September 2006 Archives

MY BOOK’S TITLE: BRILLIANT OR CRAP?

Really, I want to know. This subject will become an important one in a few days. (I’ll explain next Monday.) Sound off on what you think. Include your name and hometown if you want to get mentioned.

September 27, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE: MY BIG TRIP WEST

The Western leg of my book tour commences this Friday in foodie-rific Berkeley, California, and continues for the better part of the following week. Here are the details of where I’ll be doing readings/signings/schmoozings/etc.:

On Friday, September 29, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at Cody’s on Fourth Street in Berkeley, CA.

On Monday, October 2, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA (Julia Child’s hometown).

On Tuesday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m., I will be appearing at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside in Portland, OR.

On Wednesday, October 4, at 7 p.m., I will be appearing at the University Book Store (the University District location) in Seattle, WA.

And on Friday, October 6, at 11:30 a.m., just hours after my return to New York, I’ll be participating in a chat with Clark Wolf, restaurant consultant and foodie-culture analyst extraordinaire, at New York University–specifically, at the Fales Collection (3rd floor of the Bobst Library on Washington Square South). My homegirl Marion Nestle says she might be there, too.

September 26, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

BRUNI RAPS ABOUT “U.S. OF ARUGULA”

Well, he doesn’t literally rap, though in these hang-loose days at the Times, anything is possible. But the Paper of Record’s restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, has kind words to say about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation in his podcast, which was heard on National Public Radio last week. Click on the link below to hear what Mr. Bruni has to say:

Bruni Podcast

September 25, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

I HEART POWELL’S BOOKSTORE

Powell’s is a remarkable institution in Portland, Oregon, a bookstore run by the father-son team of Walter and Michael Powell, open 365 days a year. They’ve been at it since the 1970s and got in early on the e-commerce front, starting up their web site in 1994.

And they’re being very nice to me. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation has been selected as one of their vaunted Staff Picks by an employee named Jill. (Thanks, Jill, I owe you a plate of Dungeness crabs and a glass of pinot noir.) And Powell’s also asks authors to fill out a Q&A that, charmingly, includes esoteric questions that have nothing to do with the book the author is hustling. You can read my Q&A here.

I will be reading at the flagship Burnside location (a.k.a. Powell’s City of Books) at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 3rd. More info on my upcoming West Coast tour to come.

September 23, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

A NON-HECTORING VOICE FOR FOOD CHANGE

One thing I want you to understand about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation is that it is a book rooted in pleasure: the pleasure of cooking, the pleasure of eating, the pleasure Americans have taken over the last 50-60 years in their discovery that food can be so much more than mere sustenance. (And that it can be so much better than canned Dinty Moore beef stew.) It’s not a “food issues” book like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though I loved those books and recommend them as complements to mine; I’m relating the good news, Schlosser the bad, and Pollan is the guy trying to sort out where we go from here.

What I especially admire about Schlosser’s and Pollan’s books is their tone. They’re telling you what’s wrong with the way Americans eat, but they’re not hectoring you or guilt-tripping you; they’re not saying “Bad fat Americans! Stupid little tools of corporate interests!” They’re sincere in their desire to enlighten, which is refreshing in a heated climate where, too often, food activists reflexively take adversarial, I’m-smart-you’re-stupid stances. (To see an example of what I mean, look at the thread of sour-spirited reader comments that followed my interview with Salon–some of which had little or nothing to do with the interview itself.)

Which brings me to another great food activist, one of my favorite people I got to meet in the course of writing and researching my book: a young woman named Nina Planck. Nina is the author of the books Real Food: What to Eat and Why and The Farmers’ Market Cookbook. She’s the daughter of Virginia farmers, and I like her not only because she’s a nice person, but because of the jolliness of her activism, her prescriptiveness and fundamental upbeatness. In her fine Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times about the E. coli spinach scare, she points out that the strain of E. coli bacteria that’s getting people sick is often a byproduct of feeding cattle grain, which stresses the digestive systems of the animals (who, as ruminants, aren’t supposed to be eating grain). “It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighborhing farms,” Nina writes. She then points out the “good news” that cattle switched to a grass-fed diet for even a few days experience a sharp downturn in the amount of this especially nasty strain of E. coli (O157:H7) in their systems.

