I keep getting tangled up in strange loops of time. I’ve told the true fairy tale of how I came to Mill Valley in the summer of 1970, vowed to live there and then found myself doing just that, 44 years later. But that was last month. Whatever time-release spell enchanted me wore off, leaving me in Oakland.
Or so I thought, until an old friend invited me back to Mill Valley, to hear Marty Balin at the Throckmorton Theatre.
Jefferson Airplane, 1967, Marty Balin top right
I last saw Marty Balin….44 years ago, at the Fillmore East, with the Jefferson Airplane. If Jerry Garcia was my Guitar Hero back then, Marty was more of a personal hero to me. He put fine lyrics to lovely melodies, and sang better than anyone else in the scene (unless you count Janis, and I don’t know that ”singing” is exactly what she did. Shreiking is more like it.) Behind all the stuff Marty did so well was something unique. He was a guy who sang unabashedly about the way he felt. Yes, John Lennon had broken that ground. But everything Lennon sang had a tinge of anger. Marty Balin expressed dark things too – regret, sorrow. But he also did love (and lust) and exuberance.
It’s obvious that the radical 60s were all about liberation – for blacks, women and gays, and from sexual repression. That time was also about the struggle for freedom from emotional repression.
When the Beatles hit and the girls screamed my parents pointed out that “they screamed for Sinatra, too,” as if that explained it. It didn’t. Sinatra and his ilk were all about pretending to express feeling while avoiding it. The way my parents did. The way I did, until the Beatles came along. I heard the Beatles and wanted to be free. I heard Marty Balin and wanted to be him.
Marty had a way of manifesting things that had previously been contradictory. His lovely tenor was androgynous, yet he was no wimp. When the Hell’s Angels started beating on a naked guy at Altamont Marty jumped off the stage to protect him and got knocked out for his trouble. He was smart, a deep thinker, yet when it came time to lay bare his heart he pushed all the thinking aside, and went for the gut.
But what was he doing now? I wondered as we sat in the Throckmorton along with maybe 150 people. Marty appeared with a guitar, a standup bass player and another guitar player. All acoustic, but plugged into amps. At first it was too loud for us geezers. But we got used to it.
They started with “It’s No Secret,” from the first Jefferson Airplane album, followed by some newer songs I didn’t know. They were decent, and at moments through the crummy acoustics I could tell, he still had his voice! That voice.
Marty hit a certain familiar riff and I got chills. I had hoped against hope that he would do my very favorite of his songs – “Young Girl Sunday Blues” from After Bathing at Baxter’s. Baxter’s was one of the only successful psychedelic art experiments in history – five brilliant but discordant personalities dropping a ton of acid at some spa and somehow emerging with a melodious masterpiece that speaks more truly of the High 60s than any other musical work. I was so smitten with “Young Girl Sunday Blues” back in the day that I felt compelled to perform it, despite the ridiculously high range. I could never hit the notes.
Marty couldn’t hit them now, either. So he sang the whole song on a lower harmony. Lesser singers might have copped out to a falsetto, but Marty Balin could no more sing in falsetto than Wyatt Earp could shoot with a pea-shooter. Unfortunately that made the song unrecognizable. All the time he sang the version from the record was playing in my head, and that thing I wanted so badly was just there, out of reach….No, you can’t go home again.
Or maybe you can. Because he followed that disappointment with “Today,” then “Coming Back to Me,” hitting the notes (they are ranged lower) and I was back in some dorm room, marveling at those words, at that unfamiliar tugging in my chest….
He covered Paul Kantner’s “Martha” from Baxter’s, and they extended the end into a little Grateful Dead style jam, and I thought – These are the original San Francisco Sound guys. Or at least one of them.
And then it was onto the Starship. Jefferson Starship is unquestionably a greasy, unclassy 80’s Big Hair band. In the early days of the Internet a number of “Worst Songs in History” lists were topped by “Built This City.” This is plain unfair. I can think of a hundred far worse songs. No, the unreasonable animus towards the Starship is really outrage at the chutzpah of implying this creaky vehicle could ever take you higher than the Airplane.
I like “Miracles,” despite it’s schmaltzy arrangement. Hearing it stripped of strings and Grace Slick’s over-enthusiastic harmonies
I realized just what an odd hit record it makes. The chord changes are all over the place and the form wanders, echoes of the eclectic, searching spirit which made Baxters.
“Hearts” is a well crafted tune, but it has an old standard vibe that threatens to reduce that voice to mere crooning. Still, a couple of days later it’s stuck in my head.
I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly cover “Volunteers” – a period piece if ever there was. Neither could he. He didn’t.
“Summer of Love” is a recent song that does a decent job of capturing nostalgia for the spirit of ’67, but with one poignant note. He sang:
Summer of Love, which I was a part of….
And I wanted to shout, Come on Marty, you don’t have to tell us. We all know!
He sang for a solid two hours, didn’t forget a single lyric, and was plenty pumped, a spry 72. Near the end of an extended encore he really loosened up (I suspect he shares with many great performers some stage fright.) His guitar player laid down a bump-and-grind riff, Marty unstrapped his guitar, grabbed the mike and lit into a most unusual song: “Stripper.”
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine….Take it all off!
He gyrated like a rock star, which was somehow surprising, except that of course he is one. But I detected in his smile a strong note of irony. Smart Marty.
As the song developed it became apparent that this was no mere sex song, but sex as metaphor for the very opening up of the heart that’s always been his gift to rest of us. He made it explicit:
Love is a stripper.
