Monday, December 8, 2008

Linguine with Lenny

One more story from my memoir this week, then next week we head elsewhere. This takes place in 1972.


Black Rock, as the CBS headquarters building was known to most of its inmates, was widely considered one of Eero Saarinen’s masterpieces. Its appearance was both elegant and forbidding, and certain of its floors were assiduously guarded from intrusion, notably the top, where the mighty William S. Paley ruled over us all, and the eleventh, which housed the senior executives of Columbia Records and its creative heart, the A&R Department. It was rather a shock to me, therefore, when one day in the fall of 1970 a teenage boy, having somehow dodged the receptionist, appeared at my office door asking me to listen to a demo tape. His name was Ricky Lyon, he was from Washington, D.C., seventeen, a senior in high school; and his tunes and his singing were terrific. “The lyrics, though,” I told him, “could be better.”


“I suppose you could do better,” he replied.


“As a matter of fact, I could.”


Ricky had a way of getting his way. Before long I had rewritten the lyrics for that song, and he composed music for several lyrics I had lying around, and pretty soon we were a songwriting team. The following fall, 1971, he started at Harvard, and so began four years of both of us yoyoing between New York and Cambridge. We also worked together on the phone. When Ricky was in New York, we fueled ourselves on the immense sandwiches of Wolf’s Deli on Seventh Avenue, many of which were named for obscure or forgotten actors. My favorite was the Maxie Special, roast turkey, tongue, and Russian dressing on rye, with a side of cole slaw and half-sour pickles.


For years I had been desperately wanting to make music, and nearly all my attempts had led nowhere. I had spent countless hours at Yale toiling over the piano in the Silliman College basement, utterly untrained in performance but nonetheless picking out tunes for lyrics I’d already written. I wrote harmony, too, and sometimes, after studying composition, I even orchestrated them. My senior year, I was a Scholar of the House, which meant I pursued an independent project and took no classes whatever. My project was to be both poems and music. My poetry tutor was Robert Penn Warren, my composition tutor a crazed Venezuelan ultra-modernist named Alejandro Planchart. It took only a couple of months for Mr. Planchart and me to agree that I really had no talent for composing music, and my project thenceforward was poetry alone.


But I still wanted to be involved with music, somehow. In the spring of 1969 I wrote to John Hammond, the legendary talent scout and producer at Columbia Records, who had discovered and recorded, among many others, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan. To my astonishment, he invited me to lunch, and shortly thereafter he offered me a job. The deal we hatched was that I would work for him three days a week as his personal assistant, and the other two days I would be a staff lyricist at April Blackwood Music, the music-publishing arm of CBS. I wanted to take off June and July, after graduation, to spend in Whitehaven with Louise, and Mr. Hammond said fine. When I arrived in New York to take up my glorious new job, however, Mr. Hammond wasn’t even in town. I sat for days in a miserable student room at the Biltmore Hotel staring out into an airshaft, and there I turned twenty-two. When Mr. Hammond finally came back, he told me he was terribly, terribly sorry (he had a grand old New York aristocrat’s voice, which always sounded cheerful, encouraging, and authoritative, even when delivering a death blow like this one), but he and the president of the company had had rather a dispute, and the long and the short of it was that he, Mr. Hammond, wasn’t being allowed to hire an assistant. So, so sorry.


The father of one of my Yale roommates was a lawyer in New York named Frank Platt. He had told me to be sure and call when I came to New York, and now I did. Helplessly, my tale of woe spilled forth. “Meet me at the club car on the 5:14 to Greenwich,” said Mr. Platt. “Bring your clothes. The guest house is empty.”



The next morning, this angel of a man began “working the horn” on my behalf. After three days of threats and cajoling, he had gotten me hired at Columbia Records, not as John Hammond’s assistant but as an all-around trainee. His daughter’s apartment on Park Avenue was empty for August, and I was welcome to stay there till I got settled in my job and found an apartment.


At Columbia, nobody had any idea what to do with me. Often I would just sit at an empty desk in a secretarial bullpen reading a book. I’d sit in on meetings, having no idea what any of the jargon meant. One thing I did learn was that the atmosphere of Columbia Records was savagely hostile. Nearly everybody was an up-from-the-streets New Yorker, and there was a lot of yelling. Finally I rotated into the advertising department, whose head, Arnold Levine, took pity on me. As it happened, I did know how to do what they did in that department: I could write. And so I did. The radio commercials in particular were wonderful training—one sentence to introduce the music, one in the middle over a transition, and a seller at the end.


Then Columbia had this amazing competition, to pick three young folks to become talent scouts and eventually producers. Two of them were chosen from outside the company, and I was the third. I got a modest raise. My two new hell-raising colleagues and I had our own secretaries and unlimited expense accounts. We jetted across the country and roamed downtown New York in search of great new rock and roll. We stayed up till all hours in clubs, and bumbled in at eleven in the morning. We didn't really have a boss: The head of our department was based in Los Angeles and had Parkison's disease, and the president of the company had no time to be bothered with us. So we hauled in every sort of bizarre talent we could find, and spent long, expensive hours in the studio making audition tapes, unchecked by even a whisper of authority.


I found a lot of talent, I felt, and took the artists into the studio and made a lot of demo recordings, but none of them ever passed muster with the higher-ups. Finally, one day I was in the studio control room watching one of my colleagues edit live recordings from the Atlanta Pop Festival when I heard something like nothing I had ever heard. I asked him to play it again. “You like that shit?” he inquired.


