Vanity Fair Archives
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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But “Like the 309” is less lofty than all that. “See everybody, I’m doin’ fine / Load my box on the 309,” he sings. “Put me in my box on the 309 ... Asthma comin’ down like the 309.” Yielding to a fiddle solo, Cash stops singing and starts ... wheezing—tubercularly, hammily, on purpose; he’s conflating the groaning, hacking sounds of his dying body with those of an old locomotive. It’s “Hey Porter” turned on its ear, the boxcar interment of the brazen, respiratorily robust young buck who sang in the earlier song, “Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot, and I didn’t mind the fare / I’m gonna set my feet on Southern soil and breathe that Southern air.” And Cash is playing it for laughs.
Every time Cash does one of his comic wheezes, the fellow to the left of me on the couch chuckles but keeps his eyes closed. He listens to the playback intently, legs folded in the lotus position, arms relaxed, feet unshod, his body rocking back and forth in time to the music, lending him the air of a shaman communing with the other world—or, given his untrimmed beard, a Lubavitcher rebbe in the throes of Sabbath davening. When the song ends, the bearded fellow snaps to and says, “Let me play you another one.” The next recording, also from the final weeks of Cash’s life, is of a folk song called “The Oak and the Willow,” which begins, “He once was as strong as a giant oak tree / Now he bends in the wind like a willow ... ” Another song about death, but this time dead serious, and beautiful. Sung from the point of view of a dying man’s son, the lyrics conclude, “A part of my heart will forever be lost when the oak and the willow are gone.” As the song ends, the bearded fellow, Rick Rubin, still has his eyes closed, but that doesn’t keep the tears from running down his face.
In the decade they knew each other, from their first meeting in 1993 to Cash’s death on September 12 of last year, Rubin produced five studio albums for Cash. From the moment their collaboration was announced, it caused a stir—at first, just for the odd-couple novelty of their pairing: the Man in Black, confirmed citizen of Nashville, and the inscrutable ZZ Top–lookin’ dude who founded the hip-hop label Def Jam records in his New York University dorm room with Russell Simmons and later made a name for himself as a producer of hard-rock acts such as AC/DC, Slayer, and Danzig.
But no one was less fazed by the seeming incongruity of the new alliance than Cash—“I’d dealt with the long-haired element before and it didn’t bother me at all,” he commented, drolly adding that he found “great beauty in men with perfectly trained beards”—and it didn’t take long for people to look past the Bard-Beard angle and get stirred up by the music itself. The first fruit of their collaboration, American Recordings, released in 1994, reconnected Cash with his fundamental Johnny Cash–ness, featuring just him and his guitar, playing the rootsy, heartfelt material that he longed to play but that achy-breaky 1980s Nashville had wanted no part of. The subsequent albums of the American series—so named because all the sequels except Unchained have “American” in their title (American III: Solitary Man; American IV: The Man Comes Around) and because Rubin’s label also happens to be called American Recordings—were even better, mixing the rootsier material with Rubin-suggested, idiomatically unlikely songs that, once Cashified, came to be celebrated in the rock world: Soundgarden’s high-grunge yowler “Rusty Cage” re-done as a bluegrass shuffle; Depeche Mode’s aloof synth-pop song “Personal Jesus” as a swamp blues; and, most celebratedly, Nine Inch Nails’ drug-addict confessional “Hurt” as an old man’s devastating appraisal of his life, with the most stunning climax in a pop song since the orchestral glissando in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” As for “Like the 309” and “The Oak and the Willow,” they’ll appear on the as-yet-unsubtitled American V, most of which was recorded last year in the four-month span between the May 15 death of Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, and his own passing—a raw, grief-stricken period during which Cash kept his loneliness at bay by writing and recording at a furious pace, as often as his strength would allow. American V comes out this fall.
Seldom in the annals of modern music, where snuffed promise and blown opportunities are a requisite part of the Behind the Music drama, has something turned out as right as the Cash-Rubin partnership. Everybody won: Cash, re-energized and alight with inspiration, was afforded a happy ending to the recording career he’d effectively given up on, and the world was presented with a late-period chunk of Johnny Cash music that, on its own merits—divorced from sentimentality and the wishful thinking that typically surrounds comeback efforts by older artists—stands with the best work he ever did. “It’s like Matisse doing the jazz dancers when he was in his 80s, you know?” says Rosanne Cash, the eldest of Cash’s children and a fine singer-songwriter herself. “Like a whole new level of art and depth and mastery and confidence. Rick came at just the right time, and Dad was just the right age that that could be unlocked in him. He got all his old confidence back. Only it was kind of a mature confidence—it wasn’t that kind of punky, rebellious confidence of his early years.”
For Rubin, the personal experience of getting to know Cash was even more edifying than the satisfaction he took in reconnecting the old-timer with his muse. The two men wound up enveloped in something more intense than a friendship, a deep kindredness that greatly moved Cash’s family and friends, and, frankly, kind of freaked them out. “You could see that their connection went back into the mists of time somewhere,” says Rosanne. “Like these guys didn’t just meet 11 years ago.”
As Rubin progressed from his 30s to 40s, and Cash from his 60s to 70s, the two became confidants and sounding boards on matters spiritual as well as musical—a sort of Tuesdays with Morrie scenario without the slush and hokum, and with a more reciprocal exchange of wisdom between the dying man and the younger man. Plus really cool tunes.
Rubin is not what you think he is. The long hair, the Hell’s Angels beard, and the wraparound shades he wears in public suggest a standoffish, substance-abusing ogre who speaks, if he speaks at all, in noncommittal grunts—a grouch savant fluent only in the visceral language of rawk. In fact, he’s chatty and thoughtful, with the dulcet speaking voice and gentle mien of a divinity student. He adheres to a vegan diet and seldom wears shoes. He claims never to have taken drugs, and to have been drunk only once in his life, when he took a mixology class while attending a Harvard summer program in his teens, “and for the final, we had to mix, like, 30 different drinks and taste them all, and I got really drunk and I hated it.” The shelves of Rubin’s library, in his home just above the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, are crammed with religious texts and path-to-enlightenment guides: the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, The Great Code (Northrop Frye’s definitive lit-crit companion to the Bible), how-tos on both raja and hatha yoga, Listening to Prozac, Mind over Back Pain, something called The Knee of Listening, by someone called Adi Da.
Just off the library, in the south end of the living room, stands a tableau that, at first blush, seems comic—an enormous stone Buddha statue, flanked by two nearly-as-enormous stereo speakers. But this is pretty much Rubin in a nutshell: an earnest spiritual quester who finds deliverance in both meditation and loud music. “I used to be a magician, from the time I was 9 years old till I was 17 years old,” he says. “When you’re that age, you can’t really tell the difference between magic and spirituality and the occult. They were all kind of part of this same other world. And I honestly find the same thing in music. It’s this other magic world, and it takes me away.”
Cash, though a devout Christian, didn’t dismiss Rubin’s patchwork spirituality as hooey. A fellow bibliophile and comparative-religion junkie, the antithesis of the stereotypical southern rustic with a suspicion of fancy book learnin’, he delighted in his producer’s pan-theological curiosity. Out of their frequent discussions of religion developed an odd custom, certainly unprecedented in producer-artist relations: for the last few months of Cash’s life, he and Rubin took Holy Communion together every day, even if they weren’t physically in the same place, and even though Rubin, who was born Jewish and doesn’t profess allegiance to any one faith, is not technically eligible to receive the sacrament. At an appointed time, Rubin would call Cash and Cash would “officiate,” instructing Rubin to visualize the wafer and wine.
“I’d close my eyes,” Rubin says, closing his eyes, “and he would say [Long pause, intake of breath], ‘And they retired to a large upper room for the Passover feast, and Jesus picked up the bread, took a piece of the bread, and passed the bread around. And he held up the bread and he said, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Eat, and do this in remembrance of me.”’ [Eyes open.] Then Johnny would say, ‘Visualize the eating, swallow. Feel it. Wait a minute.’ And then he would say [Eyes closed again], ‘ ... and then he picked up the jug of wine. He poured the wine, and he said, “This is my blood, which is shed for the remission of your sins. Drink, and do this in remembrance of me.” And they all did drink.’”
“Even after he passed away,” Rubin says, “I continued doing this with him. I would say that, for between probably four and five months, it felt exactly the same, his presence was much more available—I could get quiet and I could hear him say it. After that, for some reason, it started changing a little bit. I don’t know enough about the afterlife to know why that would be, but something changed. As time has gone on, it’s a little harder to do. But I still do it.”
It’s strange to reconcile this tender admission with the demo CDs by Slipknot and Audioslave that are strewn about the floor—and stranger still to think that this is the same man who wore a hellion’s black leather jacket and took a pie to the face in the goofily raucous 1986 video for the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right (To Party)”—but there’s no doubting Rubin’s sincerity, or the solace he finds in Cash’s flickering, fading presence. In darkness, having spent several hours in Rubin’s incense-scented library, I return to my hotel, down the road, and turn on MTV. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s Rubin in another hip-hop video, a new one, by another of his production clients, Jay-Z. Decked out in those wraparound shades and a skullcap, Rubin rides shotgun in Jay-Z’s car, bobbing expressionlessly to the beat while Jay raps, “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”
In the early 1980s, Johnny Cash was trapped in a kind of pre-iconic limbo, having not died young enough for his legend to be burnished by the romance of early flameout, having not grown old enough to bask in the warmth and reconsideration of a sentimental public. Though he remained a decent live draw, his record sales were in the tank, and his longtime label, Columbia, couldn’t be bothered with him, focusing its energies on younger country acts. Sensing his label’s lack of interest, Cash became uninterested himself, going through the motions on his new albums because he suspected they wouldn’t get played or promoted anyway—a chicken-and-egg cycle of indifference for which, he admitted, he bore some blame. The chicken metaphor is apt, because in 1984, in a frustrated act of self-sabotage, he recorded an “intentionally atrocious” single, in his words, called “Chicken in Black.” Though he didn’t write the song himself, “Chicken in Black” parodied his Man in Black image by inventing a scenario in which an ailing Cash undergoes a brain transplant, receiving the brain of a bank robber called the Manhattan Flash, while Cash’s original brain is implanted in a chicken, who goes on to wow them at the Grand Ole Opry, and ... well, it’s really not worth going into any more detail. Columbia took the bait; in 1986, after 28 years, he was dropped from the label.
“It was a sad reflection on where country music had come,” says Kris Kristofferson, one of Cash’s closest friends. “When I was growing up, the big stars of country, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb—once they made it, they were there forever. It wasn’t like pop music: Here today, gone tomorrow. But when country music got so much bigger, largely through Cash, who was a bridge to Bob Dylan and Neil Young and people like that, it became more like pop music. And Columbia—which he built—did something awfully cold.”
Cash found a deal in 1987 with Mercury-Polygram, but no further commercial success. The only thing that sustained his public profile in any meaningful way was his participation in the Highwaymen, a part-time supergroup of crinkly country outlaws whose other members were Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kristofferson. By 1991, Cash wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Cash, “I’d given up. I’d already started thinking that I didn’t want to deal with record companies anymore. Saying goodbye to that game and just working the road, playing with my friends and family for people who really wanted to hear us, seemed very much like the thing to do. I began looking forward to it.” Which was fine—Cash was financially well-off, with homes in Tennessee, Virginia, and Jamaica, and didn’t need hit records to put food on the table.
But still, it was an ignominious end to a recording career that had caught fire at Sun in 1956 with “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” and reached its apex in the late 60s with two electrifying jailhouse-concert albums for Columbia, At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969). The prison albums had been especially validating to Cash, in that their success won him the respect of the counterculture and sealed the deal on his first comeback. Just a few years earlier, he’d been hooked on barbiturates and amphetamines, had detonated his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto (the mother of Rosanne and his three other girls), and acquired an image as Nashville’s most temperamental star, notorious for having kicked out the footlights of the Opry stage in a fit of pique. By ’68, though, he had gotten religion, gotten off pills, and married the woman who facilitated both processes, June Carter, his soul mate, stage-mate, and a scion of country’s legendary Carter Family. Cash’s 1970s were pretty good, too, particularly in the early going, when he had his own variety series on ABC, The Johnny Cash Show, and established his enduring persona on the title song of his album Man in Black: the oaken-voiced troubadour who “wear[s] the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” But by the 1980s, alas, as country coifs crept mullet-ward and Nashville became enamored of line dancing, it was Cash who was feeling beaten down.
Rick Rubin, by contrast, had had a very good 1980s—so good, in fact, that by 1985, when he was only 22, he was already starring as himself in a barely fictionalized movie account of the rise of Def Jam records, Krush Groove. A year earlier, while he was still an undergraduate studying film at N.Y.U., he and Russell Simmons, a Queens-born promoter and manager of the rappers Run-D.M.C. (and the older brother of Run, a.k.a. Joey Simmons), had started up the label, and that same year Def Jam scored its first big hit, “I Need a Beat,” by the 16-year-old LL Cool J. Two years later, Rubin produced the first rap album ever to go to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, and engineered hip-hop’s signal moment of crossover into the white-rock world, pairing Run-D.M.C. with Aerosmith on a remake of the latter’s “Walk This Way.”
By the early 90s, Rubin had amicably parted ways with Simmons, moved to Los Angeles, and started his own label, the more rock-oriented Def American, while also moonlighting as one of rock’s busiest producers-for-hire, working with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Mick Jagger. In 1993, having decided that the word “def” had become passé, he dropped it from the name of his label. With that change came a desire in Rubin to sign a different kind of act to his roster. “At my current label, I had only ever worked with new bands,” he says. “But as a producer, I had gotten to work with grown-up artists. And I just thought it’d be nice to find the right grown-up artist who, maybe, is in the wrong place, who I could really do something great with. And the first person who came to mind was John. He already had legendary status, and maybe had been in a place where he hadn’t been doing his best work for a while.”
The late 80s and early 90s saw a lot of veteran artists pulled from the shelf and dusted off—it was popular music’s era of re-reckoning, a time when CD reissues and the advent of the “classic rock” radio format inspired music fans to halt their relentless pursuit of the new and reconsider the old-timers they’d consigned to the nostalgia circuit. A consensus suddenly arose that, wait a minute, Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach aren’t elevator-music practitioners but elegant masters of songcraft, and that such dormant architects of 60s pop as the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn might have something new to offer. Then there were scrappers such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, who never disappeared or fell off the A-list but went through serious creative funks, and who managed to will themselves back to fighting form without anyone’s help.
Cash had made a few stabs at artistic resurrection in the 1980s, covering two Bruce Springsteen songs on his 1983 album, Johnny 99, and an Elvis Costello tune on his first Mercury album, Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town, but he floundered when it came to sustaining any kind of compelling vision for the length of an entire album. “I knew he was looking around for some fresh inspiration and enthusiasm,” says Rosanne Cash. “But he’s the kind of guy who needs somebody to provide the keyhole. And he didn’t have that.”
As it happened, Rubin was not the only person with Cash revivalism on the brain. U2 had already enlisted Cash to sing lead on “The Wanderer,” the final song of the band’s 1993 album, Zooropa, and, around the same time, Cash was getting feelers from the organizers of Lollapalooza, the alternative-music festival, about joining their ragtag road show of pierced, tattooed youthquakers. But Rosanne, protective of her father, feared that he would be turned into some kind of cute artifact-mascot for the Lollapalooza kids. “I just said, ‘Dad, please don’t do it,’” she says. “I didn’t want him to put himself in a situation where he wouldn’t get the kind of respect he deserved.”
Rosanne was equally dubious when her father announced to her in the summer of ’93 that he was signing up with Rick Rubin and American Recordings. “I thought, This is odd. I wonder how this is gonna work,” she says. “Just knowing the acts Rick had worked with, it did cross my mind: Is he gonna try to make some kind of parody out of Dad?”
Acting quickly after his brainstorm to sign Cash, Rubin had gotten in touch with Lou Robin, Cash’s manager since the early 70s, to arrange a meeting. Robin wasn’t all that clued-up on Rubin’s oeuvre—his bookings for Cash were strictly for “45 and up” audiences, he says—but he decided there was no harm in having Rubin come visit backstage the next time Cash was performing in the Los Angeles area. And so it came to pass that, one night early in 1993, Rubin drove south to Santa Ana, in Orange County, to see Cash play a show with his backup band and his wife, plus June’s two sisters, Helen and Anita, at a dinner theater.
“Other than the fact that it was packed and the audience was going crazy, it would have been depressing,” says Rubin of the show’s setting. “But it was, in fact, a great show—more of a revue than a concert, a family show. A lot going on. June’s sisters came out and they sang Carter Family songs. As soon as I saw it, I was thinking, Wow—I imagine that him playing in theaters would be a much better experience. And my goal was to make that transition happen as quickly as possible.”
Backstage after the show, Cash rose from his seat to shake the hand of his unusually comported visitor, who was dressed, the singer later recalled, in “clothes that would have done a wino proud.” They exchanged hellos ... and then stared at each other, silently, for a solid two minutes.
“I’m thinking, What do I say? How do I break the ice here?” says Lou Robin. “They were just kind of sizing each other up.”
Eventually, both men overcame their intrinsic shyness and got to talking. “I said, ‘What’re you gonna do with me that nobody else has done to sell records for me?’” Cash recalled in a 1997 interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t know that we will sell records. I would like you to go with me and sit in my living room with a guitar and two microphones and just sing to your heart’s content, everything you ever wanted to record.’ I said, ‘That sounds good to me.’”
And thus began Johnny Cash’s revival.
For several weeks that autumn, Rubin sat in his living room like the musicologist Alan Lomax on a Mississippi porch, listening and recording intently while a gnarled, authentic article of Americana banged away at his repertoire. From about two o’clock in the afternoon to eight each night, Cash, with just an old Martin acoustic for accompaniment, did spirituals, love songs, hillbilly songs, old originals, favorites by Jimmie Rodgers and Kris Kristofferson—dozens of songs, all of which Rubin got on tape.
“A lot of the material on the first album, and on the first disc of the box set that we put out [Unearthed, a collection of outtakes released last year], is material recorded during those first meetings, of just getting to know each other, and him playing me songs,” Rubin says. “You know, ‘This is a song that I remember, when I was picking cotton, that we used to sing.’ Or ‘This is one that my mom used to sing to me.’ Or ‘This is one that I used to hear on the radio.’ Or ‘This is one that I recorded in 1957 and no one really ever heard it, but it always meant a lot to me.’”
“It gave me a profound sense of déjà vu,” Cash told the journalist Sylvie Simmons in an interview shortly before his death (published in the book that accompanies Unearthed). “It very much reminded me of the early days at Sun Records. Sam Phillips put me in front of that microphone at Sun Records in 1955 for the first time and said, ‘Let’s hear what you’ve got. Sing your heart out,’ and I’d sing one or two and he’d say, ‘Sing another one, let’s hear one more’ ... ”
For Rubin, it was as much an education as a get-to-know-you exercise, because, truth be told, he hadn’t been a studious Cash fan before signing him. Like any American kid growing up in the non-South, outside the sphere of Opry influence—in Rubin’s case, in Long Beach, New York, an upper-middle-class suburb in the Buttafuoco belt of Long Island—he absorbed Johnny Cash by osmosis, simply because Cash was one of those figures who were ubiquitous in the formative years of people born in the 60s, forever on TV variety shows and in the collective cultural consciousness. “I thought of the image of the Man in Black,” says Rubin. “The Man in Black was a big part of who he was in real life, as well as a mythical image associated with him. I would always try to find songs that were suited for that.”
Of the songs that emerged from the living-room sessions, there was none more black than “Delia’s Gone,” an old traditional that Cash had performed years before but forgotten the words to, forcing him to come up with some of his own. A twisted psycho-ballad about a remorseful jailbird who done killed his woman (“Delia, oh Delia / Delia all my life / If I hadn’t shot poor Delia / I’d have had her for my wife”), “Delia’s Gone” set the tone for what became American Recordings, a solo acoustic set of mostly dark songs, worlds away from “Chicken in Black.”
Rubin had originally imagined that these songs would be fleshed out with a band, and brought in various musicians, including Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers and Chad Smith and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to back Cash on the new material. “But after going through that process, after trying a lot of things, the acoustic demos were the most exciting to me,” says Rubin. “Once we decided that that’s what the album was going to be, I suggested, ‘How would you feel about getting up in a little club and doing some of these songs acoustically? Just to see what it’s like playing them in front of an audience, by yourself?’ And he said he was open to it, but he was clearly nervous about it.”
Remarkably, Cash had never performed solo in his long career. Even at the very beginning, in the boom-chicka-boom days of “Hey Porter” and “I Walk the Line” at Sun, it was not Johnny Cash, but Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, his buddies Luther Perkins on lead guitar and Marshall Grant on bass. But on a Monday late in 1993, Rubin called the Viper Room, Johnny Depp’s tiny Sunset Strip club, just down the hill from Rubin’s house, to see when it next had an open night for a simple solo set. That Thursday, before an invited audience, Depp stepped onstage and said, “You know, I never thought I’d get to say this, but here’s Johnny Cash!” Cash, by himself, took the microphone and went right into “Delia’s Gone.” “He was really nervous about it, never having relied on his own guitar, and I was nervous watching him,” says Tom Petty, a good friend of both Cash and Rubin. But Cash held the audience rapt, and with each eruption of applause after a song, he gained confidence in himself and in Rubin’s plan.
American Recordings was released in the spring of 1994, its cover a stark, sepia-tone photograph by Andrew Earl of Cash in a preacherman’s black frock coat (which really was the coat that he wore regularly) standing in a wheat field, flanked by a black dog and a white dog. There was no title on the cover, just the word CASH in enormous block letters above his head—a conscious attempt to reinforce Cash’s mythic status; it might as well have said GOD. Martyn Atkins, who was American Recordings’ creative director at the time and designed the cover, says, “I told Rick, ‘Let’s make a statement, let’s make it as bold as possible.’ Johnny had been a bit Vegas-y, a bit Branson, for a while, and we needed to take people back to what he truly was, to the character of the early days.”
The produced–by–Rick Rubin angle won American Recordings the most attention a new Johnny Cash album had received in more than two decades, and the praise was unanimous; Rolling Stone gave it five stars, and the LP went on to win a Grammy for best contemporary folk-song album. MTV even gave some airplay to the video for “Delia’s Gone,” the album’s opener and first single, which featured Kate Moss as Delia, lying motionless as the bloodstains from Cash’s bullets spread across her sundress. Johnny Cash was officially hippified.
‘Out on the road it started feeling like 1955 again,” Cash wrote in his autobiography. “I began playing young people’s places like the Fillmore [and] discovered all over again how it felt to play for a crowd of people with no chairs or tables, standing on their feet, jammed together, energizing each other.”
Still, Cash had dates to fulfill at the oldster venues, too, putting him in a situation tantamount to that of the ’66 Beatles, whose touring obligations had them playing their old mop-top hits to screaming-girl audiences even as they already had the progressive, psychedelic music of Revolver in the can. “He was kind of living in two worlds musically at that point,” says Tom Petty. Indeed, the Nashville machers and programming directors of country radio didn’t know quite what to make of American Recordings. “It just wasn’t their flavor of what country was,” says Lou Robin. “They weren’t gonna play ‘Delia’s Gone.’ But pretty soon Americana radio picked up on it, and they liked it very much.”
Even Cash’s buddies in Nashville were perplexed, if accommodating. “That first record caught us off guard,” says David Ferguson, Cash’s longtime recording engineer. “We never imagined John singin’ just naked, with no reverb or echo. We didn’t know what to think. But we found out Rick was good for John. Here’s this new young rich guy that’s into his music and wants to turn him into even more of a superstar than he is!”