Stripping away all the defenses, all the delusions and fears.
He ended by turning the metaphor on its head, whispering some stuff that made the steamier parts of “Miracles” seem tame. I heard gasps from some of the gals (and guys) in the audience.
I’ll let Marty close this show:
Don’t you know that I have found it, maybe you’ve found it too
Today is made up of yesterday and tomorrow
Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow
My mother was a confirmed atheist. She believed in no higher power, in nothing that couldn’t be quantified. She barely believed in the existence of emotions. But everyone’s got to believe in something, even my mother.
She was an orthodox liberal who fervently believed in equality. Racism, anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and prejudice were deadly sins in her book, and they all grew from the original sin: stereotyping. Stereotyping arises from a need to feel that my group (insiders) is superior to theirs (outsiders.)
It’s an old, deep instinct. In one of its virulent forms – xenophobia – we can perhaps see that it once conferred an evolutionary benefit, because insiders may have had good reason to fear diseases carried by outsiders. A nasty vestige of this instinct can be seen in some people suggesting that the 50,000 immigrant children who recently arrived in the US must be carrying diseases. Never mind that the same thing has been said about every wave of US immigrants, and with as little reason.
After spending some time in Europe I observed to my mother how interesting it was that the French were great cooks and the Germans lousy; whereas the opposite was true of music. She excoriated me for stereotyping, and of course when it comes to individuals she was right: I have a good French friend who’s a fine composer, and learned to cook from someone whose family came here from Germany.
Since that run-in with my mother I hadn’t given the subject of stereotyping much thought until I started writing fiction. One of my pet peeves as a reader is cardboard characters, and I certainly don’t want to write them. Cardboard characters are two-dimensional, all surface. Rather than be formed of flesh and blood and strong bones they’re made of tics and tropes, the stuff of stereotypes. No matter how much adrenaline an author packs into a story, the story doesn’t touch me if I can’t identify with the people all the action is happening to. You can run a character over with a Mack truck, nuke them to smithereens, but I don’t care if they’re made of cardboard.
How do you write real characters? One way is by becoming a student of other people. By observing how they walk and talk, and listening to what they have to say, all the while populating an inner database of gestures, expressions, attitudes, accents, and yes, prejudices, because everyone has them. When it comes time to write you have a growing body of knowledge from which to draw.
I just moved to California from Massachusetts. I did not cross the great plains in a covered wagon, fighting off wolves and stereotypical native Americans, but flew. The morning of my flight the line at Jet Blue was long, winding around five of those corralling fences. It was too early. I was tired and toting too much crap. And I hate standing in line.
Lines evoke in me an irrational anxiety, a kind of social claustrophobia. One effect is to accentuate my sense of the others in line as outsiders. It’s like I see them through a dingy filter. They look all wrong, and I start thinking bad thoughts about them.
Judging. And stereotyping.
What’s that teenager doing wearing a Foxy Lady tee-shirt? The shirt doesn’t make her any foxier. And what the hell are those people doing wearing Hawaiian shirts, and laughing at 6:30 in the morning? Where’s the TSA when you need them?
A group of guys stands behind me. To now their conversation has just been a low menacing grumble, but they seem to be getting excited about something, and I catch a few words. The Venetian! Vegas! It dawns on me. Foxy Lady and the Hawaiian shirt folks and these guys are all headed to Las Vegas.
They coalesce in my fear-addled brain into a stereotypical group – Idiots who go to Vegas. Never mind that I’ve been there several times myself. Hey – I was there on business! I’ll admit, the lights were a kick, and so was looking down my nose at all the tacky hotels. Paris. The Venetian. Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio….
Because you see, I’ve been to the real Bellagio, up on Lago di Como (that’s Italian for lake Como, you morons.) I’ve been to the real Paris, and Rome, and Venice.
Bellagio, Las Vegas
They both have water, but….
Looking on those ersatz palaces was when my stereotype of Vegas-goers thrust its ugly head into the light, but its roots went deeper. Back to my mother. Because while she believed herself to be tolerant of people of all races and ethnicities, at the same time she was incredibly judgmental of the actual people she knew – family and friends. And judgmental of everyone else, on the basis of class. She was, in a word, a snob. She had a longer nose than anybody I’ve known, and looked miles down it at everyone with “bad taste.” Which is to say, different taste than hers, which was strictly Modernist. (Probably the reason I came to love all things Victorian, which she despised.)
I know exactly what she would have said about those folks on their way to Vegas. The same thing I was telling myself.
I turned and cast the corner of a jaundiced eye on the group behind me. Guys in their thirties. Vaguelly ethnic. Not Hispanic, but with broad faces….Armenian? I did business with some Armenians one time…. Probably wearing polyester, though with what I know about clothes I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. And then the kicker. Thick Boston Accents.
Judgment city. And then I remembered my new job – snooping, observing, filling that database. And before my eyes these cardboard jerks on their way to throw their money away, or whatever, filled out into three dimensions. Became real people.
They were on their way to a bachelor’s party. Along with about 15 cousins. (Damn, wish I had 15 cousins!) The guy doing most of the talking had been to the promised land of Vegas and was cluing his buddy in on it.
“You won’t believe the rooms at the Venetian – they’re suites! You walk down steps to the bedroom!”
“You’ve heard about the restaurants in the hotel, they’re amazing! But you’ve got to wear businessman’s casual. I brought a white shirt. That works with anything.”
