Death haunts an evening: Harlan Ellison and the Annapolis shooting

I am writing this from a lonely hotel room in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s less than five miles from my home, but it feels like it may as well be on the other end of the earth. A contractor is renovating the bathroom, and today’s the day he removed the toilet and, for various reasons, won’t be able to install the new one until tomorrow. There’s only one bathroom and only one toilet in the house, and the last thing I want is to wake up and need to go (especially if it’s more than a 3 a.m. urination).

So here I am. 

And I’m sad. Not just because of the hotel room. Not just because I had to leave my cats — to whom I’ve become frighteningly attached — behind for an unexpected night. (I’m sure they care less than I do.) But because death is haunting the evening.

Earlier today, a gunman shot up a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. At least five people are dead. And Harlan Ellison, one of the formative writers of my youth, has died.

Harlan first. I seem to recall meeting him many years ago, and he was as impish and fiery as I’d imagined. Or maybe I DID imagine it, because I inhaled his books in college — not just the short story collections and “Dangerous Visions” (which he edited), but his fine, pointed essays on television, collected in “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” — and talked to him in my head so often it felt like I met him.

He was singular, Ellison was. He was relentlessly cynical and yet startlingly optimistic. He had the balls to tussle with Frank Sinatra and the bleeding heart to write heartfelt appreciations to his heroes. He sued at the drop of a hat and laughed about everything.

His stories were much like him: sprawling, laser-hot, unkempt, brazen, challenging, empathetic. 

I haven’t read more than an interview with him in years. But he made his mark. I’ll miss him.

There’s a perverted irony that he should die just hours before the shooting in Annapolis. Irony because he would have expected such an act in this razored country, but he would have howled at it, too, just as he always howled at injustice and meaningless violence.

Once I was a journalist. I wore the description reluctantly, because I worked among the real thing — people who’d worked their way up to CNN through a half-dozen local newspapers, who made calls to cops and widows, who could crank out a perfect 600 words with the deadline dragon breathing on their necks. Me? I was an old English major who loved to write, but thought I’d end up in a safer, less frenzied place. Nobody was more surprised than me when timing plucked me from free-lance “content” writing and quickie features and placed me in the CNN newsroom. I tried to earn my keep every day.

CNN, you may have read, is an “enemy of the American people.” I don’t know how that can be said. The CNN.com newsroom is full of hard-working staffers who simply try to tell the truth. And if the TV network side can get sensational — and I have my complaints, too — blame the medium and its corporate masters, not the folks in the field.

I’m still a journalist, I guess. Not a daily grinder and not for a media organization, but still a guy trying to tell stories and stick to the facts. That’s all most journalists do. And most have spouses and children and live where they work and do their jobs the best they can. That’s harder than you think given the hits local press has taken, financially and otherwise.

Think of them. And think of Harlan, that old storyteller. They make a difference in this cold world.

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Philip Roth, 1933-2018

philip-roth
Image via Showbiz411.com (of all places).

Philip Roth died last night. He was 85.

I don’t have much to say to add to the appreciations and accolades he’s received in death, as he did in life. Baseball writer Bill James once noted that Hank Aaron ended his career with a brilliant “finishing kick,” piling up home runs in what should have been his waning years to surpass Babe Ruth. Roth, too, had an amazing finishing kick: In his last 20 years as a writer — after he turned 60 but before he finally put the pen down for good in 2012 — he wrote “Sabbath’s Theater,” the amazing “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” “The Plot Against America” and “Everyman.” Roth should have been rewarded with the Nobel Prize, but for whatever reason — anti-Americanism, distaste with the accusations of Roth as misogynist (ironic, given the reason there will be no Nobel Prize for Literature this year), simple dislike of his work — he never got the award.

It’s the Swedish Academy’s loss. Everybody knew Roth ranked as one of the greatest writers in the world, and perhaps — along with Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo — the greatest living American novelist, period. The Nobel would have been a mere rubber stamp, if an incredibly valuable acknowledgement.

I’ve probably read just under half of Roth’s books, and I’ve rarely failed to be bowled over, even with slighter works such as “Indignation.” Simply put, the man could write, and his later works had an energy — a distillation of force, rage, empathy and, yes, humor — that I could only envy.