Nina sheds light on the problem and points the way toward a solution, while acknowledging that implementing this solution will take time and effort. (And she is brave enough not to pile scorn on Earthbound Farm, the “corporate organic” outfit whose massive recalls and current troubles have prompted some bouts of schadenfreudal cackling from other food activists, even though Pollan, in his book, finds them to be the good guys among the big outfits.)

One other thing: There was a little party in New York City last week to celebrate the launch of my book. Nina brought along her mom, Susan, who was fresh from the farm in Virginny. Susan got off the night’s best line: “I bet I’m the only person in this room who actually planted arugula yesterday.”

September 21, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

OLD-MEDIA FOOD DORKS, LIKE, DISCOVER BLOGGING

My friend Adam Platt, who reviews restaurants for New York magazine, has just informed me that he has entered the “cyber era” (Geez, what a fogyish phrase; he must be over 30!) with a new, magazine-sanctioned blog called Gobbler.

Adam joins such other old-media blog adventurers as Chow, a print magazine that’s just been freshly reconceived as a Web-based food network (complete with a “Food Media Blog” called The Grinder), and, of course, the New York Times, whose Web site features restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s Diner’s Journal.

As a smug cyber-veteran who’s had an independent Web presence for ages–well, seventeen and a half months–I feel it’s my duty to assume the stance of the plucky new media and mock the latecomers.

So here goes: Whoop-de-doo! The square old-media companies have discovered that there is something called “the World Wide Web” that features something called “blogging”! Nyah-nyah! And furthermore, nyah-nyah!

Did I do that well?

September 20, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

I LOVE IT WHEN TWO PASSIONS CONVERGE...

...in this case, football and food. An avid New York Giants fan, I can’t stop reading recaps of my team’s improbable comeback victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday. My favorite line from all the postgame coverage came from Plaxico Burress, the tall, spindly wide receiver who caught Eli Manning’s final pass for the winning TD in overtime. Earlier in the game, Burress made a catch downfield but lost control of the ball, fumbling it forward. After it bounced off of an Eagle or two, the ball squirted into the end zone, where Burress’s fellow wideout Tim Carter fell on it for the touchdown that began the Giants’ comeback.

Burress is often derided in the sports press as a moody head case, but I pull for him because he blocks well (a task many receivers are too selfish to take on) and because he’s devoted to the memory of his mom, Vicki Burress, who raised three boys singlehandedly in Virginia Beach and died of diabetes when she was just 49. And I love what Plax said about Tim Carter, who turned his miscue into a score: “I owe him a steak, a lobster, a glass of merlot or something.”

September 19, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

SALON INTERVIEW, PLUS SOME GOOD PRESS

Hey, I was interviewed by Ratha Tep of Salon.com a few weeks ago, and here is the result. WARNING: In this Q&A, I confess to liking Jif peanut butter (!!!) in addition to heirloom tomatoes and other virtuous, locally produced foods. Already, in the “Comments” section, I’ve been upbraided by some smug sustainable-ista (who nevertheless echoes the very points I make in the interview).

Reviews are starting to come in, too. Got a very nice writeup in USA Today on Monday, Sept 18.

September 19, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE, MAN

Though I’m currently in pitchman mode for The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, and encourage you to buy the book and check out the October issue of Vanity Fair, which contains an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book, I also keep busy doing other bits of writing here and there, and thought I’d clue you in on this stuff.

In the September issue of GQ, which is still on some newsstands, I have a profile of Troy Polamalu, the intense safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Pro football is as much of an abiding passion of mine as food; maybe “pathology” is a better word than “passion.”)

I also have an essay in Bon Appetit’s 50th-Anniversary issue, now on the stands. (Article not available online.)

I give a thumbs-up to Mark Haddon for his new novel, A Spot of Bother, in the current New York Times Book Review.

