Sunday, September 27, 2015

Another Milestone

Friday, I fired up my file-transfer program and sent a manuscript of something like 212,594 words to my agent, who'd asked to look at it before I sent it to the publisher, which I figured was a good idea. This represents a year's work, and, potentially, the first book of mine from which I'll get royalties and decent promotion.

It only took 50 years to get here.

That's right: sometime in September, 1965, I was published in a magazine for the first time. I'd arrived at Antioch College earlier in the month and been assigned to their new experimental learning program. They didn't tell us much about it, but our faculty advisor would in the fullness of time. Then he, a Quaker, went on some Quaker peace mission to Russia for the rest of the quarter (from which he never returned) and we were left to flail around. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but had no way of going about it, and, worse, there were no courses open to freshmen that dealt with it. Maybe the experimental program would have worked for that, but we had no way of finding out.

I spent a lot of time bored out of my mind but one day had a flash: I'd just bought a new record in the campus bookstore called The Singer-Songwriter Project on Elektra, and thought, hey, maybe Broadside magazine would like a review. So I sat down and typed one out and sent it in. About a week later, I got an envelope from Broadside, which I thought was odd, both because I'd already gotten my monthly subscription, and because it had first-class stamps on it.

Broadside was one of several folkie magazines out there at the time, not as high-profile as Sing Out!, and sharing a name with The Broadside of Boston. It was dedicated totally to political and "topical" songs, and, indeed, had printed the music and lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind" on the cover of its first mimeographed, stapled edition. It was run by Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham, the latter of whom had been a member of the Almanac Singers in the '30s, along with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Both, although I didn't know it at the time, were deeply dedicated members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), and in fact, the magazine would fall into chaos a few years later when Gordon was abruptly ordered to move to Detroit to organize auto workers. The Party did things like that.

None of this made a lot of difference to me: I'd just been published, and in a magazine I read! And that first-class envelope had not only the next issue of the magazine, with my piece in it, but an encouraging note from Gordon Friesen urging me to write more. So I did. A review of Richard Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me followed, just days after Fariña had plunged off a cliff to his death following a publication party in California. They printed that, too. I may still have the clips from both of them out in King Tut's Tomb in an old, hard-to-open filing cabinet.

Next, since I was now on Antioch's co-op jobs program and working in Princeton, I was given an assignment: do a piece on Len Chandler, a folksinger/songwriter who was right up Broadside's alley: not only was he good, he was a Negro, and fiercely commmitted to the civil rights movement. They put us in touch, Columbia, to whom Chandler was signed, sent me a copy of his album Carry It On, which I liked a lot, and a date was set for an interview. Somehow, I acquired the use of a tape recorder, which used tiny 3" reels, and, on the day of the interview, went to see him. "Oh, man, I did it again," Chandler said. "I agreed to do another interview tonight! But come along with me, this should be fun: it's the Russians." And, indeed, it was, two reporters from a magazine that, as they described it, was like Life magazine in Russia: profusely illustrated, very popular and widely read, and an important place for Len Chandler to be seen. Their office/apartment was in the Dakota, which even then I knew was a luxurious place, and we sat on thick carpeting around a low table on which were snacks: dark bread, caviars, herring, and an entire bottle of Stolichnaya frozen in a block of ice. I tried to be polite, because I was an uninvited guest, but after the introductions ("You study at Antioch? We have heard of this place." Yeah, well, don't tell my parents that.) we all relaxed. Me, especially. I'd never had vodka before. After it was over, I had a little trouble negotiating the hallway, which Len remarked on. "Come on, let's go to this place in the Village where my friend is performing," he said, and we got into a taxi and headed downtown.

I don't, obviously, have crystal clear recall of what happened, but we wound up knocking on a door in Sheridan Square, which opened a bit, whereupon a voice exclaimed "Len! They've just gone on," and welcomed us in. Upstairs was an after-hours club, and ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert fronting a jazz trio and singing Billie Holiday songs, and her bass player was a guy whose name I recognized from record jackets, Bill Lee, father of Spike. It was pretty good, and I managed not to pass out, and after a while we headed back to Len's place where I managed to get an interview of sorts done. One thing I remember was that he said "I don't write songs for specific purposes. I write songs, and if they're good, that's all that matters. I don't write them for the Movement, or to make a political point: that's how you make bad art. I write them to satisfy myself in the hopes that they'll satisfy others. And if some of them are political, some aren't, but I won't sing any of them if they're not good." Of course, I thought this was great stuff. And I didn't know how Gordon would feel about it.