“American Pastoral,” in my opinion the greatest Roth novel, bursts with such power and fluidity that I sometimes felt I was inhaling it, particularly his exacting scenes of glovemaking in Newark (how does someone learn about that lost trade and describe it with such poetry and precision?) and the appearance of Swede Levov’s daughter as a squalid Jain. I’ve always felt the book falls apart during the closing dinner party, full of Levov’s ruminations, but the material before that is among the greatest I’ve read.

“The Plot Against America” is painfully prescient and “Everyman” is a gorgeous, if melancholy, eulogy.

I haven’t loved it all. I was bored by the Zuckerman books, particularly the one largely set in Eastern Europe. And I’ve put off reading others — “I Married a Communist,” notably — because … well, his books can be heavy, and it’s easier to deflect.

(Of course, they’re also brave. In “The Facts,” he talks about his feelings upon hearing that his ex-wife — a troubled woman who caused him much grief — has died. He was thrilled, freed of alimony payments and practically skipping home, if I recall correctly. Roth often used his life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing many elements to the point where the reader wondered if he was writing memoir or simply playing with literary convention or both, but this has the ring of truth.)

For a Jewish (and American) male, I came to Roth late. I never had to read “Goodbye, Columbus” in high school and didn’t really get into him until the ’90s, though I’d read “The Counterlife” and “The Great American Novel” years before. (I should pick those back up … but I say that about a lot of books. I’m just now reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” for the first time in 30 years!) He was an author I always admired; in his later years, though, he became undeniable.

When I was at CNN, I desperately wanted to interview him, but his publisher’s PR rep couldn’t convince him. He apparently expected interviewers to be highly conversant with his work, and he had a narrow set of news outlets he talked to — The New York Times, NPR, the Guardian. CNN (or CNN.com), he probably felt, wasn’t in their league.

He was probably right; he would have had to announce he was fucking Britney Spears to move the needle on traffic. Even then, the average CNN.com reader would likely have wondered what this Roth fellow did for a living. (I seem to recall that Saul Bellow’s obituary was one of the most poorly read stories the day it appeared, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez probably did well only thanks to international users.)

Anyway, the giant is gone. May his memory be a blessing — and may the rest of us never look at a “maddened piece of liver” without laughing.

 

 

Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326
Image via Rolling Stone.

The story goes that Tom Wolfe, having spent months reporting and not writing a story on car customizing in California, was pressed by Esquire editor Byron Dobell to come up with something, anything, because Esquire had just spent $1,000 on a photograph of some of the cars and was going to run a piece in the next issue. Wolfe had until Friday, Dobell told him; the photograph would go to the engraver on Monday.

On Friday Wolfe called back. He was blocked. Esquire editor Harold Hayes made plans for another Esquire editor to turn Wolfe’s notes into a workable piece. So Dobell told Wolfe to type out his notes.

According to Carol Polsgrove’s “It Wasn’t Pretty Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties,” Wolfe sat down at 8 p.m. that night. Ten hours later he pulled the last of 49 pages from his typewriter. Dobell pulled the “Dear Byron” salutation, made some minor edits, and the piece ran in full as “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …” (The headline was courtesy of David Newman, who with Esquire pal Robert Benton later wrote the “Bonnie and Clyde” screenplay.)

That Wolfe story has been told in pretty much every Wolfe obit I’ve read today, as the great American author died Tuesday at 88. (Some sources list him as 87.) And no wonder; it’s symbolic of the beginnings of what’s been called the New Journalism, which is the kind of journalism most every journalist aspires to write — not just AP-style inverted pyramids, but colorful, rapturous, liberally punctuated reportage that reads like fiction.

I know I wanted to write like that, and I didn’t even aspire to be a journalist. I just wanted to have one-fourth the zest Wolfe instilled in his works.

