Sunday, February 27, 2011

Suze Rotolo 1943-2011

we learned this evening that Suze Rotolo passed away on Friday.

I never met Suze Rotolo, but obviously (for those following along) I spent a lot of time in the Village last month researching all those 50th anniversary Bob Dylan pieces. and as Ms. Rotolo, truly an iconic figure for her appearance on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, was undeniably present for pretty much everything I wanted to write about, I reached out to her.

and she didn't want to be interviewed - "Everything I have to say...and remember...about those long ago years I've written in my memoir," she wrote me - but she was kind, terribly kind enough to engage in an e-mail conversation, back and forth and back and forth and back and forth over the course of a couple of weeks of fairly intensive work, clarifying points of puzzlement, guiding me on my journey.

and when it was over and the six or so pieces that week had all been published, including a print piece on the sex shop located on the ground floor of the building where she and Bob Dylan shared an apartment, Ms. Rotolo sent me another e-mail that simply said, "Nicely done! Suze"

I e-mailed my editor.
"Suze Rotolo wrote me," I said. "It made me happy."

Czech author Arnošt Lustig dead at 84

Arnošt Lustig passed away in Prague yesterday after a five-year battle with cancer.
In the summer of 1999 I interviewed the uniquely spirited Czech author and our conversation was published in the New England Review later that year.
This served as the introduction:

Seventy-two-year-old Arnošt Lustig spent most of his adolescence in Nazi concentration camps including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald. He escaped imprisonment by jumping from a transport train bound for Dachau. For the next twenty years, the author lived in Prague, leaving after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Eventually he emigrated to the United States and settled in Washington, D.C. where he taught at American University.

Besides serving as an important figure in Czech New Wave cinema, Lustig has published thirteen books of fiction, eight of which have been translated into English. Each is set in Central Europe between the years 1939 and 1947. Darkness Casts No Shadow, Lustig's most autobiographical novel, tells the story of two young boys who escape a train destined for a Nazi death camp. A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova, nominated for the National Book Award in 1974, relates the trials of twenty naive American Jews, captured while vacationing in Italy in 1945, and one young Polish woman whose family has just been sent to the gas chamber. Lustig's short novel, The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S, the story of a young prostitute in Theresienstadt, won the National Jewish Book Award in 1985. A screenplay for the documentary Precious Legacy won an Emmy in 1981.

The author currently divides his time between Washington, D.C. and Prague, where this interview was conducted.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


been trying to meet you.

wait a minute. that's not right.

hey. how are you?
I'm fine, thank you.
actually I'm a bit tried (oops - that should be tired; as in, actually I'm a bit tired. your honor, the defense rests and I wish I could too).
emotionally drained, maybe, as I've been working (well, not necessarily today) on this Dave Duerson piece almost non-stop (minus eating, sleeping and two very good interviews) since early Sunday afternoon.
it's been an interesting experience, a unique experience spending so much time with just my voice and the voice of a thoughtful man so recently passed, and I can't remember ever shouldering (on my own, of course) so much responsibility for 2,500 words before.
but it seems like we've done okay.

and I'll be talking about it on the radio in both Canada and Chicago later this afternoon and evening.
of course, if you're not in Canada or Chicago today then this information is pretty much wasted on you.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

it's a small world (after all)

so NBC News (hey Brian Williams) starts in Bahrain (which is close to Egypt where they've been for most of the month but even closer to Saudi Arabia on whom Bahrain is extremely dependent) before reaching Wisconsin (I link to the Times because the NBC web coverage is not great (or good)) where the recently elected Republican governor ("I'm shocked, shocked that union-busting is going on in here!") is on the verge of passing a law that would slash benefits of public employees as well as remove their right to collectively bargain.
"It's not about the unions," the Governor has said. "It's about balancing the budget."
which certainly explains why the bill would also require annual de-certification elections in an ongoing, yearly attempt to kill the unions once and for all.

I am SO DAMN TIRED of this shit.

we have a budget crisis (everybody has a budget crisis; remember when a few Wall Street firms gambling on mortgage-backed securities caused an economic meltdown?).
so why is the answer extending historically low tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans so that we can attempt to solve our problems at the expense of teachers making less than $50,000 a year?
seriously, you would think at least one Republican politician received a decent education, that at least one Republican politician could appreciate the potentially life-changing value of an excellent (and more than likely under-compensated) teacher.

here's the small world part:
back in January I interviewed Harold Cook, at the time a 49 year old who once staffed the longest quorum break in history (anybody remember the Texas Eleven?).
and two weeks after that, the morning after the State of the Union actually, I interviewed Wisconsin State Senator Jon Erpenbach, a hardcore Springsteen fan, as he drove to meet the President. and now State Senator Erpenbach is one of 14 elected Wisconsin officials who have crossed the state line into Illinois to avoid the passage of Governor Walker's precedent-setting, union-busting bill.