Unchained, the 1996 follow-up to American Recordings, was even more outré by country standards, in that it contained songs by Beck and Soundgarden. The first album had some songs on it by non-country songwriters, such as Tom Waits’s “Down There by the Train,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” and, most eyebrow-raising, the heavy-metalist Glenn Danzig’s “Thirteen,” but all these songs, even in their original form, fit comfortably into Rubin’s Man in Black schematic. However, there was absolutely nothing about Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” with its swirling, air-raid-siren electric guitars and screamy vocals by Chris Cornell, that suggested it was a natural for Johnny Cash. Except to Rubin. “When I played Johnny the Soundgarden version, he was horrified. He thought I was insane,” Rubin says. “He just looked at me like ‘What are you thinking? Have you really gone off the deep end? I don’t think I can sing that.’” Unwilling to give up, Rubin recorded a demo version of what he heard in his head, with him singing and the guitarist Dave Navarro on backup.
“Rusty Cage,” needless to say, sounded just like a Johnny Cash song when it was finished, with Cash singing the climactic line “Gonna break my rusty caaaage ... ” about 12 octaves lower than Cornell had (or so it seemed), and then intoning, rather than singing, the kicker, “ ... and run!” As he gained Cash’s trust, Rubin began burning rock-pop compilation CDs and overnighting them to Cash’s home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, allowing Cash to pick and choose which songs he wanted to have a go at. Sometimes, Cash would politely leave certain songs uncommented upon; the same compilation that had Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” on it, for example, also included two untried songs by the Cure, “Lovesong” and “Never Enough.” But at other times, as in the case of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” Cash was so impressed as to say, “I wish I’d written that song myself.”
Picking non-country songs for Cash was a fraught business, for there was a fine line between the bold reach and the humiliating exercise in kitsch. During the Unchained sessions, Cash and the Heartbreakers tried out Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love,” a what-the-hell juxtaposition that Rubin was initially convinced could work. “We recorded a basic track of it, and it was hard to stop from laughing,” says Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ guitarist. “But the thing is, Johnny wasn’t laughing. He was totally caught up in it, trying to learn it and find a way into it. [Imitating Cash’s grave basso] ‘Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love ... ’”
More often than not, though, Cash demonstrated a gift for making any song his own. American III: Solitary Man, released in 2000, opened with a cover of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” a song that, in its author’s original, 1989 version, was a casual, poppy affair, its defiant lyrics more of a premise than a statement. But when Cash sang, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down,” it took on a whole new resonance, evoking an image of the singer robed, sandaled, and stoic, clutching a staff in a Cecil B. DeMille movie. “When I heard his version, it was like I’d never done it,” says Petty. “It dropped my jaw—something about the authority his voice carried. When the army and C.I.A. people called me and asked me to use it in their training programs, they wanted to use the Johnny Cash version. I guess it sounded more American.”
Unchained is the most “up” of the American albums, its full-band sound a reaction to the sparseness of American Recordings. After it won the 1997 Grammy for best country album, Cash and Rubin took out a full-page ad in Billboard that reprinted the famous 1970 photograph of Cash jovially flipping the bird to the camera during a concert at San Quentin State Prison, with the accompanying text, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”
Something went horribly wrong with Cash’s health between the making of Unchained and American III. He had never looked young, even in youth, but he started to age unnaturally fast, like Keir Dullea in the final weird-out sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey—his hair falling out, his forehead veins bulging, his body stooped, his hands trembling.
In truth, Cash had been a physical wreck from the get-go of his collaboration with Rubin, “in a tremendous amount of pain since the day I met him,” the producer says, most noticeably from a medical procedure on his jaw in the 80s in which some facial nerves were severed, leaving him with a pronounced droop on the left side of his mouth. He’d also had bypass surgery in 1988, was a diabetic, was prone to bouts of pneumonia, and had ravaged his digestive system with booze and painkillers. (A relapse had landed him in the Betty Ford Center in the early 80s.) “He was very stoic,” says Rosanne Cash. “He was from the old school, where you suffered, and it was, you know, like an art. You just did it—you didn’t talk about it.”
But around ’96, he started demonstrating Parkinson’s-like symptoms—shakes, disorientation, dizziness, a general weakness—that couldn’t be ignored. “It was like he was holding a team of wild horses at bay, for as long as he could, and then he just didn’t have the strength to hold it at bay anymore,” says Rosanne.
Late in ’97, Cash nearly died, his doctors unable to rouse him from a medically induced coma. As Rosanne explains it, “He had pneumonia, and his lungs were so weakened that they had to put him on a ventilator. And because they put him on a ventilator, he couldn’t be conscious the whole time. So they put him under with medication, to keep him sedated and give his lungs a chance to heal. And they tried to bring him out, but he wouldn’t come out.”
June, a devoted “prayer warrior,” in her husband’s words, turned to the johnnycash.com Web site to exhort all his fans to pray for Cash on a specific Tuesday night, 12 days into his coma. Rubin, for his part, hired a “professional pray-er, a woman in New York who was a Christian who had some kind of powerful ability,” to join in the vigil. That night, the Cash family gathered around his hospital bed and clasped hands, “and within a matter of hours,” June later recalled, “he just started squeezin’ my hand.”
Eventually, Cash was assigned the vague diagnosis of diabetic autonomic neuropathy, which is not a disease but a collection of symptoms caused by nerve damage. Essentially, his nerves were so shot that involuntary functions like blood pressure, respiration, and vision were badly affected. Cash was forced to give up touring, which left him with just the recording studio as a creative outlet. Whereas Unchained was recorded mostly in Los Angeles, American III and American IV were recorded largely at Cash’s studio in Tennessee, a little cabin on his compound in Hendersonville, north of Nashville. When his strength permitted, Cash made brief trips to L.A. to finish the tracks.
It’s a measure of Rubin’s respect for Cash that he was willing to record in Tennessee, because, truth be told, the place put the normally beatific producer in a state of unease. Cash paid no mind to Rubin’s eccentricities and appearance, and the effervescent, compulsively hospitable June adored him, relishing the challenge of preparing him vegan meals and dragging him along on her frequent antiquing trips in the countryside. But in the larger context of the Nashville recording community, “I felt alien,” Rubin says. “You know, ordering a pizza with no cheese and getting laughed at.” In one instance, the Cashes decamped from their main home in Hendersonville for a weekend getaway to their place in Virginia, completely forgetting that Rubin, who was due back in L.A. that day, was still asleep in their guest room. Rubin awoke to find himself locked in and unable to get out. When he finally was able to yank a door open, he set off the alarm system, which prompted the police to arrive and discover what they took to be an unkempt vagrant who had broken into the Cash home. Rubin protested, “No, I’m really Johnny’s producer, I’m supposed to be here,” but was held on suspicion, missing his flight. It was only after he found a copy of John L. Smith’s The Johnny Cash Discography in Cash’s library and demonstrated to the cops that he had indeed produced Johnny Cash albums, holding out his driver’s license for corroboration, that they let him go.
Perhaps because the specter of death loomed, Cash and Rubin’s discussions of their shared enthusiasm, religion, intensified in the later years. Until they got to know each other, neither man had ever found anyone else in the music industry as curious as he was about matters spiritual—though they couldn’t have come about this curiosity in more different ways. Cash’s story, as one would expect, is biblically dramatic: One day in 1967, strung out on drugs and in a nihilistic funk, he wandered into a Tennessee cavern called Nickajack Cave and crawled as far as he could, for two or three hours, until his flashlight batteries wore out and he lay down, presumably to die. But then, lying there in pitch-darkness, he had an epiphany that God, rather than he, controlled his destiny and would choose his time to die. Cash resumed crawling, blindly, until he felt a breeze, followed it, and writhed his way out of the cave’s mouth—where he found his mother and June waiting with a basket of food, having discovered his Jeep at the entrance. Rubin, on the other hand, never had any particular epiphany. Though he got no kick from the rote, ritualistic Judaism practiced by his family and was expelled from Hebrew school for goofing off, he says he always felt some sort of “yearning” and a sense that, somehow, his life was a continuation of a previous one. Whereas his fellow Def Jam veterans went through knucklehead phases before maturing into fine spiritual men—Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys is now a practicing Buddhist, Joey Simmons is now an ordained minister known as Reverend Run—Rubin found his laid-back, Zen demeanor early, meditating and lighting incense even as he went through his punk-rock phase. (The hard-ass appearances in the Beastie Boys and Jay-Z videos are mere comedy, he says, “theater of the absurd, like pro wrestling.”)
The ritual of taking Communion together arose out of a theological discussion Cash and Rubin were having one night in April of 2003. Rubin was staying with the Cashes in Hendersonville, having planned to accompany them to the Country Music Television channel’s big night of the year, the Flameworthy Awards, at which Cash was to receive a special-achievement award. But Cash was too ill to go, so June agreed to accept the award in his stead while he and Rubin stayed home and watched the ceremony on TV.
Some months earlier, in a previous theological discussion, Rubin had told Cash of his fascination with Dr. Gene Scott, a white-bearded, cigar-smoking televangelist who broadcasts out of a cathedral in Los Angeles. “He’s this old, eccentric, really smart, crazy person,” says Rubin. “He’s often belligerent to his audience. But at the same time, when he actually teaches, the teaching is unbelievable—just scholarly, brilliant, more like a university class than like a typical sermon. He did all these shows about Communion, and it really moved me. I was brought up Jewish and had never done a Communion. I made a copy of the tapes and sent them to Johnny. At first he was wary, because the guy’s really bonkers. But at the end of it, he was crying, and said, ‘I’ve heard 50 sermons on this topic, and that was, by far, the best teaching of that that I’ve ever heard.’”
Somehow, as they were sitting there watching the Flameworthy Awards, the topic of Communion came up again. “And I said, ‘You know, I would love to try it sometime,’” says Rubin. “And he said, ‘Let’s do it together, right now.’ He called and had someone on his staff get his Communion kit, and we did Communion for the first time.” With the TV still blaring in the background, Cash performed the priest’s role, speaking the words and presenting the offering of wafer and wine—“crackers and grape juice,” Rubin says, “because that’s what happened to be in the house. After that, I suggested that we start doing it together every day. We continued on doing it right up until the end.”
Cash was in and out of the hospital regularly in his final years, yet he kept on recording when his health permitted, mostly in his cabin in the woods, and, when he wasn’t up to even that, while sitting on the bed in what used to be his son John Carter Cash’s room in the main house. His voice on American III and American IV is noticeably more quavery and unsteady, a circumstance of which he was conscious and, at times, embarrassed, but it lent the songs a poignancy and drama that even he couldn’t have pulled off in his physical prime. Never was this clearer than in tracks one and two of American IV, “The Man Comes Around” and “Hurt”—a wham-bam mortality diptych that represented the summit of the American series. “The Man Comes Around” was a brand-new Cash original, inspired by a bizarre dream he had in which he walked into Buckingham Palace and found Queen Elizabeth sitting on the floor. Taking notice of Cash, Her Majesty pronounced, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” “It kept haunting me, this dream,” Cash told Larry King in November 2002, around the time of American IV’s release. “I kept thinking about it, how vivid it was, and then I thought, Maybe it’s biblical.” Sure enough, Cash found the thorn-tree reference in Job and spun the dream into a song based on the book of Revelation. “My song of the apocalypse,” he called it. With its spoken introduction—“And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder ... ”—“The Man Comes Around” sounds as ancient and scary as any of the old rural ballads collected by Harry Smith on The Anthology of American Folk Music, and was praised as Cash’s best new song in years.
‘Hurt” was another of Cash’s Rubin-provoked radical departures, a song by Trent Reznor, who, in his guise as the band Nine Inch Nails, traffics in spookerama atmospherics and songs about alienation and despair. (Reznor recorded his version of “Hurt” in the Los Angeles house where the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate.) Cash’s youngest child and only son, John Carter, a burly, bearded, metal-loving guy who was in his 20s when his father started working with Rubin and often acted as a sounding board for his dad on Rubin’s heavier suggestions, said even he was taken aback by the concept of his father doing “Hurt.” “I was a little wary about it, because I sort of cut my teeth on Nine Inch Nails, so to speak,” he says. “The aggression and the hopelessness of it seemed almost like a little bit too much.”
Unlike Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” wasn’t blaringly loud or electrified. The issue was the words. “It’s a strange song,” says Rubin. “I mean, the opening line is ‘I hurt myself today.’ It’s such a strange thing to say. And then the next line is ‘To see if I still feel ... ’ So it’s self-inflicted. It’s such a strange thought to open a song with.” In Reznor’s hands, the song was sung by a junkie clear-eyed enough to recognize the ruin he’d made of his life: “What have I become / My sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away in the end.” In Cash’s version, with his pitch wobbling uncertainly over the words “What have I become,” the singer became an old man lamenting his mortality and frailty, feeling he’s outlived his usefulness.
The song’s power made it an obvious candidate for a single and, therefore, a video. Rubin enlisted his friend Mark Romanek, the virtuoso visualist behind the best videos of Nine Inch Nails, Lenny Kravitz, and Madonna, to direct the clip. “The initial conception was to do a somewhat stylized piece—in Los Angeles, at a soundstage—and it was going to be based very loosely on imagery from Samuel Beckett plays,” says Romanek. “We were going to have some cameos of people like Beck and Johnny Depp.” But logistics sent that highfalutin plan out the window. At the time, autumn of 2002, Cash wasn’t willing to travel to Los Angeles, and he was headed in a matter of days to his home in Jamaica, where he always went when the Tennessee weather turned colder and tempted pneumonia.
Romanek and his crew had no choice but to go to Tennessee and come up with something on the fly. Rubin suggested that maybe they could film in the House of Cash, a roadside building in Hendersonville where Cash kept his offices, and where his mother, who died in 1991, used to run a small museum of his memorabilia. “The museum was in a state of some disrepair, because there had been some flood damage, and it had been closed for, I think, a good 15 years,” Romanek says. “When I saw the state it was in I went, ‘Wow, this is great, this is really interesting.’ And the idea of showing the museum without prettifying it or fixing it back up kind of led me to the idea that, well, you know, let’s just show Johnny in the state that he’s in.”
The resulting video was shocking in the exact opposite way from how videos are usually shocking—not because it featured explicit images of sexuality and gunplay, but because it featured explicit images of mortality and infirmity. Romanek discovered a trove of archival films at the House of Cash—home movies, TV appearances, promo films, all of Cash in his pompadoured, virile prime—and intercut them with new scenes of the messy, uncatalogued jumble of stuff in the House of Cash and of the feeble, tremoring Cash himself, seated in his dark living room, surrounded by his collection of bronze Remington sculptures. At one moment during the filming, June descended the stairs above the living room to watch the proceedings. “I glanced over and I saw June on the stairs,” says Romanek, “looking down at her husband with this incredibly complex look on her face—filled with love and earnestness and pride, and a certain amount of sadness.” With her permission, Romanek included a couple of shots of June as she looked on, and these shots, of her stricken, loving gaze at her dying man, are the most devastating part of the whole film.
The “Hurt” video was a sensation upon its release in early 2003, a “Have you seen it?” word-of-mouth phenomenon that elicited both praise and concern that Johnny and June had gone too far, revealed too much of their pain and frailty. The Cash children burned up the phone lines discussing it, wondering if it was such a good idea. “I cried like a baby when I saw it, I was sobbing,” says Rosanne. “June was just sitting there, just watching it, patting me. See, they had a kind of an unflinching eye. They weren’t sentimental in that way. It’s like, they’re artists—they use their life for their work.”
Romanek’s film of “Hurt” would go on to be nominated for video of the year and best male video at MTV’s 2003 Video Music Awards (and would lose in the latter category to “Cry Me a River,” by Justin Timberlake, who rightly labeled his victory “a travesty”). Cash was reveling in all the attention the video was getting when, in early May of last year, June was admitted to the hospital for what was expected to be routine gallbladder surgery. But her doctors unexpectedly discovered a severe problem with a heart valve, and her health quickly deteriorated. She predeceased her husband, dying on May 15. “It was so shocking to think—you know, all of our anxiety had been focused on Dad for 10 years, and the whole time she was slipping away,” says Rosanne.
“I think my mother knew very well that she was a lot sicker than everybody else thought she was,” says John Carter, Cash’s sole child with June. “I think she knew. And I think I had a perception that she believed that she was not long for this world.” Rosanne remembered, in retrospect, a time in the summer of 2001 when the family had gathered at her father’s place in Virginia for a Vanity Fair photo shoot by Annie Leibovitz. At one moment, June took Rosanne aside and said, furtively, “I just want you to know that your daddy and I have had a wonderful life together. We’ve had so many adventures. We’ve been so happy together, and we’ve just loved every minute of it.”
“I was just so taken aback,” says Rosanne. “It was unlike her, ’cause she was usually very light and very chattery. I said, ‘It’s not over, June.’ And then I forgot about it, because, you know, she was a little crazy. I thought, ‘Oh, she just had a cuckoo moment.’” But June was usually “fun crazy,” says Rosanne, and this time, she realized after the fact, June had been serious and on the level—she knew she was dying but kept mum for the sake of her ailing husband.
“I spoke to Johnny maybe a half-hour or an hour after she passed away,” says Rubin, “and he sounded, by far, the worst I’d ever heard him. He sounded terrible. He said that he’d experienced so much pain in his life and that nothing came anywhere near to how he was feeling at that moment. Normally, it was easy to be optimistic and make him feel better. But on this call I just didn’t know what to say. I just listened, and tried to send loving energy and support to him, and really take it all in and try to share what he was going through. At some point I asked him, ‘Do you think you could look inside, somewhere, and find some faith?’ And when I said that, it was like he became a different person. He went from this meek, shaky voice to a strong, powerful voice, and he said, ‘MY FAITH IS UNSHAKABLE!’”
Cash wasted little time in getting back to work on music. “It actually got more intense after June died,” says Rubin. “Because before, we always worked kind of casually, either whenever we had a song or whenever he felt like recording. Now he said to me, ‘I want to work every day, and I need you to have something for me to do every day. Because if I don’t have something to focus on, I’m gonna die.’”
Rubin cues up a recording that Cash made and sent to him shortly after June’s death. It’s a gospel song by Larry Gatlin called “Help Me.” Elvis Presley did a version in the early 70s, but, like lots of Elvis’s 70s work, the song was gunked up with excessive, 700 Club–style orchestration and choir vocals, the soul and emotion schmaltzed right out of it. Cash’s version of “Help Me” is pure, naked grief, almost too private to listen to. “I never thought I needed help before,” Cash sings to God; “I thought that I could do things by myself.” And then—this is the chorus, the part where Elvis unfurled the words in an unctuous croon—Cash stops the guitar, and all you hear is playback hiss and his cracked, worn voice, pleading rather than singing: “With a humble heart, on bended knee, I’m beggin’ you—please—help me.”
“He was just dismantled with grief,” says Rosanne. “And so he was just working as much as he could. But it was heartbreaking.” The Cash children were resigned to the idea that their father didn’t have long, that, as John Carter puts it, “he yearned so much to be with my mother that he wanted to just go with her.” But Rubin wasn’t having any of this. Since he’d only ever known Cash to be an unwell man, miraculously rebounding from one severe health crisis after another, he thought this, too, was surmountable.
In his endless hunger for books about health and enlightenment, Rubin had come across the works of a doctor named Phil Maffetone, a performance expert and kinesiologist who specialized in devising comprehensive nutrition and exercise programs for extreme athletes, people who compete in triathlons, ironman competitions, and ultra-marathons. “I’ve never been one for exercise in my life, but I read his book, and it got me inspired,” says Rubin. Via e-mail, he got in touch with Maffetone, who promptly informed Rubin that he had given up his practice and wasn’t seeing patients anymore. But Rubin persuaded Maffetone, who turned out to be a music enthusiast, to treat Cash.
Cash, at that point, was wheelchair-bound and barely able to see because of diabetes-related glaucoma. But within a short time Maffetone had Cash walking unaided again—“no walker, no cane, nothing,” Rubin says—and improving in general. He called Rubin one day and announced, “I’m gonna come out to L.A. for a month, and we’re gonna work, and we’re gonna continue doing all the stuff on my program. And when I get back home, I’m gonna have a party on the lawn of my house, invite all of my friends over, and I’m gonna push my wheelchair into the river!”
Rubin flew to Nashville for the last time in the summer of 2003 to work with Cash on American V. “I was supposed to be there for two or three days,” says Rubin, “but we were really doing good and making progress, kind of on a roll. So I extended my stay. And then, the next morning, when I woke up, I got the call that he was back in the hospital.”
Nevertheless, Cash rallied with Maffetone’s help, and was intent on attending MTV’s Video Music Awards on August 28, since “Hurt” was nominated in six categories (it won in one, best cinematography). However, his doctors—his regular ones, not Maffetone—pronounced him insufficiently healthy to make the trip from Tennessee to New York, and by early September he was hospitalized again.
This time it was pancreatitis, yet another complication of the diabetes. Cash spoke to Rubin once more on the phone, promising that he would be out to L.A. soon to work on the album. But he didn’t pull through, passing away on September 12, at the age of 71. “Rick seemed to be more shocked about it than we were,” says Rosanne. The Cash children had endured their father’s struggles long enough to see the writing on the wall, but Rubin, who had gotten just 10 years of Cash’s companionship, had a hard time accepting the finality. “The way I saw it,” he says, “we were going to go on for at least another 10 years.”
There’s still lots more from the American sessions in the vaults, and therefore the potential for Rubin to issue posthumous Cash albums in near perpetuity, à la Tupac Shakur. But Rubin insists that American V will be the final word, “’cause there’s something that doesn’t feel good about the Tupac-ing.”
Cash’s presence is down to embers now, making the Communion ritual a different experience for Rubin, a solitary one. But he keeps at it, and stays in touch with the Cash clan. A few months ago, he received an unexpected package from John Carter. Inside it was a little leather case holding a flask, a cup, a snippet of Scripture (John 6:35), and some instructional notes written in Johnny Cash’s hand (“Open the bread. Give thanks. Eat. Pour wine”)—it was Cash’s personal Communion kit. Included was a note:
One of my father’s greatest joys in life was spreading his faith, and I never saw him more joyous than when he shared it with you. He cherished, as I know you did, the daily Communion with you. It seems only fitting that you should have this. You were many things to my father in the last decade of his life—mentor, defining inspirator, producer—but, most of all, a friend. My father learned to believe in your vision, and, in doing so, reawakened his own. His vision lives on, as does the faith he instilled in so many. May your heart grow in faith and peace.
An oral history of the Brill Building, written for the November 2001 issue of Vanity Fair. And the most fun set of interviews I’ve ever conducted. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”) were 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 in the text that follows, were a big part of Brill Building culture. As I say in my 2001 intro below, the Brill gang had a surprisingly low mortality rate for music people, though, in the years since, we’ve lost Leiber, Ellie Greenwich, Hal David, and Gerry Goffin. What a privilege it was, I realize now, to sit in Carole King’s home as she and Gerry, long divorced but still familial and friendly, reminisced.
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. Morgan has since gone on to produce many wonderful films, including the Oscar-winning Twenty Feet from Stardom.
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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The Brill Building itself, at 1619 Broadway, was a squat Art Deco edifice completed in 1931. It took its name from a clothing store, Brill Brothers, that had originally occupied its ground floor, but rapidly became better known as a home for music-publishing companies. As the 20th century advanced, Tin Pan Alley, as the popular-music business used to be known, inched its way up Broadway from its original location around 14th Street, and by the 1950s the Brill Building, at 49th Street, was the epicenter, its 11 floors packed with dozens of music publishers, and its ground floor occupied by two music-business hangouts, the Turf on the south side and Jack Dempsey’s on the north. Two blocks up from the Brill and across the street was 1650 Broadway, where King, Goffin, Mann, Weil, Sedaka, and Greenfield actually worked, for a young music publisher named Don Kirshner.