Gay Talese may have been more formal — Wolfe could never have gotten away with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or that great Joe DiMaggio story in which Marilyn Monroe tells DiMaggio, “You never heard such cheering,” and DiMaggio responds, “Yes, I have” — and Wolfe’s New York Herald Tribune colleague Jimmy Breslin may have been more earthy. (Breslin’s story of John F. Kennedy’s gravedigger, written on deadline when the rest of the journalism world was looking in the opposite direction, is one of my all-time favorites. I wish I could write like Breslin, too.) And no tribute to Wolfe should be without a tribute to his editors, including Dobell, Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner. Somebody had to let the greyhound run.

But Wolfe, who coupled hyperbole (all those exclamation points!) with such precise detail that it seemed like he lived in his subjects’ lapels, was a style unto himself. (Literally, too.)

He chronicled celebrities and their milieus, but he never wrote the expected hack profile. Tell him to talk about the New Yorker, and he positively sneered at what was then the fattest, richest magazine in America. Let him in to Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panthers fundraiser, and you got “Radical Chic.” Even when he did approach hagiography, as in the portrayals of Chuck Yeager and the Mercury astronauts in “The Right Stuff,” it was leavened with such grit and realism — what they call reporting — that it was earned.

Wolfe could drive me crazy. Sometimes, particularly after he became the regularly best-selling brand name Tom Wolfe, his reported essays approached polemics. I share his dismal opinion of Brutalism, for example, but his shots in “From Bauhaus to Our House” feel gratuitous.

The same attitude could infect his novels. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his debut novel, had a brilliant eye for ’80s New York, but upon my rereading it a few years ago its characters were revealed as cardboard cutouts. “A Man in Full,” his expansive novel set partly in my longtime hometown of Atlanta, managed to miss the more cosmopolitan aspects of what is admittedly still a provincial place — of course, so is New York in its own way — and also had one of his characters making an impossible trip from Midtown to Buckhead. (There’s poetic license, but should it carry over to making Piedmont Avenue one-way in the wrong direction?)

By the time I finished “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” I thought he’d let his reporting become almost superfluous, a few glittering details he could attach to laments on the demise of Western civilization.

Still, the glittering details and the language was what mattered, so that’s not taking much away from a man whose descriptions of clothes, accessories, vehicles, housing, and even genitalia bordered on the fetishistic, they were so rich. (It’s no wonder his phrases — “Me Decade,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic” — entered the lexicon.) In doing so, he captured whole worlds — often those of the wealthy, but also those of the rest of us, scrambling to climb the American ladder. Indeed, Wolfe’s works, taken together, were nothing else if not the story of the United States in the last chunk of the 20th century.

All in all, it makes for one hell of a story. I’m glad Wolfe got to write so much of it.

RIP, Doctor.

Review: ‘Avid Reader’ by Robert Gottlieb

Avid Reader: A LifeAvid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about “Avid Reader.”

You’d think Robert Gottlieb would have a rich life to draw from in his memoir: a Manhattan childhood; an early, perfect job as an editor at Simon & Schuster; an even more perfect job as the editor-in-chief at Knopf; editor of the New Yorker; and relationships with dozens of the century’s most famous writers, including Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Caro, Joseph Heller and John le Carre.

But, to steal a line from another review on Goodreads, Gottlieb could have used a good editor.

“Avid Reader” starts out reasonably, with Gottlieb’s descriptions of his distant parents and his experiences at Columbia and Cambridge. There are hints of joy, stray bits of sadness (a rushed first marriage in particular) and the confidence of a man who, once he finds his course, plans to follow it with energy and devotion.

Which, frankly, he does. But he leaves the rest of us behind.

The problem, to me, is in Gottlieb’s bloodless style. “Avid Reader” reads like one of those drippy Bob Colacello Vanity Fair articles about wealthy WASPs or European nobility, with the tone of an overly pleased man who wishes to convey how wonderful life is for his elite friends while avoiding making any waves so he can get invited to the next party or return unscathed to his comfortable life.

So everybody is dear and talented and handsome and admirable and interesting and charming, and his family and their families spend vacations together, and he’s been friends with them for 20 years, or 30 years, or 40 years, or until they die, at which point he gives a pleasant eulogy.