“Good. I brought one, too. What about the gambling?” The second guy sounded worried.
The first guy laughed. “Drop a couple of bucks on the slots, say you’ve done it, then move on.” He reminded me of myself evangelizing about French Cathedrals and the ruins of Rome. Never mind that their Venice was fake. These guys were no longer part of an outside group, but we were in the same group. Of people searching for that quality buzz, the Higher Ground.
Before you start inviting me to the goody-two-shoes club I should remind you that I’m still a writer. That’s topsay, a vampire. Though I wished those fellows a fine time, I had no compunction about mining their supposedly private lives for my database and using them for my characters. I already have.
“Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” Horace Greeley said this, or perhaps not.
The view from my door.
How is it that I’m suddenly living in California, after 63 years on the East Coast? I’ve been asking myself this question for the last two weeks.
The easy explanation is that our son and grandson moved here and need our help. True, but it all started a long time ago, forty-four summers to be precise, back at the end of the fairy tale 60s…..
Once upon a time there was a young hippie who lived in Connecticut. Though enrolled in college he was not much of student, for he whiled away the hours playing guitar and reading books like The Electric Koolaid Acid Test. So he was forever dreaming of the Great Wizard Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who traveled the country in a Magic Bus experiencing unimaginable adventures, gobbling lysergic potions and dancing to the sounds of the Wizard’s minstrels, the Grateful Dead. The Wizard Kesey spoke in riddles. He said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” The young hippie didn’t know what this might mean, because when he looked around there was not a psychedelic bus in sight.
Then one day he was strolling down the big hill at the college when he saw a bus, and no ordinary school bus, but painted the blue of a robin’s egg. At that very moment the bus door creaked open and out popped the driver, a fellow in overalls with the longest beard the young hippie had ever seen, who smiled and waved, Come on board!
In no time the young hippie was “on the bus,” rolling away to parts unknown. Many hours passed in which he became ravenous. But all there was to eat was a sack of dried hippie cereal. He gobbled it by the handful until he felt a massive bellyache coming on. But neither the bellyache nor the dreary lowlands through which they passed could stop the quivering in his chest that told him some great miracle awaited him at the end of this journey.
Then they drove onto the grounds of some kind of outdoor stadium with an enormous stage high in the air upon which began to appear the minstrel heroes of his youth. It was hard to know which was more wondrous – Buddy Guy, The Band or Janis Joplin. And then as from the pages the book which had inspired his dreams, those minstrels from the legendary bus itself, the Grateful Dead, appeared and played well and sang not so well.
He was invited onto the train the minstrels traveled on, and who should he find eating scrambled eggs and toast like any ordinary hippie but Jerry Garcia, Guitar Wizard and chief minstrel of the Dead. He greeted the young hippie with a twinkle in his eye and agreed to be interviewed for the college newspaper. Soon the young hippie’s eyes where wide as saucers, for the Wizard spoke of wondrous things, not the least the fact that he was at that very moment still flying, having eaten a slice of birthday cake that had been dosed with the Pranksters favorite potion, LSD, as was the custom with the Dead.
The young hippie’s audience with the Great Guitar Wizard lasted long into the afternoon. By the time he got off the train he was sure he’d found that wonderful thing he’d ridden all this way to find. And indeed the Wizard had gifted him with the resolve to make his career in music. And so he did.
Yet something told him that it was not time to return home yet, that more wonders awaited him out in the great land. He abandoned the big blue bus for a small blue bus, a VW camper, and continued west with two friends from the college. Their friendship was fair, and the food was better on the small bus: now they shared once a day a whole pot of brown rice with a can of Campbell’s Soup. Even so the young hippie became hungrier and hungrier as they crossed misty mountains and traced deep dark canyons on their way West.
The young hippie became convinced that the mysterious thing he sought must lay at the very edge of the continent, that the sight of the Great Pacific Sea would be a wonder all in itself.
And so it was. They stood high on a cliff gazing on a vastness that made the Pacific’s sister the Atlantic look pale and piddly as a mud puddle. The sun was about to set and the three hippies simultaneously had the same thought – How much more wondrous would this sunset appear if they could taste of the magic potion?
At that very moment some local riffraff appeared from the beach below sold the weary travelers a potion, which they ate. The great glowing orb went down. As it approached the horizon, already resplendent with colorful jiggles and squiggles, its bottom flattened and oozed to the sides so that it resembled nothing so much as a hat. The travelers looked at each other. Was that it, what they’d come all across the continent for? Did that hat somehow contain that illusive answer, the answer to the question of existence?
They would never know, because like that the sun was gone and they stood down on the beach in the pitch black with an icy wind howling at them from Japan right through their bones. The riffraff who’d sold them the potion did have the sense to make a fire, but soon as they approached it to get warm it blew smoke in their eyes. And the riffraff spent the rest of the night telling over and over of things too boring to repeat, for it turned out they were not only riff raff, but morons.
By the time the sun finally reappeared the young hippie vowed that we would never dark the door of that potion again. And to date he has not.
It was high time to return East to the college, but one last wonder beckoned: the fabled city of San Francisco, promised land of the hippies. Yet when they reached the streets of Haight and Ashbury they found them to be not paved with gold, and as by some curse emptied of every last hippie, with not even an emaciated speedfreek in sight.