I firmly believe that Harold's work with the Texas Eleven serves as a kind of blueprint for the Wisconsin Fourteen.
and I also believe that Governor Walker is most likely following President Reagan's union-busting lead in hopes that one day Milwaukee's airport will be rechristened Walker International.
but, of course, to make the analogy truly apt, they're going to have a name a few schools after the new governor. you know, several schools where teachers making less than $50,000 a year were sent home, laid off, lost their jobs to make up a budget deficit that they didn't create in a state where two-thirds of the corporations pay no tax at all.

more small world:
not only did I have a connection to the second NBC News story from the top, I also had a connection to the second NBC News story from the end: the arrest of an unrepentant (if his phone call to Paul Finebaum in late January offers any indication) 62 year-old man accused of poisoning the live oak trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn.
and I link elsewhere this time because NBC did a horrible job on the original broadcast piece.

Brian Williams (hey Brian Williams) kept referring to the setting as "the American South" like the Snopes had gotten loose again.
and Ron Mott, the featured correspondent, felt compelled to offer really awful puns (like "history uprooted") while repeating the claim of the accused, Harvey Updyke (who named his children Crimson and Bear), that he acted in retaliation for Auburn students celebrating the death of Alabama coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant back in 1983.
now 27 years would definitely qualify for the whole revenge is a dish best served cold philosophy, but what Mott forgot to mention (therefore lending credence to the theories of a man batshit enough to name his daughter Crimson, his son Bear, poison historic live oak trees because they're cherished by the fans of his favorite football team's rival and call in to a radio talk show to brag about it) is that Auburn students didn't actually celebrate Coach Bryant's death because that would be a pretty sick thing to do.

and in less irate news, the Tusk book received its first professional review and it's a good one and I'm happy about it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

children by the million

so yes, the Grammys had moments, and not only Arcade Fire's performance and win.

it seems I'm always touched by the In Memoriam tributes at any awards show, Grammys, Oscars . . . and, of course, this year Alex Chilton was included, albeit in a clip from his better known teenage days singing "The Letter" as the leader of the Box Tops.

and today the Voice broke the news that a wide variety of musician folk, including Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo and Mike Mills of R.E.M., will gather alongside drummer Jody Stephens (Big Star's last surviving member) at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on March 26th to run through Third/Sister Lovers in its entirety, which should make for an interesting night.

below are links to two separate Chilton tributes penned by yours truly, one for the Voice written the night he died (and therefore more immediate) and one for Deadspin just a couple weeks later (filled with longer, more thoughtful remembrances from a variety of former Alabama residents).

we still miss you, Alex.

Monday, February 14, 2011

advice for young writers, plus I did not predict this

so something happened in the world of music on Valentine's Eve 2011, but I can't really explain it or tell you what it means except for a brief moment a lot of folks who consider themselves underdogs found themselves on top.

the uncomfortableness that comes from that position, the internal struggle as to whether they have to take the Grammys seriously now that the Grammys have recognized "their band" (the answer is No) will come later on in the week.

but yes, on Valentine's Eve 2011 Arcade Fire (Rosie O'Donnell tweeted from @Rosie: "album of the year ? ummm never heard of them ever") won Album of the Year.

(again, I'm as surprised as anyone, but I did try to get you on the AF train several times, like when I said they were the most important band in the world just before last Labor Day)

and now, for something completely different, here's tonight's advice for young writers:
never ever never ever ever never never ever publicly say that your new book is selling "quite steadily."
I mean, do not do it.
even if your editor sends you an e-mail that uses that exact wording, treat it like your PIN number. tell it to your dog or cat or someone who's been comatose for 72 hours or more, but whatever you do do not share that information publicly.
and definitely don't post such on your blog.

because what will happen is that people will quit buying your new book (say a book like my new book on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk that's now $2 cheaper than it was when the weekend began) and your Amazon sales ranking (which had been in the five digits for almost as long as that carton of milk has been in your refrigerator) will dive deep like Jacques Cousteau (dear nieces and nephews: ask your grandmother) and immediately sink past 100,000, or even lower if you're not careful.

so do what good writers do: if it's important, put it on a piece of paper, but definitely keep your mouth shut. people are not paying you to talk (or blog).