Even his critiques come off as quibbles: Michael Crichton “wasn’t a very good writer,” more interested in machines than people; Katharine Hepburn was needy; William Shawn was sad. (He does get in a sharp poke at Shawn’s mistress, Lillian Ross, whose book “Here but not Here” “embarrassed everybody but herself.”) This is generous of Gottlieb – and Lord knows I’d rather have a kind-hearted observer like him than an axe-grinder like Michael Wolff – but the overall effect is breezy and shallow, with no details on how he figured out advances and print runs, shaved words from “Something Happened,” or dealt with most of the New Yorker writers.

He does offer useful glimpses of many people, but they’re just that: glimpses, like brief scenes caught from a fast-moving train.

It’s not like Gottlieb doesn’t have material to work with. At one point he underwent classical Freudian analysis, visiting an analyst four times a week. But he reveals little and when his therapy is done, so is he with the subject.

Or his occasional trips with pretty assistants. These are all platonic, he says, and I have no reason to doubt him; his wife, he mentions at one point, doesn’t like to travel. (And they’ve been married for more than 40 years.) But he’s almost too casual in the way he brings it all up. And as for his long marriage, about the only rough times we’re exposed to have to do with his son, who’s on the spectrum. But even that works out after a few pages. No guidance, few musings, little pain.

No soul-baring, in other words, for better or for worse.

I wish I could be more generous about “Avid Reader.” I still admire Gottlieb’s work – the list of the books he edited would make an excellent course on 20th-century literature. And the book is certainly well written. But it may have been better served as a magazine article (ironically, it was condensed to one in Vanity Fair) or an appearance on a talk show.

Even there, Gottlieb would probably fall far short of one of his mentions, the raconteur Alexander King – though, given the usual seven minutes and three anecdotes, few would notice. The short form may have been the best form for “Avid Reader.”

Sorry, Mr. Gottlieb. May I suggest you talk to Terry McDonell?

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Review: ‘The Accidental Life’ by Terry McDonell

The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and WritersThe Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers by Terry McDonell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like any good book, Terry McDonell’s “The Accidental Life” kept me riveted from the get-go, laughing out loud, admiring occasional turns of prose, angered on his behalf and unwilling to turn to the last page.

I even cried at the end.

If that’s unusual behavior for reading a memoir – and a memoir about journalism, writing and editing, of all things – well, McDonell’s is an unusual book. For one thing, it’s not written in the classic, clichéd “And then I …” succession of chapters. (Not that McDonell wouldn’t have had an excuse: the guy was the editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Us Weekly and Sports Illustrated, among others, and even blow-by-blow accounts of his adventures would have been quite entertaining.) Instead, McDonell wrote the book as a series of vignettes, some as short as a sidebar, others worthy of an SI bonus piece. He even offers word counts and “ENDIT”s.

For another, McDonell spends little time blowing his own horn. Oh, you can tell he’s proud of his work – proud of increasing profits and raising circulation, proud of succeeding at the weekly or monthly grind of the magazine business. But what he’s really proud of is giving writers an opportunity. Some are well-known figures he sought out, such as Thomas McGuane or George Plimpton; others are people he helps to elevate to new, and deserved, heights, such as Tim Cahill, who got the job of a lifetime when McDonell made him a go-to correspondent for Outside.

And he loves writers. McDonell is no slouch himself; his prose is diamond-hard, free of the kind of windiness that someone like (well) me would indulge in. (You can see he learned his wire-service lessons well.) But he often breaks to quote from one of the many people he edited or knew, passages that obviously have great emotional meaning to him. He defers. He quotes Liz Tilberis, a fellow editor (she was at Harper’s Bazaar), when she was confronting her death. Or James Salter on his free-spirited days in London. Or Tom Wolfe on LSD.

I’m reminded of generations past, when people were taught to memorize poetry and could quote a verse when grasping for invention. (Witness Robert Kennedy informing a crowd in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had died.) It’s a sign of both knowledge and humility, of deep feeling. It’s also a vanishing talent, if “talent” is the right word. McDonell would probably gently offer a better one.

He offers capsule profiles of a number of figures, perhaps most notably McGuane, Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke and Warren Hinckle. (Hinckle, who edited the seminal ‘60s journal Ramparts, gave Thompson his break as a gonzo journalist.) He’s fair to all, celebrating their strengths and lamenting their flaws. If he has some axes to grind, he’s remarkably dispassionate about them.