And, as ever, you’re encouraged to check out the article archives on this Web site, reachable by clicking on the box at the top right of this page. I’m verrry slowly posting my back catalogue, and the latest addition is of one of my early pieces for GQ, about the cult British indie film Withnail & I.

September 17, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

WELL, IT’S A GOOD THING I DIDN’T CALL THE BOOK “THE UNITED STATES OF RAW SPINACH”...

...but I’m nevertheless saddened by the E. coli outbreak that’s caused all that spinach to be recalled. I guess this is a good argument for the local-foods movement; big processors like Natural Selection Foods LLC are compelled to take such drastic measures because their products are distributed all over the country, under a variety of brand names, and lord knows which batch of spinach was contaminated. Whereas, if you buy your spinach from Farmer Chard’s stand down the road, you know exactly where your food is coming from.

Still, it’s tough for most Americans to buy local all the time, especially where leafy greens are concerned. In my book, Emeril Lagasse, whose own brand of pre-packaged baby spinach is among those affected by the recall, says that he got into selling salad greens under his name not because he’s a whore to commerce, as his detractors are wont to say, but “because of my children and the crap that’s in the supermarket. Look, most people don’t live in New York City, where you can just go down the street and get whatever you want. Most people have to settle for brown lettuce that’s been up there for a couple of weeks, and it’s sad.”

September 16, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

WELL, IT’S A GOOD THING I DIDN’T CALL THE BOOK “THE UNITED STATES OF CILANTRO”...

...because I think these folks are serious.

September 16, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

BARNES & NOBLE READING ON FRIDAY IN NYC

With the Today show appearance* now behind me (Matt Lauer charmingly ate a handful of the display prosciutto as soon as they cut to commercial), I now invite you to come see me read from The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation at the Lincoln Center location of Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 15. Let me reiterate that it’s the Lincoln Center location, and not the big B&N on Union Square. Arianna Huffington is reading at that one; totally different vibe.

In other news, the Today show’s web site has posted the first chapter of my book, and Vanity Fair’s web site has posted the excerpt from Chapter 5 of my book (which is not the whole chapter) that appears in the October print issue, a.k.a. the Suri Cruise issue.

In still other news, the reading I was supposed to do in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday, as seen on the event schedule posted by my publisher, has been postponed. I’ll give updates on readings and appearances as I get new info.

* Click here to watch my five minutes with Matt. But keep in mind that in order for NBC’s video player to work on your computer, you have to use the Firefox 1.5 web browser and have Macromedia Flash installed.

September 14, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

GREAT TELEVISION IN THE MAKING

Terrific news! I’m going to be appearing on NBC’s Today show on Thursday, September 14, to talk about The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. (I’ll be on some time between 8 and 9 a.m.; I’ll update this post with specifics if I get them.) [UPDATE: The NBC dudes say 8:45 a.m., give or take, is likely.]

But oh, dear: I’ve gone and broken my left foot. In a characteristically clumsy moment over the Labor Day weekend, I suffered an avulsion fracture of the fifth metatarsal. As injuries go, it’s not serious, and should heal completely in a month or so. Unfortunately, the healing process necessitates that I wear a protective but dorky-looking cast boot most of the time. Now, I’m sufficiently vain that I don’t want to wear the boot on Today; my orthopedist has given me permission to wear a regular shoe on the foot for the TV appearance, as long as I keep pressure off of it.

What this means is that there’s potential for me to stumble and fall on live television. Which would be humiliating, but a classic YouTube moment. I’d tune in if I were you.

September 13, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

BEING TRUE TO LA GOULUE

I promised that I would post corrections if readers found mistakes in the book, and already, eagle-eyed Amy Fine Collins of Vanity Fair has caught a wee muck-up by me. On p. 241 of the book, in writing about Wolfgang Puck’s short-lived stay in New York City in the early 1970s, I describe La Goulue as “the ladies-who-lunch bistro on Madison Avenue.” (Puck, thinking a plum restaurant job awaited him in New York, was affronted to discover that the job was at La Goulue, and turned it down.)