“I love it.” I found out who it was—the Hampton Grease Band—and I flew immediately to Atlanta to hear them. This was it—this was the genius music I had always wanted to be part of. Okay, I wouldn’t be writing any of it, but just to produce such great music would be glory enough. The music was rock and roll, but it was polyrhythmic, polytonal, improvisatory but also intricately structured; the lyrics were surreal, often hysterically funny; the lead singer, Bruce Hampton, had the magnetism of an undeniable star; and the musicians could do anything. It turned out they were partway through recording an album for a production company in Georgia. That was fine. I came roaring back to New York with tape, and this time it worked. We signed the band, and I produced the rest of the record—a two-LP set called “Music to Eat.”


The band’s New York début, just after the album’s release, took place at the Fillmore East (hard by Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, where my Jewish friends had been introducing me to the wonders of blintzes, cheese kreplach, pickled lox, and, um, not so wonderful, baked gefilte fish with creole sauce). The Grease Band would open, then their spiritual cousins, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, would play, followed by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. The Grease Band was a sensation. The famously blasé Fillmore ushers were throwing their flashlights into the air.


But the record seemed to be in hardly any store in the country. And no radio stations would play it—the songs were too long, the music was too weird, Hampton’s voice was too harsh. The program managers (who decided which records would be played on the air and which not) hated it. So, it seemed, did nearly everyone at Columbia Records. With no support, the album swiftly sank from sight. It remains one of the lowest-selling records in Columbia history. I was fired.


Thus Ricky Lyon—the artist I had hoped to sign next—was flat out of luck. And I was utterly humilated. Except for giving up on music composition, which at least was by my own choice, I had never really failed at anything. This, undeniably, was failure. Then Louise got laid off from her job as a day-care center teacher, and we were both out of work. To console ourselves, we cooked. We cooked more and more elaborately, artistically, happily. But it couldn’t last. We had to have jobs.


It was dear old Arnold Levine who saved me, first by giving me freelance work and ultimately in hiring me as a full-time copywriter. It was ridiculously easy work. It took me an hour or two a day. The rest of the time I spent in my office, smoking cheap cigars, writing poems, and dreaming up a totally insane musical play, book and lyrics by Thomas McNamee, music by Richard Lyon.


I was at the time solidly and foolishly in the grip of Joseph Campbell’s four-volume The Masks of God, in which I discovered a ninth-century Irish monk named John the Scot from whose life my play was loosely derived. John the Scot believed that God was present not only in the human soul but in all creation—in birds, in blades of grass, in mosquitoes. For the medieval Church, this belief was uncomfortably close to pantheism, and John was excommunicated. My modern hero, John Scott, was a physicist who believed that something radical needed to be done about the exponential growth of the planet’s human population. He was haunted by two nude blonde spirit-women, and eventually went quite mad. He advocated infanticide, and imagined that he would spark a worldwide movement by killing, and eating, his twin daughters. I called the play Sirens. It struck me that it would make a dandy Broadway musical. I just needed a composer. Ricky happily agreed. We were both completely nuts.


Leonard Bernstein was awarded the Norton Fellowship in Ricky’s sophomore year. Unlike most Norton Fellows, Bernstein took full advantage of his honor by spending much of the year living on the Harvard campus, writing up his famous Norton lectures—which became a book, The Unanswered Question, a fierce defense of tonality against the forces of atonal chaos that claimed absolute hegemony over contemporary “classical” music. Bernstein also trolled for, and caught, a lot of Harvard boys. Ricky’s roommate practically had to fight to escape the advances of the great maestro. Ricky himself, as ever undaunted, persuaded Bernstein to listen to some of the songs we’d been working on for Sirens.


He loved them. He loved us—though he never made the slighest sexual overture. We loved him! It was unbelievable. Bernstein got his sister, Shirley, to be our manager. His own manager opened door after door for us on Broadway. Behind each of those Broadway doors, it seems now, lurked a short, fat, cigar-puffing producer in a dumpy brown suit and a tall, sleek, lacquer-nailed producer in an immaculate blue pinstripe; they would listen to Ricky play and sing our songs, then they would look at each other, and then they would look at us, and the guy with the cigar would say, “Is this a joke?”


Shirley got us an appointment with Otto Preminger. He was a very small man, as wrinkled and brown as a mummy, and behind his immense, nearly empty marble desk he seemed to be nearly comatose. Then he growled, without, I believe, opening his eyes. “Come forward.” Ricky played and sang our songs, and I talked my way through the story. Preminger hardly awoke, just waved us away.


Bernstein invited me to dinner at his penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. The first real butler I had ever seen showed me to a little paneled room where the maestro was sitting with his sock feet up on an ottoman, watching the news. Nixon was onscreen, sweating, trying out some more lies about Watergate.


“He’s going to jail!” I crowed.


Bernstein did not call me Kid, but he did say, “Not in a million years.”


“But they’ve got him nailed now!” I cried.


He favored me with an indulgent smile.


On the terrace, a uniformed woman with a German accent served us from a giant steaming platter of green spaghetti. The spaghetti was flat instead of round. It had almost no sauce on it, but the aroma was intensely wonderful. “This is linguine with pesto genovese,” my host replied to my baffled look.


When the waitress or cook or whoever she was returned and offered seconds, I took a mountain of linguine and slurped every last noodle down. I leaned back, in bliss, and lit a cigarette. “Lenny,” I said, stuffed to the limit and just drunk enough (on Watergate rage, my blossoming artistic ego, and Chianti) to have become his fellow man of the world, “that was the most delicious dinner I have ever had.”


Then the waitress came back again, with the main course. Veal, I think it was, swimming in sauce.

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