Almost Famous....Again! - A Recovering Exhibitionist's
Brush with Notoriety
Every once in a great while, a former life comes back to haunt one. This time it arrived in the form of an email to my wife from someone named Stroma Inglis in London:
I have been trying to track a contact down for Ed for about three weeks
and finally I have an eamil for you. I am writing to you with a filming
request for Ed regarding a show that we are filming for Channel4 in the
UK. It is part of the UK Music Hall of Fame series"World's Greatests Gig.'
One of the featured concerts is Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square
Garden in 1974 and I understand that Ed was at the concert and party and
interviewed Elton." Heartening as it was to learn that it had taken her
so long to track me down, a request like this could only mean trouble.
I thought immediately of something Susan Sontag once wrote about still photography, a medium that I consider far less invasive and threatening than film or video:
"Although reason tells me the camera is not aimed like a gun barrel at my head, each time I pose for a photographic portrait I feel apprehensive. This is not the well-known fear, exhibited in many cultures, of being robbed of one's soul or a layer of one's personality. I do not imagine that the photographer, in order to bring the image-replica into the world, robs me of anything. But I do register that the way I ordinarily experience myself is turned around."
Several years ago, I decided to experience myself differently and give everyone else a break as well. I stopped drinking and made a conscious effort to become a phantom of print. That I pretty much ceased at that time to exist as a social entity has since been a great comfort and a point of pride to me. Being disembodied, so to speak, has spared this recovering exhibitionist untold embarrassment and remorse, providing him with at least the possibility of aging gracefully. Now I was being asked to break the solemn covenant I had made with myself and once again let the demon of my narcissism out of his cage. Frankly, the thought of it was more terrifying than any rational person may be able to understand.
So, ignoring my wife's protests (although Jeannie, perhaps more than anyone, understands the reasons for my retreat, she also thinks I go too far and am in danger of becoming antisocial), I fired back the following email:
Yes it was a great gig. As I recall, John was wearing a big rhinestone (diamond?) pin on his jacket that said 'Elvis" and sang "Whatever gets you through the night" while chewing gum, which struck me as quite a trick. And the after party was fun because Elton had a kind of hissy fit at some woman and her husband, calling her a 'fookin slag' and demanding that they be thrown out. Buts as for your request that I go on TV to talk about the event, thanks but no thanks. I'm busy writing at the moment and am one of those people who is better read than heard I'm afraid. Really, I'm sorry, but I'm kind of reclusive and don't have any reason to want to go on TV. I wish you all the best with your project however."
And that, I thought was that, until Stroma wrote back, "That is such a massive shame as your stories are so fantastic. I would love you to change your mind as our director is really lovely and we would only need you for a short amount of time."
This time I didn't reply at all. But Stroma was not to be deterred; next, she left a message on our answering machine, giving her cellphone number and imploring me to "get back for a chat."
It was beginning to feel like harassment and I was prepared to ignore the phone call, too. But the sound of an actual pleading human voice seemed to activate Jeannie's innate altruism, as well as her better business sense.
"Please stop being so stubborn and just do it," she said. "How do you know the publicity from something like this won't somehow be helpful to us in the long run?'
Not only is Jeannie my wife, a formidable position in itself (I think of John Mortimer's name for his character Rumpole's spouse: "She Who Must Be Obeyed"), but as editor and publisher of the magazine that I write for she is also technically speaking, my boss. So, I skulked over to the computer and laid out my terms: The interview (assuming I agreed to it) would take place "in the room that I laughingly refer to as my study, which is covered with books, pictures and all kinds of other crap and is my natural habitat"; it could not take too long and we would have to do it in the next couple of days, since" as with a dental appointment, the longer I have to think about it the more chance I might cancel."
