January 2011 Archives
It was thirty-three years ago this week that I awoke one morning to the usual sounds of older siblings rustling and Dad shaving at the sink, this benign familial din differentiated from that of any other day’s only by my mother asking my brother, “Did you hear about the guy from Chicago who died?” This I found puzzling—I thought she was referring to some resident of the city of Chicago who had expired. Only after I’d come downstairs to the breakfast table, where I listened to the news on the rock station WNEW-FM, did it become clear that she meant Terry Kath, the guitarist in the band Chicago, the guy who sang lead on “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” He had accidentally shot himself in the head, fatally, while playing with his handgun in an inebriated state.
Maybe it’s because this week has been so brutally cold, or maybe it’s because I’m writing a book about the seventies, but this buried memory flashed into my consciousness today. We were a Chicago-loving household back then. If you know the band only from the eighties era of plinked-synth ballads and multi-tracked Peter Cetera vocals, reconsider. They were a damned good band in the early to mid 1970s, one that realized with tight horns, tight songs, and a good rhythm section the vision that prog rock got wretchedly wrong: complex, full-sounding, big rock music that wasn’t gloppy and overegged. I say without shame that side two of their 1970 double album Chicago II, the bulk of which is taken up by “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” a seven-part song suite written by the trombonist James Pankow and sung mostly by Kath, is one of most emotionally evocative pieces of music I can listen to: the soundtrack to long family car rides, summer nights humid with hamburger fumes, and other irretrievable moments of a patchwork-denim early youth. Those shaggy, paint-splattered young men on the cover of 1975’s Chicago IX, their first greatest-hits collection, seemed like gentle hippie freaks rather than menacing rockers, akin to the outgoing, not-flagrantly-druggy backpackers we met atop the mountains we were constantly hiking in the seventies:
Everyone in a cold climate falls victim at this time of year to seasonal affective disorder, the winter doldrums. I wonder now how much mine are informed by the death of Terry Kath. It was a brutal and coldly final tragedy, especially in freezing January, and especially as it fell between the November ’77 death of one grandfather and the February ’78 death of the other. And it introduced to me the sacred Rock Snob tenet of the Sanctity of the Original Lineup: No band can ever again be considered whole and truly good without all the members who were in the band at the time of its initial success. I knew, even in my tadpole phase of Rock Snobbery, that Chicago, the real Chicago, was done for. It’s entirely possible that the spiky, exhilarating Talking Heads and Clash records my brother was already playing would have smothered my Chicago-love anyway. But this was a cruel, forced curtain-drop.
The record business moved faster then, and it wasn’t but eight or nine months before Chicago reemerged with a new album and a new guitarist, an alarmingly poodle-haired, visually acontextual fellow named Donnie Dacus. I remember watching this broadcast in October 1978 of Chicago performing its comeback single, “Alive Again,” and recognizing the song as a credible facsimile of the old Chicago, but, alas, not quite the real thing. (Though I was unfair to Dacus, who, despite his ridiculous hair, was a perfectly fine musician and vocalist on his own terms.) It would be egregiously hacky to say that this was the end of my childhood innocence, but it was certainly an end—a punctuation point to a chapter of my childhood.
“Nothing less than a world championship is acceptable to our team.” This is a declaration constantly trotted out by sports organizations, whether in training camp or on the eve of a championship game, and it’s utter bollocks.
I’m thinking about the “Nothing less than” trope because today, in the wake of the New York Jets’ playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’ve been hearing a lot of an equally dubious trope: “Same old Jets.” Same old? This team, with a youngish coach and a core of young players, has made it to two consecutive conference championship games! They’ll probably be a good team for several years to come. And that is, for a fan, a pretty great set of circumstances.
I’m not even a Jets fan; my football team is the Giants, who finished 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. If I may make an unfashionable admission, I enjoyed the Giants’ past season (in that masochistic, pain-as-joy way endemic to diehard sports fandom) because the Giants had a winning record and were in the playoff hunt until the end. That’s really what is acceptable to me. If I had a chance to rewrite the “Nothing less than” aphorism, I would rewrite it as “Nothing less than a team that is solid year in and year out, and is in the playoff hunt until late in the regular season, is acceptable.” What’s more, I have endured Giants teams that have had terrible seasons of double-digit losses, yet still I’ve returned to my seats in the Meadowlands when the next season rolled around. So if I’m being truthful, I must make the still-more-unfashionable admission that even a losing team, while dreary and soul-crushing and self-worth-abnegating, is kind of acceptable.
It’s understandable why coaches like the Jets’ Rex Ryan and owners like the Yankees’ Steinbrenners deploy the “Nothing less than” formulation, since it stokes the fans’ hopes and the players’ self-belief. But if you’re a true sports fan, you have to disengage from this all-or-nothing approach, which, in most years, will lead to bitter disappointment. (And, in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago, to nihilistic despair.) The most apt summation of true fan bliss I ever heard came from John Madden, back when he was still calling NFL games on Sunday afternoons for Fox. I can’t recall which game it was or even which season it was, but it was around Thanksgiving time, and it was a close game between two NFC conference rivals. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Madden said in that unforced merry way of his. “Late November, it’s gettin’ cold, playoff spots on the line.”
My own favorite part of any NFL season is this “Madden period,” late November to early December, when enough of the season has unfolded to shake out the awful teams, but still, there remain many teams in the hunt and many games that matter. Maybe it’s because my early years of Giants fandom were defined by truly bad teams—from age 7 to age 14, they were a losing team, with double-digit losses in all but two of those eight seasons—but for my team to still be standing in that late-autumnal Madden period is, really, all I ever hope for. Playoff berths, playoff wins, Super Bowl championships: the rest is gravy.