It took me a while to compile this into an article, but Broadside was in no rush, so I was back on campus by the time I finished it. I'd met a girl in Princeton, a pretty and very smart young high school student, and was now getting involved in ride-shares at school to New York, where I'd jump on the bus at Port Authority and go to Princeton to see her. On one of these trips, I decided to take the Chandler article up to the Broadside offices, and one of the passengers was Bobbi Fox, who was also in the experimental program, in the women's dorm that was aligned with our men's dorm. She had a boyfriend in Cleveland who'd send her love letters he illustrated with amazing cartoons, because he had a job making greeting cards for American Greetings. His name was Robert Crumb. At any rate, Bobbi was really into folk music, and asked if she could go along with me to meet the Broadside folks, and I said sure. It was in some public housing project on the Upper West Side, and I rang the doorbell and Gordon came to the door, slipping out and closing it behind him. "I hate to be impolite," he said, "but everyone in there has the flu and I can't ask you in." I understood, and handed him the envelope. Bobbi couldn't contain herself: "Mr. Friesen, what do you think about Bob Dylan?" she asked. He sighed. "Bobby's all right, and this new stuff is interesting, but I just wish he'd write a song about Vietnam." Bobbi's eyes widened and she said "But Mr. Friesen, all his songs are about Vietnam!" At that moment, I knew my Chandler piece was doomed (and, later, saw this as a perfect illustration of the generation gap).

The article was, indeed, doomed. So was my career at Broadside, but I'd been initiated. I became very close to my new girlfriend's family, and looked on her freelance graphic designer father as a mentor, and he reciprocated by getting me a few assignments. He shared an office with Jerome P. Agel, a gadfly in publishing who'd "produced" a book his office-mate had done with Marshall McLuhan, and published Books, a magazine that was mostly about publishing. When I was in New York, I'd hang around the office sometimes, and that's how I got to meet, briefly, Ornette Coleman, who was delivering sandwiches for the deli Agel ordered from. Then, one day, Agel handed me a record. "My friends say this kid might be something big. He's doing a show next week, and I'd like an interview if you think there's anything to his stuff." It was Tim Buckley's first LP, and I liked it. I went to the show, did a clumsy backstage interview with Tim, who had some young lady next to him he was impatient to dive into, and I wasn't very happy with the results. Oh, well. Agel didn't care. Next up was Aspen, the magazine that came in a box. They were doing a McLuhan issue, and guess who got to design it?

This was how I learned that having connections was valuable, and they came through: as the only person anyone acquainted with the magazine knew who was under 21, and, thus, eligible for half-price airfare, and who was already working at a rock magazine downtown called Crawdaddy!, I was selected to fly to San Francisco and write about this multi-media thing that was happening in the ballrooms, and I was assigned a photographer, Steve Schapiro, to go along with me. I've already written about this elsewhere at great length, but the end result was published in Aspen #4, with a short text by me on the back of a poster of dancers at the Avalon Ballroom that Schapiro took. For that, I'd been taken into the heart of the scene, met (and been kissed by) Janis Joplin, seen incredible music, talked about things like community and the future with some incredibly bright people, and seen a city I'd never seen before. Paid? Who needed to be paid?