Where could the hippies have gone? Another friend from the college had told them of a girl who lived up in Marin north of the City. They drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and were immediately swallowed by the mouth a dark tunnel, and despaired, except that one of them pointed to the rainbow painted around the mouth of the tunnel and said, “I think this is a friendly tunnel.”
And so it was, for they emerged into the little village of Mill Valley, a place so rustic and cute and crawling with granola that they thought they must have dreamed it. They wound up an enchanted canyon through swirling fog to the girl’s house where she invited them in and showed them the stream that ran right through the living room, and as was the custom they cried, “Oh, wow!” And then she further blew their minds by opening her vast refrigerator, saying, “my food is yours,” and handing them her stash, “And these magic herbs, too,” and pointing to beds with thick mattresses and clean sheets, “And here you may sleep.”
To say that they were hungry at this point is to say that the Great Sea is full of water. They smoked some of the magic herb and ate a bologna sandwich, and then another one. They went outside and craned their necks up at red-barked trees that stretched to the sky. And the young hippie pronounced, “I shall make my home here, in Hippie Heaven.”
But the young hippie returned to the college. Many years passed in which he grew old. His music flourished, yet not so much that he was rich. He was not the last to discover that Hippie Heaven, and soon the houses became more expensive. So though he sometimes visited San Francisco, he could never afford to make it his home.
Until now. I’ve been living for the last two weeks up a canyon in Mill Valley. It’s only til the end of the month, as we look for a place that we can afford in the East Bay.
I have long believed that if you want something badly enough, for long enough, you’ll get it. Oakland may no be Mill Valley, but we’re here, in the Bay Area, and it’s a kind of promised land.
This post is an experiment. I normally never listen to music when I write. Like many musicians music can never really serve as background for me. I can’t help listening to it, and it’s distracting to my words. Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s new album Lights Out.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with my nineteen-month-old grandson. He has a limited vocabulary – “wa-wa” when he wants a drink, “whee-whee” when he hears a siren, “dig-dig” when he sees a bulldozer, apparently the most fascinating thing in the world. When he sees anything or anyone else he likes he yells, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and I can’t help but think he’s inadvertently quoting The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” number one exactly fifty years ago.
The world blasts into my grandson’s unjaded consciousness unfiltered, and his reactions blast out, unsullied by second-guessing or consideration of what anybody might think of him. It was the same when I first heard The Beatles. My musical ears were fresh as J.J.’s and I responded with my own unembarrassed “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I joined a Beatles imitation band and in a few years gave up the dreams of parents and grandparents for me and dedicated my life to music.
Fifty years later I’m done with making music and happy to finally be able to listen for sheer pleasure, without studying what I’m hearing. The problem recently is that I’ve got nothing to listen to. My ears have gotten jaded. Nothing’s been doing it for me – not Jimi Hendrix, Nerina Pallot, not even J. S. Bach, my ultimate fallback. Even the most sublime music gets tired when you hear it too often.
The obvious thing is to find new great music. I’ve been looking. And looking.
Today it found me. I was messing around on itunes when in its wisdom it flashed a banner for the new Ingrid Michaelson album, Lights Out, a wisdom informed by my previous purchases of Ingrid’s previous efforts, Everybody and Human Again.
The song that first sold me on Ingrid Michaelson was “Ghost.” It’s one of the all time great pop torch songs. I’m always a sucker for strings, and it’s got plenty, woven into a masterful and dramatic arrangement. I’m an even bigger sucker for a big hook melody, and it’s got that too. Ingrid’s voice whispers, weeps and wails its way through a downright harrowing tale of someone reduced by bad love to a wraith, desperately clinging to the melody like the lover she’s lost.
Like all great pop records I’m swept up in the sound, and only listen to the lyrics later. To find that they’re as impeccably crafted as every other aspect of her productions.
As I moved on from “Ghost” I was surprised to find that Ingrid’s “Ghost” voice was only one of several. Like the great Dusty Springfield she can reinvent her pipes when the song requires it.
And many of them do, especially on Lights Out. Here her songwriting ranges from exuberant pop (“Girls Chase Boys”) to “Ghost”-like haunted (Open Hands) to spooky and experimental (Handsome Hands), blue eyed soul (“Warpath”) to the exquisite and transcendent (“Wonderful Unknown.” ) This last song is about marriage, a sweet memento mori in which love and impermanence are perfectly balanced. The ostensible hook, (“Here we go…”) is a feint that disguises the real hook, which snuck up and eventually knocked me right on my ass. She sings it with husband Greg Laswell, in what I can only hope is a testament to an extraordinary marriage: “In the best way, you’ll be the death of me.” Lurking around the back of the arrangement are the Mellotron flutes from The Beatles “Fool on the Hill.” Almost enough to make me think she knows I’m listening…
I had a bad moment with that hook, afraid I’d just been infected with an earworm. Then came the next song, and the next with hook after hook and they somehow miraculously canceled each other out, conferring a kind of immunity. For now.
For all of the stylistic variations, Ingrid Michaelson never forgets her main mission –distilling emotion to a luscious 190-proof, as seductive and potent as the finest Absinthe, then serving it up with spoonfuls of caramelized sound that remove any hints of wormwood. Because make no mistake, this woman’s feelings run deep and sometimes dark.
There’s an ingenuousness in her voice that confers trust – the trust that she won’t lie about those feelings. It’s a quality that’s sorely lacking in so many female pop singers of recent decades, who emote and caterwaul and perform melismatic acrobatics, but whose real message is “buy my record.” (I’m not naming names – last time I did I got the Pomplamouse minions after me. It was bad.)