...is me. Let me tell you about a story-idea memo I sent to the editor of Vanity Fair in October 2008, when it looked increasingly likely that the Obama-Biden ticket would prevail over the McCain-Palin one. Here’s what I wrote:
“I think it would be a great story, if the polls prove correct and the Obama-Biden ticket wins, to do a Sarah Palin profile a few months after the inauguration, after she has returned to being governor every day, the national parade has moved on, and the national G.O.P. isn’t policing her every press appointment and utterance.
“The idea would be for me to go to Juneau and interview her in March or April, for a story to run in May or June. And it would be a ‘What I’ve Learned’ piece—what, with a little perspective, she has learned about the country, the national campaign process, and herself.
“Whatever you think of her, she’s endured the most whirlwind three-month period that probably any national candidate for office has—from little-known and reasonably well-regarded governor to heavily scrutinized, heavily polarizing, heavily mocked figure on the national stage. (Just watched her on SNL, where all these things were in play, as well as the sheer culture shock of her hanging out backstage with Lorne.) And factor in the fact that she gave birth just a little over four months before McCain chose her as running mate, and that some time between that birth and her being tapped by the G.O.P., she learned her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.
“Whether she’s prone to self-examination or not, I think she won’t be able to help but look back on the year 2008 and think ‘Good God! That was everything life could possiblty throw at me! How did I get through it?’ And I’d genuinely love to hear the answer to this question once she had some distance from it all.”
I know, I know—what a rube! I actually admired the way Palin had taken on the entrenched, patronage-driven political culture of Alaska. And I thought that she had taken an inordinate amount of sexist crap on the campaign trail (as had Hillary Clinton) just because she was a woman. Though I in no way believed Palin to be qualified to be vice president of the United States, I thought there was a good chance she would grow, admirably, from her 2008 experience.
I never remotely imagined that she would resign from office eight months later.
And that—as we now know, two books, a couple of reality shows, and thousands of tweets later—was just the beginning. Even recently, after the Gabby Giffords shooting, I somehow had this goofy, naïve expectation that Palin would rise to the occasion, as nearly every political figure on the national stage has. Instead, she spoke bizarrely of “blood libel” (which I know from long-ago Hebrew-school vocab tests to mean something other than what she perceives it to be) and made the moment about herself.
So what would have happened had I actually sat down with Palin in early 2009? Probably, I’d have fared as well as the bow-tie guy on The Hot Box with Avery Jessup.
Mimi Sheraton, who was the New York Times’s restaurant critic in the formative years of my newspaper-reading life, the late seventies to early eighties, has caused a bit of a foodosphere kerfuffle by giving a characteristically cranky interview to a newish online New York publication called Capital. The main thing she grumps about is her former paper, which, she says, “has been exaggerated in its Brooklyn coverage [of restaurants] because most of them live there.” The “them” to which she refers are the Times’s dining editor, Pete Wells, and its featured writers, among them the man who holds her old job, Sam Sifton, and Times Magazine contributor Amanda Hesser. Sheraton’s comments have elicited some witty parries via Twitter from the Times’s current crop of professional eaters.
I went through a similar thing with ol’ Mimi a few years back when I was reporting my book The United States of Arugula. Since I grew up reading her work, I was eager to interview her, and I sent her an appropriately fulsome note explaining how much I would value her perspective as I undertook my project, a chronicle of the remarkable evolution of American foodways and food savvy over the last 50 years. Mimi turned me down flat, saying that the very premise of my book was based on “false hype.” She suggested I not even bother with the book. So, Brooklyners, take heart: It’s not just your borough but ALL OF AMERICA that has fallen under a spell of phony gastro-euphoria.
Still, I somehow managed to get Mimi on the phone, to establish the teensiest of rapports with her (mainly because we live within blocks of each other in Greenwich Village), and to pry a few reluctant quotes out of her. I actually found the experience kind of fun, because Mimi turned out to be an authentic Olde New York curmudgeon, with plenty of opinions and no desire to be liked. Calvin Trillin is often sold to us as a curmudgeon, but he’s a false curmudgeon, a man who looks the part and sometimes plays the part but is actually polite and lovable. Not Mimi.
And then I had the experience of interviewing a woman who out-curmudgeoned Mimi, the food historian Karen Hess. Hess had recently been widowed; her husband, John Hess, had been an investigative reporter for the Times and was briefly, before Sheraton, in the early seventies, the paper’s restaurant critic. Together, the Hesses had decried the delusional, hypey food press in the very culinary heyday that Sheraton now pines for. Their 1977 jeremiad The Taste of America is one of the nastiest books I’ve ever read, a scorched-earth critique of Sheraton, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, and their ilk that makes Anthony Bourdain sound like a host on the OWN network.
Karen Hess was no nicer towards these people when I met her in person. She called Child a “dithering idiot,” Claiborne a man of “disgusting” taste, and Mimi “stupid.” This was not a bitter byproduct of her widowhood; Hess had always been this way. As if to demonstrate this fact, she delightedly led me to a hallway outside of her kitchen, where, mounted on a wall, was a laminated copy of an old Sheraton review that she had put up, with highlighting and angry handwritten comments in the margins, because she considered it the worst piece of food writing she had ever seen. (I wish I could remember which restaurant Mimi was reviewing in the offending review, and what Hess’s specific beefs were, but I can’t; I only remember a lot of appalled exclamation points.)
I don’t know that we’ll experience this breed of curmudgeon again. With the advent of blogging and tweeting, professional writers need no longer conceal their cranky sides. They now preempt their future curmudgeon-geezer phases by venting in ways that they can’t when writing for a genteel print publication. (Just look at Buzz Bissinger’s Twitter feed.) So, youngsters, enjoy Mimi’s difficultness while you can.