Late in the book, he has a chapter on SI’s Rick Reilly, who’d become the magazine’s star with his humor-filled back-page columns. Reilly had become smug about his fame – McDonell describes him as “a cocky teenager” – and when he finally left for ESPN, McDonell wrote an editor’s letter focusing on the future, not the past. Reilly was pissed and wrote McDonell a furious email that ended, “Screw you sideways.” McDonell says that Reilly was right in his fury. I don’t think I would have been so generous. But then again, Reilly had been getting on my nerves for years. (I will give him credit for one of the funniest jokes I ever read in any magazine, that “La Quinta is Spanish for ‘next door to Denny’s,’ ” but that doesn’t make up for years of overpraised casuals. Steve Rushin may have been too heavy on the puns, but I got the feeling the guy’s heart was genuine.)

None of this is to downplay McDonell’s own story, especially if – like me – you’re fascinated by an era when many editors were household names and Time Inc. offered generous expense accounts. He built some magazines from nothing, others into something new, and was fearless about pursuing name writers, even if most of his readers wouldn’t recognize the names.

And when it all comes crashing down after the fat-and-happy ‘90s, McDonell gives the digital world his best shot but, to mix metaphors, he was tilting against a rising tide.

“When we did talk about our journalism, the naïve thinking among most of the editors was that we just needed our resources back,” he writes. “We should have been thinking about content-management systems to deliver what we had.”

It’s revealing that SI came up with a particularly good digital model, but couldn’t make it work in Apple’s iPad platform because Steve Jobs wanted the subscriber data, including credit card numbers. Jobs was thinking about his own model, of course – that’s why Facebook and Google are so powerful – but it ends up killing the eggs, if not the goose. Which is where we stand today, with magazine circulations down even as everything is slapped up on the web, free for the taking.

I have to strain to find failings in “The Accidental Life.” I wish McDonell had offered more about HIS accidental life – the private side, that is. He’s apparently at least once-divorced and, given some anecdotes, unafraid of adventure, but there’s little internal probing. The book is about writing and writers, and for the most part he stays in that lane — when it comes to others, at least.

Still, there’s plenty of soul, even if you have to read between the lines to find it. And much to learn, especially in this age of soulless algorithms.

“When bad editors talk about mix, they mean formula: how much service, how much news, how much celebrity and, most recently perhaps, how many top ten lists of ways to serve kale,” McDonell writes. “They should think about eccentricity: what is the most surprising piece they can run without leaving readers scratching their heads, or alienated and angry.”

It’s no wonder I enjoyed Terry McDonell’s magazines, and it’s no wonder I loved his book. Thanks for the surprises, Terry.

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Review: ‘Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine’ by Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone MagazineSticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a friend who isn’t interested in reading “Sticky Fingers,” the new biography of Rolling Stone co-founder and media mogul Jann Wenner. He explained that after reading too many rock ‘n’ roll biographies that are essentially litanies of sex, drugs, bad behavior, sex, drugs, and sex and drugs, he’s not interested in another one.

I can’t really blame him, but with a caveat: “Sticky Fingers” (an oddly appropriate title for the digit-in-every-pie Wenner) isn’t really about sex and drugs. It’s about money and power.

Wenner was born to money – new money, but money nonetheless. His father, Edward (whose last name was originally Weiner), founded a San Francisco-based company selling baby formula. It was the beginning of the baby boom, and business thrived.

His mother, known as Sim, was an unhappy housewife – a lesbian who thought she wanted a standard family life, but quickly realized it was a gilded cage. She and Wenner’s father divorced when he was a teenager.

Wenner – born “Jan,” a spelling he changed during his college years at Berkeley – was a precocious child who, like his mother, grappled with his sexuality. Unlike her, however, he didn’t come to terms with it until well into adulthood. It’s a plotline that comes to the fore throughout “Sticky Fingers,” often presented in gossipy ways. I’m not sure Hagan could have been higher-minded in discussing it, but after awhile the list of Wenner’s affairs, with men and women, becomes boring despite its alleged salaciousness.