Collins, a lady who lunches, notes that in those days, La Goulue was not on Madison, as it is now, but in the east 60s. Got it? Okay, now, readers: Order Collins’s The God of Driving, and find some mistakes in her book.

September 12, 2006  Link  Dept. of Corrections  Share/Bookmark

PUB DATE

That whirring sound you hear is of box after heavy box of books sliding down the roller ramps from the delivery trucks to your bookstore’s cargo bay. At last, real hardcover copies of of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation have arrived. Sound the trumpets! Macerate the peaches!

I’ll be busy doing plugola in New York City this week. You can catch me on NBC’s Today show on Thursday, September 14 (Meredith’s second day and also the second day the show will be available in hi-def; anyone have some botox?) and, if you care to, you can hear me read from the book in person at the Lincoln Center location of Barnes & Noble at 7 p.m. this Friday, September 15.

September 12, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

A LOVELY MENTION IN THE BRUNI BLOG

Frank Bruni, the New York Times’s restaurant critic, offers a very positive assessment of The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation in the September 8 editon of his Times-sanctioned blog. And he admits to having not yet finished the book! I hope he enjoys the rest of it and doesn’t retract his kind words in a future post.

September 10, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

NEW “VANITY FAIR” ISH EXCERPTS MY BOOK!

The new, October-dated issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and L.A. today, and in the rest of the country next week. Excitingly, wonderfully, the issue contains a lengthy excerpt from The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation–specifically, an adapted, streamlined version of the chapter dealing with the birth of Chez Panisse, the seminal Berkeley restaurant.

I guess people are also excited about this issue of VF because of some baby pictures in it.

September 6, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

WELCOME TO THE SITE

Hello. My name is David Kamp. I am a writer based in New York City, and I draw my paycheck from Condé Nast Publications, which publishes my work in Vanity Fair and GQ. The occasion of this site launch is a new book I’ve written called The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. I hope you buy and read the book, but I also hope you pay regular visits to this site itself, which, in the Gladwellian spirit of these times, will not be solely a promotional device but an archive for my magazine articles and a place to read site-specific stuff by me.

The article archive is a work in progress, but already, I have posted a few pieces I’ve written over the years. Click on the links provided at the top right of this page to read these pieces and pick up on my tendency to overuse the words alas, mien, and upscale. Click on the box at the top left of this page to learn more about The United States of Arugula, a book that I think you’ll really enjoy if you’ve ever eaten food.

September 4, 2006  Link  General Posts  Share/Bookmark

My Father, the Car (GQ, November 2005)

A valentine to my dad on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday.

Was there ever a better automotive sales team than the classic DeAngelis Buick lineup of the ’60s and ’70s, that veritable Murderers’ Row of the Central Jersey motor trade? You had Jack Moskowitz, Dick Summers, and Rene Abril on the showroom floor, and holding down the sales manager’s office, Seymour Kamp. The same four guys for twenty years, almost—you just don’t see that kind of dynastic continuity anymore. I had the pleasure of watching this team in action, and let me tell you, there was never a quartet more charismatic and scrupulous in its pursuit of making its customers’ V8-engine fantasies come true.

DeAngelis had a magnificent Art Deco showroom—the skinny tip of a long, trapezoidal building that occupied its own triangular island between French Street and Jersey Avenue in downtown New Brunswick—and these men, in their John Weitz suits and ASK ME ABOUT BUICK VALUE lapel pins, worked it with appropriate dignity, strolling up to customers casually, never in a caffeinated hustle. Kamp, especially, was extraordinary: a magnetic force with his booming voice and football player’s build. (He played tackle on both offense and defense for New Brunswick High in the ’40s.) People bought six, seven, eight cars from him and sent their friends to do the same—“Whatever you need, see Seymour!” the newspaper ads said. Those who didn’t recognize his face from the paper knew his voice from the radio commercials he did on WCTC-AM, in which he pluggerooed the latest Electras, LeSabres, and Regals in a rat-a-tat delivery so rapid that the copywriters had to give him twenty-six lines of text to fill a minute of airtime rather than the requisite twenty-four. Even today, Jack Ellery, the radio host who manned the drive-time shift on CTC in that era and intro’d the ads with an offhand “Now let’s hear from Seymour Kamp—Mr. Buick,” ranks Kamp as one of Central Jersey’s top three all-time merchant celebrities of the airwaves, along with the clothiers Wally Steinberg of Steinberg’s Men’s Shop and Norman Miller of Miller’s on the Mall.