Many of Ingrid’s early songs, like “The Way I Am,” display a naiveté and tendency to repetition such that they could almost be mistaken for children’s songs. But the simplicity of her recent work is that of mature art, which comes from paring away all unnecessary ideas and attitude.
It’s a testament to the fallen state of the music business that this artist, who fifty years ago would have been on a major label and world famous, languishes on her own label, and is far from a household word.
Except that as of yesterday Lights Out was No. 3 in all music on Amazon. And right next to Linda Ronstadt, another woman who knows a thing or two about expressing emotion with her voice. (Sadly silenced.)
And so just in time for Easter and Passover and pagan Rites of Spring, music is reborn, at least for me.
So what’s the result of my experiment? It’s got me feeling a bit like my grandson. When it comes to Ingrid Michaelson right now, I’m all “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Nothing wakes the inner child like music and art. Except maybe the outer child.
Until a few years ago if you wanted your book published you had two options: find an agent to take it to publishers, or hire a vanity publisher. The first option was uncertain, and took a long time. The second was expensive, and (after your mom and best friends dutifully bought) saddled you with a basement of moldering books. And perhaps worse, the scorn of published authors, who considered vanity publishing the last resort of a failed writer, somewhere between shoplifting and child molestation.
In 2010 a third publishing option appeared: self-publishing, via outlets like Amazon. The avatar for this new option was Amanda Hocking, a 26-year old unpublished writer of paranormal books for Young Adults. That April she was broke and wanted $300 to travel to Chicago for a muppets convention. She uploaded one of her books to Amazon. A year later she was a self-published millionaire.
Others followed on her heels, and writers took notice. I was among them. I’m lucky to have an agent. One of my novels has been making the rounds of publishers since last spring. But I’ve been writing for ten years now, and I’m not young. So I’ve been looking into self-publishing.
Thanks to the Internet there’s a blizzard of information on the subject. I take it with a grain of salt, because outside of the occasional newspaper article, most of it comes from people involved in self-publishing. Many of them are authors who have taken to heart the advice all writers (including those traditionally published) are given today: create a social medium platform. Self-published writers blog and tweet about…self-publishing. Advising other writers to blog about self-publishing.
It’s not just writers. As in the California gold rush, people have figured out that there’s more money in hawking picks and shovels than there is in prospecting. So cottage industries have sprouted up offering tools to the DIY author: editing, cover art, manuscript critiques, and endless marketing advice.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned. If I decide to self-publish I can have a book up on Amazon in a matter of hours, and begin collecting royalties immediately, at the rate of 70%. If I wait (and wait) for a traditional publisher I’ll get less than that rate – Amazon takes 30% from all comers, and a publisher needs to make money. On the other hand, a publisher will pay me an advance. And my books will appear in bookstores, and might get reviewed by traditional media, things which won’t happen if I self-publish. As much as ebook sales have increased, they are still only 20% of the market.
The arguments of some of the most vehement advocates of self-publishing, like J A Konrath are rooted in the belief that there’s simply more money for the author in self-publishing, and they are persuasive (at least when you’re reading Konrath. He’s a very persuasive guy.)
But mercenary as we writers can be, there’s more than money involved. There’s art. And there’s prestige. I can’t help but think that the intensity of many of the arguments in favor of DIY publishing stems from a chip on the shoulder, the sense that “real” writers are somewhere out there dissing them as “failed writers.” And it’s true.
The real imponderable for me is – who reads self-published books? I’ve read a few in my genre, mystery/thrillers. They’re not terrible, but they lack nuance and complexity, attributes I hope my books display.
On the other hand (and this is an area where there always seems to be another hand) I’ve read about how the traditional publishers have been abandoning mid list authors as they chase the next blockbuster. Some of those mid list authors are very good, and where will they go? To Amazon. Will their readers follow?
For now, I’m waiting. But I don’t have forever.
This post was originally published on Cognoscenti, wbur.org’s ideas and opinion page.
Sometime in the early sixties my father took me to see Pete Seeger at the local High School. It was my first concert, and the first time I’d seen a banjo. What I remember most of that night is my father’s loud baritone as he sang along with Pete, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union…until the day I die.” My father had real trouble expressing his emotions. It’s the thing that made him such a good writer. He wasn’t a great singer, but singing was another way he was able to express what he felt. We didn’t watch much TV in our house, but even if we wanted we couldn’t have seen him – he was still being blacklisted.
A couple of years later, a month and a day before JFK’s assassination my father took me to see Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan University. I remember his booming voice – I’m sorry to say, clearer than Pete’s voice – but again what most brings back that night is the sound of my father singing along next to me – “We shall overcome some day.” I didn’t know that night that Pete Seeger was the reason we sang that song, the reason it became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
Later as the 60s went crazy and tore a rift between my father and me, I’d forget that the man who railed against long hair and loud music (and for a while anyway, the anti-war movement) had once stood up for the unions, and blacks, when it wasn’t easy. That he’d covered the Army-McCarthy hearings for the Baltimore Sun and stood up to the Senator from Illinois.
Pete was there at Newport when Dylan went electric, and though he never threatened to cut the wires with an ax, that apocryphal story lives on because it so neatly captures the rift among lefties wrought by another kind of ax – the electric guitar. My dad hated them, and I don’t think Pete ever liked them much.
