The Deadly Season

     |    Wednesday April 10th, 2013

It’s just that time, I guess. You reach a certain age, and suddenly not only public figures start to die, but your peers do, too, and you realize it’s just not going to stop until you do. I suppose it’s always good to be aware of your own mortality, but it never gets any easier. The first friend I lost was when I was about 14, and he did a rather remarkable header off of a tall building, his skull hitting a fire hydrant. Fifty years later, it’s still happening, albeit with disease and the inevitable aging.


Paul Williams in the Crawdaddy! office, 1967. Photo by David Hartwell, by permission of Cindy Lee Berryhill.

Paul Williams in the Crawdaddy! office, 1967. Photo by David Hartwell, by permission of Cindy Lee Berryhill.

“In an apartment on Sixth Avenue, an 18-year-old ego burns,” was the lede to the item in Howard Smith’s Village Voice gossip column. He mentioned how this teenager had moved to New York from Boston to put out a magazine that took rock and roll seriously, after having started it in his dormitory at Swarthmore University. Smith was clearly skeptical, a bit put off by the kid’s bravado, and wound up wishing him luck. It was in December, 1966, and I found myself wondering if I’d ever see the magazine. I found it quicker than I thought.


I’d had a job in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Christmas card shop, working as a stockboy with an older guy who was using his salary to buy art supplies for his painting addiction. In January, the demand for Christmas cards drops way off, so we saw our jobs ending. I celebrated by buying two tickets for a Tom Rush/Judy Collins show at Town Hall, where the woman in the box office turned out to be an old acquaintence who sold me seats in the press section for almost nothing. “The press doesn’t seem interested,” she said. My soon to be ex-coworker invited my girlfriend and me for dinner that night, and afterwards she and I took a cab to the show. The seats were great: about the sixth row.


Between sets, the guy behind us stood up and was scanning the crowd, which, where we were, was thin. He had a bundle under his arm, and when he saw a target, he rushed over to them and handed them a magazine. I put two and two together. “Are you Paul Williams?” I asked. “I read about you in the Voice.” He snorted. “I’ve got something you might be interested in. Did you know Bob Dylan’s written a book?” He sneered. “If Bob Dylan had written a book, I’m sure I’d know about it,” he said, to dismiss me so he could resume his scanning. “Oh, but he has, and I have it,” my girlfriend piped up. She was far better looking than I, and far harder to ignore. “My father stole some galleys from an editor’s desk at Macmillan.” And he had: tired of being given the runaround, her father, a famous graphic designer and intellectual gadfly, had stomped out, tired of being ignored, and, knowing his daughter’s love of all things Dylan, grabbed the book for her. “Well, bring it by the office,” he said, writing the 6th Avenue address above the logo on a copy of the magazine with Howlin’ Wolf on the cover. I told him I would.


Unemployment meant moving back to my parents’ place in Westchester, but I spent weekends at my girlfriend’s place in New Jersey, which is where we went after the concert. Monday morning, after a desultory job search, I showed up at the Crawdaddy! office, such as it was, and handed Williams the bound galleys of a book called Tarantula. “It really is by Dylan!” he said. He read some of it. getting absorbed. There was another guy in the place, which was a tiny apartment, and he finally introduced himself as Tim Jurgens. Williams finally took his nose out of the galleys. “Can I borrow this? I’d like to take it up to Elektra. I know Paul Rothschild, and he lets me use the copy machine.” I really didn’t think that was a good idea, but I wouldn’t be back in Jersey until Friday night, so I said yes. It was kind of hard to say no to this guy, as a matter of fact: he made you feel that this was the most important thing in the world, and only he could carry it off.


By the end of the week, I’d stopped looking for a job because Paul and Tim had noticed how quickly and accurately I typed. There was no money involved, but I could live in the office and be part of this magazine. My girlfriend got her book back, I got a copy of the contents, courtesy of the Elektra machine, and by the end of the weekend, her father had volunteered to design the cover of the next issue. That’s how persuasive Paul Williams was. I was given a page to review my new favorite record, Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul, and a big IBM Executive electric typewriter to type stuff on. The magazine would be direct copies of our typed and laid-our pages, photographed and bound. We stayed up for days because this weird guy had walked into the office and handed us his Master’s thesis from Yale, The Aesthetics of Rock, which we were excerpting. (I thought it was unreadable hooey, but I was a Serious Young Man in those days). My girlfriend’s father thought it was fun, and showed it to his friend Dick Higgins, who agreed, and so Richard Meltzer had his first book published. When the entire issue had been typed and laid out, I was entrusted to walk through a gigantic snowstorm to the printer, where apparently I handed over the pages and collapsed. I awoke to the receptionist handing me a cup of coffee, saying “Your boss should let you sleep, you know.”