Read More »


September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

Beautiful Loser

Another in my series of loving profiles of character actors: Paul Giamatti, in this case. The peg of this piece was Cinderella Man, an old-fashioned, Cagney-style boxing weepie that was pretty good but tanked. Paul is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet.

 

The feel-good cine-story of 2004: Sideways, a low-budget road movie about two male buddies’ calamitous trek through California wine country, triumphantly closes out the New York Film Festival in October. There’s praise not only for the writer-director, Alexander Payne, a mensch outsider for whom a crit-love drumbeat has been building for years, but also for the film’s unlikely cast, which includes two veterans of the Hollywood grind who were thought to be past their sell-by dates, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, and an Asian Canadian actress, Sandra Oh, who is playing neither a geisha nor a ninja but a straight-up American broad. But the most effusive gush is reserved for the cast’s de facto leader, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti’s been scrapping around for ages, endlessly, tirelessly—Sideways is his twenty-ninth movie in twelve years—and only recently has he begun to register in the public consciousness. A year earlier he was extraordinary in the lead role of American Splendor, a mesmerizingly odd film about the schlubby underground-comix author Harvey Pekar, and now this new picture is cementing his status as one of our acting treasures. The physical descriptions of Giamatti are never kind—“paunchy,” “schlumpy,” “chinless,” “balding,” “stooped”—but the critics kvell over his acting chops, calling him a revelation, a virtuosic line reader, a master of nuance and body language. His role is thankless—a depressive, divorced failed novelist and wine snob who steals cash from his mother—but Giamatti, restive and resourceful, turns in an electric performance that transcends the film’s drab, indie-sludge trappings.

Read More »


September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

Only the Ball Was Brown

Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. I was curious about the black men who integrated what is today America’s most black-identified sports league, the NBA. And I was delighted to learn that Earl Lloyd, the very first black man to play in a regular-season NBA game, in the fall of 1950, was alive and well in Tennessee. So in 2001, I went down to his house to spend some time with him, and I also interviewed most of the other surviving black players who broke into the league in the 1950s. As it turns out, this story didn’t have the deep drama of Robinson’s, but for a fascinating reason: Whereas the white world of baseball was heavily populated by poorly educated yokels unused to being around blacks (and more inclined to be openly racist), the NBA in the 1950s was largely the domain of educated urbanites, what you might call white ethnics–Jews, Italians, Irish and Polish Catholics–who were used to being around blacks and less inclined to make a big deal of integration. Still, it was a tough road for most of the black guys who played professional basketball in the ’50s, as this story–inexplicably, one of the most obscure in my back catalog; no one read it–shows.

P.S. The headline for this story was devised by the late Art Cooper, then GQ’s editor, as a wink to Robert Peterson’s history of baseball’s Negro Leagues, Only the Ball Was White.

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

Have You Seen This Man?

Philip Seymour Hoffman probably wouldn’t want to be described as a character actor anymore. But for me, this is my favorite kind of actor: all those guys who appeared in supporting roles in Preston Sturges movies (e.g. William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn), all those Italian-Americans used by Coppola, Scorsese, Lumet, and David Chase (e.g. John Cazale, David Proval, Vincent Curatola), all those doughy, waddly guys who pull their big weight in small roles (e.g. Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Kenneth McMillan). At the time of this article, four years before Capote, Hoffman was in transition from beloved character actor to alternative male lead.