Working at Crawdaddy!, I had the bug seriously, so it was a drag to be fired when Paul Williams, who'd founded it, decided to change the staff while I was in San Francisco, so I loped back to college, intent on learning about writing. Which, with the exception of a writing course I couldn't take until I'd dropped out (I didn't have the prerequisites, but the instructor was remarkably kind in letting me audit it), and another on participatory journalism, which I remember as an informal class given by an instructor who'd been given a grant to write about it, I didn't do. The participatory journalism class, though, resulted in another trip to San Francisco (the instructor had money to fund students who needed a bit for their research), where I wanted to do a piece on San Francisco State after its strike, and wound up in Berkeley just before the riots around People's Park, as well as (aha!) meeting the staff of a magazine I'd just started writing for, Rolling Stone. Their record review editor, Greil Marcus, was going back to school to get a Master's, and they needed someone not only to replace him, but to be on the greatly expanded staff they were planning. This was something I really wanted to do, and was talking to the managing editor, John Burks, about it, when I made a gaffe that could have sunk me: I'd been waiting to talk to Jann Wenner, the editor, and he stomped into the room holding a telegram and saying "John Lennon just married someone named Yoko Ono!" And I, who'd known all about Yoko since her participation in the New York Avant-Garde Festival, which I attended religiously each year in high school, said "Yoko married who?" because it did seem like an odd pairing. Wenner glared. "Oh," he said, dripping with sarcasm. "I suppose you know who she is." And, because I did, and was eager to show off, I told him. He kind of stared at me and left the room.

I got the job anyway, as we all know, and after I was fired, I took up a life of freelancing, or penury, as it's known. Over the years, I've gotten to travel the world, met lots of famous people, had private performances by Iggy Pop and Bob Marley and the Original Wailers, among others, witnessed more incredible gigs than any one person has any right to have seen (and no, I'm not going to try to recall them just now), and written millions of words for everyone from Penthouse to the Reader's Digest to Who Put the Bomp? to the Wall Street Journal to Il Corriere della Sera to New York Rocker. Many of those words, in the 1970s, were for Creem, a magazine that warped many young lives and gave me the largely ceremonial title of West Coast Editor, while paying me as little and as late as they could, and this allowed me to get tons of records in the mail while a little voice in the back of my head told me I should also be writing about other stuff. I couldn't -- the term "rock critic," once given, tends to stick to you, and indicate a very lowly and unsavory level of the totem pole to the publishing world at large -- but that didn't stop me from reading and looking and taking stuff in.

I also got to write for a daily newspaper here in Austin for five years, and its alternative paper for a bit longer than that, and I also wrote two work-for-hire books (flat fee, no royalties), one of which went out of print in a week, the other of which I only wrote ⅓ of, but I am given to believe sold very well indeed. I got to edit a couple of magazines, and even started one in Berlin that I lost to greedy partners eager to embrace the Internet, although they had no idea what it was. I had several people represent me as an agent, the first of whom was an obese woman in Greenwich Village who took me out to lunch (who knew you could get lunch in the Village for $1?) and dropped me after placing a magazine article that wound up making me several thousand dollars, the second of whom solicited a proposal for a book I ached to write and then refused to read it (I believe he may still be in business, but can't remember his name), and finally found the one I'm with now, who seems to be the real deal. After all, after I'd been in business only 49 years, he managed to get me my first real book deal.

Every now and again, young writers approach me for advice about getting published, and my first piece of advice is not to go for a writing career. I have starved -- literally -- for weeks on end, adopting an eat-every-other-day regime, and, at one particular low point in Berlin, eating out of garbage containers (the Germans toss lots of good food) and roaming the streets for bottles I could turn in for their deposit (hint: go where skateboarders go, since Berlin skaters live off of 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola, worth €.50 apiece!). On the other hand, it's taught me how to cook well for remarkably little money when I have to, and I'm proud of that. But publishing has been vanishing in the years since I started, and with the stepping-stone of magazines no longer available as widely as it once was (what would be the analog of Creem for a young writer today? Nothing.) there's nowhere to whet your skills, no editors to help you along, no pay at all. Most of the writers you read today either have other jobs, are rich, or have married money. And when the rich provide the content, the rest of us are in deep trouble. I hope it'll turn around, but I also hope I can now do nothing but write books, and treat anything else as gravy.

Fifty years. Since I was a teenager. Not a hell of a lot to show for it except some yellowing clippings and rambling reminiscences here on the blog. If I had to do it over again, would I? Ahh, probably. What else would I do?


  1. and i would read everything you wrote all over aagain

  2. My first published piece was a review of the Ramones LP "Halfway to Sanity". This was in 1987 and thanks to people like you, Ed, I was under the impression that the most desirable job in the world would indeed be "rock critic". I took me about 10 years to realise that this was not the case.


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