The blunter throughline, however, is money. Wenner is presented as always on the make, a Sammy Glick for the Age of Aquarius.

Rolling Stone, which he co-founded with San Francisco music writer Ralph J. Gleason, does have its ideals, but Wenner never fools himself – as its staffers sometimes do – that he’s in it for justice. He sees his generation the way Madison Avenue did: as a bunch of free-spending consumers, whether buying LPs, cigarette papers and stereos or – later – cars, computers, diapers and liquor. That 1980s “Perception/Reality” ad campaign reflected Wenner’s true values.

And he wasn’t wrong: Apparently a lot of Rolling Stone readers DID vote for Ronald Reagan, despite the stories in William Greider’s politics column. (Of course, as one staffer notes, Greider’s work was always some of the least-read in the ‘80s version of the magazine.)

Which is not to say that the self-styled “Citizen Wenner,” who loved the movie “Citizen Kane,” didn’t also pride himself on creating a bold, muckraking magazine. One turning point was running the lengthy 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview, which smashed some of the Beatles’ myths and, not coincidentally, boosted circulation at a time when the magazine was running aground financially. Another was hiring Hunter S. Thompson, who gave its political journalism a distinctive voice – also expressed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas and Joe Klein.

In typical Wenner fashion, however, he managed to alienate John Lennon by pursuing more money out of the interview – publishing a book under RS’ aegis, one that Lennon explicitly told him not to do. It was not unusual behavior; over the years, Wenner would make enemies of friends, often shrugging it off as the price of business. (Even Gleason, whom Wenner idolized, fell away.)

But hey, business was very good. As RS’ chief stockholder, Wenner started living a life that was unavailable to many run-of-the-mill magazine editors. First he hung around with rock stars and record men, befitting their chief courtier. Then it became producers (“SNL’s” Lorne Michaels) and the Aspen/Sun Valley elite. The residences got more ostentatious; so did the overall lifestyle. I gasped when Wenner got a $300 million loan to buy back some stock and “would pay back nary a dime … funneling all the profits directly into his lifestyle.” This was in 2006; you know how the story ends.

I also gasped – or grimaced – upon reading how Wenner protected friends at the expense of journalism. It’s long been known that he’s played favorites on the review pages, making sure his pals in the Rolling Stones get glowing reviews for their crummy post-“Tattoo You” albums. (Of course, this may be payback for the crummy reviews folks like Lenny Kaye gave now-classic Stones albums like “Exile on Main Street.”) But I was surprised to read that he also gave interviews and cover stories to their subjects for vetting.

Bad form, Jann.

But, after awhile, the gasping and grimacing gave way to simply going along. Though the book makes a nice corrective to Alex Gibney’s too-glowing documentary on RS (which was produced in cooperation with the magazine), it’s missing the depth of Gibney’s interviews, which provided some nice context for the magazine’s evolution from music rag to respected periodical. It’s as if Hagan took one person’s jibe at Jann – that he simply rode a good idea for all it was worth – and overplayed it. Every so often Wenner the editor-in-chief comes into view, a man who is pretty good at his job, but then goes away in a cloud of money.

Sex and drugs, too.

As noted, there is plenty of sex and drugs. It was the ‘60s, after all; the ‘70s and ‘80s, too. LSD and pot give way to heroin and cocaine; free love gives way to slick sex and safe sex. Wenner and friends partake of it all. He manages to stay (reasonably) clear-headed while many around him fall apart.

Not the least of them is Wenner’s long-suffering wife, Jane, who was instrumental in molding the early Rolling Stone and smoothing Jann’s rough edges. Often ignored by her husband – who was busy either with the magazine or his famous friends – she plowed much of her energy into decorating, sex and drugs. The last wasn’t as easy for her to shake off as it was for her husband: at one point she’s described as so strung out that she won’t get out of bed for several days.

And that’s not counting the stories of other RS notables, especially famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose relationships with her subjects went well beyond taking pictures. At times chronicling these escapades is revealing. Leibovitz, for one, was discouraged from joining the Rolling Stones on a tour for fear that she’d barely emerge from the other end. She did the tour and, indeed, began a downward spiral that wasn’t turned around for a decade.

