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

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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

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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.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

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(Update: Petty died Monday night.)

Tom Petty was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Most rock musicians are fans, of course. That’s why they become rock musicians. John Lennon idolized Elvis Presley; Kurt Cobain was fond of Black Flag. But Petty both wore his love of music on his sleeve — and got to be friends with his heroes.

He and the Heartbreakers got to back up Bob Dylan — and then he was in a band with Dylan (and George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne). Petty and the Heartbreakers later backed up Johnny Cash. And Petty, ever the fan, was genuinely pissed that pop and rock broadcast radio became boring and flat. That wasn’t what he signed up for. (He later created his own show, much like his friend Bob.)

Tom Petty is in grave condition. Earlier today, CBS News reported that he’d died after apparently suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, less than a week after concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.

But as of 4:35 p.m. ET TMZ said Petty is still “clinging to life,” though he’s off life support and not expected to live past today. I hope TMZ is both right and wrong. CBS, now citing the LAPD, has pulled back on its obituary, and others that ran with the news are now backtracking, too.

He’s always been a fighter.

I could never say I was a hardcore Petty fan, unlike friends who have all his albums and were working his songs into their setlists 30 years ago. (Fans beget fans, the wonderful way of the world.) But I loved much of his music. “I Need to Know” is still a model of a balls-to-the-wall single (the fact that it couldn’t get into the Top 40 is criminal); “Love Is a Long Road” pours out both desperation and a touch of hope; “Girl on LSD” is the kind of absurd toss-off that’s all too uncommon in our smug and cynical times.

He could be passionate. Years before “The Last DJ,” it was Tom Petty who fought his record company from raising the price of what became the LP “Hard Promises” to $9.98. Petty was going to retitle the record “$8.98,” then the standard list price for albums, if he didn’t get his way.

He got his way.

His hero-friends, half a generation older, seemed to treat him like a welcome, impish younger brother. I’ve long felt, fairly or not, that it was Petty who gave Dylan his sense of humor back after that sometimes dour mixed bag of early-’80s albums. I don’t know that Dylan would have worked in a reference to Joe Piscopo on “Infidels.”

I also think it was Petty who was the secret weapon in the Wilburys, though this was a group with a world-class voice and a ukulele collector.

Then there was Petty the quiet observer. The best example of this Petty is “To Find a Friend,” off 1994’s “Wildflowers.” It’s as muted and finely wrought as a Raymond Carver short story:

In the middle of his life
He left his wife
And ran off to be bad
Boy, it was sad
But he bought a new car
Found a new bar
And went under another name
Created a whole new game

(Tom, I’ll forgive you for using “quiet as a mouse.” You knew what you were doing.)

I remember reading an article about Petty learning the craft of songwriting. I’m probably screwing up the timeline (and the story, for that matter), but what I recall was a Petty at loose ends after Mudcrutch, his earlier band, had broken up. So he’d sit with famed producer Denny Cordell, who’d signed him, and listen to record after record. Cordell would explain structure and musical choices, and Petty lapped it up. (Having colleagues like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench didn’t hurt his education.) He wore those lessons on his sleeve long after he became a platinum-selling artist and created his own distinctive sound — passionate, a little funny, humane.

After all, he was a fan.

Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

Goodbye, Chuck Barris

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Image from NBC via Philly.com.

I knew who Chuck Barris was even before I saw him.

I was the kind of kid who watched shows right through to the end credits, and I noticed the Chuck Barris Productions logo was very similar to ABC’s and Dick Clark’s. That made sense, since both Clark (who employed Barris in the late ’50s) and Barris had relationships with ABC. (It’s hard to beat a Paul Rand logo.)

Game show geek that I was, I did watch “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” though I didn’t understand any of the snickering double-entendres both shows wallowed in. But somehow I knew they were related to Barris, and that his shows were low-brow fun. (He also did “The New Treasure Hunt.”)

Then came “The Gong Show” and Chuck the smarmy host.

Oh, man, did I watch “The Gong Show.” I loved how they gave out $516.32 for the big prize. I loved the Unknown Comic. I had no idea who Jaye P. Morgan was, but I knew Jamie Farr from “M*A*S*H” and Gary Owens had that wonderful voice.