A year or two after seeing Pete play that banjo I saw one next door at the house of the chairman of the Wesleyan music department. I pestered my mom to buy me a banjo, and she finally relented and got me an acoustic guitar, saying “Banjos are too weird.”
I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and got an electric guitar and played in a Beatle imitiation band, launching a career as a musician. I didn’t think to thank Pete, but he’s right there in the chain of events that led to my becoming a composer.
At a left wing camp in 1967, the Summer of Love, we proto-hippies sang “Where have all the flowers gone.” Just as “We Shall Overcome” symbolized Civil Rights, this song found its way into my heart as the best shorthand for my connection with the Peace Movement. Again, I didn’t know to thank Pete Seeger.
The closest I ever got to the Bible in my agnostic upbringing was my dad reading Luke on Christmas eve. When I heard the Byrds chiming Pete’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” over the radio, I fell in love with three-part harmony, and considering the source of the song, thought for the first time that maybe there was something to the Bible after all.
Pete Seeger “stuck with the union” until yesterday. He never gave up on the causes dear to him – peace, and cleaning up the Hudson River. He stood in the rain and snow and protested wars well into his nineties. I still don’t understand why they never gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.
by John Manchester
Most Fridays in the fall of 1963 my father was working at American Education Publications, publishers of “My Weekly Reader.” I was in my eighth grade class.
But that Friday, November 22nd, my father picked me up early from school in his green Austin-Healey Sprite. My father loved that car. He’d grin and say, “Let’s go for a spin,” crank the top down and we’d go flying out over the hills of Middletown, Connecticut. The Sprite gave him license to become a different person from the tightly wound writer who worked all day as an editor, then wrote late into every night. He was always writing. Even at dinner you could see the phrases playing on his lips, almost hear the whirr of his brain.
The air rushing past loosened his tongue, and he told me stories. were another form of writing – its purest. He told those stories well. He’d aspired to acting before writing, and it showed in the dramatic pauses he inserted to set up the sotto voce hiss of a villain, or a single word sentence for effect, so clear you could hear the period. My memory of those tales is sweet and warm, although they were anything but. His stories were inevitably dark, from the bizarre to outright screaming horror.
We headed to my soccer game, the only sports event of mine he ever attended. Which was fine by me – I was as hopeless at team sports as he’d been as a kid. He was clumsy as an adult, and never overcame the shame of being the last to be chosen when he was young. That Friday I was strangely hopeful what had been missing all along in my game was my dad’s presence. That wasn’t the case. With him there I was bad as ever.
And then the world stopped. Someone stalked onto the field and announced, “The president has been shot.
The world started again. Now I made no pretence of trying to connect with the ball, because I was blinded by tears. How could we still be playing this foolish game.
Finally, the game ended. My father didn’t say anything about our loss, or about the news. He just got in his car with a strangely apologetic expression, gave a little wave and drove off without me. I rode home sardined into the back of some mom’s station wagon, an extra passenger. In that era before seatbelts, we usually took that opportunity to horse around. Not today. We didn’t make a sound, didn’t move. There was just that voice on the radio, and the faintest candle of hope. Sometime during that ride the voice snuffed it out:
“President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 p.m. Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas.”
The car dropped me at a friend’s, where I stayed for the next four days. I didn’t see my father again until I got home. We never discussed it, but I can only think it was because he couldn’t bear for me to see him do what his father had forbade him to do: cry.
That March, Jackie Kennedy asked him to write the definitive account of her husband’s murder. He’d met John Kennedy on the Boston Common shortly after World War Two, and counted him as a friend.
In the fall of 1964 my mother and sisters and I followed my father down to Washington where he was busy interviewing 1000 people for his book. We lived in a fine Victorian House a few blocks from the Washington Cathedral. My father was pleased as punch that the great journalist Walter Lipmann lived at the end of our block, and Kennedy friend and humorist Art Buchwald lived around the corner. We watched LBJ’s inauguration that January from the window of my dad’s office in the National Archives.
Johnson was the only person with whom my father never got an interview, though not for lack of trying. He told me how he’d go to the White House at dawn and camp out until dusk waiting to nail the president. When they finally met there was still no interview – only the offer of a “bourbon and branch water and the dirtiest joke I’ve ever heard.” (He never told me what it was.)
That spring my father took me to meet Bobby Kennedy, then a New York senator. The senator spent 10 long minutes with a pimply kid who didn’t know the first thing about politics or history. He recounted his recent climbing of Mount Kennedy in Alaska. I was surprised that he was so short. He was the first of a few important men I’ve met who had that knack of locking eyes with you and making you feel like you’re just as important as they were.
My father had an inhuman capacity for work. A colleague from back in the 1950’s accurately tagged him: “Bill Manchester is a writing machine.” By fall of 1965 he’d completed his 1000 interviews and returned to Middletown Connecticut to write about the assassination. When he later wrote that he was working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, he was not exaggerating.
The work was emotionally grueling. He watched the Zapruder film of the assassination 75 times.
I was away from home for the first time that fall at boarding school, but returned Thanksgiving. I stood numb in the front hall as men in white coats wrestled my father down the stairs and out into a waiting ambulance. He spent three weeks in Elmcrest Hospital across the river. “Resting” my mother told me.
In the spring of 1966 my father finished writing his account of the assassination, put well over a thousand manuscript pages in a large suitcase, hauled it to New York and delivered it to Bobby Kennedy’s people. He was also happiest writing, and immersed himself in the project the Kennedy book had interrupted – his account of the German munitions dynasty.