Music publishers still held significant power in those days, before artists routinely wrote their own songs. The publishers employed or contracted out work to songwriters, whose songs were then shopped to the record companies, who paired the compositions they liked with the artists in their stables, using house producers, arrangers, and engineers to get the records made. It was a remarkably rapid-fire process, and a remarkably localized one, too—the record labels were mostly in Midtown, as were the studios of choice, Bell Sound and Mira Sound. (There was even a little demo studio right in the Brill Building where songwriters could cut acetates of their songs to play for the labels.) The whole business had an exhilarating seat-of-the-pants aspect then, for teen music was still a relatively new phenomenon, as was, indeed, the very concept of “teenagers” as a consumer demographic. Yet the music that resulted was as sophisticated and urbane as youth pop would ever get—the antithesis of the deflavorized contemporaneous recordings of Pat Boone and Fabian, with which the Brill stuff is sometimes unfairly lumped. Its quality is the reason the Brill music has lasted, why these songs have been covered ad nauseam, why the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” is the most played song in radio’s history.
By pop-music standards, the Brill gang has been blessed with an unusually low mortality rate; of the aforementioned songwriters, all are alive save Pomus and Shuman, who died within months of each other in 1991, and Greenfield, who died of H.I.V.-related illness in 1986. Here, the remaining songwriters, along with some of their co-conspirators in the hit-making process—albeit not the elusive Phil Spector, who, characteristically, did not respond to an interview request—tell the story of the Brill Building era.
We begin in an uncertain, transitional time, the mid-1950s, when the legitimate theater is starting to lose steam and the big bands have died out. Records, once a luxury, are becoming an affordable commodity, and rock ’n’ roll is on the march. But had you visited the Brill Building during this period, you’d have found it inhabited largely by old-timers: alter kockers from the sheet-music era, middle-aged men writing for Broadway and Your Hit Parade ...
HAL DAVID: Who would I see there? Harry Woods. Harry Woods wrote great songs, like “Red, red robin comes bob-bob-bobbing along” and “Four Leaf Clover.”
MIKE STOLLER: There was Bennie Benjamin. He wrote with George David Weiss, things like “Cross over the Bridge” and “I’ll Never Be Free.” And, of course, Irving Caesar, who was considerably senior in age to everybody. He wrote “Tea for Two.”
BURT BACHARACH: Irving Caesar! And I’m trying to think of the guy [Haven Gillespie] that wrote “You Go to My Head.” I used to go to the racetrack with him.
MIKE STOLLER: It was like Guys and Dolls. The old-time songwriters and the publishers and the gamblers—they all had the track in common.
JERRY LEIBER: We liked these guys. We were not combative or competitive in terms of who we were. We weren’t holding up any banners saying, You’re all dead—we’re rock ’n’ rollers here! That wasn’t it at all. In fact, it was the contrary. We really admired those guys—the Tin Pin Alley guys that wrote the standards, like Julie Styne and Sammy Cahn.
HAL DAVID: I think once rock ’n’ roll broke through—by the mid-50s, give or take—[the old-timers] were finding it very, very difficult. And, more importantly, they thought rock ’n’ roll was a fad, and they were just gonna wait it out. And, of course, they’re still waiting.
David was himself a transitional figure, already in his 30s in the mid-1950s, a dad of two commuting by Long Island Rail Road from the suburb of Roslyn. He had been bouncing around the Brill Building since 1949, making a decent living as an unaffiliated lyricist, running the Brill drill of working one’s way downward from the 11th floor, publisher by publisher. By 1956 he had enough of a reputation to earn a staff position with Famous Music, on the sixth floor, one of the building’s bigger firms.
HAL DAVID: And that’s where Burt and I met each other. We were both there independently. He wrote for some people and I wrote with other people. Burt and I wrote our first hits in 1957, which was shortly after we got together.
BURT BACHARACH: Hal and I would send out for lunch—a liverwurst sandwich on rye with tomato and mustard, from Carnegie or the Stage. These are the things I remember. The window that didn’t open in the room that we worked in. With an upright piano that
was beat-up. And Hal smoking all the time.
Like David, Bacharach, who turned 30 in 1959, had a lengthy C.V. in the pre-rock world, having studied music theory under the avant-garde composer Darius Milhaud and worked as an accompanist with the Ames Brothers and Vic Damone. Unconvinced that songwriting would pay the bills, Bacharach accepted a position as Marlene Dietrich’s touring conductor in ’58, and he and David wrote together only intermittently over the next few years—their heyday postponed until the early 1960s.
Leiber and Stoller, by contrast, were a musical force the moment they set up shop in New York City in 1957. A pair of 24-year-olds, they had established themselves as Los Angeles’s hottest young songwriters, scoring West Coast hits with “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” both performed by a black vocal group called the Robins. Self-styled white Negroes who dated black girls and immersed themselves in black culture, Leiber and Stoller had attracted national attention when their song “Hound Dog,” originally a hit in the Negro market for the 300-pound lesbian belter Big Mama Thornton in 1953, was covered in 1956, to countrywide mouth-agapedness, by one Elvis Aron Presley. Commissioned to write the songs for the Elvis film Jailhouse Rock that same year, they spent six months in New York and developed a taste for the life there. When offered a production deal at Atlantic Records, the New York–based R&B label run by Ahmet Ertegun, his brother, Nesuhi, and Jerry Wexler (an ex-journalist who’d actually coined the term “rhythm and blues”), Leiber and Stoller seized the opportunity.
MIKE STOLLER: Initially, it was very exciting. Because once you got to the area, everything was happening. The Turf was where everything was going on. It had a clam bar, a hamburger bar, and a bar bar. And then it had seats in the back, and sheet music on the walls that had been shellacked over. If you had to do a demo, and you didn’t have a drummer or bass player, you could just run over to the Turf and grab somebody. You could pick ’em for 10, 15 bucks.
Leiber and Stoller hit the ground running with the Coasters, essentially Bobby Nunn and Carl Gardner of the Robins augmented by new singers. With Leiber writing the lyrics, Stoller the music, and both handling the production, the Coasters scored a succession of comedic hits—“Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Poison Ivy,” among others—for Atlantic in the late 50s.
MIKE STOLLER: When we rehearsed the Coasters in the Brill Building, people on the street knew that they were there because of the order that was placed at the Gaiety Delicatessen.
JERRY LEIBER: Pastrami and mayonnaise.
MIKE STOLLER: We ordered our pastrami with either mustard or Russian, on rye. And [Coaster] Billy Guy, who was with a Jewish lady, had his with mustard on rye. But Carl Gardner had his with ketchup on white bread. And there were two pastramis on whole-wheat with mayonnaise. That was Dub Jones and Speedo Carroll.
Leiber and Stoller soon became as well-known for their studio prowess as for their songwriting ability. Among their greatest productions for Atlantic were two Latin-tinged songs by the Drifters—another great black vocal group—that were to become standards: “This Magic Moment” (1959) and “Save the Last Dance for Me” (1960). Both songs were written by the team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Pomus, heavyset, goateed, and rendered paraplegic by a childhood bout with polio, was a beloved character in the Brill milieu: a Jewish guy, real name Jerome Felder, whose disability had made him identify with downtrodden blacks, and who had reimagined himself, quite convincingly, as a gutbucket-blues singer, performing in Harlem clubs while propped up on his crutches.
RAOUL FELDER, attorney, brother of Doc Pomus: My family was pretty much ashamed that he was doing this to try to make a living. Most people spend their lives trying to get out of the slums. Instead of getting out of our slum, he was going to a worse slum, an African-American slum.
SHARON FELDER, daughter of Doc Pomus: But being a white guy on crutches and braces, singing in black clubs, was probably not gonna support a family.
RAOUL FELDER: He had a semi-hit record that was taking off, and RCA or some other major company wanted to buy the rights. They never thought to interview him and see what he looked like physically. As the song was taking off on the charts, they suddenly found out that he was handicapped. And they killed the record. That’s when he decided to become a songwriter.
Pomus impressed Ahmet Ertegun sufficiently to get a job at Atlantic and an office of his own in the Brill Building. He quickly made an impact, coming up with such R&B hits as Ray Charles’s “Lonely Avenue” and “You Better Leave That Woman Alone.”
SHARON FELDER: And then he slowly introduced Mort Shuman into the picture, because a cousin of ours was dating him.
NEIL SEDAKA: I went to school with Mort Shuman. We were the same age. He was always the lead in the plays, and I was the pianist in the pit. He was the star of Lincoln High School; he was the president of the class. A great, outgoing personality.
RAOUL FELDER: “Save the Last Dance for Me” tells the story of somebody taking somebody to the dance and maybe not getting them. And look: [Pomus] was a man who couldn’t dance, and he wrote music the whole world was dancing by.
Another Atlantic hit in the late 50s was “Splish Splash,” a breakthrough song for a struggling Bronx kid in his early 20s named Bobby Darin, who was managed by another kid in his early 20s, Donny Kirshner of upper Manhattan’s Fort Washington neighborhood.
DON KIRSHNER: It really all started when I was in my local candy store at 187th Street and Fort Washington Avenue, and this girl I knew came in with a very interesting character. He was disheveled. He was down-and-out, cleaning latrines. And his name was Walden Robert Cassotto. And he eventually became, after I discovered him, Bobby Darin. I couldn’t believe all his talent. And I said to him, “Let’s team up, and we’ll be the biggest thing in entertainment.” I couldn’t even get arrested at the time. I didn’t know anybody.
Kirshner, emboldened by the success of “Splish Splash” in 1958, talked his way into a music-publishing partnership with Al Nevins, a distinguished gent 20 years his senior who’d made his name as the leader of the Three Sons, a long-running, schlockola guitar-organ-accordion combo that was Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite act. Nevins and Kirshner called their company Aldon, pronounced “All-din.”
JERRY WEXLER: Now, there’s a strange pairing: Al Nevins, a curator and a nurturer of cosmic schmaltz, and Donny Kirshner, an enunciator and a herald of the new music. And it really worked.
DON KIRSHNER: I think, just to keep me quiet, we opened an office at 1650 Broadway. It was the size of maybe a little bigger than a closet.
Meanwhile, out in Brighton Beach ...
NEIL SEDAKA: I had a lot of drive. I was from a very poor family—my father was a taxi driver—and I wanted desperately to be a success. I was not a jock. And the only way to get popular in Lincoln High School, which was a very tough high school, was to play pop music.
One day, Howie Greenfield’s mother heard me playing classical music in the Catskill Mountains—I was practicing—and she said, “My son writes lyrics. Why don’t you try writing something together?” We lived in the same apartment building in Brighton. He was overweight, an introvert, not popular in school. He knocked on my door on October 11, 1952, when he was 16 and I was 13, and said “Hi.” I just thought, Oh, it’s fat Howie. He said, “I hear you’re a pianist, and I’m a lyricist. Do you want to write songs?” And we wrote a terrible song called “My Life’s Devotion.” But we continued to write every day, and I was mesmerized by it.
I took the subway, as a teenager, to the Brill Building. Howie and I went to all the publishing firms to sell our songs. We went to [the major publishing firm] Hill & Range, and we had a song called “Stupid Cupid,” and Hill & Range passed—they didn’t like it. So I saw Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus there that day, and they said, “There’s a new publishing firm opening up across the street at 1650 called Aldon Music.” And we went in, and Don Kirshner opened the door.
DON KIRSHNER: So in walks Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, and they said, “We want to talk to the publisher.” And I said, “You’re looking at him.” And they said, “Oh, come on, get serious.” I mean, I probably looked like an 18-year-old kid that was taking out the garbage.
NEIL SEDAKA: I played 8 or 10 songs, including “Stupid Cupid,” and they said, “Where did you steal these songs?” Because we were pitselehs—we were kids.
DON KIRSHNER: I really thought either Bobby was playing a joke on me or somebody was putting me on, because I couldn’t believe that nobody would take that talent.
NEIL SEDAKA: So Howie and I were the first to be signed to Aldon Music.
“Stupid Cupid,” the first song Aldon published, became a No. 14 hit for Connie Francis. The preternaturally peppy Sedaka, who had been in a doo-wop group called the Tokens at Lincoln High—the same Tokens who would later record “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—soon took to performing his and Greenfield’s songs himself. Signing a recording contract with RCA in 1959, he scored hits with “The Diary,” “I Go Ape,” and “Oh! Carol,” which was named for Carole Klein, a doe-eyed Brooklyn girl he knew from Lincoln High’s rival school, James Madison.
NEIL SEDAKA: We were introduced in Brighton Beach, and we used to sing on street corners and on the beach. We never wrote together, but we dated for a year. We danced to “Earth Angel,” and did the Grind and the Bump. Her mother didn’t like me.
CAROLE KING: I went out on one date with him! Anything you hear to the contrary did not come from my camp. But I did admire what he was doing with his fellow school members, who turned out to be the Tokens. And I started a little group in my school, doing something similar. That’s kind of what I was doing until I got to college, and then I met Gerry.
In 1959 the 17-year-old Klein began her freshman year at Queens College, where she met a chemistry major and would-be playwright three years her senior named Gerry Goffin, a rangy, intense type who was working on a musical about Beatniks.
GERRY GOFFIN: She was interested in writing rock ’n’ roll, and I was interested in writing this Broadway play. So we had an agreement where she would write [music] to the play if I would write [lyrics] to some of her rock ’n’ roll melodies. And eventually it came to be a boy-and-girl relationship. Eventually I began to lose heart in my play, and we stuck to writing rock ’n’ roll.
One of Goffin and King’s first songwriting efforts was a jokey answer song to Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” called “Oh! Neil.” Recorded by Klein herself—as Carole King—it included Goffin’s sarcasm-steeped line “I’d even give up a month’s supply of chewin’ tobacky / Just to be known as Mrs. Neil Sedacky!”
NEIL SEDAKA: Gerry and I were in competition, because we were both then going out with Carole, or I had just stopped, and then he started dating her. He scared me, Gerry.
JACK KELLER, Aldon staff songwriter: All the music exploded from “Oh! Carol,” because Carole King wrote an answer song called “Oh! Neil” and played it for Epic Records’ A&R man. He calls Donny, because Donny’s the publisher, and says, “I want to do this answer record, can we have permission?” Donny says, “Send her over, let me hear the song.”
DON KIRSHNER: Neil introduced me to Carole. She played me, like, five notes, and I fell in love. I just heard all that raw talent and said, “I’ve got to sign her.”
It was a fortunate break, because Goffin and King, growing up fast, were married in 1960 and expecting their first child.
GERRY GOFFIN: We decided we had to quit school. So Carole got a job as a secretary, and I got a job as an assistant chemist at Argus Chemicals in Brooklyn. We moved from Queens to Sheepshead Bay. We continued our songwriting, and for a year and a half we wrote very bad songs.
Before long, Kirshner had another songwriting couple on his hands, composer Barry Mann and lyricist Cynthia Weil. Mann, a nice-looking kid who’d been three years ahead of King at James Madison High School, was an architecture-school dropout who’d bounced around the Brill world for a couple of years before getting a staff job at Aldon. Weil, a slender blonde Manhattanite from a well-to-do family, was an aspiring Broadway lyricist who worked in the office of the great Frank Loesser, of Guys and Dolls renown. One day in 1960 she was collaborating on a song with Teddy Randazzo, an Italian-American heartthrob singer of the era, when Mann came into Randazzo’s office to pitch a song he’d written with Howie Greenfield. Smitten with the visitor, Weil found out from a friend that Mann worked for Kirshner, and made an appointment to show her lyrics to the Aldon boss.
CYNTHIA WEIL: So I went up there—I was stalking Barry, I guess; they didn’t have a name for it in those days. Kirshner looked at my lyrics, and he said, “You know, I know just the person that you should write with.” So I thought, Oh! He’s gonna fix me up with the cute guy! And in walks this little girl. And he said, “Play the piano for her.” So she sits down and plays and sings, and she’s really great. I remember she had scabs on her knees and she looked around 12. And it was Carole. Kirshner said, “Well, she’s writing with her husband, but he’s working as a chemist, and he works during the day, so they can only write at night—and she should be writing during the day too. So you could write with her during the day.”
The Weil-King partnership never panned out, but Weil succeeded in hooking Mann as both a romantic partner and a professional one; they would marry in 1961. And soon enough the Mann-Weils and the Goffin-Kings were the best of friends—albeit friends in a constant state of competition.
MANN: It was very difficult.
CYNTHIA WEIL: It was having a best friend, and then competing with them for something you both wanted. And feeling really guilty you wanted your best friend to lose. Carole was the least competitive of all of us.
BARRY MANN: Gerry was very competitive.
GERRY GOFFIN: On the surface, we got along well. But you could feel a little bit of jealousy between Barry and Cynthia and Carole and me—you know, about who was gonna get the next record. There was a little tension.
CYNTHIA WEIL: Gerry was always writing. We rented a ski house in Massachusetts, and we would all go up there together. We didn’t want to leave them for a weekend—partially because they were our pals, and partially because we knew they’d be writing their asses off if they weren’t skiing with us.
BARRY MANN: We were happy when Carole would get pregnant, ’cause at least she’d be in the operating room, giving birth.
CYNTHIA WEIL: For three or four hours. But Carole’d be writing on the way out!
BARRY MANN: She was like a Chinese laborer: give birth in a rice paddy, but still be writing at the same time.
Goffin and King were the first to hit pay dirt.
GERRY GOFFIN: Before Louise was born, we wrote almost every day at the piano, until Carole got so pregnant it became impossible. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” came at just the right time, because Carole had to quit her job, because she was—
CAROLE KING: —throwing up into the wastebasket.
So one night, not long before little Louise Goffin was born ...
GERRY GOFFIN: It was my night out with the boys and Carole’s night out with the girls. I went bowling, and she went to play mah-jongg. How Jewish can you get? I get home about nine o’clock, and I see a note on this huge Norelco tape recorder: “Went to play mah-jongg. Donny needs a lyric for the Shirelles by tomorrow. Please write.” So I turn on the tape machine and I listen to the melody, and it was something new, something different—it really sounded good. And the lyric came out so easy. We went in [to Aldon] the next day, and Luther Dixon, who was the producer of the Shirelles, picked that song to do.
CAROLE KING: When “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” sold a million, we went, “Bye-bye, day job!”
GERRY GOFFIN: Carole and Donny arrived in Donny’s limousine at the chem factory and told me I didn’t have to work anymore. And he gave us a $10,000 advance and we got credit cards, and I’ve never had to do an honest day’s work since.
And so began Aldon’s extraordinary run of 1961–63. Goffin and King’s hits in this period would include “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva, “Chains” by the Cookies, “One Fine Day” by the Chiffons, and “Up on the Roof” by the Drifters. Mann and Weil’s hits would include “Uptown” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by the Crystals, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” by Eydie Gorme, and “On Broadway” by the Drifters. Sedaka would chart with his and Greenfield’s songs “Calendar Girl,” “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”
NEIL SEDAKA: There were always at least two or three Aldon songs in the Top 10. It did wonders for Howie: he lost weight; he started having boyfriends. He really came out of his shell.
Kirshner, not content to be merely a music publisher, launched his own label in 1962, Dimension Records, and deputized Goffin and King to be its A&R chiefs, and Goffin to be its house producer. The first Dimension release was the Goffin-King song “The Loco-Motion.”
CAROLE KING: You know the very first thing you hear on “The Loco-Motion” by Little Eva? You think it’s the drum, right? Wrong. It’s [exhalation sound], “Hehhhhh ...”—eight layers of hiss. That was a demo.
GERRY GOFFIN: It was done as a demo for [singer] Dee Dee Sharp. It just was done on mono.
Eva Boyd was an aspiring singer who had met Goffin and King when she was trying to scrounge up session work.
LITTLE EVA: I wanted to be a recording artist—that was my dream. Carole had one daughter, Lulu, and she was pregnant at the time [with her second daughter, Sherry Goffin, born in 1963]. And she asked me did I want to baby-sit. So I said, “Well, yeah, because in between sessions I’m gonna need some money.”
GERRY GOFFIN: She would always sing along to the songs we were writing in our little apartment. I came up with the idea [to have her sing on the demo]. Ethnic voices were what was in. Unsophisticated voices.
CAROLE KING: Eva sang, and I sang background with her. And it was the first in a long line—right up to and including my next album—of demos that become masters.
LITTLE EVA: Gerry already thought that it would be a hit with me singing. So he took it in to them to listen, Al Nevins and Don Kirshner. And they listened to it, and, you know, it just hit ’em.
GERRY GOFFIN: For a while [after the song became a hit], she said, “Don’t worry, I’m still gonna work for you, I’m not gonna think about being a star.” And then, two weeks later, she’s touring.
Two of the Brill era’s greatest New York City songs, Goffin and King’s “Up on the Roof” and Mann and Weil’s “On Broadway,” both Drifters singles, were Leiber-and-Stoller productions. By 1961, Leiber and Stoller, after several years of itinerant office-hopping, had opened up their own suite of offices on the ninth floor of the Brill Building, where they frequently took meetings with the Aldon writers.
GERRY GOFFIN: Jerry Leiber helped me a lot on “Up on the Roof.” I had almost the whole lyric, but for some reason I had a mental block—I couldn’t think of a rhyme for “roof” in the last verse. I had “There’s room enough for two up on the roof”—which brings it all into a love-song context. And I said, “What can you rhyme with ‘roof’?” And he said, “How about ‘proof’?” And so, “I found a paradise that’s troubleproof.”
CYNTHIA WEIL: We had written “On Broadway” for a girls’ group. The thrust was a girl coming to New York, to make it on Broadway, from a small town. We went up to play it for Jerry and Mike, and obviously it was an inappropriate lyric for the Drifters. But they liked the take on it musically, and they loved the title.
BARRY MANN: My concept was to write a Gershwinesque melody. A little jazzier. And Mike Stoller changed it when we all got together to write. It was a good change, very commercial.
Leiber and Stoller also catalyzed the ascent of Bacharach and David. In 1962 the Drifters were recording a song Bacharach had written with lyricist Bob Hilliard, “Mexican Divorce.”
BURT BACHARACH: Dionne Warwick was in the background group. It was a Leiber-and-Stoller date, so Jerry asked me to work out the girls’ parts. He worked with the Drifters in the office for a week, and the background group worked with me for a week. That group had Cissy Houston, Dionne, Myrna Utley, and Dionne’s sister Dee Dee. A killer group.
MIKE STOLLER: That’s where Burt first heard Dionne and said, “Would it be all right if I ... ?”
BURT BACHARACH: She had a special thing about her. A special look. There was a star quality about Dionne. Those high cheekbones, the bone structure. And then you factor in that voice. So Dionne came in a couple of weeks later to sing something for Hal and myself. And she was astounding.
Warwick sang the demo for a Bacharach-David song called “Make It Easy on Yourself,” thinking it would be her first single. When the song was instead given to the singer Jerry Butler, Warwick, feeling betrayed, told the songwriters, “Aw, man, don’t make me over!” Which prompted Bacharach and David to write “Don’t Make Me Over,” a hit in 1962. Bacharach and David would go on to write a succession of great songs for Warwick, among them “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “Walk On By,” and for the remainder of the 60s worked as songwriting partners—though Bacharach, astonishingly, continued to go out on the road with Marlene Dietrich.
BURT BACHARACH: Marlene was very much on my side—you know, the more successful, the more well-known I was, the less likelihood that I was going to be able to do these dates with her anymore. But she was nice about it. Backstage at the Edinburgh Festival or something, 50 fans were waiting for her: “Marlene, can we have your autograph?” And she said, “You don’t vant my autograph. You vant his!”