But more often it’s simply wearying. It’s a shame because Hagan also writes well when he has rich material, such as Wenner’s relationship with record labels and their moguls (such as Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun) and his willingness to go out on journalistic limbs when necessary (it was Rolling Stone that broke the full story on the Patricia Hearst kidnapping).

Hagan has some stylistic tics. He occasionally recapitulates some events as if you hadn’t just read them a chapter or two before. He also narrates too much, instead of letting some observers, such as Cameron Crowe, do the talking. (In Hagan’s defense, in some cases the observer didn’t give him an interview.)

He also gets some easy things wrong. “Saturday Night Live” comes live from Studio 8H, not 3H, and Dave Marsh – though he edited the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” – sure as hell didn’t write every entry.

But, for the most part, Hagan appears to have gotten it right. I do wish his portrait of Wenner were more well-rounded, but that probably says more about Wenner than it does about Hagan. As it is, “Sticky Fingers” says a lot about how money can’t buy ultimate happiness, but it sure as hell can buy so many other things.

Sex and drugs included.

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Review: ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire’ by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every generation has its observers who think things are bad and getting worse. Usually mass media has something to do with it: Neil Postman believed we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” while Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book about how we were drowning in “The Shallows” of the Internet.

Frankly, I think they’re right.

It’s not for nothing that one of my all-time favorite movies is “Network,” which has more prescient words (usually delivered by Peter Finch as Mad Prophet of the Airwaves Howard Beale) than an encyclopedia of predictions. I think the end is coming, and we’re bringing it on ourselves.

“Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” railed Beale in 1976 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Because, he explains, “less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”

That’s happened, of course. Television – particularly television news, because at least the storytelling part of TV got better since the days of “Kojak” – is in the hands of large corporations who need ratings and advertising dollars, and the best way to accomplish that is with outrage and emotion.

That’s especially true of cable news. CNN manages to undercut its worthy journalism with flashy graphics, overly dramatic anchors and those infuriating he said-she said panels that expand nothing besides the egos of its members. Most of Fox News, especially its nightly commentary shows (which too many people confuse with “news”), insists that the country is being destroyed by a cabal of whomever its audience believes is most threatening – people of color, environmentalists, coastal academics, Democrats. (Oh, if only W.E.B. Du Bois were still alive to frighten them today.)

And the Internet? Never has so much bad information been so readily available to so many who will believe so much. Did you know that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim socialist? Or David Rockefeller had seven heart transplants? If it’s online, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln said that. (Unless, of course, it’s “fake news,” which is defined as anything Donald Trump doesn’t like.)

Into this hopeless chasm plunges Kurt Andersen, Spy magazine co-founder, former Time magazine reporter and current “Studio 360” host. His “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” attempts to figure out how this great experiment of a country decided to forget about objective reality in favor of truthiness.

He generally blames the twin strands that have shaped America from its beginnings: religion and money.

The latter helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. And the former helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. We’ve never shaken off either, and these days the two are more powerful (and bound together) than ever.

After all, the Puritans weren’t exactly welcoming, even-tempered colonists – and they begat Anne Hutchinson, who Andersen observes tried to be more pure than the Puritans. A fanatical anti-intellectual, she defamed ministers and believed she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Andersen sees a direct connection between her and many Americans of today: “Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” he writes.

She was exiled, but then so were so many other religious groups that have woven their threads into the American fabric. Many of them are now accepted, because in America that’s what we believe in, even if we yell and scream about it.

You may think Andersen is just talking about the Religious Right, which has distrusted science and reason in favor of Bronze Age storytelling. And he does have harsh words for them. But he also rips into the left, including self-aggrandizing psychiatrists, New Age searchers and anti-establishment hippies. In fact, it’s that ‘60s concept of “find your own truth” that ends up being the sword brandished by the right wing in promulgating THEIR own truths.

So everybody ends up in the muck.

Andersen makes a number of good points in “Fantasyland,” but – ironically – he has too much to work with. After a first half setting things up, the second half of the book becomes a polemic, with Andersen plowing through megachurches, chemtrails, vaccinations, guns, the underbelly of the Internet and, of course, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian himself – the logical outgrowth of all this fantasy. It’s powerful and distressing stuff, but it’s almost too much. Better – if that’s the right word – was Charles P. Pierce’s more studied take in “Idiot America,” or Jon Ronson’s inquisitive “Them.”