He was unaware that his writing was about to be interrupted, and that life as he’d known it up to then was about to be over.
Neither Bobby nor Jackie Kennedy read the manuscript, instead handing it to various minions. The initial reports they gave my father were positive, but soon he began hearing complaints that the book was unflattering to President Johnson. Johnson feared – with good reason – that Bobby would challenge him for the nomination in 1968, and Bobby’s people were all hungry for jobs in a new Kennedy administration. It would not do to anger the President.
And so my father was dragged into presidential politics. Bobby’s people started picking at the manuscript, and it went on for months. My father would make the requested changes, but there were always more.
By the end of July my dad thought he was finally in the clear: He had a telegram from Bobby, which he saw as a green light for publication.
And he was suddenly, unexpectedly rich.
Most of the proceeds from The Death of a President would eventually go towards the creation of the Kennedy Library (over a million 1967 dollars.) All that he retained aside from the advance that he’d long since depleted was the magazine rights. But, T they became the subject of a bidding war. Look won for the then record amount of $665,000.
My father took the family up to Belgrade Lakes in Maine for a very well-earned month long vacation. I always looked forward to our vacations, because they were a time when he finally set down his pen, relaxed and spent time with me.
It was not to be.
The phone was already ringing in a the tiny cabin next to the water when we arrived.
The call was from Homer Bigart at the Times. Jackie viewed the Look magazine sale differently than my father. It was the beginning of a very public battle over the publication of the book.
I’d walk past and hear him his voice raised in anger and incredulity. I barely saw him, so I had only the faintest idea of what this battle entailed. But I could feel something huge going on.
I only remember seeing him once that August. He emerged from that cabin, pale, blinking in the sun. He was grinning. “I just spoke to Henry Luce, who was on his boat. He said, ‘What will it be, Manchester?’ I said two words, FUCK YOU, and hung up on him!”
I was shocked. Like every other boy at my school fuck was a mainstay of my vocabulary. But I’d never heard him say it.
I said, “Who’s Henry Luce?”
My father, exasperated – as if I should know this- said, “The publisher of Life magazine. The most feared man in my business. He’s the William Randolph Hearst of our time.”
What my father told me couldn’t have been true exactly. First, Look won the magazine rights before we got to Maine, so any phone call would have taken place back in Middletown. Second, it was Life’s managing editor, George P. Hunt, not Henry Luce, who was on a boat at the time, and who was representing Life in its bid, and was therefore the man to whom my father would have delivered his answer. But Hunt didn’t have a phone on his boat – that fact was the very reason Life had dropped out of the bidding with Look. During the crucial hours of the auction Hunt had been at sea, incommunicado.
Perhaps he moved around the details for effect, maybe I misremember. At the time I honestly had no idea what he was trying to tell me. Now I do. He was saying that he was now playing with the big boys. Playing, and winning.
Jackie Kennedy, like Bobby, didn’t read the manuscript. Instead she assigned the job to her secretary, who joined Bobby’s people in demanding changes from my father.
It was a David and Goliath story – my father and his agent against some of the most powerful men, and the most admired woman, in the world.
My father flew from Maine to Hyannis, and had a bizarre meeting with Jackie. He saw Bobby in Washington. They continued to demand changes to the book. They escalated. Bobby decided the book should not be published at all. The lawyers stepped in.
Jackie sued my father to stop publication.
They gravelly misjudged their opponent. My father was the most stubborn man I have ever known. He’d been given extraordinary access, done what he considered an extraordinary job, at great cost to himself. And he owed publication of this work to History.
They duked it out on the front page of the New York Times, on Network TV. My father escaped to London on the Queen Mary. The night before he sailed he heard the former Attorney General of the United States pounding on the door, demanding admission.
They followed him the England. My father got a bad case of the flu. He told his agent, Don Congdon, “I have reached the point where, if the integrity of my manuscript is violated, I have no wish to go on living. It sounds vainglorious, I know, but I am ready to die for this book.”
That fall my father was becoming world famous. I was in my second year at boarding school. My father told me he was afraid I’d get kidnapped, like the Lindberg baby. I laughed. I was sure kidnappers had nothing on the resident bullies.
The one perk of my dad’s fame was that I now longer had to correct people when they called me “Mansfield.” Mike Mansfield was the majority leader of the Senate, but he wasn’t on the front page of the Times every day.
My father returned from England and the circus came to Middletown, Connecticut.
Our gray colonial house had a bright red door. Growing up my father bragged, “It’s the only one in town.” It made me feel like we must be somehow special.
Apparently I was right.
I came home for Christmas to find the house surrounded by TV trucks, reporters crawling in the bushes. My father was literally hiding in his study in the back of the house above the kitchen. My mother hated his fame from day one. When the knocks on the door came she said to me, “It’s good you came home. You answer it.”
I was happy to. I stood there grinning, babbling, pleased to have somebody’s attention. But all they wanted to know was, “Where’s your father?”
The day after Christmas his flu turned to pneumonia and he went into intensive care at Middlesex hospital. The TV trucks followed him. One Kennedy person said, “Christ, I thought we’d killed him.”
On January 16th, 1967, my father and Jackie signed a document releasing the book for publication. The Death of a President became an instant bestseller. All of his books that followed were bestsellers.
His fame was a mixed blessing. It allowed him to pursue his passion – writing – fulltime. But he was intensely shy, and though he enjoyed praise, he also squirmed in the spotlight.