GQ, January 2001

Around my house, we had a special word—well, it was my brother’s special word—for an actor who steals a scene, or even an entire movie, with a great performance in a smallish role. Such an actor was called a Moe—for making the MOst of his MOment. The archetypal Moe was a decrepit old codger who turns up in one scene of the 1987 film Barfly. He’s shuffling down a littered street, apparently at death’s door, when the Mickey Rourke character asks him to light the Faye Dunaway character’s cigarette. Momentarily buoyed by having a purpose in life, the codger brightens and revives as he proffers the light, tremulously addressing Dunaway as “my lady”—only to return immediately thereafter to stricken despair as he shuffles out of the frame. It’s a throwaway moment but a magnificent one, a seriocomic gin-mill playlet enacted by an anonymous geezer giving his all. Recently, my brother looked this guy up on the Internet Movie Database and discovered his name to be Fritz Feld. He is credited as “Bum.” He was 87 at the time, performing in the third-to-last film of a 131-movie career during which he seldom rose above the level of bit player. To this day, my brother longs to hold a Moe Awards ceremony at which statuettes in the image of Fritz Feld (as Bum) would be conferred on those actors who, in his words, “nail their bit so decisively as to create a permanent movie memory.” Bronson Pinchot would win a Moe for his fey art-gallery employee in Beverly Hills Cop. Benicio Del Toro would get a Moe for his wigged-out, offed-in-the-first-reel hoodlum in The Usual Suspects. Judi Dench would get a Moe for her brief appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, a more proportionately appropriate award than the Oscar she actually won. Further Moes would go to Christopher Walken for playing Diane Keaton’s tightly wound brother in Annie Hall, to Mason Gamble for playing Jason Schwartzman’s half-pint sidekick in Rushmore and to whoever played the barkeep in My Darling Clementine, who, when asked, “You ever been in love?” by an anguished Henry Fonda, responds, “No. I been a bartender all my life.”

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

American Communion (Vanity Fair, October 2004)

An upbeat story about death. There had already been tons of articles published about Johnny Cash’s unlikely late-in-life artistic alliance with Rick Rubin, which began in the early 1990s and ended with Cash’s death in 2003. But no one had really explored Cash and Rubin’s relationship in depth. A few months after Cash died, I approached Rubin about talking intimately, slowly, patiently, about all that went on between him and the Man in Black. He agreed and let me spend hours with him in his Buddhist-surf-Gothic décor house in the Hollywood hills, and played me raw tapes of Cash’s final recordings. To my surprise and delight, there was so much more to the Cash-Rubin story than music. For this article, I shed much of my reflexive, Spy-magazine-trained cheekiness and just told the story.

P.S.: The ostensible peg of this piece was the supposedly imminent release of the album of Cash’s final songs, American V. Because of label politics, the album did not come out until July 2006, with the subtitle A Hundred Highways.

 

The last song that Johnny Cash ever wrote is called “Like the 309.” Like the first single he ever recorded, “Hey Porter,” from 1955, it’s a train song. Cash loved trains—he made two concept albums about them in the early 1960s, Ride This Train and All Aboard the Blue Train, dangled his legs from atop a boxcar on the cover of his ’65 album, Orange Blossom Special, and, in the liner notes to his 1996 album, Unchained, listed “railroads” second in his litany of favorite song subjects, right after “horses” and just before “land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.”

Trains resonated with Cash, and no wonder. He spent his first years in a house hard by the railroad tracks in Kingsland, Arkansas. He counted among his earliest memories the image of his father, Ray, a Depression-era cotton farmer who rode the freights in search of work when there wasn’t cotton to pick, jumping out of a moving boxcar and rolling down into a ditch, coming to stillness only as he lay before the family’s front door. Trains were in Cash’s veins, insinuating their boom-chicka-boom rhythms into his early records for Sam Phillips’s Sun label (in fact, he later recorded a nostalgic album harking back to his Sun years called Boom Chicka Boom) and serving him lyrically as metaphors for adventure, progress, danger, strength, lust, and American Manifest Destiny.