and finally I would like to say that yes, I know that colons are ugly. I think I learned that in graduate school. but some rules were made to be broken (though not the one about not talking about your semi-impressive sales ranking on Amazon in public because people just see that as being full of yourself, so if you ever have the choice, are faced with the option of either talking positively about your Amazon sales ranking or using a colon, by all means use a colon):

but it's February 14th now, in fact officially almost two hours in here on the windy East Coast, and I know and have known for just about 16 years that as it pertains to matters of the symbolic, non-medical heart I am an extremely fortunate man:

Happy Valentine's Day.
You're my favorite.
I love you very much, and I'm glad you're my friend.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

guilty pleasures

is not Abba Gold.
no, a true guilty pleasure is going to the movies smack in the middle of a work day.
and it's not the same thing in Alabama (you don't really refer to days as "work days" when you're a graduate student or even an instructor on faculty).
definitely a New York thing, and almost as if Woody Allen movies served as the professor.
but I guess I fell a bit short on the cinematic hooky scale (a C+?): I didn't go to Manhattan (let alone the Paris Theatre or the Film Forum or the Angelika) and I didn't see a foreign film (say, The Sorrow and the Pity), but by 1 o'clock on a Friday afternoon I had already viewed footage of the back of Natalie Portman's head, shot by a hand-held camera, as it moved across the plaza at Lincoln Center.

Tower Heist is coming back to the neighborhood next week, by the way.

see, I don't go to movies.
I watch them on television, have access to Showtime and HBO and remain a long-time Netflix customer, but I don't go to movies.
which makes it all the more surprising to say: I've seen six of this year's ten Best Picture nominees.

by last New Year's Eve I'd seen one.
by January 31st I'd seen two.
and now, less than two weeks into February . . .
go figure.

kind of makes me sound a bit slothful, but I've actually conducted eleven full-length interviews in the first eleven days of the month so I'm going to suggest that it's just barely possible that I've done a better job than usual of managing my time.

in any case, if I had a vote (and I don't) I think there's a good chance I'd cast my ballot for Toy Story 3 (and I have no idea why The Kids Are All Right was nominated for anything as it adopted the tone of a pseudo-serious rom-com and spread more stereotypes than truths about both adoption and non-traditional families (just don't get that one at all)).

news on the Tusk book:
I received an e-mail from someone "in the know" that the book has been selling "quite steadily," and just today an excerpt was published (shared/posted) on the 33 1/3 blog, so thanks to all of you bloggers and tweeters and conventional word-of-mouthers for kind of pushing it along.

I definitely feel like a pig on his way to a barbecue right about now.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

the placeholder

no news unless the fact that I will have conducted six interviews in the last three days by tonight's Carolina-Duke tip-off is news.
unless it's news that I will be inside Madison Square Garden for Blake Griffin's Garden debut when Carolina and Duke tip off.
and yes, that last one may actually be news.

also, Amazon admits to having copies of the Tusk book in stock.
no 11 to 14 day wait.
no one to three week wait.
and that may be news.
then again, this morning they said they had three left and now they say they have four left and that doesn't really make a lot of sense to me (and that's not news), but then I never was a math major.

update: the Knicks lost and Carolina lost (which means Duke won) and the world has not yet come to an end (which may be news)
further proof: Amazon says they can get you the Tusk book by Friday if you really, really want it that soon

the last book I ever read: A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo
the last movie I ever watched (not counting HBO, Turner Classic, Showtime or Netflix Streaming): Inception

Thursday, February 3, 2011

three interviews in 20 hours

plus two trips to the post office, three trips to the grocery store (two which ended in the state of "empty-handed" because a certain establishment on 21st Street (Associated) advertises specials in steroid big letters yet does not believe in disclosing the accompanying restrictions on those specials (additional $30 purchase, coupon plus Sierra Mist, etc.) until you reach the check-out register) and much, much careful stepping across ice on Queens sidewalks and calf deep puddles at Queens intersections.
and yes, I slept some (some) too.

but thanks (and early birthday wishes) to writer Stewart O'Nan, Time magazine editor-at-large David Von Drehle (both of whom have written books about a fire (The Circus Fire and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America respectively) and professional race car driver Bill Lester (who, to my knowledge, has never written about fire but who probably wears a flame-retardant suit to work) for a very interesting and informative day.

other stuffs: still a 1 to 3 week delivery estimate on the Tusk book (shoulder shrug), Conversations with Russell Banks (edited by David Roche and published by the University Press of Mississippi) came out last October (according to Amazon) but I just received my contributor's copy a couple weeks ago (yep, I have a conversation within) and Andy Pettitte will officially announce his retirement from baseball at Yankee Stadium tomorrow. Andy was sufficiently patient and kind to let me tag along enough to pen a "Day in the Life" profile for my Starting Pitcher book (if you're tempted, pick up a used copy; they're plentiful), and we wish him all the best in the next chapter of his life.