"There will be no drilling or scraping but I can't promise no bright lights," Stroma wrote back. Then, after saying how 'gutted" she was that she would not be able to come along with the crew, she hastened to mollify me with the facile flattery of her trade: "I will talk to Ryan (our lovely director) today and let him know to make the interview as short as possible. You are such a star and I really appreciate this, Ed"
* * *
Wednesday turned out to be a bad hair day for The Star, who woke even more reluctantly than usual and barely grunted grudging assent when Ryan the lovely director, rang up at ten to confirm if it would still be possible for him and his crew "to call by at eleven."
"When I told him it was still on, he went 'Brilliant!'" I said after hanging up the phone.
"That must be the British equivalent of 'Awesome."
* * *
Led by my wife, the instigator of my misery, they came tromping into my study like an RAF patrol with their tons of equipment. While Ryan, who with his shaven head looked like the rock star Michael Stripe, chatted me up amiably, telling me what a fan he was of my writing for Rolling Stone, his three elves--the camera man, the sound man and the lighting man or "gaffer" - went about efficiently transforming the room into a TV studio. They covered all three windows and set up tripods, reflectors and umbrellas. The two chairs from my writing desk and my drawing table were positioned to face each other for the interview. Ryan scanned the cluttered walls, asked if he could "borrow" a large photographic portrait of Jeannie and me as glamorous young hippies, then instructed one of the elves to place it on an easel near the chair in which I would sit.
I didn't bother to ask if this was the first time they had ever had to schlep all their gear to a fifth-floor walk-up, but I was fairly certain that such exertions wouldn't be necessary in a few days when they would fly to L.A. to shoot Christina Aguilera. As if to compliment me for not being quite so much of a prima donna, Ryan made a point of complaining about the pop diva's demand for an outrageously expensive makeup artist.
They sat me down in the chair; the sound technician lifted my shirt, ran a wire my torso and threaded the tiny microphone through a buttonhole. Bryan sat opposite me, cleared his throat, assumed his David Frost position and rifled through his notes. I caught a glimpse of myself in the monitor at my feet, looking like Howard Hughes after he went into seclusion and let his hair, beard and fingernails grow out like Bela Lugosi, in The Wolf Man. It occurred to me that some with unfond memories of "McCormack the sleek party panther" (as author and former friend Seymour Krim once dismissed me in an irate letter to the editor after I pounced on one of his books in a flippant review) would rejoice in this video verite portrait of a latter-day Dorian Gray.
"Jeannie, come in here and see what they're doing to me!" I screamed to my wife, who was tending to the refreshments in the kitchen, drawing chuckles form the assembled Brits.
When she peered through the doorway, Jeannie would later tell me, "You looked so trapped..like a prisoner being interrogated, surrounded by all those guys and the equipment and bright lights, that I almost regretted making you go through with it."
* * *
In fact, as I sat there watching Ryan frown at his notes, while the tech elves scurried about making last minute adjustments, I felt less like I was about to be interrogated than executed. My whole professional life seemed to flash before me, freeze framing on the early seventies when I, too, was "almost famous," as my fellow former Rolling Stone feature writer Cameron Crowe titled his autobiographical feature film.
I was churning out frequent cover stories on Bette Midler, Bob Marley, Aerosmith, and numerous other music personalities. My pieces were running with photographs by the incomparable Annie Leibovitz, and in two instance I was teamed up with movie stars who moonlighted as photographers - Candice Bergen for a feature on Alice Cooper and Diane Keaton for an article on gambling in Atlantic City.
My editors were passing along fan letters to me from people like the journalist Nat Hentoff, the TV commentator Gene Shalit and the novelist John Knowles. I was getting so blasé about it all that I even shrugged off a mention in Liz Smith's column that one editor said he himself "would kill for." Nor did I disagree when Tom Wolfe insisted all too graciously, at a party celebrating the serialization of his book The Right Stuff in Rolling Stone, that my "outrageous piece" about the lewd opening night festivities of The New York Porn Film Festival was "actually the best thing in the magazine."