And then there was Barris, clapping his hands, making crude jokes, taking off his bow tie within five minutes of the show’s opening. Stupid? Absolutely. Fun? Of course.

Of course, “The Gong Show” quickly got mannered — what started out as something between a real talent show and vaudeville became a planned freak parade — and “The Gong Show Movie” was even worse. (Yes, I paid to watch it in the theater.) And “The $1.98 Beauty Show” never did it for me.

But Barris was always a fascinating figure. He liked us to think so, anyway. Who else would claim he was both a TV producer and a CIA agent?

Chuck Barris shuffled off the stage Tuesday. Much to his credit, he wasn’t gonged.

We’ll leave you with Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.

Sunday reads: Chuck

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Some stories about the death and life of Chuck Berry, the man who helped start a revolution:

And if you aren’t in the mood to read, well, just listen. Nobody said it better than Charles Anderson Edward Berry.

Robert Osborne, 1932-2017

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Image from classicmoviefavorites.com.

Robert Osborne, the knowledgeable and gracious host of Turner Classic Movies, died Monday. He was 84.

The Los Angeles Times has a wonderful obituary of Osborne, who had a career as an actor before he went into journalism and then television hosting. He had a number of small roles in the ’50s and ’60s, including a bit part as Mr. Drysdale’s assistant on “The Beverly Hillbillies” pilot.

He acquits himself fine, but I’m glad he went into journalism. Lucille Ball, a mentor, told him, “We have enough actors. We don’t have enough people writing about the industry.”

For more than 25 years he wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter. He was absolutely trusted by many starts; THR has columns by several of them today, all of whom remember him fondly.

I met him just once, when I went over to Turner’s Midtown Atlanta complex to do a brief story on TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar.” He was, of course, charming and kind. He sent me on my way with one of his coffee-table Oscar books. Nobody knew more about the awards and the history behind them. (Not even my friend Tom O’Neil, and Tom knows everything.)

Osborne had been taking a smaller role on TCM, ceding the stage to Ben Mankiewicz and newcomer Tiffany Vazquez, but even when he wasn’t on screen, he was always there. He will be greatly missed.

RIP, man who changed my life

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Image from lostwackys.com.

One day when I was a teenager, I stumbled on the October 1, 1973, issue of New York magazine. Somehow this particular issue, released at the height of Watergate, knew the roots of the person I was to become a few years later because in it there were articles about two satirical creations that had a profound impact on me: Mad magazine and Wacky Packages.

The latter was perhaps my first knowing experience with satire. It was sometimes blunt-force satire, easy jokes for pre-adolescents, but for a 9-year-old kid trying to find an attitude to approach the world, it led to everything else. As I wrote in 2008 upon the release of a “Wacky Packages” book:

From there, it was a short trip to Mad magazine, “Saturday Night Live,” National Lampoon, punk rock, trolling used-book stores and record stores, and indulging in other mind-rotting activities (memorizing trivia, creating puns) until I became the skeptical, disillusioned writer you have before you.

(Incidentally, except for this blog, I don’t usually write in the first person — sorry, Jan and Mira, who always wanted more of me in my pieces — but I made an exception here, because, well, Wackies were so essential to my being.)

I write all this because Jay Lynch is dead. He died Sunday at 72.

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In memory of Bharati Mukherjee

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Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. Image from Getty via the San Francisco Chronicle.

My memories of Bharati Mukherjee are misty and faint, mixed with the everyday trappings of a creative writing class. A classroom at Emory, perhaps in the Humanities Building, the fall of 1983. The ditto paper on which we typed our short stories and the smell of ink from the mimeograph machine on which we copied them for the rest of the class. A semicircle of students offering criticisms. Sunlight through the windows. Private jokes.

And this beautiful, sometimes imperious, woman who spoke in elegant, sonorous sentences, making suggestions, soliciting critiques, and always reminding us to make sure we made copies of our stories for everybody. There was a box on the floor outside her office where we’d leave them.

Professor Mukherjee — Bharati — died Saturday. The news started making the rounds yesterday, and I saw some of the obituaries today.

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