Andersen’s writing style also leaves something to be desired. He has a tendency to write crescendoed, Tom Wolfe-ian sentences, which can curdle into Tom Wolfe-ian irritability when the book enters its polemic stages. (I like Tom Wolfe, but he generally knows when to exercise control.) Worse, I lost count of the amount of times Andersen would describe some historical personage without giving his or her name – ever. “The owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” “a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission,” “a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences” – these may be minor characters in Andersen’s history, but they have names, and it’s Journalism 101 to provide them, even if nobody knows who they are.

Still, I enjoyed much of “Fantasyland,” if “enjoyed” is the right word for listening to an increasingly frantic author ponder a country circling the drain. However, you may want to have a movie handy to counter the sinking feeling you have when you finish.

I recommend “Idiocracy.”

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Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

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A few words in defense of #CNN

cnn.mousepad

I worked for CNN for 16 years, and I don’t think a month went by when I didn’t bitch about the place.

Some of my complaints were simply attempts to blow off steam. Why is the CMS down again? Why do I have to change that headline? Do we have to do that bullshit story simply because it’s trending?

And then there were my deeper concerns, ones that have provoked debate in newsrooms since there have been newsrooms — questions about ratings/traffic vs. news value, questions about ethics, questions about quality.

But for all of my bitching, I was proud to work there. It was, and still is, full of intelligent, thoughtful people.

I could be cynical — most journalists are — but, as George Carlin was fond of saying, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. You don’t deal with so much human weakness without a little bit of hope that things will get better, and that you can make a difference.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I was in no way a capital-J Journalist — someone who, in my estimation, lived and breathed for scoops in pursuit of The Story (I would rather delete my overabundance of email and get a good night’s sleep) — but I cared deeply about the news, about covering it right, about fairness and accuracy and truth.

And if there’s one truth I know for certain, it’s that my colleagues cared just as deeply. And they still do.

So it makes me angry to see my old employer attacked as being “fake news,” and to see many of my old colleagues’ faces in an anti-Semitic meme. (By the way, despite my departure 15 months ago, you’ll find me in the bottom row.)

I know a lot of people hate journalists. Reporters, in their minds, are pesky busybodies who won’t leave well enough alone. They don’t pay attention to certain stories, and pay too much attention to others. (And you won’t get an argument from many reporters, who would just as soon be chasing something more meaningful than whatever the shiny object of the day is — and these days, when analytics can tell us exactly what people are looking at and for how long, there are a lot of shiny objects.)

Journalists keep asking why — and when, and where, and who and what.

But consider the recent stories that have prompted much of this backlash against the news media: the tangled relationships and communications of a certain high-ranking businessman/politician. Simply the fact that he’s important (the most important, in fact, the biggest, an incredibly important person) makes the stories newsworthy, and if you’re CNN — or any news organization, frankly — you have a responsibility to see where they lead.

As we saw from the story the network pulled a couple weeks ago, CNN is not infallible. You’re only as good as your sources, and in a volatile world where everybody has an agenda, it can be incredibly hard to nail things down. It’s happened to the best.

But CNN, like most other outlets in the so-called “MSM,” owns up to its mistakes when they happen. I have my issues with the network — I think the TV arm (like pretty much all profit-chasing TV news) has come to feel like an all-day edition of “Crossfire” with too much heat, too little light, a sad reflection of the old local news philosophy that sensation sells. But the organization is full of outstanding and humane people trying to make sense of real life that affects real people, and you can see its work on the website, CNN International and even on the main domestic network when Jeffrey Lord isn’t arguing with Van Jones.

Real life isn’t a wrestling match. And I know I’d prefer a sense of “presidential” that is less like Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (who, to give him credit, was possessed of some modesty).

On this Independence Day, the anniversary of when this representative democracy was founded, we should continue working towards “the more perfect union” the Constitution writes about. CNN and the news media, for all their faults, are central to that effort.