaper articles, and generally a stand-up guy, and he had an album coming out on Columbia Records. So one day when I had some time off, I took the bus into New York, and met Chandler.

"Oh, man, this is embarrassing," he said. "I have another interview scheduled with this Soviet magazine. It's sort of like Life, but it doesn't circulate outside of Russia. It's a really important bit of exposure. But hey, let me call them and see if you can come along." He went in the next room, and his wife, Judy Collins' sister, came out and chatted with me. "All fine with them," said Len. "Let's go uptown."

Not just uptown, either; the Dakota. Apparently the proletariat supported their cultural ambassadors to the other side in fine style. It was a huge apartment, and we were greeted warmly by our host and hostess. I had a tape recorder, reel-to-reel, along with me, and set up my microphone on a low table. We lounged around it on thick cushions, and snacked on brown bread, homemade mayonnaise, and red and black caviar, among other things. Refreshment came from a huge bottle of vodka, frozen on its side in a block of ice, with a silver spigot which dispensed it into tiny silver cups. I had a few.

Needless to say, I don't remember much of this, because I had never had alcohol before. I do remember being asked by our hosts where I went to college, and them saying "Oh yes, we know it well," when I said Antioch, which gave me pause: maybe it really was a hotbed of communism! But another thing that happened was they kept pressing Len to say things he really didn't want to say, and at one point he said something like "To me, what's important is to write a good song, one people want to sing and to hear you sing. What it says is secondary to making a well-crafted piece of music." This struck me as a wonderful sentiment, and I kept a mental note of it.

After the interview, it was late, and we got up. I weaved a bit, and remember careening from one wall to the other in the hallway outside the apartment. "You gonna be okay?" Len asked, and I realized, yeah, I was gonna be okay. And I was; at that age, you're made out of steel, and it didn't hurt that the vodka was amazingly pure stuff. At any rate, we got in a cab and started heading downtown, but not back to Len's place. He had a show he wanted to catch at an after-hours club in Sheridan Square, and it was there that we heard Ronnie Gilbert, once of the Weavers, singing Billie Holiday songs in front of a jazz trio that included Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad. After that, it was back to chez Chandler for a few hours' shuteye on the couch, after which I joined the working class on the 5:30 subways to Port Authority, where I caught a bus back to Princeton.

Needless to say, Len's esthetic of songwriting didn't please the Broadside staff any more than it did the Russians. I'm sure they made up their story to say what they wanted it to, but I made the idea the center of mine and it didn't exactly go over well. Or get published.

Still, I kept in touch with Broadside, and I think I published a review of Richard Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me there that spring. I had an advance copy, thanks to the father of my new girlfriend, who was well-known around publishing circles, and had thought it was something I might enjoy. He was right: I loved it, I was devastated when Fariña died, and I still consider the book to be a unique document, various people's various misgivings about Fariña's ego notwithstanding.

It was my girlfriend's father's connections, too, that got me into my first magazine job. I'd spent the winter of 1966 working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Christmas Card department as a stockboy, but that job was about to end after we did the post-Christmas inventory. There was a show at Town Hall my girlfriend and I wanted to see -- Judy Collins and Tom Rush -- and so I took one of my last paychecks down to the box office there on lunch-break and went to buy tickets. To my surprise, the woman at the box office was one of my old co-workers from the McCarter Theater, and she was happy to do me a favor, selling me tickets for the press section for the price of nosebleed tickets. (Of course, I now realize she just pocketed my twelve bucks or whatever, but in doing this she changed my life).

The night of the concert, my old co-worker at the Metropolitan, Mark, invited my girlfriend and me to dinner before the show, and we went up to his painter's studio and had spaghetti with him, and smoked some powerful pot. I remember the cab-ride downtown seeming like an amusement-park ride, and then we presented our tickets at Town Hall and were magically transported to something like the fifth row.

Now, previous to this, my girlfriend, who was a major Bob Dylan fan, had been presented by her dad with loose page proofs of a forthcoming book by Dylan entitled Tarantula. It was impossible to read, but we'd sit there and try. And, just the week before the concert, the gossip column in the Village Voice had noted the move of the mimeographed "serious" rock and roll magazine Crawdaddy! and its publisher, Paul Williams, to New York.