One of the great ironies of my father and I is that in 1968 we were together on the campus of Wesleyan University. He was a distinguished scholar in the office the university had given him high in the columned Olin Library overlooking the campus.
I was a freshman living in a small, cinderblock room.
But the contrast between our stations only begins there. Wesleyan was at the forefront of the liberation movements of the 60s. My father embraced the first wave, Civil Rights, taking me to hear Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan just a month before Kennedy’s assassination. But as women and gays started clamoring for rights and as the anti-war demonstrations became louder and more frequent, this ex-Marine dug in his heels and said – enough. He clung to Victorian values, and retreated into writing history.
My first class was English 101.
The professor introduced himself, and said, “We will start with a book by a great American author…” His words brushed against my face, slightly annoying, like sand on a beach breeze. “…a great American author, William Manchester, a man whom I am privileged to call a friend. ‘THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT.’ I sat up straight in my chair, my heart racing.
The professor continued, “Bill’s a personal hero of mine, and I am pleased to have his son in our class!” He pointed at me. I blushed and slunk behind my desk. I didn’t hear another word he said, and when the bell rang I fled and never came back.
People occasionally asked me, “”What’s it like having a famous father?”
And I’d answer quite truthfully – “I never think about it.” The effect that his fame might have on me was too enormous. It was years before I finally faced it.
At the end of that semester I crept to the office of that English Professor. We were both frankly in a bind. If I flunked English I was likely to end up in Vietnam. The professor had another problem. How was he going to explain to his good buddy Bill Manchester that he’d failed his son in English, of all subjects?
His proposed solution was that I read that damned book and write a long paper of it. With only hours left in the semester I read the book in one shot – all 750 pages, wrote the paper, and escaped by the skin of my teeth. What started as an onerous task ended with my honest conclusion that it was a great book.
In the months after my mother died in 1998, a picture of Jackie Kennedy appeared on the antique cabinet behind my father’s place at the head of the dining room table in his house in Middletown.
I never gave it more than a cursory glance until after his death in 2004. Now I did. She appears statuesque, like some ideal of feminine beauty, more lovely than any flesh and blood woman could be in any real moment. Her luminous eyes stare out at someone other than me, no mere man, but some Prince. Her image is as otherworldly, as idealized as some portrait from the height of French Romantic painting.
Why she should have been banished from our house while my mother lived was no mystery: my mother hated her. And not without reason. It wasn’t just that during the mad fall of the Controversy he’d slipped on occasion and addressed my mother as Jackie.
My mother saw Jackie as a rival for my father’s affection.
In flesh and blood, he stayed married to my mother for all her life, through thick and paper thin. But he spent much of his time in a parallel world of mythology – where the heroes and devils of his books fought their great wars, where people appeared as archetypes, where sons still wear crew cuts and daughter dutifully marry. In that world Jackie Kennedy was the epitome of womanhood, and the unrequited love of his life. How could my mother ever compete with that?
After he met Jackie at the beginning of their ill-fated project, he wrote, “ She’s incredible. She’s all woman. You’ve got to spend time with her, to see her in the full spectrum. When she looks at you with those big eyes…’” It’s clear he was smitten.
Later as feminism took strong root at Wesleyan, my old school father clung even tighter to his notions of how women should be. And Jackie came to represent all that he believed was being lost. He wrote.
“If she met your plane at the Hyannis airport, she automatically handed you the keys to her convertible. Men drive, women are driven: that was the logic of things to her, and it is impossible the think of her burning a bra or denouncing romantic love as counterrevolutionary.”
My father’s unusual capacity for loyalty is no better seen than in his actions of early 1968. It was barely a year after he and Bobby Kennedy butted heads. Bobby and Jackie had by all accounts “treated him shabbily,” as one player in the Controversy put it.
Yet here he was campaigning for Bobby for president, writing op-eds, speaking at a rally at Madison Square Garden.
In the terrible days after Bobby’s assassination, Jackie wrote him letter to thank him. He attached a copy to the back side of that picture of her. It’s inscribed:
“For Bill – with my best wishes always – Jacqueline Kennedy,” in her fine finishing school hand, and reads in part:
“I thank you with all my deepest heart – for President Kennedy – For Bobby
– For me – For everyone who will ever know or hear of what you did —-
because they will be made better by it – far into hundreds of years from now.
And you must always know – in these last months of such pain and toil for him – you gave him something so fine – You gave him
just what he was pleading for others – a wiping off of the blackboard of the past – a faith in now – and a generosity of such
magnitude and sacrifice -
Thank you dear Bill – with all my heart – those two pathetic inadequate words – but I mean them so much – with my deepest
gratitude – and always, affectionately
Reading the letter I felt myself temporarily under her famous spell, understood how he could have fallen for her. He hadn’t just cooked up her myth by himself. She’d colluded.
The picture at the head of his table confirmed that though once banished, he’d been invited back, would always have a place at the table of Camelot.
When she refers to “what you did” lasting into the future she doesn’t mean supporting Bobby – though that’s the ostensible purpose of the letter, but the writing of The Death of a President.
Ironically, thanks to the terms of the settlement she signed with my father in 1967, the book was long out of print I am pleased that The Death of a President is finally available in a new paperback edition, and as an e-book, which I’m hoping will attract younger readers.
My father gave his all in the writing of The Death of a President, investing part of himself that he and my family never completely retrieved. That’s what lends the book such passion, and what makes it indispensable to understanding the wound that dark day in Dallas wrought on America.