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September 4, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

The Hit Factory

An oral history of the Brill Building. The most fun set of interviews I’ve ever conducted. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) are authentic hepcats, exuding tons more cool than people a third of their age. I arrived at Leiber’s house in Venice, CA, to find Stoller in the kitchen, preparing pastrami sandwiches for their lunch: a lovely glimpse of their unbroken partnership. Deli sandwiches, as you’ll see below, were a big part of Brill Building culture.

I supplemented my own interviews with those conducted by a brilliant young documentary filmmaker named Morgan Neville, who, at the same time I was preparing this article, was filming a series of Brill mini-docs for A&E’s Biography program. Morgan generously gave me his transcripts, which included interviews with a few people (such as Little Eva and the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss) who I didn’t get to.

 

The early 1960s exuded bigness and tidiness. Bigness of outlook, of ambition, of Impala tail fins, of turbine beehives atop ladies’ heads. Tidiness of sensibility and appearance: the decade hadn’t yet gone all pubic and patchouli-scented, and a hat-wearing populace still thronged the city streets. The Brill Building sound, as heard in such songs as “On Broadway,” “Up on the Roof,” “Be My Baby,” and “This Magic Moment,” was the sound of bigness and tidiness, of exuberance underpinned by professionalism—the fulcrum between the shiny craftsmanship of Tin Pan Alley and the primal energy of 60s soul and rock. It represented the last great era of assembly-line-manufactured pop—before the success of the Beatles and Bob Dylan lent a stigma to not writing your own material, and before prefab pop’s current comeback as joyless song-product written and produced by reclusive Swedes for Orlando-farmed hunks and totsies.

The amazing thing about the Brill Building milieu was that its songs, which week in and week out dominated America’s Top 10, were by and large written by a small clutch of young men and women working out of warrenlike offices in Midtown Manhattan, and that most of these songwriters were Jewish kids from Brooklyn—an awesome concentration of cultural power in a few knish-eating precincts. Three of the most prominent songwriting teams happened to be young married couples barely into their 20s: Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” “Up on the Roof”), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”), and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (“Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love”). Another young team in this crowd was Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield (“Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”). A schoolmate of Sedaka and Greenfield’s, Mort Shuman, paired up with a writer in his 30s, Doc Pomus, to create such songs as “This Magic Moment” and “A Teenager in Love.” Younger than Pomus but older than the rest were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who in the 50s were Elvis Presley’s favorite songwriters (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) and in the early 60s functioned as mentors to the younger set while continuing to write hits for the Coasters (“Poison Ivy,” “Little Egypt”). More grown-up in age and songwriting style, but nevertheless in the same close quarters, were Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the team behind “Walk On By” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” among dozens of other hits.

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September 4, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

Live At The Whisky

For Vanity Fair’s first music issue, I was assigned to write a fun history of America’s most notorious rock club, the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip. Not totally my scene—I’ve never been a big Doors fan—but I got lucky: the story’s protagonist, Whisky founder Elmer Valentine, was a terrific character, straight out of Damon Runyon or Joe Mitchell.

 

The Sunset Strip is officially a NO CRUISING ZONE, as cautionary white signs remind you every quarter-mile or so. But in the glare of business hours, the scourge of “cruising” isn’t much of an issue. The Strip in daytime is mostly worker-mobiles shuttling hurriedly between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, which was actually the original purpose of this 1.7-mile stretch of road: to get movie people swiftly from their homes in the palmy west to the studios in the sunbaked east, and back again. One radical soul, however, defies the cruising ban and rolls westward at lawnmower speed in his black Lincoln Navigator, pointing at things like a tourist. His name is Elmer Valentine. He is 77 years old and is driving barefoot. “That island,” he says, motioning to a blank triangle of land marooned in the intersection of Sunset and Crescent Heights, “was where they had a little club called Pandora’s Box. The kids used to spill out into the road so you couldn’t move. You couldn’t fucking move! Kids 10-deep on the sidewalk, into the road! That’s where the riots started. You heard of the riots on Sunset Strip?”