Since Rolling Stone was the only mass circulation magazine with one foot in the underground and the other in the Big Time it had a credibility in the hip scene on a par with that of rock music itself. Those of us who wrote for it were in a unique position: While the old farts from Time and Newsweek waited outside the dressing room for a brief put-on interview (don't trust any one over 30!), we belonged to the same generation as our subjects and blended effortlessly into the entourage, getting the inside dope, both literally and figuratively. When it came to the rest of the press, most Rolling Stone writers had a hipper-than-thou attitude. Few, however, flaunted it as flamboyantly as I did.
There's a photograph of me with Warhol film director Paul Morrissey and rock musician Lou Reed, taken in in 1971 by Anton Perich, publisher of the chic party tabloid "Night." The picture was blown up to poster size and displayed for a time right inside the entryway of Max's Kansas City, the downtown dive bar that Andy Warhol and his menagerie of flaming creatures made famous. Paul is seen in pensive profile, hand to chin; Lou is covering his face with both hands like a shy mobster. I stand between them, one hand hooked in my belt, hair flowing below my shoulders, looking right into the camera with an expression that tells you all you need to know about me back then. It is a picture of Attitude with a capital "A", so blatant, even for that foppish era, that the first time I walked in after it had been put up, one painted and tainted scene maker, haunting the bar like a Valkyrie in a feathered boa, started warbling an off-key rendition of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."
It didn't take long for my swagger to turn into a stagger, as I made my stuporous rounds of the kind of parties you read about on Page Six, nodding out in other people's limousines, being fawned over by sleazy press agents, acting as if my writing was merely an accessory to my hectic social life. My writing, too, began to take on a drunken recklessness, going from irreverent to mean spirited, as I lost my objectivity, becoming more and more like the people I satirized in print. As my delusions grew ever more grand, the rock stars and other celebrities I was covering turned into bit players in my feverish mental movie about a swashbuckling hipster journalist who showed up with a sixpack instead of a tape recorder and was too cool to even take notes.
By the end of the decade I had already abandoned a book called New York Satyricon (all about Max's, The Factory, and other decadent scenes) that I had been contracted to write for the Viking Press. Now I was working on a new book for Anchor/Doubleday called Paper Pop Star: Confessions of a Second-Generation New York Journalist. Pitched as "an audacious autobiography," the second book would chronicle how writing for Rolling Stone had almost ruined my health, wrecked my marriage and robbed me of my sanity. I had already gone through the advances from both books, and hoped, at very least, to be able to bring the second one to an inspiringly redemptive conclusion. The only hitch was that, rather than really being rehabilitated, I was still in the prime of my decline.
* * *
Now, drug-free and sober as a judge for many years, a mature man serenely distant from all the vulgar madness of the popular music scene and totally committed to writing about a more exalted subject - my first love, visual art - I felt just the slightest internal shudder of a Jekyll and Hyde transformation taking place, as I sat cornered in my study, staring into those infernal lights.
Rather than believing I would deliberately attempt to sabotage the interview, I prefer to think that I unconsciously assumed vestiges of an old persona simply to psyche myself up for an ordeal that bore no comfortable relation to the person I am now. Perhaps I ended up playing to the bleachers so to speak, on order to meet the expectation of my inquisitor for a geezer with some remnant of cool 1970s charisma-if not Keith Richards, at least some Paper Pop Star facsimile. Or maybe it was just my usual social hysteria kicking in big-time.
In any case, I found myself responding to Ryan's questions about that long ago concert with rambling rants that made me sound like I was back on amphetamines and Tourettes-like outbursts of obscenity that would probably necessitate punctuating many of my sentences with a flatulent cacophony of bleeps.
At one point, when asked about a certain female rock star, all I could think to blurt out was that she had bad breath. Other gratuitous indiscretions extended to the principals for the concert themselves, hardly an auspicious approach when you consider that these Hall of Fame tributes are invariably idolatrous affairs. For example, I described Elton John as looking like "the bastard mutant offspring of Leon Russell and Liberace.all done up like some kind of demented parade float."