Another major talent to come up through the Leiber-and-Stoller ranks was a gnomish little fellow from Los Angeles named Phil Spector. Spector had briefly tasted success as the producer, songwriter, and co–backing vocalist of the Teddy Bears, a white-bread group that had a No. 1 hit in 1958 with “To Know Him Is to Love Him.” But by 1960 the Teddy Bears were no more, and Spector had no career momentum. He had, however, forged a connection to a man named Lester Sill, an L.A. label boss who had introduced Leiber and Stoller to the music business in their West Coast days and functioned as the duo’s mentor.
MIKE STOLLER: Lester called us: “I got this kid. He’s talented. But he wants to move away and hang with you guys—like, apprentice.” And since it was Lester making the request, we couldn’t refuse. We sent Phil a ticket, and he came to New York.
JERRY LEIBER: Phil was very bright.
MIKE STOLLER: But he was eccentric.
JERRY LEIBER: A lot of shadows playing at the same time. Some of the things are just theater. He’s very theatrical and knows how to draw attention to himself—either by the way he looks at you or the way he dresses. He used to wear those George Washington ruffled blouses.
Leiber and Stoller initially kept the 19-year-old Spector busy with make-work: playing percussion or fifth guitar on their sessions, signing him to a writer’s agreement but not paying much heed to his output. But one day, grudgingly, the duo agreed to write a song with him.
MIKE STOLLER: We had a writing session scheduled for the three of us, but I had been missing dinners with my children. And my ex-wife said, “You can’t disappoint them again.” So I told Jerry, “I’ll try and come up later.” And I called after dinner, and I was told the song was finished. But I did participate to some degree. I wrote, “Dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee”…
…meaning the famous marimba part that opens the song that Leiber and Spector had completed, “Spanish Harlem,” the first solo hit for Ben E. King of the Drifters. Spector’s rapid ascent as a songwriter and producer paralleled Aldon’s—in 1961 he produced the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” co-written by Barry Mann, and the following year he founded his own label with Lester Sill, Philles Records (pronounced “Phillies”), for which he handled all production. Philles struck quickly in 1962 with a succession of hit singles by the Crystals, among them Gene Pitney’s “He’s a Rebel” and Mann and Weil’s “Uptown” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.”
But Spector’s truly magical, do-no-wrong year was 1963, the year of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “Baby, I Love You”—the chiming, cavernous, massive-sounding productions that established his reputation as Mr. Wall of Sound. Though these songs were recorded in Los Angeles’s Gold Star Studios, they were written in the Brill Building by the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Barry was born Joel Adelberg and raised in New Jersey and Brooklyn, where he attended Erasmus Hall High School. Six feet six, long-faced, and fond of western-style fancy dress—
MIKE STOLLER: He used to dress like the Marlboro man—you know, like a Brooklyn cowboy.
JEFF BARRY: People’d say, “Hey, where’s your horse?”
—he briefly studied engineering at the City College of New York, but dropped out to become a rock ’n’ roll singer. That dream went unfulfilled, but he soon found success as a songwriter, co-writing “Tell Laura I Love Her,” a Top 10 hit for Ray Peterson in 1960. As for Greenwich, she was a bubbly, accordion-playing sorority girl from Long Island—the Spring Queen of Hofstra in her college days—with labor-intensive makeup and the most extraordinary blond bouffant this side of Dusty Springfield.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I had so much hair spray. Love teasing! I remember standing on a street corner during a major, major storm, and I thought everybody was looking at me ’cause I’m so cute. And I see a reflection across the street in a glass window. And not one hair was moving, but the whole thing was literally just tilting.
Greenwich and Barry had met through a family connection: one of her uncles was married to one of his cousins. By autumn of 1962, a few months after her graduation from Hofstra, they were married and living in Lefrak City, a homely apartment complex overlooking the Long Island Expressway. By 1963 they were writing songs together, under the aegis of Leiber and Stoller’s publishing company, Trio Music, and were even recording hits themselves—“What a Guy” and “The Kind of Boy You Can’t Forget”—as the studio group the Raindrops.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I thought it was so cool—married to this guy, doing, literally, everything together. How wonderful could this be? I’m 22 years old, barreling along like [girlish singsong], “Dee-dee-dee-deeee.” With the white cotton-candy hair and the fake eyelashes. People are saying, “Isn’t she adorable?” and pinching my cheeks.
PHIL RAMONE, engineer, Bell Sound Studios: Jeff and Ellie were all over the place, the most gregarious people you’d ever work with. Jeff was this gigantic guy, kind of thin and tall, who had a way about him. He loved to hand-clap; it was part of their enjoyment of their own records. And Ellie would be the dancer in the studio.
ELLIE GREENWICH: “Be My Baby” and “Then He Kissed Me” were written in part in Lefrak City, and in the city—the Brill Building, Leiber and Stoller’s office, or with Phil Spector in his office. We just got Phil. I think he really appreciated Jeff’s and my humor. We made him laugh. And we understood him. We accepted his idiosyncrasies. We let him carry on. We let him conduct his Wagner things, bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger—everything as big as life. And we would take him on a boat ride around Manhattan Island—where he stayed inside, holding his head because he didn’t want his hair to blow. I think he just felt safe with us. Plus, we turned out some really good stuff.
JEFF BARRY: Phil would usually be at the piano. He would be the musical leader—certainly in the chord progression. I was more lyric and melody, Ellie was more chords and structure. I liked to write the part the singer sings. Ellie had more musical, technical experience.
ELLIE GREENWICH: We never thought much about, like, was it gonna be idiotic to have “Be My Baby,” then “Baby, I Love You”? Baby, baby, baby.
JEFF BARRY: “Baby”—it’s a good word.
JERRY LEIBER: Jeff Barry was more of a “doazy doats and liddle lamzy divey” kind of—you know, nonsense rhymes and jokes and things.
JEFF BARRY: I’m just not a metaphor kind of guy. I say it very directly. Growing up with a blind father and a retarded sister, communicating with two-thirds of my family had to be simple for my sister, and succinct and visual for my father. And I was always aware that I was trying to entertain kids, not adults.
Nineteen sixty-three was the high-water mark for the Brill Building sound, with all three husband-and-wife teams in their prime. But just as everything was humming along nicely, the young tunesmiths of Aldon got the shock of their life when Kirshner and Nevins sold the company outright to Columbia Pictures, the movie-and-TV studio. Nevins bowed out, Kirshner was installed as the head of the studio’s music division, Screen Gems, and the whole operation moved from 1650 Broadway to Columbia’s swanky offices on Fifth Avenue.
CYNTHIA WEIL: When Aldon Music was sold, we read about it in the trades. We didn’t even know that they were going to sell this company and that we were like ballplayers—we were going to be sold with it.
GERRY GOFFIN: I knew it was the beginning of the end.
CAROLE KING: I’m sure Donny got a pile of money for it.
BARRY MANN: Three million dollars.
DON KIRSHNER: If I want to look back now and say, “Hey, schmuck, those copyrights are worth a billion dollars today; you sold them for $3 million; you’re not too bright”—you know, you can’t torture yourself about that. Obviously I sold too early, at the top of my game, and I sold too short. But they will always be my baby, they will always be my songs, whether my name’s on them or not.
CAROLE KING: I think what Donny parroted back to us, what I imagine he was told, was, it’s a great opportunity, because we’ll have a connection to movies and TV. It was a very seductive argument for him, and he tried to sell it to us, and, not having any choice in the matter, we said O.K.
DON KIRSHNER: I thought I was opening up new horizons for them, because, effectively, they were stars already. They had every hit with the Drifters—they could continue with that. I thought they would go for maybe an Academy Award song, or a TV show.
The Aldon songwriters were now assigned to write theme songs for such TV shows as The Farmer’s Daughter and Redigo, and to write pop vehicles for Columbia-contracted actors with singing aspirations. But even with the burden of schlock weighing heavily on their heads, the Aldon writers—now Screen Gems writers—still came through with great pop singles. Mann and Weil’s finest hour came in 1964, when Phil Spector summoned them to Los Angeles and set them up in the Chateau Marmont to write a song for the Righteous Brothers.
BARRY MANN: When we wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” I remember Phil Spector saying, “This is going to be probably the biggest song you’re ever going to have.”
CYNTHIA WEIL: And I said, “Phil, any song with ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’ in it is not important.” And that was my Broadway theater bitch coming out.
BARRY MANN: We knew that Bill Medley had this really low voice and Bobby Hatfield had the great high voice. But when Phil finally cut the record, we were back in New York, and he started to play it over the phone for me. And because Bill sang so low, and it was coming through this little speaker—[imitating Medley’s basso croon] “You never close your eyes anymore ... ”—I started to yell, “Phil! You got it on the wrong speed!”
Leiber and Stoller, renowned for their shrewdness in business, took a Kirshner-like misstep of their own in this period, when their accountants advised them to commission an independent audit of their dealings with Atlantic Records.
JERRY LEIBER: We thought about it, and we said, “Don’t do it—Ahmet, Nesuhi, and Jerry are like brothers, and they’re going to think we’re questioning their honesty.”
But the accountants talked them into it. The move totally backfired. Though the audit revealed that they were owed $18,000—not a huge sum even in the early 1960s—the Erteguns and Wexler were indeed furious, and not only pressured Leiber and Stoller into signing a document waiving the debt, but dropped them from Atlantic and kept the acts that the pair had brought to the label. A subsequent deal with United Artists disintegrated quickly, and in the spring of 1964, Leiber and Stoller found themselves in deep trouble, down to, ironically, $18,000 in cash and a small stack of masters that they themselves owned. Despairing, Leiber headed out to Al and Dick’s on 54th Street, the music bigwigs’ watering hole, on a Thursday night.
JERRY LEIBER: It was mobbed, eight deep at the bar. Everybody was there: the hustlers, the grifters, the gamblers, the pimps. So I walk in, and Hymie Weiss is there. Hymie owned Old Town Records, the label that Arthur Prysock was on. He was one of the toughest monkeys I ever met in my life. He calls me over and says, “Hey, siddown! I want you to meet a friend of mine.” And there’s a guy sitting between me and Hymie. Very, very good hotel haircut. And nails done. Looked like Adolphe Menjou.
It was golden-eared George Goldner, a man renowned for starting up enormously successful record companies—such as Tico, Gee, and Roulette—and invariably losing them to the Mob because he was a compulsive gambler.
JERRY LEIBER: Hymie said, “This is the infamous George Goldner. He’s even more successful than you are. He didn’t write the songs—he stole ’em. And he didn’t make the records—he hired these little colored boys to make them, and he didn’t pay ’em. To make it all whitewash, he gives, like, maybe $10,000 out of the $10 million he stole last year to the synagogue in Westchester, where he lives. And the rest of the money he lost at the track.” Occasionally, to punctuate a sentence, Hymie blows cigar smoke in George’s face. And Goldner’s saying, “Hey, cut it out, man—I’m tired.”
Hymie says to me, “Leiber, you’re a smart guy. Would you give this schmuck $350 a week to go on the road for you?” I said, jokingly, “I’ll think about it.” And Hymie says, “Well, while you’re thinking about it, I’m gonna take a leak.” And I lean over and say, “George, are you really looking for a job for $350 a week?” I’m thinking, Eighteen thousand—$350 a week into $18,000. How many weeks? How much time? And George said, “Yeah, I’ll take it. You’re on. Gimme the keys to your office.” I give him the keys. He said, “You just go home, and I’ll see you in the morning.” I said, “You’re just gonna go up there and stay all night?” And he said, “I’m gonna play your acetates until I decide which one’s a hit.”
So out comes Hy, partially zipping his fly. He says, “Hey, you guys made a deal yet?” George says, “Yeah, I’m gonna work for him.” Hy says, “You cocksucker!” And he turns to me and he says, “What kinda friend are you, Leiber? I call you over here, I buy a drink, and you stab me in the back!”
The following morning Leiber entered his office to find Goldner sitting behind his desk.
JERRY LEIBER: Not a hair out of place. Not a wrinkle in his starched white shirt. Nothing. And he picks up this 10-inch acetate and says, “See this? On my father’s grave.” And I put it on: [singing, snapping fingers] “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get maaaaar-ried ... ”
It was the Barry-Greenwich-Spector song “Chapel of Love,” performed by a New Orleans girl group called the Mel-Tones and produced, in a rare instance, by just Stoller, because Leiber couldn’t stand the song. It was the first release of Leiber, Stoller, and Goldner’s new label, Red Bird, and it was a smash for the Mel-Tones, whom Stoller renamed the Dixie Cups ...
MIKE STOLLER: ... because I kept thinking of little brassieres!
JERRY LEIBER: Coming to little points.
MIKE STOLLER: It was the first American record to come in at No. 1 after I don’t know how many months of nothing but English records.
Indeed, the British Invasion had begun by ’64. But Red Bird held its own that year, thanks to both “Chapel of Love” and the emergence of the Brill era’s last great auteur: a Brooklyn-born, Long Island–bred juvenile delinquent named George “Shadow” Morton.
JERRY LEIBER: One of the best-looking kids I’ve ever seen. He made James Dean look like Porky Pig.
JEFF BARRY: Little nose and big hair. Very strong hair. I think he’s very talented, and very bizarre.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I knew him from Long Island. But not well.
SHADOW MORTON: We just ... knew one another. She went to Memorial High School, I went to Bethpage. My group would go onstage at high-school dances to sing. And then she would come on with her accordion and sing and play, and occasionally we would back her up.
ELLIE GREENWICH: And when I started making it big, he happened to call me and say, “Hi, remember me?” And I went, “Kind of.” And he goes, “Congratulations on your success. I have some acts, and I have some songs. And I was wondering if I could see you.” He came in, tripping over this long raincoat.
SHADOW MORTON: Ellie was being very nice to me. Jeff had his back to me. And he was sitting at the piano. But rather than me understand the fact that this guy sitting at the piano with his back to me was working on a song, my Brooklyn alcoholic paranoia kicked in, and I saw a guy sitting with his back to me, ignoring me—and being very impolite. As I started to get up and leave, that’s when Jeff turned to me and said, “Just what is it you do for a living?” So I said, “Well, most people would say I’m a bum. But, really, I’m a songwriter—like you.” So he said, “What kind of songs do you write?” I said, “Hit songs.” And he said [condescending tone], “Why don’t you bring me one?” I said, “Do you want a fast hit or a slow hit?” He said, “Make it slow.”
So began Morton’s first great con; he couldn’t read music or play an instrument, and had never written a proper song in his life. He called up a Long Island friend with a modest basement studio in his home. He called another friend who was a bassist and said he needed a four-piece band for a recording session. And he called yet another friend to round up a group of high-school girls from the Cambria Heights section of Queens who were performing around the area as the Shangri-Las. In a matter of days after his testy exchange with Barry, Morton had all the ingredients in place for a recording session. Except one thing.
SHADOW MORTON: It was on my way to the studio that I realized I didn’t have a song. So I pulled the car over on a place called South Oyster Bay Road, and wrote the song. Then I went downstairs in the basement, everybody hollering, “You’re late, you’re late!” And then I told the piano player what to play. This little kid was sitting at the piano, and he kept playing everything complicated, and I said, “No, these two fingers. If you use more than these two fingers, you’re overplaying. Do like this [thudding descent of notes]: Dom-dom-dom ...”
The kid piano player was a young Billy Joel. The piano notes were the ominous opening bars of “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” a strange, gothic, free-form soap operetta about virginity loss and betrayal, complete with finger snaps and creepy seagull sound effects. A couple of days after recording it in one marathon session, Morton brought Greenwich and Barry an acetate of the song, which at that point was seven minutes long.
SHADOW MORTON: Jeff responded right off. I don’t think it was more than 60 seconds when he stopped it and said, “Do you mind if I play this for somebody else?” After about 5 or 10 minutes of idle chitchat with Ellie, the door opened up, and this weird guy, a blue eye and a brown eye, stuck his head in the door and waved the record at me. And he said,
“Did you write this?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Did you produce this?” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Did you tell everybody how to play, and what to play, and how to sing?” “Yeah.” He said, “You want a job here?” I had a dollar to my name! I said, “I’ll take it.” He said, “We’re gonna rework this record, and it’s coming out in three weeks.” Then he just closed the door. And Ellie looked at me and smiled. I said, “Is he for real?” She says, “Oh, yeah. That’s Jerry Leiber—that’s my boss.”
Per Leiber’s instructions, Barry and Greenwich set to work editing and rerecording the song with the Shangri-Las. As if Morton’s song wasn’t strange enough, the Shangri-Las themselves were mesmerizingly bizarre: a gorgeous, flaxen-haired, 16-year-old lead singer, Mary Weiss, flanked by Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, twin Lewinskys trussed up in cat suits. (Mary’s big sister, Betty, occasionally augmented the other three.) They were a subversion of the girl-group norm: a clique of tough white chicks instead of virginal, altar-bound black gals.
MARY WEISS: I used to buy my clothes on Eighth Street in the Village, in a men’s store. I wore man-tailored slacks and high-heeled boots and suede and leather vests and things like that. People would write me letters and ask me how old I was and how many children I had. And I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time. It’s a hell of a way to grow up.
ELLIE GREENWICH: We had some fights. Because here I am, Miss Bouffant, and they come in [imitates tough-chick gum-snapping] with the runs up their stockings and making like, “Yeah, whaddya want me to sing?” Ooh, we had a big thing in the ladies’ room! I was like, “Don’t you talk to me like that! I can be just as down as you can!” And then it was fine.
When the dust cleared, “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” was a No. 5 hit, the Shangri-Las were new stars, and Morton was a new Brill Building star, albeit an erratic one.
JEFF BARRY: I named him Shadow Morton. I could be talking to him, and I’d look away—and he’s gone. And he may not show up for days or weeks. Morton did not understand the urgency of crafting a follow-up to “Remember” until Leiber asked him what he had planned next.
SHADOW MORTON: He says, “Do you have anything? Because if you don’t, I’m gonna get Jeff and Ellie to start working on something [for the Shangri-Las].” And when I heard that, I said, “I got a song.” He said, “What’s it about?” What he didn’t know was, a week before, I had gotten my first big royalty check. And I was up on 11th Avenue that morning, looking at motorcycles. So I said, “It’s about ... a motorcycle!” He said, “A motorcycle? What about a motorcycle?” I said, “It’s ... about this guy who rides a motorcycle. The whole story is really about this guy—and he rides a motorcycle into this little town ... and this girl sees him, and she falls in love with him.”
Leiber said, “Is that it? It doesn’t sound right to me.” I said, “Why?” He says, “You’re talking about a Hell’s Angel–type guy driving into town and falling in love with this little girl. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Disc jockeys aren’t gonna play that.”
I said, “It gets better.” He says, “It gets better? How does it get better?” I said, “He ... dies.”
From this off-the-top-of-his-head bluff began Morton’s second great con: “Leader of the Pack,” a gory melodrama in which the girl protagonist’s biker amour crashes to his death shortly after their tearful breakup. Written by Morton with the help of Barry and Greenwich, and sung with resolutely convincing despair by Mary Weiss, it shot to No. 1.
Barry and Greenwich soon found a new protégé in Neil Diamond, yet another Brooklynite, who’d attended both Erasmus Hall and Lincoln High Schools. As a pre-med student at New York University in the late 50s, Diamond had taken to skipping classes to go up to Tin Pan Alley to hustle his songs. He occasionally made a sale, but never a hit.
NEIL DIAMOND: Carole King, Burt Bacharach—these people were geniuses. I was just a normal nonprodigy.
By 1964 he’d long since given up on school and been knocking around the business for six years. He was also married, with a baby, and though he landed the occasional contract with a music publisher, he was having a rough time of it—almost literally.
NEIL DIAMOND: The publishers were tough sons of bitches—either the publishers or the money behind the publishers. You know, if you expected to be paid what the contract called for, they had guys who’d beat the shit out of you. I walked into an office one day, and one of these guys was working over some writer who kind of had a philosophical disagreement with not being paid and not being able to pay his rent. After a couple of times of seeing your friends get the crap beaten out of them, you just toed that line.
Greenwich, meanwhile, had become almost as well-known for her sideline as a demo singer and background vocalist as for her songwriting.
ELLIE GREENWICH: I did a lot of demos then. I became known as the Demo Queen. I was quick and I could overdub parts, so they would automatically hire me as a “group.” That’s how I met Neil Diamond.
Diamond harbored hopes of making it as a performer as well as a songwriter, so whenever he received an advance from a publisher to make a demo of one of his songs, he sang the lead and backing vocals himself. But when he received an advance from a firm called Pincus Music in 1965, he decided ...
NEIL DIAMOND: ... “I’m gonna really do this right this time—instead of doing the background parts myself, I’m gonna get Ellie Greenwich!” And she was willing to do it; she had nothing to do for that hour. When we finished she said, “You know, I think you’re pretty good—maybe you’d like to meet my husband, and we could sit and talk.” Jeff liked something about what I did, and she liked another thing about what I did—he liked the song, she liked the voice. And they got me a contract, as a writer, with Leiber and Stoller’s Trio Music.
Diamond proved every bit as luckless with Trio as he had been with other publishers—none of his songs became hits, and when his contract expired, Leiber and Stoller did not renew it. But Barry and Greenwich remained enamored of Diamond’s voice and his own interpretations of his songs, and were interested in producing him as an artist.
NEIL DIAMOND: Here I was, free of the yoke of working for another music publisher, and I was handed two of the most creative people in the music business to produce the records. Jeff went to his friend—I think it was Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic, or Ahmet—and said, “I want to produce this kid.” And they said, “O.K., but we can’t really take him on Atlantic. But we have a little independent label, called Bang, that we’ve opened with [industry veteran] Bert Berns.”
Diamond’s first two singles with Bang, the Barry-and-Greenwich-produced “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry,” both released in 1966, were Top 40 hits and established Diamond as a star. But Diamond grew dissatisfied with Bang, feeling they were hampering his artistic growth, and his flight from the label resulted in threats and tangles of lawsuits that would enmesh him, Barry, and Greenwich for years, even as his singing career achieved liftoff.
NEIL DIAMOND: When I left Bang, it was a very scary time. I was contacted by my lawyer, who said, “The F.B.I. has some word that there’s a hit out on you because of this fight that you’re having with Bang.” My Farfisa player used to have a gun, so I borrowed it. And I carried around a loaded .38 for four months. Had no idea how to use it, to load it, to aim it, to do anything like that. But, man, I carried this piece around with me!
Morton and the Shangri-Las were also getting bound up in messy legal situations at this time, a circumstance not helped by the fact that their run as hit-makers had fizzled out. By the mid-60s, as Brit-beat flourished and psychedelia’s tendrils were creeping into the pop picture, the polished, exuberant Brill Building sound had fallen out of fashion, and the songwriters were discovering that there was less demand for their work.
In this same period, two of the songwriter marriages, Barry and Greenwich’s and Goffin and King’s, were running into problems. Barry and Greenwich’s split came even before Diamond’s first record was released; they divorced in December of 1965.
ELLIE GREENWICH: It all came together, the professional and the personal: “Oh, dear, the British Invasion is here—what to do, what to do?” I was a little panicky. And Jeff, he didn’t want to talk about it; he was like, “Don’t want to go there.” We hadn’t talked about personal stuff in three years, because we were so busy with the music. We almost didn’t know how.
Even though they had split up, Barry and Greenwich got back together in 1966 for one last writing session at the behest of Phil Spector, who was fighting his own rearguard action against the British Invasion. He was taken with Tina Turner’s voice, and was convinced that the right song and the right production would put him back at the top.
ELLIE GREENWICH: Phil, I don’t think, was aware that we were divorced. So we told him, “We’re not together anymore.” I mean, Jeff and I wouldn’t have gotten together without Phil saying, “I really want to try.” It was the first time I was writing in Jeff’s apartment, on 72nd Street. It was a weird little get-together.