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September 4, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

That Joke Isn’t Funnies Anymore

I grew up reading the comics in the afternoon paper. Good lord, doesn’t that sound like the reminiscence of a 75-year-old? But even in the 1970s and ’80s, the newspaper funnies were still an intrinsic part of childhood. In early 2000, as the ’Net was on the rise, newspapers were on the wane, and Charles Schulz was meeting his maker, I sensed that the whole comics universe in which I'd immersed myself as a boy was on the brink of obsolescence, so I tried to reach as many of the old-time syndicated cartoonists–such as Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker and The Family Circus’s Bil Keane–as I could. I would like to say that my criticism of Garry Trudeau in this piece–that he’d lost his initial passion and allowed Doonesbury to become stale–is no longer valid. The Iraq war reanimated his muse, and his strips about B.D., the injured vet, are good stuff.

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September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

The Tabloid Decade

A real period piece from the late 1990s, in which I took stock of that decade’s full-on embrace of the tabloid sensibility, from Pee-wee Herman’s porn-house arrest through the Menendezes, Tonya Harding, O.J., Monica Lewinsky, and so on. You couldn’t say that the Internet was in its infancy in February 1999, the time of this essay’s publication, but reading this piece, you can tell how relatively primitive the Net still was, with no viral videos or instantly circulated photos of celebrity upskirts.

I take no I-told-you-so pleasure in pointing this out, but I have to point it out: In this essay’s final paragraph, I wrote, “And as the Tabloid Decade draws, at least numerically, to a close, you can’t help but wonder what’s been lurking the whole time in that ignored parallel universe known as reality. You wonder if whatever’s lurking there... is going to rear up and demand our penance for ignoring it.” I had no idea that Osama and co. were already plotting their wicked plan–in fact, I misguidedly suggested that Russia was due to implode with disastrous international consequences–but it creeps me out to read that sentence now. Especially considering that even after 9/11, even with war, we’re still doing our best to ignore that parallel universe known as reality.

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September 2, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

When Liz Met Dick

This is an exhaustive but artlessly written feature I did for VF’s 1998 Hollywood Issue, about Cleopatra, which remains, in dollars adjusted for inflation, the most expensive film ever made. Striking, how much Elizabeth Taylor’s behavior and travails back then evoke the Lohanista vignettes reported in the papers now.

The person who truly knew more than anyone about what went down during this production was Roddy McDowall, who acted in the film and was close to both Taylor and the Burtons, Richard and his first wife, Sybil. McDowall agreed to meet with me, and he could not have been sweeter in explaining that, as much as he enjoyed chit-chatting, he could never, ever blab about his dear friends, even decades after the fact. Roddy was a bust as a source, but I admired his loyalty.

UPDATE ON MARCH 23, 2011: As a result of Elizabeth Taylor’s passing today, Vanity Fair has linked to this story from its site. I realize now that a chunk of its final segment is missing from this post. Sorry about that. We have technicians working on the problem.


Rivoli Theater, New York City, June 12, 1963

Back in the studio, Johnny Carson was in stitches. The Tonight Show had taken the unusual step of hooking up by live remote to the world premiere of Cleopatra, and the man he’d deputized to stand outside the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, Bert Parks, couldn’t elicit a single upbeat comment from the film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. “Congratulations, Mr. Mankiewicz!” said Parks, agleam with Brylcreem and headwaiter unction. “A wonderful, wonderful achievement!”

Mankiewicz, a stocky, impassive-looking man, had the mien of a Wall Street executive strong-armed into addressing his wife’s garden club. “Well,” he said warily, “you must know something I don’t.”

The studio audience roared with laughter. Carson’s chuckling bled over the audio track. Parks persevered. “I want to ask you,” he said conspiratorially, “whether you are personally going to control the sound on the showing of Cleopatra tonight? That’s the rumor!”

“No,” said Mankiewicz, “I think everything connected with Cleopatra is beyond my control at the moment.”

The studio audience roared again. “Is some of the tension gone?” said Parks, changing tack. “Do you feel a little more at ease now?”

“No, I, uh ... ” Mankiewicz smiled thinly. “I feel as though the guillotine were about to drop.”

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September 2, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

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