So there we were, stoned out of our gourds, watching Tom Rush. Then the lights came up, and this guy behind us stood up and started handing out copies of Crawdaddy! to the various media elite who were doubtless seated around us. "Hey," I asked him, "are you Paul Williams?" He snapped that he was, eyes still searching the crowd for more people to impress. "I've got something you might like to look at. Bob Dylan's written a book, and my girlfriend has a copy of it." "Impossible," he said. "If Dylan had written a book, I'd know all about it!" "Well, he has." "Bring it by the office and let me look at it," he said, losing interest. He wrote the 6th Avenue address on a copy of the magazine -- Howlin' Wolf was on the cover -- and handed it to me.

So on Monday, I gathered up the manila envelope with the loose sheets of the book in it and went to New York from Princeton, where I'd been staying. Williams stared at it and stared at it, paging through it and, as we had, trying to make sense out of it. "Can I borrow this?" he asked, suddenly much friendlier. "I want to make a copy of it, and I know where there's a copy machine at Elektra I can use." He was tight with Paul Rothschild, he let it be known, and Paul would want to see this, too. "Do you need any help around here?" I asked. The office was a tiny one-room affair, with a bathtub and toilet in a tiny room just off the entryway, but there were a couple of electric typewriters on a table in the middle of the one room and records everywhere. "Can you type?" he asked. Well, yeah, I could type. He showed me a manuscript and parked me in front of the IBM Executive and turned it on. "See if you can type this." In a few minutes I was done, errorless. "Pretty good. Come back tomorrow. I think I'll have more work for you."

At this point, I had decided not to return to school, but to look for work in New York so I could be close to my girlfriend, who was still going to high school in Princeton. I was living in Westchester with my parents, and taking the train in every day, searching for work, interviewing for crap jobs as stock clerk and so on, and then heading downtown after noon, and working at Crawdaddy! until late. Finally, Paul said I could move in, since the magazine was moving downstairs to a large loft. The staff was Paul, Tim Jurgens, some guy who was dodging the draft whose name escapes me, and me. Winter was getting a good solid grip on the Village, but I was finally living the life I wanted to live. And that's the way it'd be for a while.


So after 40 years, I realize that it's a very mixed blessing. I very likely will never earn more than about $30,000 a year, which is the most I've ever made at writing. In fact, it's very unlikely I'll ever earn that much again, because the opportunities are waning, and the field of "rock criticism," to which it's been my sad fate to be relegated by most of the publishing industry, is not only one of the worst-paying ghettoes in the business, but also one of the most corrupt and one possessed of an Oedipal impulse that means that the vast majority of people from my generation, the one which founded "rock criticism," are getting less and less work. I still have dreams that I'll be able to leave that ghetto behind, but it's going to mean focusing on writing books, not magazine articles. There are fewer magazines, and the competition is worse than it's ever been. I lack contacts, living thousands of miles from New York, and these days people don't even respond to queries from people they don't already know. (Which, given some of the turn-downs I've gotten, is almost okay).

I don't really have a choice about changing my career, but I do have a word of advice for young writers: either be born rich, marry rich, or be content to starve. Don't forget: in the past couple of years there have been weeks when I was able to feed myself only by going out and finding empty beer bottles I could turn in for eight Euro-cents apiece. You, too, could be enjoying that exact lifestyle forty years into your career if you play your cards right. It's sad that the variety of voices in the media is starved by the occupation only being available to the upper classes, but I don't see that changing any time soon.

Anyway, you see why I'm not popping champagne corks here. I've denied myself a family (oddly, women aren't attracted to men who can't support themselves), any hope of retiring (I don't have any desire to and never have, and even if I had the stagnation of my parents' last years would scare me to death), any hope of owning a home because of my choice of career.

Of course, I didn't know it would be this way when I chose it. I guess I should have seen it as an omen when it started with caviar.

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