“River Deep, Mountain High,” the result of that writing session, was a furious din, featuring the most outré lyrics Barry had ever written (“When I was a little girl, I had a rag doll ... Now I love you just the way I love that rag doll”) and great masses of strings, horns, and basses that conspired to make Turner sound as if she were singing in the midst of an air raid. The single went to No. 1 in Great Britain, but stiffed in America, emphatically ending Spector’s reign as, in Tom Wolfe’s words, the First Tycoon of Teen.
The ever shrewd Don Kirshner granted the Aldon-Brill writers a reprieve of sorts when he commissioned them to come up with songs for the prefab TV band the Monkees, whose creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, had asked him to handle the music for their program. Barry and Goffin got work producing Monkees sessions. Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer.” Goffin and King came up with the Beatles-ish “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Another Goffin-King tune, “The Porpoise Song,” written for the Monkees’ movie Head, was full-blown psychedelia, both gorgeous and disturbing—the sound of the once squeaky-clean Brooklynites Gerry and Carole going all trippy.
GERRY GOFFIN: That was the whole thing that led to Carole’s and my breakup. I wanted to be a hippie—grew my hair long—and Carole did it modestly. You know, we smoked some grass together once in a while—
CAROLE KING: —but I never inhaled.
GERRY GOFFIN: She never wanted to go overboard. And then I started taking LSD and mescaline. And Carole and I began to grow apart because she felt that she had to say things herself; she had to be her own lyricist.
But in 1967, at the instigation of Jerry Wexler, Goffin and King came up with one last great song while they were still married.
JERRY WEXLER: In the old folk mythology, and in the blues, the term “natural man” keeps coming up. So this notion occurred to me: What about “You make me feel like a natural woman”?
GERRY GOFFIN: I was coming out of the Oyster Bar, and Jerry Wexler’s driving by in his limousine. And he says, “C’mere! I got a title for you! I want you to write it for Aretha Franklin.” He says, “Natural Woman!” So I went home and wrote it with Carole.
But such triumphs as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” were by now infrequent for the old gang; the bloom was off. By the time two naïve kids from Bard College named Walter Becker and Donald Fagen entered the Brill Building to sell their songs in 1969, the place was no longer the musical wonderland it had been at the beginning of the decade.
WALTER BECKER, Steely Dan: You could tell already that this was something that was a bit down on its heels. The people we had contact with were clearly people who were proposing to make this sort of difficult transition from one pop-music era to another, and you could see how ridiculous it was, what they were trying to do. That reflected itself in all sorts of ways, including the way they looked and the cheesy musical stuff they were doing, trying to capture the psychedelic momentum of the day.
Perhaps it was according to this logic that longhaired Becker and Fagen got staff jobs as songwriters for JATA Enterprises, the publishing company of the past-its-prime pop group Jay and the Americans, who also employed the duo as touring musicians.
JAY BLACK, Jay and the Americans: We had these two kids sing some stuff for us, and they were so talented, I said, “Would you like to play for us?” And they worked for us. Now they’re Steely Dan. So I wonder why they left—I was paying them a hundred dollars apiece!
WALTER BECKER: The songs we had were utterly bizarre songs. There was no chance that anybody would record any of them. I remember us going down to Jeff Barry’s office and playing a tune for him and, you know, having him get impatient before the chorus came in. He could tell pretty quickly that these weren’t hit tunes. Jerry Leiber compared our music to German art music or something like that.
Becker and Fagen proved to be the last great Brill Building songwriting team—in a delayed-reaction sort of way. In their year plus with JATA Enterprises, they managed to use the dilapidated old demo studio in the building to record 15 to 20 songs, a few of which would later emerge, in rerecorded form, as Steely Dan songs.
WALTER BECKER: I think we did a demo of the song “Brooklyn.” “Barrytown” was another one of those demos—and there were a lot of songs that we did at that time that were rewritten or scrapped for parts. It was a period of time that helped us hone our style from the ultra-ridiculous to the merely ridiculous.
Becker and Fagen moved to the West Coast in 1971, just as most of the older Brill stalwarts had done or would do in this period. The music-industry locus had shifted to Los Angeles, and New York City—formerly the vibrant, sparkly inspiration for many of their songs—had entered its run-down Kojak period.
CAROLE KING: Gerry and I both moved west in 1968. That was the year that we knew that our marriage was pretty much not gonna work. We moved separately. A lot of the music business was happening out West.
CYNTHIA WEIL: Suddenly you realized that everyone you wanted to talk to was on the West Coast: a producer, an A&R person. And New York was going through a bad period—it was at its dirtiest and crummiest. Right before we left, I went to say good-bye to Bloomingdale’s, my favorite place. And all of a sudden a bus came barreling down Third Avenue and screeched to a halt in front of where I was standing, and a guy jumped out with a knife, and dropped the knife and ran down the street; he had held up the bus driver. I thought, Oh my God! There’s nothing sacred! They’re dropping knives in front of Bloomingdale’s! I gotta get outta here!
After the Brill scene deteriorated, a mixed bag of fates awaited its former inhabitants. Most went through periods of identity crisis, but each, to varying degrees, went on to later success, even if it wasn’t as consistent as it had been in the Brill days. King made the biggest splash with her 1971 album Tapestry, the best-selling LP of the 1970s, and continues to record. Goffin has written the words to such hits as Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” and Diana Ross’s “Do You Know Where You’re Going To (Theme from Mahogany)”; he and King continue to collaborate from time to time. Sedaka came back big in the 1970s, writing “Love Will Keep Us Together” for the Captain and Tennille and having his own hits with “Laughter in the Rain” and “Bad Blood”; he continues to perform. Mann and Weil, who remain happily married, have written such hits as Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” and Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch.” Barry, the least ruffled by the end of the Brill era, wrote “Sugar Sugar” for the Archies, the biggest-selling single of 1968, and co-wrote “I Honestly Love You” with Peter Allen for Olivia Newton-John. Greenwich, after recovering from what she calls a “nervous breakdown,” put together a hit stage retrospective of her songs entitled The Leader of the Pack. Leiber and Stoller pulled a similar trick with their show Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a long-runner on Broadway, and still write songs together.
Diamond flourished as a solo artist. Morton went on to produce Vanilla Fudge and the New York Dolls, and is getting back to producing after a long period spent in an alcoholic wilderness. Bacharach and David, the beneficiaries of a warm re-appraisal in recent years (with Elvis Costello and Mike Myers at the forefront), are writing together again, having overcome a long estrangement. Kirshner oversaw the Monkees and Archies records, and went on to produce and host the Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV series, memorably lampooned by Paul Shaffer on Saturday Night Live.
Yet there’s no getting around the fact that a majority of these people will forever be regarded, first and foremost, as Brill Building people—a fact that may have rankled them in earlier days, but now is a fate to which they are happily reconciled.
ELLIE GREENWICH: You want to hear my best story? This was about two years ago. Right next door to here [in Greenwich’s Manhattan apartment building] there’s a tailor, and I had to go in to get some things altered. It was a Saturday morning—no makeup, no hair spray. The radio’s on, and “Be My Baby” comes on. So this woman is pinning as she’s singing along. I don’t say anything, but it’s kind of exciting, because she’s singing it and she knows all the words.
And then the Raindrops come on, “What a Guy.” I’m semi-beside-myself. Wow! After that, they play “Cherry, Cherry,” Neil Diamond. Now I can hardly control myself. And this woman walks in off the street and she goes, “Oh! [Gasps.] He’s my favorite! I love Neil Diamond so!”
I’m now like, That’s it! I go, “Excuse me? You hear that? [Singing.] ‘She got the way to move me ... ’ That’s my ex-husband and I! We’re doing those backgrounds! I produced that record with my husband! And I was with the Raindrops, the song before that! And ‘Be My Baby’—I was one of the writers of that song!”
And this woman just backs up ... looks me up and down ... and she goes, “Right, lady.”
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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Someone behind us honks—a disapproving noncruiser. “Fuuuck you,” says Valentine, though not with the combustive anger of the salty and aged, more the sighing bemusement of an enlightened old-timer who’s thinking, Jeez, loosen up, kids; you see more when you take it slow. This is a man who first arrived in Los Angeles via freight car and upturned thumb—he was 14, it was the Great Depression, and after the hobo trains got him as far as San Francisco from his hometown of Chicago, he hitchhiked the rest of the way downstate.
Up on the right comes the Comedy Store, formerly Ciro’s, the crown jewel of the Strip’s glorious 1940s champagne-in-a-bucket epoch. Valentine explains that Ciro’s reconstituted itself as a hip 60s rock club just long enough to launch the Byrds, but, unable to secure a liquor license, morphed into a short-lived teenybop haven with the risible name It’s Boss. Moving along, Valentine points out an undistinguished building on the plot where Dino’s Lodge was, “Dean Martin’s place, where Kookie worked in 77 Sunset Strip.” The next site of note is an empty lot across the street from the ersatz mid-century greasy spoon Mel’s Diner, formerly the genuine mid-century greasy spoon Ben Frank’s. “That’s where I had the Trip,” says Valentine. The Trip was a tiny but chic rock club Valentine opened in 1965 in the space vacated by the Crescendo, a jazz club; one of its gimmicks, devised by Valentine’s music-mogul buddy Lou Adler, was that the names of the current Billboard Top 10 singles were displayed on its façade.
But the highlight of Valentine’s tour comes a few blocks later, after we’ve passed the spot where the Classic Cat topless club used to be (now the Tower Records classical annex) but before we’ve hit the former sites of Gazzarri’s (now the Key Club) and the very first Hamburger Hamlet (now Beverly Sunset Motors). “There it is,” says Valentine adoringly, as if proffering a school photo of a granddaughter. Behold, at the northwest corner of Sunset and Clark, the most famous club in the history of rock music, the Whisky à Go Go—its façade currently painted in a queasy alternation of yellow and pastel-purple rectangles. “Aww, I’m proud of it,” Valentine says. “It was just so popular, right from the very first night. I tell you, I was just lucky. It was easy. You know what? It was easy.”
Valentine opened the Whisky à Go Go in January of 1964. Johnny Rivers, later famous for the song “Secret Agent Man,” was the headliner. The club was an instant smash, a cultural trendsetter from the outset; we have Valentine to thank for introducing the terms “à go go,” “go-go girl,” and “go-go cage” into our vernacular, and, more significantly, for helping launch the careers of some of the best rock ’n’ roll bands ever. “Once the Whisky started to happen, then Sunset Boulevard started to happen,” says Lou Adler. “L.A. started to happen, as far as the music business—it blew up.” Indeed, the mythologizing of psychedelic San Francisco and Brill Building–era New York often obscures Los Angeles’s status as the seat of American pop in the 60s, the city that gave us not only the explicitly California-identified Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, but also the Doors, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Sonny & Cher. (To say nothing of the fact that Phil Spector, a man often presumed to be a New Yorker, was actually an L.A. kid who recorded the bulk of his celebrated Wall of Sound output at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard.) Today, the words “Sunset Strip” may automatically summon a mental montage of sleaze— cocaine, skull tattoos, breast implants, hamburger grease—but 35 years ago there was no place more sunshiny and brimming with possibility. “It was an amazing time,” says Gail Zappa, who met her future husband, Frank, when she was 21 and working as Valentine’s secretary. “In those days [on the Strip], people with long hair who had cars waved to each other—long hair was a mark, a signifier. Like ‘Wow: there’s another one! We’re actually making progress!’” The Strip offered the Aquarian good vibes of Haight-Ashbury with a Hollywood difference: better-looking people and no body stink. As Gene Clark, the handsomest Byrd and the one with the best Beatles-cum-Prince-Valiant haircut, remarked upon his return from a trip to San Francisco in the mid-60s, “Long hair is all right, but they look like girls out there. I mean, you don’t even know if it’s clean, man.” Roger McGuinn, Clark’s then bandmate, remembers apologizing to his San Franciscan friends for L.A.’s shortcomings—the smog, the traffic, the lookism—but adds, “I liked L.A. It was an amazing music town then, almost more than it was a movie town.”
The Whisky was the hub of this remarkably fertile scene, a place for the aforementioned acts to perform and/or hang out, and for these acts’ fans to share in the rapture. Valentine was the scene’s unlikely paterfamilias—an ex-cop and jazz aficionado from Chicago who was already past 40. “Back then, we really believed in ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30,’ but Elmer was different,” says Cher. “He was the one older person we trusted.” The kids loved Valentine not only for his peaceable demeanor and soft, jowly mug—Jack Nicholson has described him as looking like “all seven of the dwarves”—but also because he genuinely enjoyed their music and their company. “You didn’t know who owned Ciro’s, you didn’t know who ran Ciro’s,” says Adler. “But Elmer was a face, someone you could connect to, a celebrity in his own right.”
Which makes his obscurity today, in our relentlessly archival Behind the Music-slash-E! Hollywood True Story culture, all the more curious. Valentine has retreated so quietly into retirement that few people realize he’s still around. He says he has seen himself referred to in print as “the late Elmer Valentine,” and several people I interviewed for this story made a point of asking me when he died. Still others, L.A. music scenesters who pride themselves on being in the know, said they’d heard that Valentine “isn’t doing so well,” and is a shut-in befogged by Alzheimer’s. In fact, Valentine is hale and vigorous and contends, “I’m better than I ever was.” Though he doesn’t get out much socially anymore, he walks several miles a day and bides his time happily at his house up in the Hollywood Hills, smoking herb and listening to jazz CDs in the company of two dogs (a boxer and a pit bull), two tankfuls of tropical fish (“I think of fish as living art”), and two greenhouses full of orchids. His legendary lovability is apparent from the moment he appears in his doorway. He has a snuffly Doc/Sneezy speaking voice to match the face, a jolly cast to his features, and the sturdy build of a benevolent protector: good height, broad shoulders, large hands, an air of latent strength; picture Fred Mertz if he grew his hair out and acquired a predilection for cheeba. Up in his bedroom, he shows me, in the most unassuming, nonboastful way, concrete evidence of his charm and continuing vigor: bountiful home snapshots, held fast under plate glass on top of his dresser, of the young lovelies he’s walked out with over the years—women 40, 50 years his junior, including Gia Carangi, the doomed, heroin-addicted 80s model whom Angelina Jolie played in a TV movie, and the knockout Polish model in her 20s he happens to be dating now. “I know I’m pushing 80,” he says. “The wonderful thing is, with all these girls, music is the common bond. With music as the common bond, they look beyond the physical.” Adler, more succinctly, says, “Elmer is a wolf.”
Is this man still alive? Is he ever. What’s more, his recall is better than that of the rock stars who spent the 60s in his club.
Johnny Rivers, the Whisky’s star attraction for the first year of its existence, recalls the state of the Strip before his arrival on it as “pretty dead, really.” The early 1960s were something of an interregnum on Sunset. Old-Hollywood nightspots such as Ciro’s, the El Mocambo, and the Trocadero were either dead or dying, having lost their action to the big rooms of burgeoning Vegas, and rock ’n’ roll hadn’t yet stormed in to the rescue. Small clubs like the Crescendo and the Renaissance did good business with jazzers and Beatniks, but the closest thing there was to a cohesive youth movement in Hollywood was off the Strip, in the folk clubs. At the Ash Grove on Third Street and the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard, young folkies were able to bask in mutual admiration and earn better money than they did in, say, Greenwich Village, where Roger McGuinn had been making “three to ten dollars a night after they passed the basket around.” Among those who met for the first time on this circuit were McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, who formed the Jet Set, the precursor to the Byrds.
Valentine, meanwhile, was running a restaurant-nightclub at the corner of Crescent Heights and Santa Monica called P.J.’s. Named in homage to P. J. Clarke’s, the New York pub, it was more a lounge-act kind of place than a folk club, but it gained a measure of national fame thanks to the quasi-folkie Trini Lopez, whose 1963 live album, Trini Lopez at P.J.’s, featured a hit cover of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”
Valentine had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1960. (That first trip to California, in 1937 on the freight trains, was merely a youthful escapade.) “I left Chicago because my wife dumped me, and I was flipped out,” he says. He was also having a little career trouble. When I ask him what kind of cop he was—meaning detective, beat cop, or whatever—he cheerfully responds, “Corrupt!” In the grand tradition of Chicago law enforcement, Valentine was on the take from the Mob. “It was a way of life,” he says unapologetically. One Chicago old-timer from that milieu remembers Valentine as a “real sharp dresser, a nice-looking fellow,” who worked as a so-called Captain’s Man, “collecting the filthy lucre on behalf of the captain.” But the authorities caught on to him, and he was indicted for extortion. Though he was never convicted, it was in Valentine’s best interests to get out of town. Fortunately, he had picked up another vocational skill while on the Chicago force. “I used to moonlight running nightclubs for the outfit,” he says. “For gangsters.”
So it was that Valentine found himself trying his hand at full-time nightclub management, overseeing operations at P.J.’s, which he co-owned with some fellow ex-Chicagoans. The club did well, and Valentine took instantly to his new line of work, but he wasn’t yet convinced that his future lay in L.A. In 1963 he traveled to Europe with the intent of opening a club in one of the cities there and beginning a new life as an expatriate. But while he was in Paris, he happened to visit a discotheque that was called the Whisky à Go Go. “They had these kids, young people, dancing like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “So I came back to Los Angeles, and I wanted to open a discotheque. I wanted that badly. ’Cause I saw what was happening—the frenzy and the people and the lines.” Valentine had made $55,000 by selling his share in P.J.’s. He re-invested $20,000 of this money in the refurbishment of a failing club whose lease he’d taken over, a place at the corner of Sunset and Clark called the Party, in an old Bank of America building. The club’s new name was nicked straight from Paris: the Whisky à Go Go.
Now he needed an act. One night, he happened to see Johnny Rivers performing at Gazzarri’s, a tiny, non-descript Italian restaurant on La Cienega. Rivers, a 21-year-old guitar phenom hired out of expediency by Bill Gazzarri—whose previous booking, a jazz trio, had bailed out on him—had unexpectedly turned the place into a word-of-mouth hot spot. Three times a night, Rivers, a slight, wiry, pompadoured kid from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, played an upbeat set of blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll covers—“Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles, some Bobby Darin stuff, Chuck Berry,” he says—accompanied only by a drummer. Unremarkable as this sounds now, no one in circa-1963 L.A. had ever seen anything like it. “Johnny was like the Pied Piper,” says Valentine. “People were waiting in line to go in and dance. When I saw that, I said, ‘I gotta get this guy.’”
Another person enamored of Rivers was a new acquaintance of Valentine’s named Lou Adler. Though he was only in his late 20s, Adler, a young hustler from East L.A.’s working-class Boyle Heights section, had already established himself as a music-industry operator—running the West Coast office of Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music publishing company, producing Jan & Dean’s hits, starting up Dunhill Productions (which would evolve into the Dunhill Records label), and dating Ann-Margret and The Donna Reed Show’s Shelley Fabares. Like Valentine, Adler had stumbled upon the Johnny Rivers phenomenon—in his case, while killing time before a Don Rickles show down the street—and felt the same shock of recognition. “When I first saw Rivers, part of what interested me was the audience that I saw,” he says. “Because they were adults dancing to rock ’n’ roll—people in sport coats and ties. That showed the audience was getting really broad.” It had previously been presumed that rock ’n’ roll was strictly for American Bandstand teenyboppers, and was therefore unsuitable for nightclubs, where the real money was in the liquor tabs. But now, all of a sudden, a white guy playing Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” and “Maybellene” on an electric guitar was a viable grown-up attraction—for young grown-ups, anyway.
Adler advised Valentine to sign Rivers to a one-year contract as the Whisky’s marquee act. Rivers agreed, the deal being that he’d play three sets a night, with a drummer and a bassist. Between sets, the audience would dance to records spun by a D.J.—but not just any D.J.: a girl D.J., suspended high above the audience in a glass-walled cage. This faintly ridiculous idea was Valentine’s pragmatic response to the room’s space limitations: the Whisky was not a big club, and the only way he could fit the D.J. booth was to mount it on a metal support beam that ran alongside the performing area. Making the most of the situation’s public-relations potential, Valentine asked one of his early partners in the Whisky, a P.R. man named Shelly Davis, to run a public contest for the new girl-D.J. position.
But on the very night of the Whisky’s opening, January 15, 1964, the contest winner called Valentine in tears, explaining that her disapproving mother wouldn’t let her take the job. So Valentine pressed his reluctant cigarette girl, a young woman named Patty Brockhurst, into action. “She had on a slit skirt, and we put her up there,” he says. “So she’s up there playing the records. She’s a young girl, so while she’s playing ’em, all of a sudden she starts dancing to ’em! It was a dream. It worked.” Thus, out of calamity and serendipity, was born the go-go girl. Valentine acted fast to formalize the position, installing two more cages and hiring two more girl dancers, one of whom, Joanie Labine, designed the official go-go-girl costume of fringed dress and white boots.
Just about the only person who didn’t care for the go-go girls was Johnny Rivers. When they danced during his sets, he let Valentine know how peeved he was: “I said, ‘When I’m playing, I want people to listen to my music. I don’t want any sideshows.’” It was agreed that the girls would contain their enthusiasm while the star artiste played, though Rivers turned out to be the only Whisky act ever to make such a demand. Generally, everyone involved in the Whisky’s first year reveled in the exhilaration of instantaneous success. Rivers’s built-in following ensured that the Whisky drew sellout crowds from the night it opened. The novelty of rock ’n’ roll on the Strip, plus the added novelty of the girls, attracted national media attention and Hollywood stars. Within months of the Whisky’s debut, Life magazine had written it up, Jack Paar had broadcast an episode of his post-Tonight weekly program from the club, and Steve McQueen and Jayne Mansfield had installed themselves as regulars, Watusi-ing away on the dance floor almost every night while flashbulbs popped. “Everybody was there,” says Rivers. “I mean, you’d look up, and there was Cary Grant dancing.”
When the Beatles arrived in Los Angeles that year on their first American tour, they let it be known that the Whisky was the place they wanted to see. Valentine took it upon himself to personally chauffeur John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the club—and brought Jayne Mansfield along for the ride as a bonus. “John was putting Jayne on,” says Valentine. “‘Jayne, those aren’t really your tits, are they?’ ‘Yes they are!’ ‘No, no, I can tell ... ’ He got her to show them to him.” In a not dissimilar episode involving a randy Englishman, James Mason joined Valentine in a booth one night and stared in wonderment at the go-go girls. “I remember this exactly,” says Valentine. “He said [clipped English diction], ‘Oh, my gosh—how those girls jiggle so much with their titties while they’re dahn-cing.’”
Shrewd businessman that he was, Adler wasted little time in seizing the opportunity to record a live album at the club. Johnny Rivers at the Whisky à Go Go was released in May of ’64, its back cover laden with celebrity testimonials: “JOHNNY CARSON: ‘At 12:00 o’clock I kissed my wife, I thought it was New Year’s Eve! Johnny Rivers is the Pied Piper of The Watusi Set.’ SAM COOKE: ‘Nothing is more exciting than talent on the rise, and Johnny is going all the way.’ YOGI BEAR: ‘Johnny is my Bobo.’ george hamilton: ‘Johnny Rivers’ beat is magic. You can’t help but dance.’ JAN: ‘Johnny turns Sunset Boulevard into an adult Dick Clark Show.’ DEAN: ‘Right!’”