I think I'm making spaghetti and watching 30 Rock tonight.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

thank you again (February 1)

yes, it's now February on the East Coast and yes, I should probably be getting some more work done (God knows there's enough of it here/not enough hours in the day), but to be honest I'm rather tired. the kind of tired where you get back from filling up your water glass, sit back down on the couch, steady yourself in front of the laptop you've had on the TV tray for so long that you would find it hysterical if anyone suggested actually eating food upon said tray, and ask yourself, What was I doing? without the answer coming to you for, say, more than a standard commercial break.
that kind of tired.

so tired that while I still have no reasonable idea why Amazon is the only place (to my knowledge) currently offering the Tusk book for sale (and their delivery estimate spiked from the not good 11 to 14 days to the even worse 1 to 3 weeks) I have come up with the theory that my publisher, in a fit of marketing genius (yes, genius), has been artificially inflating the relative demand (you know, the dance partner of supply in the 1960s group, Supply and Demand) of the Tusk book, much like the University of California Press did with the Autobiography of Mark Twain, which no one especially wanted to read but that everyone especially wanted to own once they realized how hard it was to actually purchase a copy.
anyway, that's my theory for the Tusk book. that the publisher's letting the copies out very, very slowly so as to insure a reasonably consistent demand.
kind of like when your landlord installs one of those water flow regulators on your toilet so you end up having to flush twice.
you know, people will buy two, maybe even three copies of the Tusk book on the assumption that years from now they'll be able to trade it for a rent payment or a pair of tickets to the Auburn game, such is the current relative scarcity.

so tired that I have well over 1700 names of people, most all American, born in 1961 and for some I have an e-mail address and for some I have a specific month and date of birth and for some I even have both. but do you limit yourself to just those who are more easily found? what about all those people you really want to talk to, really want to interview but all you know is that they were born in 1961? already there's a one in twelve chance that you've missed their birthday, that they've already turned 50. at what point do you cry, Uncle (or Aunt), and send an e-mail that says, Hey, I'd really like to interview you, but I honestly have no idea of the month and date of your birth?

I interviewed eighteen 49 year olds in the month of January (and this does not count any interviews, any work of any kind on Bob Dylan for the Village Voice (and I did a lot of that kind of work)), and each was both compelling and unique.
and though in some ways I feel like I'm kind of hitting my stride, the larger part of me knows that I'm at least halfway finished, that, not unlike my life, I'm on the downhill side of this project, and that, not unlike my life, I'd very much like to do whatever's necessary in order to be justifiably proud of this thing when it's done.
as Robert Duvall's character says in Apocalypse Now, Some day this war's going to end . . .

also, I went to the library tonight to return one book that the automated system wouldn't let me renew again (yes, again) even though they showed 18 copies available. it was due today, and while I could've afforded the quarter, New York is one of the thirty states that'll get a piece of this pre-publicized historic storm. and I may not want to go out tomorrow if I don't have to.
so I was caught in this kind of limbo: do I want to spend the $4.50 in subway fare to return a book that's due today and that I should've been able to renew but wasn't? or, do I take a chance on the storm, something else pulling me into Manhattan on a later day, causing me to take a break from my apparently directionless (hopefully that's a short-term thing) work?
and that limbo, that indecision lasted until damn near 6:30 when I ran out the door towards the subway, hoping to get to the library before they closed at 7, already preparing to be angry with myself for wasting the effort, the extra trip, the time away from work that, directionless or not, needs to be done, and on the middle level, above the street but below the subway platform, a woman just exiting the turnstyles said to me, as I removed my Metro Card from my wallet, Is that a pay-per-ride?
and I said, Yes, m'am, because when I'm approached quickly by strangers I don't have time to remember that most women up here really do not like being called M'am.
and so she said, Here. This card's good until midnight.
and so I rode to the library and back free, on this woman's weekly or daily or whatever she had that was coming fast upon its expiration date.
and she didn't have to do that.
she didn't have to stop a stranger to do a good deed.
but she did, and it made my day.
and the fact that I have no idea how best to get my arms around more than 1700 names doesn't bother me quite as much right now because of it.
though I expect it will tomorrow.