As for his music: How could I possibly take it seriously, I asked, having had the good fortune to grow up in New York City where, as a high school kid, I could pop into a downtown dive called The Jazz Gallery and catch back-to-back sets by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk? Although aware that such condescension toward a national icon would hardly play well on the British telly, I made clear that Elton's musical abilities were a lot less interesting to me than his irrational tantrum at the party after the concert, yelling and waving a menacing finger "like Truman Capote playing The Godfather."
Toward John Lennon, I was much more favorably disposed. Still, I couldn't resist going on about what a "naïve Brit" John was when it came to choosing his friends in New York: people like yippie-turned-yuppie Jerry Rubin and the pot-activist and public nuisance of a street singer David Peel--buffoons he seemed to mistake for authentic revolutionaries (and with whom he became so identified that our clueless FBI followed the derelict Peel around the East Village for weeks, thinking they were trailing the "subversive" former Beatle himself!).
Of course, I was quick to add that Lennon's naiveté was a facet of his spontaneity-one of the things that had always endeared him to us-and to say how great it was to see him back onstage at Madison Square Garden, after his years of holing up in the Dakota in self-imposed exile from the public eye. In fact, I waxed so genuinely rhapsodic about this energetic reemergence, pumping his guitar and chewing gum as he sang, than Ryan began to grin and nod encouragingly, as if to say "Brilliant! Just what we want! Please carry on, mate!"
After I had finished raving about the event, going so far as to call it a "kind
of symbolic resurrection" (even though John had never been dead yet), Ryan crossed
his legs, made a steeple with his fingers, and in his best neo-David Frost manner,
said, "As you must know, that was to be John Lennon's last public performance.Why
do you suppose he...didn't do more?"
I, too, paused significantly, thinking maybe I should say that, like that other famous recluse Jack Kerouac-and, for that matter, like most real artists who initially discovered their creativity in the solitude of private epiphanies-John always seemed to have an uneasy relationship with his fame. So perhaps, hit with the full force of the adulation that greeted him that night at he Garden, he was feeling like the proverbial moth flying too close to the flame..Surely that would have been the sort of shameless speculation fans love to hear about their heroes-especially when they're no longer around to say what a lot of rot it is.
Probably as he sat across from me, sill smiling encouragingly, that's the sort of thing Ryan, was hoping I would say. But instead, choosing my locution with the British viewing public in mind, I admitted, "I don't have the foggiest notion."
* * *
Early the next morning, I woke before Jeannie, made myself a cup of tea, and took it into my study. I sat there at my desk with a cool breeze blowing in, savoring the stillness, the privacy, the delicious solitude.
Surrounded by my many art books, ( a few of which, in my present incarnation, I had written or contributed essays to), I reflected that I am basically the most bookish, the most introverted of men.But had I so much as read a single book in all the years I wrote for Rolling Stone? I really couldn't recall.
Sipping my tea from my tenement ivory tower down the block to the lush greenery of Carl Shurz Park, it felt so good to know that all I had to do today was write an art review or two. That, after all, was what I did best. Art was what I had always cared most about anyway. All that other stuff been one long detour, prompted by youthful hedonism and suddenly finding myself in the very eye of the Zeitgeist, in the grip of a reportorial exhilaration similar to what ancient scribes must have felt watching Rome burn..
In the beginning it had been enormously seductive and, admittedly, even yesterday, after all these years, as relieved as I was to finally have the interview over with, I felt just the tiniest bit sorry when they turned off those bright lights.
"I'm afraid I was a bit hyper; I hope you got something you can use," I said to Ryan as the elves started to disassemble and pack their gear.
"Oh, we got lots," he said. "You gave us great sound-bites."
As I flashed on the image of a rabid beast, showing its fangs.