“I think I wrote all of those myself,” says Adler now, smiling sheepishly. “But some of ’em actually were there.” A similar degree of jiggery-pokery was involved in the actual recording. Though the album sleeve says, “Recorded Live—Very Live—At the Whisky à Go Go,” Adler admits, “it was all enhanced. I took the basic tracks into the studio ... and had about maybe 75 to 100 people there,” the visitors functioning as his “audience,” offering fake-spontaneous commentary on Johnny’s show and breaking out into sing-alongs. In any event, the album is a convincing approximation of the ramalama ambience of the early Whisky—an aural picture of hips shaking in shiny suits and kneecaps straining through tight shifts—and it did terrific business, charting at No. 12 and yielding a No. 2 hit in “Memphis.” Just two months later, a follow-up album, Here We à Go Go Again, yielded a No. 12 hit in “Maybellene.”
But the runaway success of Rivers and the Whisky was not without its consequences. When Valentine’s mobster associates in Chicago caught wind of their old buddy’s gangbusters business, they swooped in, looking for a piece of Rivers’s action. One night, Adler recalls, he was summoned to Rivers’s dressing room. There, he found the terrified guitarist quaking in the presence of some very large gentlemen. “He said, ‘These guys want me to sign these papers,’” says Adler, meaning documents turning over a percentage of Rivers’s earnings. “I said, ‘You’re not gonna sign any papers.’ And the guy said to me something like ‘How would you like me to rip off your arms and choke you to death with ’em?’” Adler managed to stall long enough to get Valentine involved, but Valentine had to travel all the way back to Chicago to get his friends to call off the goons for good.
An implicit part of the respect accorded Valentine and his partners by the under-30 crowd was the widespread perception that the Whisky was a Mafia-run club. Even now, the Byrds’ Chris Hillman shudders as he says, “Whoever financed Elmer, I don’t want to know.” Frank Zappa was more explicit in his memoir The Real Frank Zappa Book, dryly asserting that the Trip and the Whisky were “owned by the same ‘ethnic organization.’” This perception was only encouraged by the fact that Valentine was half-Italian—“My father was a Wop and a greenhorn named Valenti”—and the fact that his most prominent early partner was an L.A. gambler and cardplayer named Phil Tanzini, who, says Valentine, was “involved in the gin-rummy scandal at the Friars Club—he was the eye in the sky, looking at players’ hands through a hole in the ceiling.” (“Tanzini was a nightmare—sleazeball-desperate,” says Gail Zappa, a victim of his roving hands in her secretarial days.)
With his customary blithe candor, Valentine cheerily explains that, while he was not necessarily of the Chicago Mafia, he was certainly friendly with its members. He even had some gangsterish tendencies of his own in the old days. There’s an extraordinary photograph on his bedroom wall that captures him in his 20s, sitting in a restaurant booth flanked by two ugly mugs straight out of Little Caesar. “That’s right after we held up a gambling joint,” Valentine says. Given that he was a cop, I take this to mean they’d all just staged a vice raid. No, he says, that’s him with two of his gangster friends: “We held ’em up! We said we’d fuckin’ shoot ’em if they didn’t hand over the money!” Did Elmer ever actually fuckin’ shoot anyone? “That’s personal,” he says.
One “very close friend” of Valentine’s in his Chicago days was Felix Alderisio, also known as Milwaukee Phil, who was arguably the most feared hit man in the country in the 1950s and 60s, carrying out at least 14 murders for Sam Giancana and other Chicago bosses. “Milwaukee Phil would chin himself on the go-go cage as it was being built,” Valentine remembers. His friendship with Alderisio came in especially handy when Bill Gazzarri decided to voice his displeasure that Valentine had poached Rivers from his place. Gazzarri, calling in connections of his own, sicced another famous Chicago gangster on Valentine, Charles Carmen Inglesia, better known as Chuckie English, who was Giancana’s top lieutenant in the early 60s (and who met his end when he was shot between the eyes on February 14, 1985—the 56th anniversary of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre). One day, Chuckie English paid Valentine an unexpected visit and announced, “Johnny Rivers back to Gazzarri’s or you’re a dead motherfucker.” “So I got Milwaukee Phil to come in from Chicago, and it was straightened out,” Valentine says. (Gazzarri didn’t exactly suffer anyway—he relocated his club to the Strip, where it persisted well into the 1990s as a heavy-metal showcase.)
Few people outside of Valentine’s inner circle were cognizant of these behind-the-scenes shenanigans, though. For most of America, the Whisky was one of the bossest things going in 1964. It quickly spawned imitators, complete with hit-spewing Rivers-alikes and hastily hired go-go girls frugging in hastily erected cages; even the Whisky itself spawned two short-lived satellite franchises, in San Francisco and Atlanta. Patty Brockhurst’s unthinking little shimmies of joy were reverberating throughout popular culture: from the Strip to the soundstages of Shindig and Hullabaloo to prom halls to the White House, where First Teen Luci Baines Johnson was shakin’ her ample thang Whisky-style before the year was out.
If there were dissenting voices, people who found it all a bit corny, no one in the mainstream paid them any mind. But certainly the voices were there—the voices of the folkies, loons, and freaks looming on the horizon. People like Frank Zappa, who reflected in his memoir, “During this period in American Musical History, anything with ‘Go-Go’ pasted on the end of it was really hot. All you were required to do, if you were a musician desiring steady work, was to grind your way through five sets per night of loud rhythm tracks, while girls in fringed costumes did the twist, as if that particular body movement summed up the aesthetic of the serious beer drinker.”
And over in L.A.’s Westwood section, two U.C.L.A. Film School students with intellectual pretensions, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, were duly unimpressed with the goings-on a few miles off to the east. “The Whisky was for Hollywood swingers,” says Manzarek. “When you were at U.C.L.A., it was the antithesis of everything artistic that you could imagine. Everyone derided it. It was slick and Hollywood and Sunset Strip—a rock ’n’ roll version of the Rat Pack.... And then we wind up being the house band there. How ironic life is.”
Ed Ruscha, the L.A.-based artist, recalls “an abruptness, a cultural jump,” transforming the Strip in 1965 and ’66. Ruscha lived in Hollywood throughout the 1960s and made a habit of photographing the various establishments on the Strip in a cold, reportorial deadpan—as the truth-in-advertising title of his 1966 photo book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, suggests. “I liked the plastic glamour of the place,” he says of the Strip in its early-60s incarnation. “But suddenly there was this changeover to the hippie thing. What I remember most is that you could stand anywhere on the Sunset Strip and see cars going down very slowly, always with someone in the backseat tapping on a tambourine—going tap, tap, tap.”
While Rivers had been tearing up the Whisky, the folkies in the Jet Set—McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby, now augmented by bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke—had become enamored of the Beatles. They hit upon the idea of electrifying their sound, achieving a folk-rock synthesis that no one had yet essayed, and grew their hair out into mushroom-cap dos even more luxuriant than the Beatles’. Changing their name to the Byrds and securing a residency at the down-at-its-heels Ciro’s, they honed their sound and built up a following. When the very first Byrds single, their famously jangly version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” went to No. 1 in May of 1965, it ratified the notion of the Strip as a progressive music scene, and the notion of folk-rock hippiedom as a way of life. “From ’64 into ’65, the focus shifted from Johnny Rivers east to Ciro’s—on us,” says Hillman. “And when ‘Tambourine Man’ became a hit, everything suddenly went from Jay Sebring hairdos”—he smooths his hair back tightly on the sides to simulate a neat, sticky quiff—“to a more bohemian atmosphere.”
“The Byrds were the catalyst—they brought all the kids to the Strip,” says Terry Melcher, the band’s producer, who was then something of a boy wonder: an A-list producer, a Columbia Records executive, and the son of Doris Day. “They took the Dylan songs, we electrified ’em and rock ’n’ rolled ’em, and kids came from everywhere. It just happened. One day you couldn’t drive anymore. It was, like, overnight—you couldn’t drive on the Strip.”
The Strip became a magnet for all sorts of budding hippies, runaway teens, and oddballs without portfolio—Hollywood freaks on the Hollywood scene, to borrow a phrase from an L.A. music star of much later vintage, Beck. The greatest freak of them all was Vito Paulekas, a bearded, longhaired, middle-aged sculptor with a fondness for flowing robes, saturnalian dancing, and comely young girls. “Vito was an art instructor. When I was in high school, we’d go to his art studio because he had naked models,” says Melcher, a 1960 graduate of Beverly Hills High. “I’d just pop in and say, ‘Hi, I’m thinking of taking some art lessons.’” Now it was Vito’s turn to sponge off of the scene Melcher was part of, sashaying from Ciro’s to the Whisky to the other Strip clubs now showcasing rock acts—the Galaxy, the Action, the Sea Witch, Pandora’s Box, and Valentine’s new joint, the Trip—with several whacked-out acolytes in tow, all swaying exotically to the ragas in their heads. “Vito would come in every night with an entourage—mostly four or five really great-looking girls,” says Adler. “It’s a weird parallel, but it was like a nonviolent Manson situation, a little cult.” Among Vito’s male disciples was Kim Fowley, a six-foot-five, whippet-thin Strip scenester who’d produced the Hollywood Argyles’ 1960 novelty hit “Alley-Oop,” and who was the son of actor Douglas Fowley, Doc Holliday on TV’s Wyatt Earp. “Vito had people from 17 to 70 following him,” says Fowley. “I was particularly notorious for my interpretive dancing—I did kicks, jumps, martial-arts moves, the Watusi.”
“I remember Kim dancing at the Whisky with a very short girlfriend,” says Ed Ruscha. “He was so tall, and he’d hold a five-dollar bill in his teeth. She would try to grab the money, and he would shift so she couldn’t catch it. Kim made a whole dance out of that. I was impressed.”
Another sometime member of the Vito contingent was Pamela Des Barres, a cute Valley teenager who’d discovered with her high-school friends that meeting pop stars was as easy as getting a ride over the hills, knocking on the dressing-room doors of the Whisky or Ciro’s, and batting one’s eyelashes. “We would wear almost nothing—little bits of lace and stuff—and just be wild girls,” says Des Barres, who would go on to chronicle her groupie adventures in her 1988 memoir, I’m with the Band. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we had a lot of sex. For instance, I would see Jim Morrison sometimes, and we would just make out.” John Densmore, the Doors’ drummer, says his favorite Vito dancer was Rory Flynn, “Errol Flynn’s daughter. Real tall and”—wolf whistle—“a looker. I’d be playing and getting off on Rory Flynn in her sheer negligee, dancing. And then I’d notice guys in suits trying to be cool and acting like they didn’t see.”
As in the Johnny Rivers days, the dinner-jacketed denizens of old Hollywood emerged from their Beverly Hills and Bel Air homes to see what all the fuss was about. The cabaret singer Bobby Short, in an E! documentary on the Sunset Strip that aired last year, recalled, “A sort of social thing had developed in Beverly Hills. After dinner, you put your friends in your car, took them for a ride down the Sunset Strip. That was the floor show.” “It was slumming for the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s,” says Fowley. “Ed Begley Sr. would come in with a pack. Paul Lynde would come in with a pack. I’d be dancing and I’d bump into Ed Begley, and he’d smile and say, ‘Oh, you’re just great.’”
With all things hippie and freaky taking hold on the Strip, Valentine, with the plugged-in Adler serving as his informal musical adviser, began booking more outré acts after Rivers’s residency ended—starting with the Young Rascals, followed by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, who even played luncheon dates (wearing derbies for some reason). “Ciro’s was the catalyst, but Ciro’s couldn’t maintain the energy,” says Hillman. “So the energy went back to the Whisky and the Trip, because Elmer knew what he was doing.” The go-go dancers stayed, but their undulations became stranger. Roger McGuinn’s homemade 16-mm. psychedelic films were used as background projections during shows. (“I filmed Lava lamps and sloshing oil and stuff,” he says.) Valentine turned a blind eye to the dealers selling acid in the parking lot behind the club, while the Whisky’s new manager, an old Chicago acquaintance of Valentine’s named Mario Maglieri, kindheartedly looked after the mongrel kids who now littered the club’s doorstep, offering them friendly (if unheeded) anti-drug lectures and free bowls of soup. The Whisky reasserted its dominance. Not only did Valentine get prestigious U.K. acts like the Who, the Animals, the Kinks, and Them, he also instituted a policy of showcasing local bands in support slots and on the off nights when big-name acts weren’t available. The roster of bands who played in the Whisky’s “house band” slot—among them Love, Buffalo Springfield, and the Doors—is a testament to the wealth of great young talent milling around Los Angeles in the mid-1960s.
And why shouldn’t this have been the case? If the summer of 1965 proved anything to aspiring pop stars, it was that L.A. was the place to make it. The Byrds were already huge. Next up were Sonny and Cher, who had labored anonymously through the early 60s under Phil Spector’s wing—Sonny Bono as a minion, Cherilyn Sarkisian as a backup singer—before hitting it big in ’65 with “I Got You, Babe.” (Cher insists that she and Bono were a huge influence on the sartorial revolution taking place on the Strip. “The bobcat vests—we absolutely started it,” she says. “There was a guy on La Cienega, a boot-maker, and we saw the bobcat vest hanging outside his store on display, blowing around in the wind. I wanted it, but it didn’t fit me, so Sonny wore it.”) On the heels of Sonny and Cher came Barry McGuire, a New Christy Minstrel turned Dunhill Records solo artist, who went to No. 1 in late summer with his Lou Adler– produced debut single, “Eve of Destruction.” Two people paying particular attention to these rapid-fire developments were John and Michelle Phillips, a husband-and-wife folksinging team living in near destitution in New York City. “We were astonished that the Byrds got a record deal, let alone a hit,” says Michelle Phillips. “We thought, ‘If the Byrds can do it, anyone can.’” Through their sloggings on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse circuit, the Phillipses had gotten to know both the Byrds’ McGuinn and Barry McGuire, and couldn’t believe what they were missing out on; they would later capture this sense of yearning and envy in their 1967 song “Creeque Alley,” with its famous line “McGuinn and McGuire just gettin’ higher in L.A., you know where that’s at.”
“We arrived in L.A. at the end of the summer of ’65, and we were living with a friend, three blocks from the Whisky à Go Go,” says John Phillips. “Elmer was one of the first people we met. He let us in for free, let us stand in the back for a couple of sets. We were nobodies, and we had no bodies, we were so starved. Elmer just took a liking to us.” But it didn’t take long for the Phillipses, along with their singing partners, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty, to hit the same heights as their old Village friends. A month after their arrival in Los Angeles, they had a record deal with Dunhill—McGuire had brokered the introduction to Adler—and by May 1966 the Mamas and the Papas’ first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, was No. 1 in the country, with two Top 5 singles, “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday,” to its credit. Buffalo Springfield’s ascent was hatched under similarly informal circumstances. Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and company hadn’t even spent much time together as a band when Hillman caught on to them and asked Valentine to give them a tryout. “I remember Chris coming up to me, saying, ‘Listen, I got a band, I think they’re gonna be really big stars, would you put ’em in?’” Valentine says. “And it was the Buffalo Springfield! It just fell into my lap.”
Less remembered now but equally important then was the band Love. “We started playing the Whisky five nights a week, and we had crowds lined up around the block to get in,” writes Love’s enigmatic front man, Arthur Lee, from California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison, where he is 4 years into a 12-year sentence for illegal firearm possession. “Before Love started, they were thinking of closing because business was bad.... We helped keep the Whisky alive!” That’s stretching things, but certainly the group sustained the scene’s momentum, bridging the L.A.-pop divide between the optimistic Byrds and the sinister Doors. Lee, a handsome black mod with straightened hair and a tightfitting Carnaby Street–style wardrobe, was striking enough by himself, but his multiracial band’s ingenious fusion of wildly disparate styles—garage-punk, lounge music, English psychedelia, mariachi—is what made them a sensation. Their reputation for chaotic live shows didn’t hurt, either. “We had no stage presence,” the group’s guitarist, Bryan Maclean, recalled in an interview shortly before his death in 1998 (conducted by Des Barres for her own as-yet-unpublished memoir of the Whisky). “We would stop in mid-song, Arthur would say, ‘Your guitar is too loud, motherfucker!,’ and I’d run off in a huff. One time I ran offstage and into one of Elmer’s hoods.... He looked like a kneecapper to me—a sweet guy, but the real deal.... We were the Jerry Springer Show of the 60s.” (Lee’s drug use and hot temper are what have landed him in the clink. In 1995 he allegedly fired a gun into the air during a dispute with a neighbor, a charge he is appealing. With a drug offense already on his record, he opted to go to trial rather than cop a plea, and lost; hence the inordinately harsh prison term.)
As these bands got famous and the royalty checks began to come in, an L.A.-pop aristocracy began to take shape—the various members of these groups forsaking their squatty rentals near the Strip for roomy houses in Laurel Canyon, up in the hills above Crescent Heights. The de rigueur splurge for the newly minted male pop star was a Triumph motorcycle, which you’d use to bomb down the Canyon to your gig at the Whisky or the Trip. (Always taking Fountain Avenue, says John Densmore. The incongruously quiet street just a block south of Sunset was invariably traffic-free, whereas the Strip had become so crowded with tambourine rattlers as to be unnavigable.) And if you weren’t performing yourself that night, you’d settle into one of the tufted, comfy booths in the Whisky. “It was tough to get a booth,” says Adler. “There weren’t that many, and the place was packed to the walls.” The booths—“wonderful red Naugahyde, like a Mob restaurant,” says Hillman—offered a terrific vantage point for people-watching, both because they were a few feet higher than the dance floor and because they were near the entrance, so you could check out who was coming through the door. Adler, V.I.P. that he was, had his own booth, which he regularly occupied with John Phillips and Terry Melcher, occasionally augmented by Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliot, and Denny Doherty. Valentine held court in another booth with Steve McQueen, with whom he’d become best friends. Groupies such as Des Barres prided themselves on being invited into the booths of visiting Brits like Mick Jagger or Keith Moon.
The loose, ad hoc nature of the scene—the way nobodies could collide with somebodies and have their lives changed as a result—contributed to the general feeling of bonhomie and anything-is-possible. “There were no laminated passes, no boundaries, and you could be just a kid and walk up to Lou Adler, and he’d talk to you,” says Harvey Kubernik, a music producer and journalist who, as a teenager in the mid-60s, found it delightfully convenient that the Whisky was just “two hitchhikes up the Strip” from his school, Fairfax High. Gail Zappa remembers an incident in which she and a girlfriend found themselves being ticketed by a cop for jaywalking on the Strip, only to be rescued by two heroic young strangers who zoomed to the scene on motorcycles and spirited them away. “And it was Hillman and David Crosby,” she says. “My friend told me later that evening, ‘I’m gonna marry that guy,’ meaning Chris. And she did.”
An air of sexual possibility charged the room, too. “I was a creep, an ugly guy, and suddenly even creeps could get laid,” says Fowley. “For a pretty girl, going out with a creep was revenge against your parents. You’d find beautiful girls just lying in the street next to the gutter, sleeping under lice-covered blankets, and you’d take them home, clean them off, and you had a girlfriend for the night.” Virtually every man interviewed for this story marveled about the uncommon beauty and availability of the girls at the Whisky in the 60s, and offered words to the effect that “I never went home alone.” Valentine fondly recounts how Duane Allman remarked to him shortly before his death following a motorcycle crash, “Elmer, I’ll always come back here—you’ve got the best dope and pussy in this country!” He repeats Allman’s words with a disarming unfilthiness, like a resort owner pleased that a fat-cat visitor has written “Great golf! Will return soon!” in the guest book.
As for Valentine himself, he’d found his Nirvana; any remnants of Chicago toughness left in his makeup had been vaporized by the good vibes and the high-quality pot McQueen had turned him on to. “Elmer was a romantic, a guy who moved from the Midwest and loved California. He saw the Whisky à Go Go as this paradise,” says Fowley. “I ran into him once and he gave me this, like, five-minute chamber-of-commerce speech about how great we have it in Los Angeles.” But then, that’s how everyone felt. Even crazy Arthur Lee, whose lyrics tended toward the menacing and oblique, wrote an upbeat, relatively straightforward song called “Maybe the People Would Be the Times, Or Between Clark and Hilldale”—the Whisky’s block—which he today describes as “a panoramic picture of the Strip circa ’66–’67.” Thinking back on this scene now, Lee writes from his prison cell, “It’s like a psychedelic movie in technicolor!! That my mind rewinds and plays if I blink real hard. It’s an endless montage of beautiful people.”
The Doors were always different—never schmoozer-socialites in the John Phillips vein, nor folkies like the other bands had once been. As late as mid-1966, they were still considered something of a loser-outcast band, playing in a seedy dive next door to the Whisky called the London Fog, which came complete with indifferent drunken sailors and a B-grade go-go dancer. “Her name was Rhonda Lane, and she was a little, as the Japanese say, genki—meaning substantial,” says Ray Manzarek, the band’s keyboardist. Densmore remembers peering forlornly through the door of the Whisky—which he couldn’t afford to get into—and seeing Love playing to adulation. “I really wanted to be in Love—they were making it,” he says. “But I was in the demon Doors.”
But they got a break when Ronnie Haran, a young woman working as Valentine’s promotions director, sauntered into the London Fog one evening and liked what she saw. “She saw Jim, and that was it—she was smitten,” says Manzarek. “The arrows of Eros went flying and struck her directly in the heart.”
“That’s bullshit,” says Haran, who now goes by the name Ronnie Haran Mellen. “Jim was too rough-trade for me. I was smitten with the group. The poetry of the words—I’d never heard lyrics like that.”
Whatever the case, Haran Mellen confirms that she launched an all-out campaign to sway her boss. “Ronnie said, ‘You’ve gotta put this band in,’ and she told her friends to call and ask for the Doors,” says Valentine, who admits he was skeptical. “Well, I got so many goddamned calls, so I put them in. The 60s! I couldn’t go wrong. I didn’t have to know shit!” Actually, it wasn’t quite that smooth a trip to stardom for Morrison and company. Though their residency at the Whisky in the summer of 1966 afforded them a fantastic opportunity to workshop the now famous songs that would form their first album—songs such as “Break On Through,” “Light My Fire,” and “The End”—the flower-power kids didn’t always get Morrison’s Baudelaireisms or the band’s jazz-odyssey explorations. As Densmore says, “We were darker. We were not folk-rock. We would scare people.” And Morrison was even then a loose cannon, prone to scream unprompted “Fuck you, Elmer!” from the stage when drunk or otherwise chemically altered. Nevertheless, they became the toast of the Strip as the summer went on, their music proving to be particularly conducive to the Dionysian swaying of Vito’s dancers, whom Densmore admired for their ability “to Martha Graham-ize what they were hearing.”
One night, however, the Doors’ fierce experimentalism proved too much to bear even for the indulgent Valentine, and it finished them off as a Whisky band for good. A Doors set had traditionally ended, appropriately enough, with “The End.” “It had started off as a little two-and-a-half-minute love song, a good-bye to a girl: ‘This is the end, beautiful friend,’” says Manzarek. But through repeated improvisatory explorations at the London Fog and the Whisky, the song had grown into a 10-minutes-plus epic, a literal showstopper: Morrison would extemporize some Beat poetry, Densmore, Manzarek, and guitarist Robbie Krieger would noodle around experimentally on their instruments, and they’d bring it home for a big finish. On the night in question, though, it looked as though they wouldn’t even get to play “The End”: Morrison had failed to show up for work. The other three made do playing jazz and blues instrumentals, and would have done so for the second set had Phil Tanzini, still a presence at the club in ’66, not made plain that he was paying for a four-man band, and that the singer had better show up or else.
Manzarek, Krieger, and Densmore piled into Densmore’s Volkswagen bus and drove to the Tropicana, the Sandy Koufax–owned motel where Morrison happened to be living at the time. They found him in his room, “eyes blazing, wearing underwear and cowboy boots,” says Manzarek—totally gone on acid. Hastily, they dressed him, packed him into the van, and drove back to the Whisky. “He seemed to revive in the dressing room,” says Manzarek. “He had a beer and went back to normal. But his eyes still had that strange LSD blazing intensity about them.”