Paul taught me the value of reading the trade papers, which were essential to following the record industry. He couldn’t afford a subscription, but there was always a copy of Billboard in the office. One blizzardly night, we stepped into the subway (the W. 4th St. stop was conveniently downstairs from us) and rode to Times Square, where a single newsstand was open — and had the freshly-printed Billboard. Because Rothschild trusted Paul, we got an unreleased album by a band he’d signed, the Doors. Rothschild’s partner wasn’t sure it was worth releasing; we disagreed, and it came out. Paul was obsessed with San Francisco, where, he said, amazing music was happening. Of course, nobody had any, because none of the bands had recorded. When my girlfriend’s father was asked to design an issue of Aspen, “the magazine that comes in a box,” he scammed me a round-trip ticket to San Francisco, which essentially changed my life, a story I’ve told elsewhere.


I returned late one night, weary from my week in San Francisco and ready to crash, only to find Paul gone and some woman I’d never met sitting at a desk, adamant that I couldn’t sleep there. I have no idea who she was, except she said that Paul had hired her. Somehow I convinced her to let me stay the night, and early the next morning I packed my stuff and took the train to my parents’. Soon enough, I was on my way back to school.


I lost touch with Paul pretty quickly, and he wound up abandoning the magazine for other pursuits, but years later, after I moved to Berlin, he came through to do a reading from one of his books on Bob Dylan and we talked some. He’d married the songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, of whom I’d been a fan for some time, and when she did a European tour a bit later, he charged me with helping her negotiate Berlin. I’ll never forget her show: there were three of us in the audience, me, a friend whose birthday it was, and a German woman, a rabid fan, who was too shy to talk to Cindy Lee, who could have used some cheering up.


Some time later, I discovered that she had a blog, and that Paul had had a bicycle accident in San Diego, where they were living. He had increasing dementia, and finally moved into a nursing home, then to a hospice, all of which she wrote about. Finally, on March 27, he passed away quietly. And although we never spent any time together after I stormed out of the office that morning, he’s responsible for starting my career, giving me the courage to work at and even start magazines, and for laying the groundwork that made first Rolling Stone, then countless other publications, possible. Pioneers rarely get their propers, so I’ve taken out time to do that now.

* * *

Les Blank, 2008. Photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Les Blank, 2008. Photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Les Blank, who, because of his association with Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records, also became part of my life, also died the other day after a long illness. Les was a filmmaker, and, apparently, from the reaction to his passing, not a very well-known one. This is a shame. He was friends with people I knew in San Francisco, and as a result, I got to see a lot of his films, and, through them, hear and meet the people who were in them. Some of his early films depicted vanished worlds: The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins jumped straight into the black ghetto of Houston in the mid-1960s, and the lives it enters are as familiar and alien as can be, with one emotionally-wrenching scene in which a guy exorcises his pain by singing, while a harmonica player tries to keep up with him. Dry Wood and Hot Pepper, often shown together, document two parts of the black French experience, with farmer and musician Bois Sec Ardoin the subject of the former and the zydeco star Clifton Chenier, who saw far more fame, the latter. His long film J’ai Été au Bal is the best introduction to Cajun and Creole music of Louisiana that exists, and it pointed me to many of the people in it, from whom I learned a lot, and who I wrote about extensively.

Of course, anyone who knew Les knows that food was never far from his lens when he was documenting music, and his Smellovision performances, when the odor of cooking food would be wafted at the audience, are justifiably famous. I was almost in his garlic film, Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers, and in the process found out what the title meant. Les needed money to finish the film, and WDF, a huge television station in Germany, wanted to lease a few of his films to show on TV. Les invited the WDF guy to dinner at his studio in Berkeley, and then enlisted a bunch of us to help him cook it. Of course, it would be an all-garlic meal, and that meant that a bushel — literally a bushel — of garlic cloves needed peeling. Les hauled the bushel basket down to the Berkeley Rose Garden and we set to work, with Les filming the whole time. Then it was back to the house to cook. I really don’t remember the entire menu, but there was the French classic, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, where the unpeeled cloves turned mellow and you squeeze the contents onto bread, and there was a purée of cauliflower and garlic, which a Spanish guy prepares in the film, and if I’m not mistaken dessert was fresh figs cooked in red wine and garlic, a North African dish. It turns out that garlic has, if not the power to sedate you, the power to make you feel all warm and comfortable, a pleasant kind of being stoned. So after this incredible dinner, the German guy named the films he wanted to lease, Les named a figure (enough to finish his film), the German guy said yes, and that was that. (We, the peelers, wound up getting cut out of the film, but that’s okay).

One good thing Les’ death has done is expose his name again to followers of social media, and make me realize how many of his films I have yet to see. They’re not easy to find (there are none here at realeyz, for instance), but that could well change. The societies that produced the music he documented have vanished, and now so has Les. We’re richer for having had him around, no doubt about that.