February 2013 Archives
(Shadow Morton, before the Ba-CAH-di took its toll.)
“Little nose and big hair. Very strong hair. I think he’s very talented, and very bizarre.” That’s how Jeff Barry, the great Brill Building songwriter behind such hits as “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” described Shadow Morton to me. Morton, like Barry a songwriter but otherwise utterly unlike Barry or any other songwriter, died of cancer on Valentine’s Day at the age of 71. The New York Times obit of him quotes extensively from the oral history of the Brill Building that I wrote in 2001 for Vanity Fair.
Morton was a degenerate punk with just enough front and talent to make an indelible stamp upon pop music. He was from Long Island and was the driving creative force behind the tough-chick Queens girl group the Shangri-Las, writing or co-writing such amazing songs as “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “The Leader of the Pack,” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” You can get a fuller sense of what he was like in the V.F. piece, but, briefly: In 1964, Morton hustled his way into the office of Barry and Barry’s then wife and songwriting partner, Ellie Greenwich. Then he hustled himself into believing he could write a song, “Remember.” Then, when that song became a hit, he hustled Barry and Greenwich’s bosses, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, into making them believe he had a follow-up at the ready... about, you know, some guy with a motorcycle who falls in love with a girl. Leiber wasn’t impressed. Morton, extemporizing, told Leiber, “It gets better.” Leiber asked “How does it get better?” Morton, now really sweating it out, said, “He... dies.” The song that Morton subsequently wrote to fulfill this wholly B.S.’d scenario was “The Leader of the Pack.” Polished by Barry and Greenwich, it became the Shangri-Las’ signature tune, Morton’s biggest annuity, and a cultural touchstone. (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” took its title from the song’s spoken opening line.)
Thirty-odd years after Morton’s heyday, I met him for an interview at Joe Allen, a New York theater-district hangout where he was a regular. (I think he lived on the block, possibly above the restaurant.) He had the hunched shoulders and tinted shades of a horse-playing hoodlum—an aged version of Boogie, Mickey Rourke’s character in Diner. But he still had the little nose and big hair—was still handsome in a dessicated way. The removal of his shades revealed one eyelid to have a droop. From a fight? A neurological condition? I don’t know. He was a sobered-up alcoholic, and, like many in such circumstances, he was ashamed of his past behavior under the influence yet eager to talk about it. He kept talking about “the Ba-CAH-di” that did him in: “It wasn’t me mouthin’ off to Leiber, it was the Ba-CAH-di”; “I got too caught up in the Ba-CAH-di to care when the next hit was gonna come.” Shadow (his real name was George; Barry assigned him the nickname to describe his penchant for unreliability and abrupt disappearances) seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di had made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them.
Still, Morton retained the mischievous air of a hustler. He brought an attractive young woman along for company, their connection ambiguous besides her evident obligation to giggle at his wisecracks and absorb his occasional nudges. I asked him if the the dreamboat tough guy that Weiss sings about in “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“Big wavy hair, a little too long”) was, in fact, him.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling like Jack Nicholson, “you picked up on that, good for you!” One of the wonderful things about Morton’s songs is their structural irregularity—since he was musically untrained (and, for that matter, behaviorally untrained), his Shangri-Las hits include all sorts of strange atmospheric shifts and spoken-word passages that “proper” songwriters would have never essayed. “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” has a dialogue exchange in which the other girls say, “Yeah, well I hear he’s bad!,” to which Weiss thoughtfully replies, “Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.”
“Good-bad,” Morton said. “That was me. That’s how I saw myself.”
(Michael Hainey, king of the investigative memoir.)
More than twenty years ago, as we were ratifying a new friendship over drinks, my pal Michael Hainey, then a fellow member of Spy magazine’s junior varsity and a recent arrival from Chicago, told me about his father. Bob Hainey died abruptly in 1970, when Michael was only six years old. The elder Hainey was a newspaper man, an editor at the Sun-Times. “It’s never added up to me,” Mike said. “He worked on the South Side, but his body was found on the North Side. What was he doing there? I’d love to, like, do a real investigation of it some day.”
This desire never strayed from Michael’s thoughts, and now, years in the making, comes his wondrous new book, After Visiting Friends (Scribner, out officially on Feb. 19). Let me be clear: My recommendation of this book is not forced gush on behalf of a friend. Mike’s quest for the truth about his father, and his telling of it, makes for one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in ages. In fact, a part of me wishes I didn’t know Michael because then I could have approached the story the best way one can as a reader: having no idea what lies in store.
Briefly: It’s a detective story, a hard-times story, a Chicago story, a family-sticking-together story, a glimpse of an old-time milieu of whiskey-splotched newsprint journos with an iffy code of ethics, a boom-chicka-boom evocation of the Nebraska railroad heartland of Bob’s youth, a memory exercise refracted through a poetic sensibility (Mike writes poetry, too), and, most movingly, just... a plunge into the past colored by the melancholic realization that the past is ultimately irretrievable.
Here’s a lovely little bit that’s characteristic but doesn’t give the plot away:
Life in the shadow of O’Hare. ORD—what this land was before the airport was: Orchards. Men took it for the airport’s original name: Orchard Field. The origin of ORD. Acres and acres of apple trees. As a boy, I rode my bike to O’Hare, circumnavigated its fenced-in perimeter. That’s how I found the forgotten orchards. A patch of the past. In the fall, their apples rot unwanted. All that remains.
I urge you to read on. It’s worth it.
I thought Ed Koch was going to die in 1990. I thought he would be like Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, or my old boss at GQ magazine, Art Cooper, both of whose identities were so caught up in what they did for a living that neither man lasted more than a few weeks beyond retirement. When David Dinkins was inaugurated on New Year’s Day in ’90, I assumed that Ed Koch, without the NYC mayoralty, would cease to be.
I was wrong, to Koch’s credit. Simply being a New Yorker, as opposed to the king of New York, was more than enough to sustain him. He was a neighbor and I saw a lot of him, both in person, eating the salty food he wasn’t supposed to eat (at Minetta Tavern, or in line at Balducci’s before it became Citarella) and in The Villager, the homely neighborhood weekly of Greenwich Village, where he reviewed movies. (He hated Avatar, which was “hyped beyond the point of forgiveness,” and remarked of Walk the Line, “I sing better in the shower than Joaquin Phoenix.”) And he was always popping up on NY1, the endearingly shabby, spiritually pre-Bloombergian local-news channel that comes with your cable box in the big city.
There was plenty not to love about Koch, such as his callousness towards his black constituents and his not-good-for-the-Jews stridency in purporting to represent what all Jews think about Israel, Jesse Jackson, and, well, everything. But I retained affection for the guy and am stricken by his passing. That it occured just a day short of the fifth anniversary of my father’s death is resonant, too. As charismatic old Jews go, my dad was an altogether warmer, gentler force than Koch, but he grew up in the same Ashkenazic milieu of bagels, salt-cured fish, Depression-era penury, unquestioned duty to country, astounding work ethic, and recreational kvetching. With Koch down, I feel like we’ve lost another of Dad’s cohort, and not just in the ethno-gastric sense. Like my father, Koch was a product of a time that celebrated the “common man,” when leading a middle-class life was a good thing, a desired path rather than a sad consolation prize for the un-entrepreneurial and unbeautiful. New York City used to be a place where you could be this nice sort of middle-class. But it isn’t anymore. Ed Koch, over these last 23 years, was a vestige of that place, as much so as Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop and Kossar’s Bialys.