Just three songs into the set, Morrison called for “The End”—way prematurely, since they had about 40 minutes of performance time left. But the band obeyed and kicked in. As usual, they played a few verses before transitioning into the improvisatory section, where the instruments undulated in a raga style, leaving space for Morrison to freestyle on top. The musicians vamped and vamped, waited and waited ... until Morrison finally spoke up. “The killer awoke before dawn,” he said. “He put his boots on ... He took a face from the ancient gallery, and he walked on down the hallway ... ” It was the lead-up to the famous Oedipal climax that everyone now knows from the recorded version of “The End.” But that night in 1966, no one had ever heard it before—including the other three Doors.
Morrison’s recitation was so mesmerizingly bizarre that the room fell silent—even the ambient nightclub hum was extinguished. The band continued to vamp quietly, perplexedly, as Morrison got to the part where he says, “‘Father?’ ‘Yes, son?’ ‘I want to kill you.’”
“At that point, I realized, My God, he’s doing Oedipus Rex!” says Manzarek. “And then I thought, My God, I know what’s coming next!”
Sure enough, Morrison, after a dramatic pause, came forth with “Mother ... I want to FUCKYOUMAMAALLNIGHTLONGYEAAHHHH!”
The band instinctively erupted into a cacophonous frenzy, and the audience broke out in furious free-form dance—proto-moshing. The crowd, evidently, had loved it. But to the old-fashioned, Runyonesque fellas in Valentine’s crew, this was way, way outta line. An appalled, disbelieving Maglieri summoned Tanzini as the drama unfolded to witness the scene for himself. After the show, says Manzarek, “Phil Tanzini came running up the stairs [to the dressing room] saying, ‘You filthy motherfuckers! You guys have the dirtiest fuckin’ mouths I’ve ever heard in my life! Morrison, you can’t say that about your mother—“Mother, I want to fuck you.” What kind of pervert are you? You guys are all sick with that crazy, loud music! You’re fuckin’ fired!” Tanzini had already called Valentine, who was at home, and reported, “You got this fuckin’ Jim Morrison singing a song about fucking his mother! What are you gonna do?” Valentine responded, “Pull him off the stage and break his fuckin’ legs!”
“I was serious!” says Valentine. “I was a redneck ex-policeman from Chicago! Catholic boy. Fuck your mother? That’s the worst thing I could ever ... ” The Doors were allowed to finish out the week, but were then sent packing. Though they would become only more famous in the following year as their debut album came out, they never played the Whisky again.
Ironically, though, Valentine and Morrison subsequently struck up an intimate friendship. As the fame got to Morrison and he began to self-destruct, he used Valentine’s house as a hideaway when he felt like shirking his responsibilities. “He had four or five guys like me, people he’d hide out with,” says Valentine. “He couldn’t handle being that big. Remember how he got arrested in Miami for indecent exposure? He was up here in the house one night, and he said, ‘Would you like to hear what really happened? You don’t know what it’s like to be a pop star. They think I have a 12-inch dick. I wanted to show that I have a little one’—and he did have a small dick—‘so that they’ll leave me alone.’” In 1969, by which time Morrison was an alcohol-bloated mess alienated from the rest of the band, Valentine tried to get the singer into acting—his buddy McQueen was involved in the production of a picture called Adam at 6 A.M., about a young college professor, and maybe Morrison could star in it. He persuaded Morrison to cut his hair and shave the beard he’d grown, the better to impress McQueen’s co-producers at a lunch meeting, but it was to no avail. Michael Douglas got the part.
The same summer of the Doors’ residency, the police and the local merchants on Sunset Boulevard grew increasingly alarmed by the throngs of young folk on the Strip. The NO CRUISING ZONE policy took effect, and Sheriff Peter Pitchess’s force bore down on the clubs, enforcing curfews and rounding up kids into paddy wagons. (“‘Vagrancy’—that’s what everybody got busted for,” says Gail Zappa.) The city’s sudden announcement that it needed to demolish Pandora’s Box in order to widen the road at the Crescent Heights–Sunset intersection seemed spurious to the smarting longhairs, and thus began a series of demonstrations characterized in the national press as the “riots on Sunset Strip.”
“Sonny and I were right in the middle of it,” says Cher. “We were in a huge protest when they tore down Pandora’s Box.” Adler insists that the events of that summer and fall were “nothing more than a major crowd that was controllable,” but Des Barres remembers that a bus got overturned, and Valentine, Sonny, Cher, and David Crosby all lent their names to an advocacy organization called CAFF (Community Action for Facts and Freedom). The so-called riots also inspired Stephen Stills to write Buffalo Springfield’s most famous song, “For What It’s Worth” (“There’s battle lines being drawn / And nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”), and Hollywood to make the tut-tutting teensploitation flick Riot on Sunset Strip, featuring a truly awful title track by the also-ran Strip band the Standells (“Long hair seems to be the main attraction / But the heat is causin’ all the action”).
More consequentially, the Whisky’s dance license was revoked by the city of Los Angeles. “Because they felt if the kids couldn’t dance they wouldn’t come in. It’s like cutting my legs off,” says Valentine. He successfully sued to get his license back, and counterpunched with a scheme of his own. As Gail Zappa tells it, “Elmer decided, ‘O.K., I’m only gonna book black acts.’ Which, by the way, were extremely popular. But overnight the Strip was black. The merchants really got nervous then. And Elmer thought it was a great joke.”
“It’s fuckin’ true!” says Valentine of Zappa’s recollection. “It was out of spite, but also because I loved the music.” Indeed, it was no skin off Valentine’s back to “go black.” He was close to Otis Redding and loved Motown acts such as the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye, and was already booking them into the Trip anyway. But the merchants, mindful of the Watts riots of ’65, found throngs of Negroes even scarier than throngs of white longhairs. The point was made, and a more integrated booking policy resumed at the Whisky.
The intimacy of the scene started to come undone in 1967, a victim of the L.A. groups’ success—bands were touring rather than hanging around the Whisky, and as their wealth grew greater, some of the musicians left tight-knit Laurel Canyon for ritzier neighborhoods. (John and Michelle Phillips, for example, bought Jeanette MacDonald’s old house in Bel Air.) Compounding matters was the Monterey Pop festival, held in June of that year. Organized primarily by Adler and John Phillips, the festival brought together the L.A. groups, San Francisco acts such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, British bands such as the Who and the Animals, plus Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar, among others. The massive exposure the festival provided to its performers, and the presence of contract-brandishing record-company executives from the East Coast, marked Monterey as the moment when rock music grew up and became a business. “Monterey completely turned the music industry around,” says Adler. “The groups all got better contracts. The record companies that were aware of what was happening all of a sudden became bigger. You know, Clive Davis started signing groups.”
David Crosby’s virtual defection from the Byrds to Buffalo Springfield at Monterey—he played with Springfield for most of their set—was symbolic of the death of jingle-jangle Strip pop, and indicative of where rock music was headed. Soon he and Springfield’s Stills would team up with Graham Nash to form the first big-money supergroup (which would occasionally be augmented by Neil Young), and the loose, hangin’-at-the-Whisky days would take on a cast of juvenile naïveté. “If I had to, I’d blame it all on David Crosby,” says Melcher, only semi-facetiously. “He broke up the Byrds and joined Buffalo Springfield, and broke them up. And then formed C.S.N. I’d have to say that, personally speaking, Crosby was worse for the good feelings of [L.A.] rock ’n’ roll than Manson was.”
There’s a devilish glint in Melcher’s eye as he says this, for his name is inextricably linked to Charles Manson’s—it was his house on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon that Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, were renting in 1969, and it was there that Manson’s “family” murdered Tate, hairdresser-to-the-stars Jay Sebring, and three others on August 9 of that year. Manson, sprung from prison in 1967 after having run a prostitution ring, was an aspiring rock singer who had managed to insinuate himself into the L.A. music community, befriending the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. He’s generally remembered more as a desert presence and a Malibu presence than a Strip presence, but Mario Maglieri recalls a late-60s incident in which he fielded a desperate daytime call from his secretary at the Whisky, who reported that a menacing punk had installed himself in one of the booths. “I came in from my house in Canoga Park,” says Maglieri. “He was sitting in the booth, writing—whatever he was writing. I said, ‘What are you doing here? We’re closed. You can’t be there.’ He looked at me and says, ‘I can have you killed.’ And I fuckin’ grabbed him. Threw him out. Threw him out the fuckin’ door.... I shoulda strangled that son of a bitch.” The interloper was, of course, Manson.
The news of Tate’s and Sebring’s gruesome deaths was chilling enough to people in Hollywood—Valentine was friends with both, and Adler was an investor in Sebring’s salon—but the subsequent implication of bearded, longhaired Charlie Manson and his similarly styled acolytes was especially disturbing. “It changed the tenor of the scene a lot,” says Melcher. “Because they looked like all the other runaway kids on the Strip. So there was an obvious loss of trust.” As it turned out, the lead killer of the bunch, Charles “Tex” Watson, was a regular patron of the Whisky, a wide-eyed college dropout from Texas who cruised the Strip in his yellow 1959 Thunderbird convertible. “I went there often,” writes Watson, now a born-again Christian, from his cell in a California prison. “It was so laid back in those days that you could go by in the afternoon when they were not even open, walk in the door, and watch a practice. One afternoon, I recall, the Fifth Dimension was practicing. My friend and I were welcomed to watch.” It was one of his Strip adventures, Watson says, that led to his “family” induction: “I picked up Dennis Wilson hitchhiking on Sunset, took him home, and he introduced me to Manson. I did what a lot of kids did, dropped out of society, so to speak.... [Manson’s] philosophy took over my mind as the drugs made me gullible to his influence. Pretty soon, his drugged, crazed philosophy became mine, although I did not totally understand it.”
Valentine insists that business at the Whisky never suffered in the aftermath of the Manson murders—the street-level kids who just wanted to hear music “didn’t care about that shit,” he says—but the paranoia wrought by the killings was the final nail in the coffin of a cohesive L.A.-pop nightclubbing brigade. “That was it—that’s when our innocence was shattered,” says Michelle Phillips, who took to carrying a loaded gun in her purse. “The social fabric was completely torn by the murders.” Before Manson was implicated, says John Phillips, “Roman Polanski suspected me. And I suspected him.” (The hard drugs that Phillips and his friends had gotten into didn’t exactly help in tamping down the paranoia.) Polanski even went so far as to hold a cleaver to Phillips’s neck and demand, “Did you kill Sharon? Did you?” Melcher, for his part, had to weather the charge that he was in some way responsible for the deaths, since he hadn’t signed Manson to Columbia and was therefore the murderers’ target that night—a charge that miffs him to this day. “I should probably put the record straight,” he says. “The Manson family knew I did not live in my house. They knew I’d been living in Malibu for a year.”
Even with the old in-crowd staying away, the Whisky lost little of its luster in the late 60s, remaining the premier venue for any band passing through Los Angeles—Valentine recalls with particular fondness Led Zeppelin’s 1969 engagement, “five straight nights with Alice Cooper as the opening act.” But as the decade turned and rock spread to ballrooms, arenas, and stadiums, the Whisky did begin to struggle. And when Valentine changed strategy in the early 70s, briefly turning the club into a legit theater and cabaret, the glorious heyday of L.A. pop was emphatically over.
There’s no tragic, gutter-ball ending to this story, no vacant, weedy lot where the Whisky once stood. The place is still there and still turns a profit, and has enjoyed two significant renaissances as a scene nexus since its original run: first in the late 70s, when L.A. punk blossomed with such bands as X, the Germs, the Dils, the Weirdos, and Black Flag, and then in the 80s, when spandex metal took hold with Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses. Today, the Whisky is in the hands of Maglieri and his son Mikeal, to whom Valentine sold out just a year ago, as did Adler, who’d bought into the club in 1978. Valentine and Adler still own the Roxy, a larger club farther west on the Strip that they opened in 1973; and Valentine and Maglieri, despite a falling-out, are still partners (along with Adler) in the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the dark, beery-smelling rock ’n’ roll pub up the block from the Roxy.
Sitting at a café table outside the Rainbow, where the spirit of 80s metal rocks on—the walls are covered with candid snapshots of David Lee Roth, Pamela Anderson, and members of Poison—Mario Maglieri puffs on a cigar and talks about how good life has been to him. “The Whisky used to be a Bank of America,” he says, smiling. “It’s still a Bank of America. Generates a lot of money.” Maglieri is, above all else, a businessman. As he holds forth, talking about “Ozzy” and “Blackie from W.A.S.P.” as warmly as he does about Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, you’re happy for his success, but there’s no escaping a feeling of lost magnitude, of cultural fizzle. “As far as crossing the lines of music and culture and social, it was those early years,” says Adler. “Up until ’68—those were the really great years of the Whisky.”
The Whisky today, he says, is “pretty much a space that acts are booked into. Other than the name, which remains, it doesn’t really have a personality.” The booths and cages are gone. Right now, the club gets a lot of the angry-white-boy bands currently in vogue—Slipknot, Papa Roach, Corrosion of Conformity—and, like a lot of places on the Strip, does a percentage of its business as a “pay to play” venue, where aspiring bands actually put up money to stage a concert.
Valentine could easily play the crank, blathering on about how it’s not how it was, but that’s not his nature. He asserts his belief that, above all, fortune smiled upon him. When he was a child, he says, a teacher said to him, “Elmer Valentine, when you grow up, they’re gonna send you to the electric chair!” Even his beloved mother, when he announced his intention to leave Chicago for California, responded, “You’re going to California? No, you’re going to 26th and California—the county jail!”
So the way he sees it, he’s come out way ahead. “It was easy,” he reiterates. “You know why it was easy? How the fuck could anyone miss? Being on Sunset Boulevard in the 60s! I’m not being humble. Fuckin’ idiots that I had for competition!”
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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The Sarasota police had no idea what they had on their hands—no idea that they’d arrested a celebrity, and no idea that they’d supplied this decade with its little Archduke Ferdinand moment, a flash point from which all manner of Sturm and Drang would ensue. They were just doing their job: a vice-squad sweep of the triple-X South Trail Cinema, where, had you bought a ticket and walked in on July 26, 1991, you would have taken in a bill of Nurse Nancy, Turn Up the Heat, and Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark. The cops apprehended four suspects that day, all on the usual charge: indecent exposure, i.e., masturbating in public. Among those arrested was a 38-year-old male with long, lank hair and a goatee. He identified himself as Paul Reubens. As he sat in the back of a squad car, one of his cop captors turned the name over in his mind. Paul Reubens. Damned if it didn’t sound…familiar.
OH, PEE-WEE! —New York Post, front page, July 30, 1991
And so the fun began. Pee-wee Herman’s offense, if he was even guilty of it, was not so much newsworthy as irresistibly reportable: freak kiddie-TV star in porn-wank shocker. It was a victimless crime, a misdemeanor, not even close to Fatty Arbuckle territory, and it was hardly the first big tabloid story of the 1990s—the year before, Marion Barry had been busted for smoking crack, and Donald and Ivana had split over Marla. But something about the Pee-wee situation was new: the immediate Topic A–ness of his arrest, the countrywide mirth at his humiliation, the play the story got in proportion to its significance, the phony undercurrent of parental concern, the veritable carnival the whole thing mushroomed into. With Saddam Hussein vanquished, Pee-wee was the story of mid-1991. For the balance of the summer, there was no getting away from him—no getting away from those baleful mug shots, which made Reubens look like a John Cazale greaseball in an old Sydney Lumet caper, and no end to the jokes, headlines, updates, and dewy child psychologists who’d been enlisted by news organizations to counsel parents on how to help their kids cope with the “crisis.” It was, in retrospect, the beginning.
It was also an ending, in that Reubens, unlike later disgraced celebrities of the 90s such as Hugh Grant, Marv Albert, George Michael, and President Clinton, never attempted a rapid-response, stage-managed display of contrition. Instead, he withdrew from the public eye and refused to talk about what had happened to him. His publicist released a statement that read, in part, “Paul, who is emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation, is currently in seclusion with friends.” He was embarrassed by the situation; he secluded himself. To this day, Reubens maintains an extremely low profile and has never directly commented on the matter. [DK Note: A year or so after this piece ran, he finally did talk about his arrest, to Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy.] He was the last celebrity to be shamed into exile.
After Pee-wee, things snowballed. The Clarence Thomas hearings took place that autumn, presaging the Starr Report in their public airing of humiliating sexual details about a high-ranking government official (Long Dong Silver, “Who has put public hair on my Coke?”). Then, in December, came the William Kennedy Smith trial, memorable for its pantsless-Teddy allegations and the big blue dot over Patricia Bowman’s face. The following three years, 1992 through 1994, were particularly fertile, offering up the Mondo Trasho trilogy of low-life extravaganzas—Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly—along with Gennifer Flowers, the Menendez trials, Heidi Fleiss, Rodney King, Woody versus Mia, Michael Jackson’s child accuser, the Branch Davidian inferno, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Finally, mid-decade, came the culmination, the story that these stories were building up to: the O.J. Simpson epic, whose protractedness, unseemliness, and sheer heft posited it as a grand finale to a particularly lurid chapter in American history.
But even O.J. turned out to be just another stop along the way; the decade kept topping itself. If it wasn’t enough to witness the vertiginous convergence of two separate thriller narratives—the murder of Gianni Versace and the joyride of “gay serial killer” Andrew Cunanan—then how about the car-crash death of Princess Diana, the world’s most famous woman, or the intimate details of the extramarital sex life of the president of the United States? To say nothing of Susan Smith, Louise Woodward, JonBenét Ramsey, Colin Ferguson, Dick Morris, Richard Jewell, Anna Nicole Smith, Mike Tyson’s ear-biting incident, Joe Kennedy’s ex-wife’s tell-all, Michael Kennedy’s alleged affair with his kids’ under-age babysitter, Michael Kennedy’s abrupt ski-football death, the Heaven’s Gate cult, the non-Monica Clinton scandals (Paula Jones, Vince Foster, Webb Hubbell, the McDougals), and anything to do with Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Plus all the genuine news stories that had sensationalist dimensions to them, such as the L.A. riots, the Unabomber case, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the impeachment-eve blitz of Iraq.
The tabloidification of American life—of the news, of the culture, yea, of human behavior—is such a sweeping phenomenon that it can’t be dismissed as merely a jokey footnote to the history of the 1990s. Rather, it’s the very hallmark of our times; if the decade must have a name—and it must, since decade-naming has become a required public exercise in the second half of the 20th century—it might as well be the Tabloid Decade. Each of the four decades preceding the 90s has found its identity in some crystallizing event or upheaval, some moment that gave the times their meaning. For the conformist 50s, it was the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings; for the revolutionary/countercultural 60s, it was John F. Kennedy’s assassination; for the jaded, cynical 70s (also known as the Me Decade), it was Richard Nixon’s resignation; for the go-go 80s, it was the economic boom that followed the ’83 recession; and for the 90s, God help us, it was the O.J. saga, a prolonged Hollywood Babylon spectacle that confirmed the prevailing national interest in sex, death, celebrity, and televised car chases.
Hence, the Tabloid Decade: the years when America reveled, as Matt Drudge likes to say, in “going where the stink is.” Virtually nothing and no one has been left unaffected by tabloid’s sweep, whether it’s The New York Times running the word “fuck” in its pages for the first time (last September 12, as part of the Tripp-tapes transcripts) or Bob Dole, the decent, four-square man who’d be running this country right now if people still cared about moral values, goddamnit, appearing on Larry King Live to extol the restorative powers of Viagra. It’s as if the Fates chose to wind down the century with one of those frenetic John Waters–movie endings where everyone emerges more trashy and libertine—grandmas frugging, golf-shirted dads embracing rough trade, scowly diesel dykes finding their smiles—only without the warmth and uplift.
“I see the parallels,” says Waters, whose first feature was actually called Mondo Trasho, “but ultimately I don’t think anyone describes tabloid as joyous or hopeful, as my movies are.” Waters knows whereof he speaks, being a longtime subscriber to the big three of the supermarkets, the National Enquirer, the Star, and the Globe, whose editorial policies he characterizes, respectively, as “We hate you because you’re famous,” “We hate you because you’re on TV,” and “We hate you because you’re famous and have sex.” One thing he notices is that these papers seem, for the first time, outflanked. “My sense,” he says, “is that they hate the Monica story, because they’ve been robbed of it. They feel gypped. It should be theirs, and it’s everyone’s.” Indeed, Newsweek reported in October that over the first six months of 1998—the first half of Year Monica—all three tabloids suffered precipitous declines in circulation: 18.8 percent for the Enquirer, 14.4 percent for the Star, and 18.9 percent for the Globe. Meanwhile, two-and-a-half-year-old 24-hour news channel MSNBC, now know colloquially as the “Monica network,” discovered its editorial identity.
At this point there’s no knowing whether the Tabloid Decade has reached its conclusion—if, much as people argue that the 60s began with J.F.K.’s assassination and ended with, say, the Tate-LaBianca murders, we can argue that the “true” 90s are bracketed by Pee-wee’s arrest and Ken Starr’s great document dump. Certainly it would make for a nice symmetry: from tremulous newspaper reportage of a comic’s masturbating in a movie house to lawyerly, federally funded reportage of the president’s masturbating in the office of Nancy Hernreich, his appointments secretary. But who can be sure? On one hand, the revulsion with which the public greeted the Clinton-Lewinsky-Tripp files suggests that the jig may be up, that maybe we’re all Drudged out and wish a return to the quiet refuge of Jim Lehrer. On the other hand, virtually no one would be surprised, given this decade’s track record, if one or two more mega-shock narratives unfolded before the year 2000: a suicide in the Oval Office, perhaps, or a murder involving stars huger than O.J. Simpson (Demi shoots Bruce, Letterman garrotes Leno, Warren offs Jack). If the 90s have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is beyond imagination anymore.
The most astounding facet of the Tabloid Decade is how wholly unanticipated it was. At the close of the previous decade there was a loose consensus that the 1990s were going to be a “reaction” to the 1980s, which is to say a reaction against materialism, mergermania, and crassness—a sort of new, sanitized 1960s where one-worldism and spirituality would reign, minus the hard drugs and free love. “There’s a lot of pent-up idealism around,” said Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in 1989. “I believe the nineteen-nineties will be much like the nineteen-thirties and the nineteen-sixties.” The professional trend spotter Faith Popcorn hawked a similar line, describing a coming “cleanup decade” when “the sins of the ’80s” would be redeemed by a “consciousness that changes from me to thee.” And Peggy Noonan, channeling her ideas through George Bush, spoke of a “kinder, gentler nation” in which “a new breeze [was] blowing.” For a brief moment, these forecasts seemed to be accurate: the Eastern Bloc crumbled, kids started growing their hair long again, tie-dye and Day-Glo were the prevalent fashion motifs, Václav Havel had Frank Zappa to tea, Nelson Mandela was a free man, and Ivan Boesky and Mike Milken were in lockup. It was a fortunate time to be alive, “right here, right now,” as the 1991 hit by the pop group Jesus Jones went, “watching the world wake up from history.”
But while the 1990s would see significant strides in tastes and values in America’s private life—the rediscovery of the nuclear-family ideal, the moral worth of volunteerism, the muted palettes of Prada and latter-day Banana Republic—America’s public life was something else altogether. In a nutshell: Oh, Pee-wee!
“From a thousand adjectives which fairly clamor for a chance to describe the Great American Mentality, there immediately stands forth one adjective in which our epoch finds its perfect portrait…in which the U.S.A. shimmers in all the unmitigated splendor of its great-and-only-ness. This adjective is: infantile. By no circumstance the least important, and certainly the most obvious, example of the strictly infantile essence of America’s all-conquering mentality greets our eyes daily…in the guise of the tabloid newspaper.” The words are E.E. Cummings’s, and they appeared in this very magazine—in 1926.
Any discussion of tabloid America inevitably summons assuaging arguments that it has always been thus, that a century ago Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were tripping over each other to get the scoop on headless-body stomach turners such as the gruesome Guldensuppe murder of 1897, compared with which Amy ’n’ Joey looks like an NBC white paper. And there’s no denying that the 1950s scandal rag Confidential, a precursor to today’s supermarket tabs, was far nastier than anything on the newsstands or airwaves now. To cite just one example, here’s an excerpt from a 1955 Confidential piece that not only outed the weepy pop crooner Johnny Ray as a pervy swish, but also recounted an incident in which Ray, nude, drunk, and wandering the corridors of London’s Dorchester hotel, knocked on the door or a neighboring guest’s room and propositioned the guest, who turned out to be the movie star Paul Douglas:
He’d been in the big-time show business long enough to know that Douglas was strictly for girls. But Ray was determined to be convinced the hard way. Lunging inside the room he made a determined grab for Douglas. An instant thereafter, the guy who made crying a business had the best reason in years for weeping. There were a couple of resounding smacks, as a strong hand met bare flesh and Ray came flying out of 417 to land in a heap in the corridor… All over London there were hundreds of thousands of sleeping bobby-soxers who wouldn’t have believed their eyes had they witnessed the incident. For two weeks they’d mobbed The Weeper during his record-breaking engagement at the Palladium. Their idol…the tenor with a million tears…making a pass at a man? Never!...
But this story needs to be seen in context. Confidential, in its heyday, had a circulation of three million, more than that of the Enquirer today, but its content was almost never amplified elsewhere. You didn’t get mainstream-media overlap unless a story was unignorably huge, such as the Lana Turner–Johnny Stompanato case in which Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, confessed to killing Stompanato, her mother’s boyfriend. Similarly, the city tabloids and broadsheets led a segregated coexistence, the latter doing whatever they could to avoid entering the turf of the former.
The novelist James Ellroy says that when he was researching his seventh book, The Black Dahlia, about the notorious 1947 Los Angeles murder case of that name, he discovered that “the story was never on the front page of the L.A. Times. It was all inside, in the ‘Metro’ section. They kept it in there for three weeks, and they would’ve shitcanned it sooner were it not for the [tabloid] Herald, which was all over the case and selling papers like crazy.”
Ellroy’s most recent novel happens to be called American Tabloid. He says he chose this title, “because the book is about the most outré, scandalous, scabrous aspects of the time it’s set in,” the late 1950s and early 1960s. The aspects he’s talking about are precisely the kind of juicy stuff that was respectfully ignored by the upscale media: the inner workings of the Kennedy-C.I.A.-Mob triangle—the boozing, doping, whacking, whoring, and quid pro quo that went on. “Jack Kennedy had the benefit of coming along in the pre-public-accountability America,” Ellroy says. “The time of the well-heeled press—as in ‘Heel, dog!’”
Cut to the present, and American tabloid has outpaced American Tabloid; so, for that matter, has American broadsheet. Ellroy says he couldn’t pull off a similar takeout on our current epoch, because everything’s already on the table: the backroom deals, the blow jobs, the sleazoid flunkies who do the big shots’ bidding.
“I would argue that at this point I would eliminate ‘tabloid’ from our vocabulary—it doesn’t mean anything anymore,” says John Terenzio, who was executive producer of the pioneering tabloid-TV program A Current Affair in the early 90s. “I was the one who put Gennifer Flowers on TV to tell her story. Now I turn on Good Morning America and the Today show, and there she is—Gennifer Flowers!”
What set the 1990s apart from any previous yellow-tinged epoch are two factors: advanced technology and increased vulgarity. It’s the dance between these factors, the downloadable and the down-and-dirty, that has led to the Tabloid Decade’s particularly explicit brand of tabloidism. That has enabled us to learn not only that the president was a philanderer but also that he inserted a cigar into the vagina of a young lady named Monica S. Lewinsky; not only to discover that Prince Charles had an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles but also to hear a recording of him stating his wish to be her tampon; not only to read reports that John Wayne Bobbitt had his penis sliced off but also to click here to see the reattached member.
As the Tabloid Decade dawned, the telecommunications was in the throes of an androstenedione growth spurt: from 8 cable-TV channels in 1978 to 78 in 1988. (By April 1998 there would be 171 such channels.) On the horizon were the Internet, with its tendrils that would extend all over the world, and satellite-subscription services such as EchoStar and DirecTV, which would allow viewers to receive as many as 500 channels in their homes. At the same time, the vulgarization of the United States was accelerating. A general coarsening trend had been afoot since the 1960s, the era of the sexual revolution and the rise to predominance of the youth culture, but it wasn’t until the late 80s that the process went into overdrive and got scary. Much of this was attributable to the sudden vogue for reactionary inflammateurs such as Morton Downey Jr., Andrew Dice Clay, and Rush Limbaugh. But the decidedly unconservative Geraldo Rivera was as guilty as anyone; his chaos-TV scrums, like Downey’s, alerted television producers to the commercial possibilities of rage, paranoia, and confrontation. In the same period, that inveterate Australian tabloidist Rupert Murdoch, lord of the Sydney Daily Mirror and the London Sun, decided to become a television mogul. He launched the Fox Network in 1986, and staked out its territory by aiming lower than the Big Three networks ever had, with flatulent sitcoms such as Married…with Children and ass-kicking “reality” shows such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted.
This combination—more media outlets and more vulgarity—created a harsh, logorrheic early-1990s landscape where the competition for television viewers, not to mention newspaper readers and radio listeners, was unprecedentedly fierce. Even the old-line outfits lowered themselves, resorting to gimmickry, increased entertainment coverage, and cheap tricks to hold on to their audience. New Yorkers got an early jolt of this phenomenon in 1990, when the veteran WNBC-TV anchorman Chuck Scarborough, long revered in the city as an institution and pillar of probity, teased the 11-o’clock news during a broadcast of L.A. Law by stating that a “star” of that program was dead by his own hand. Scarborough didn’t name the star, and viewers were left to watch the remainder of L.A. Law wondering which of the actors before them—Susan Dey? Harry Hamlin? Jimmy Smits?—was no longer alive. WNBC continued to tease the dead-actor report right through to the end of its newscast, only to reveal in the final minutes that the deceased was not a “star” of the program but David Rappaport, a midget actor who had appeared in a few episodes as an attorney who defends a tavern’s right to hold dwarf-tossing competitions.
Here began the “blurring of distinctions” that would be much lamented by whither-civilization moralists such as Frank Rich for years to come: distinctions between news and entertainment, between gossip and reporting, between tabloid news and “straight” news. The New York Times, Rich’s employer, was as caught up in the mess as any other organization. Shortly after the William Kennedy Smith story broke in the spring of 1991, the Times ran an article that named Kennedy’s alleged rape victim, Patricia Bowman, and quoted a former acquaintance of hers as saying Bowman “had a little wild streak.” The NBC Nightly News had already identified Bowman on the air, but the Times was the first major print organ to do so, astonishing and appalling the rest of the journalistic firmament, which did not follow the paper’s lead. The Bowman episode was all the more eyebrow-raising in that it came just two weeks after another Times controversy: the paper’s publication, and executive editor Max Frankel’s subsequent repudiation, of Maureen Dowd’s front-page preview of Kitty Kelley’s new Nancy Reagan biography, which breezily aired Kelley’s assertions that the First Lady had carried on a long-term affair with Frank Sinatra. But these experiences proved to be mere growing pains in the Tabloid Decade’s development. In a matter of months Pee-wee would come along, Jerry Springer would be on the air, and the lamenters would be outnumbered by the hooked and inured.
“I remember vividly the stupid ice-skater story,” says Oliver Stone. “I’d been away in Thailand making Heaven & Earth, and I came back, watched some TV news, and was shocked by the volume and aggression. Buttafuoco and the penis lady had already happened, but they were still around, too. Natural Born Killers was a response to that.”
Stone’s Natural Born Killers is to the 1990s what his Wall Street is to the 1980s: a heavy-handed but nevertheless astute encapsulation of the era in which it was made. It’s a bloody, hallucinogenic road movie about young white-trash lovers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) who embark on a murderous cross-country rampage and in the process become electronic-age folk heroes—Bonnie and Clyde through a Fox-network filter. The jump cuts and stylized violence make for queasy viewing, but then, so did much of what was on television in 1994, the year of the film’s release. That year was probably the peak of the tabloid-TV era, with the Mondo Trasho trilogy still going strong, the Menendezes unavoidable, and the O.J. saga just under way. In many broadcast markets, the prized “access” slots between the evening news and prime time were given over to syndicated tab shows such as A Current Affair, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition. Harrelson and Lewis’s most ardent tabloid-TV suitor, played by Robert Downey, Jr., was modeled on A Current Affair’s star reporter, the barmy Australian Steve Dunleavy.
Tabloid TV had been invented in 1986 by a man named Peter Brennan, like Dunleavy an Australian and longtime lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch’s. (Together, the three men had started up the Star in the early 1970s.) For his fledgling Fox network, Murdoch wanted a saucier brand of newsmagazine that the old-line networks were offering with 20/20 and 60 Minutes. Brennan obliged with A Current Affair, which was tabloid rethought audiovisually: Hollywood exposés, gratuitous T&A stories, and raw true-crime tales, all enhanced by re-enactments, jumpy camera work, and incriminating mood music (a synthesizer apparently fixed permanently on the “ominous didgeridoo” setting). The format was a nearly instant success, delivering decent ratings at low costs—virtues especially valued in the fragmented new world of multichannel America. Soon enough, A Current Affair had imitators (including Hard Copy, another Brennan start-up), and not long after that, the networks and local-news shows began to pay unsubtle tribute, duplicating the tab shows’ subject matter and borrowing their methodology, as when ABC’s 20/20 used a handheld camera to re-create Lorena Bobbitt’s feverish flight from her home.
The tabloid sensibility’s infiltration of television had a profound impact. For most of this century, tabloid had been exclusively the preserve of print, and mostly an urban phenomenon, tailored for the rough-and-tumble working class of the cities. It had also been an active choice: you went down to the newsstand and decided if you wanted to read the salty Mirror or the staid Times. But suddenly tabloid was suburbanized, ubiquitous, and passively received—not a smudgy read on the subway ride home, but something that “more or less comes with the house, like running water or electricity,” as the novelist Thomas Mallon wrote in GQ.
The consequences of this change were particularly palpable in the first half of the Tabloid Decade, when the common goal of the media seemed to be to demonstrate how far they could take a story of negligible news import (whereas the goal of the decade’s second half has been to see how low they can take a story of genuine news import, namely, the independent counsel’s investigation). In a not-much-earlier time, the sagas of Amy Fisher and Lorena Bobbitt would have been evanescent little news blips, minor stories. Even the O.J. case, though undeniably sensational, was, stripped to its news core, relatively small-time: has-been celebrity involved in domestic homicide. (Fatty Arbuckle, by contrast, was at the peak of his fame when he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman with a Coke bottle, and Lana Turner had just come off her Oscar-nominated performance in Peyton Place when her daughter stabbed Johnny Stompanato to death.) But with the aid of tabloid TV and its parade of paid interviewees, each of these stories became its own cottage industry, with a near-eternal shelf life. “Amy Fisher, to me, was huge, second only to O.J.,” says John Terenzio, who became executive producer of A Current Affair in 1991. “When a story has that kind of legs—inspiring not one but three TV movies—it’s something special. You have to stay with it. To use a trite expression, it had all the elements.”
(It must be said that the allure of the Mondo Trasho stories was further enhanced by a kind of onomatopoeic serendipity: it was helpful that the lecherous auto mechanic was named Buttafuoco, the eunuched ex-Marine was named John Wayne Bobbitt, and the idiot ex-husband was named Gillooly, just as it had been helpful in the 50s that Turner’s murdered playboy-hoodlum boyfriend was named, of all things, Johnny Stompanato.)
The constant presence of cameras and reporters and checkbooks produced another effect: the media-savviness and theatricality of each new story’s participants, who correctly sensed that they were now entertainers, not merely figures in the news. Whereas Pee-wee Herman, a bona fide celebrity, had been shamed into seclusion by scandal, the new scandals were notable for creating celebrities—Joey Buttafuoco moved to L.A. to take up acting, Bobbitt became a porn-movie curiosity, and Harding attempted a career as a singer.
In this kind of environment, it became grimly inevitable that Natural Born Killers, intended by Stone as satire—“a Swiftian/Voltarian caricature of our worst nightmare,” as he wrote in the film’s production notes—would instead be mistaken for a Tabloid Decade how-to manual. The film, a bigger hit on video that in theaters, was name-checked by several youthful suspects picked up on murder charges in the mid-90s.
Though the consequences were seldom this extreme, the celebrity dividend undoubtedly added new timber to the Tabloid Decade bonfire, in that it legitimized and rewarded atrocious behavior, which in turn encouraged average Americans to act more like the tabloid characters they saw on TV. By the mid-90s, any minimum-wager with exhibitionistic tendencies could be a tabloid curiosity for a day, if not on Geraldo, then certainly on one of the other human-cockfight talk shows that were proliferating at the time: Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Richard Bey, Charles Perez, Ricki Lake, Carnie, Leeza, Rolanda, Real Personal, The Gordon Elliott Show, The Maury Povich Show, The Montel Williams Show, The Jane Whitney Show. It was a mass recapitulation of Roseanne Barr Pentland Arnold Thomas’s dream gone sour: one moment you’re the exhilarating voice of the too-long-voiceless hoi polloi, the next you’re a mortifying freak show, hooked on attention and compulsively revealing too much about yourself. (Roseanne, a key Tabloid Decade figure, has a keen self-awareness of her tabloidiness. Promoting her new daytime program last fall, she told Harper’s Bazaar, “I am the person most qualified to host a talk show: I have five kids from three different marriages; I come from a trailer park; my sister and brother are both gay; I have multiple personalities; and the National Enquirer reunited me with my daughter, who I had given up for adoption.” That she and Geraldo are both trying to reinvent themselves as classier, more contemplative TV personalities is another sign that the Tabloid Decade’s days may be numbered.)
It wasn’t just white-trash schemers who were hoping for the celebrity dividend, either. If anything, the attorneys and advisers and assorted opportunists who attached themselves to the Tabloid Decade’s major figures were, collectively, a far more toxic presence. Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Kato Kaelin, Paula Barbieri, Leslie Abramson, William Ginsburg, Susan Carpenter-McMillan—no one would shed a tear if the ocean rose up and claimed them. Even Fred Goldman seemed an ignoble figure, trying to parlay his newfound gift for public speaking into a talk-radio job, a far less honorable response to tragedy than Representative Carolyn McCarthy’s in similar circumstances.
Compounding the press and the citizenry’s rush into depravity was the rise of a generation that, rather than getting angry at or repulsed by what was transpiring before it, merely became amused. To America’s Watergate babies—those irony-armored folks in their 20s and 30s, people who have never had to endure a generational hardship like a depression or a major war—the Tabloid Decade has been little more than a colossal joke, a series of occasions to slum inuredly through the muck of humanity. (An entire television program, the E! channel’s Talk Soup, has thrived on this premise.) There has indeed been a death of outrage, and though that phrase’s author, William Bennett, uses his coinage to his usual biased, blowhard ends, he makes a good point when he argues, “Defenders of both Richard Nixon and of Bill Clinton forget that the cost of raising the threshold of moral outrage is paid out over generations—and with compound interest. How much of the political cynicism that today says ‘they all do it’ can be laid at the feet of actions committed twenty-five years ago during the Watergate scandal?”
While tabloid TV’s heyday was relatively short-lived—A Current Affair is now off the air and Hard Copy and Inside Edition are buried in obscure time slots—its influence lives on in every local newscast, every network newscast, every breakfast program, all five Datelines, all three 20/20s, and both 60 Minuteses. Likewise, every broadsheet in America is palpably more tabloidlike in content than it used to be. The “blurring of distinctions” has really been more of an engulfment, since the influence has gone in just one direction: not only have the major news organizations appropriated tabloid techniques, but they’ve also placed a greater emphasis on tabloid material at the expense of genuine hard news; a new JonBenét development trumps a Hague war-crimes tribunal every time. (Or, to use a nonhypothetical example, a sex scandal trumps a Papal visit to Cuba every time.)
These changes have as much to do with financial pressures as they do with a shift in sensibility. “It goes back to Larry Tisch making the news division for-profit when he owned CBS,” says Oliver Stone. “And when The New York Times had Tonya Harding on the front page for, like, five or six days in a row. Obviously they were chasing money, too—going after the story to keep up with everyone else.” (This would appear to be dicey territory for Stone, since he himself has been accused of being a headline-hunting sensationalist—first with films such as JFK and The Doors, and more recently with Oliver Stone’s Declassified, a spiked ABC special that was to have credulously entertained the theory that land-launched missiles cause the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800. Stone argues simply that he’s not a journalist but a filmmaker, who uses his craft to raise questions—to “do the onion skin, to peel it away to examine what is really reality.”)
John Terenzio, though a tenured Murdochian who now runs Fox’s Sports News division, doesn’t totally disagree with Stone’s point about for-profit news. He got his professional start working for ABC News in what he calls “the Roone Arledge golden years, ’79 to ’89,” and characterizes that operation as having been “almost philanthropic” in its mission. “Network news divisions could take losses, and it was O.K.,” he says. “I grant you, it is sad that there have been cutbacks in CBS’s documentary unit, and there is a need for more of that kind of reportage, but maybe ABC and CBS simply aren’t the place for it anymore. Maybe the place is somewhere else, like this wonderful new world of cable TV.”
In other words, if it’s serious new you’re in the mood for, you should tune in to the Serious News Channel—you know, right up there in the 120s on your dial, between the Outlet Mall Network and the Lottery Channel (both of which really exist). Much has been made of the liberating effects of the media glut, how the 24-hour news cycle and the vast new assortment of channels and Web sites have enabled us to assemble our own newscasts and thereby be better informed than ever. The problem is, so far this hasn’t been true. The proliferation of media outlets has instead led to mind-muddle, an infotainment surplus, and ridiculously excessive Beltway Kremlinology—for 10 months, MSNBC had a program called The White House in Crisis, on nightly at 11, just like Seinfeld reruns. All the while, the average consumer is drawn still further away from Cronkite-ian hard news.
The distractions are many. Calvin Trillin has expounded at length on the plague of “Sabbath gasbags,” the public-affairs-show pundits who have invested themselves so heavily in the Lewinsky story that they are compelled to perpetuate it beyond its natural dimensions. Trillin is wrong in just one respect: the “Sabbath” part is irrelevant. Thanks to CNBC, MSNBC, CNNfn, and all the other consonant clusters with which our broadcasting conglomerates have sought to spread their influence, the gasbag biz is a 24-7 operation; the notion of a punditocracy that restricts its work to the Sabbath became anachronistic around 1995, the year of the O.J. Simpson trial.
Even nontabloid media outlets contribute to the morass. Court TV, whose July 1991 launch coincided rather suspiciously with the spiritual beginning of the Tabloid Decade, is a good example. Its founder, Steven Brill, now the media-kvetch editor of Brill’s Content, argues that the channel has been an oasis of solemnity in a cacophonous environment, and that televising trials has generally had a de-sensationalizing effect. “Without the cameras,” he says, “the William Kennedy Smith trial would’ve been the story of how a rich guy bought justice. But the cameras showed he won the case legitimately.” A fair point, but by the same token, the national televising of the Menendez trials is what boosted a routine Hollywood potboiler into a national obsession, and turned Lyle, Erik, and Leslie Abramson into vivid, three-dimensional characters who would one day be played by bad actors in a TV movie. Similarly, it’s doubtful, had cameras not been present, that Marcia Clark would have gotten her Allure-style makeover, and transformed herself into a TV gasbag, filling in for Geraldo on his CNBC program. To which Brill says, raising another pertinent Tabloid Decade point, “Don’t blame Court TV. Blame the news standards that put Marcia Clark on TV. She’s on TV because she lost the case that most people on the planet would say was the easiest case to win in history. She’s on TV simply because she’s famous, and this is a decade that worships fame itself, regardless of what you’re famous for.”
The Internet, meanwhile, has this far functioned less as the ultimate informational tool that as a clearinghouse for gossip: the coup de grace of the Tabloid Decade. Rumor and innuendo are no longer spread orally but electronically—meaning, in effect, that every shaky, spurious half-truth put forth by some troublemaker somewhere can now gain instant credence by being circulated worldwide, in writing. The Internet has created the possibility for every citizen with a computer to become a one-man tabloid; Matt Drudge is only the most dogged and famous example.
The Net has further contributed to the decade’s tabloid tenor by fanning paranoia and conspiracy fever. To visit its various news sites is to enter a free-for-all of relativism where there is no truth, only the “so-called-truth.” When Drudge was profiled by Brill’s Content, he explained that he includes links to the A.P. and U.P.I. in his Web site so that “the average Joe can get the fill picture—see what newspaper and broadcast editors are leaving out. That’s going to change everything because we don’t have to wait for Dan Rather to get his makeup on and read to us.” While there is undeniably a bit of politics and fairy dust to the way the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather determines its lineup, or to the way The Washington Post chooses what will run on its front page, few people ever ascribed anything sinister to these processes until relatively recently. This signals another undercurrent of the Tabloid Decade—if not a mainstreaming of paranoia, then at least an amplification of paranoia, a means through which paranoiacs can link up and make one another even more paranoid. Who ever worried that Walter Cronkite had an agenda?
The MTV folks made no bones about why they were seating Laetitia Thompson front and center in the studio audience: she was young, blonde, attractive, and female. It was April 19, 1994, and Thompson, a 17-year-old junior at Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, was one of the lucky kids who’d been selected to spend the day at the Kalorama Studios in Washington, D.C., at which Bill Clinton was fulfilling his 1992 campaign promise to reappear on MTV as president. There had been a run-through of the program the night before with the producers “trying to figure out the theatricality of the whole thing,” Thompson, now a senior at Princeton University, recalls.
The premise of Clinton’s appearance was a youth forum on crime entitled Enough Is Enough, and the audience members, mostly high-school and college students, were supposed to ask worthy questions about school violence, gangs, drugs, and gun control. But MTV wanted to end the program with a lightning round of short, sharp questions intended to elicit quickie answers from the president and leaven the mood a bit. So when Thompson’s turn came at the run-through, where Clinton was not present, she tossed off the silliest inquiry she could think of: “Mr. President, the world’s dying to know: Is it boxers or briefs?” The line got a big laugh. It was given clearance to be redeployed.
Amazingly, Clinton answered the question the next day. He blushed, but he answered: “Usually briefs. [Audience laughter.] I can’t believe she did that.” It was one of the defining Tabloid Decade moments: a teenager (a) feeling that it was perfectly appropriate and not at all disrespectful to ask the president of the United States about his underwear preference, and (b) getting a response. Today, however, Thompson feels that, in light of 1998’s events, “probably it was not such a good idea for American society for him to answer the question.”
Time magazine’s Lance Morrow has suggested that Clinton should have replied, “Well, I have been accused of not having a sufficiently dignified approach, so maybe I’d better not answer that.” But, of course, Bill Clinton had to answer. It’s in his nature three times over, a function of his eagerness to please, his boomer aversion to seeming square, and his Astroturf-in-the-back-of-the-El-Camino swinginess. Which brings up an important point: for all the ways in which Clinton has been genuinely victimized by an unprecedentedly large and tabloidified American press corps, he happens to have been a tabloid character to begin with. He’s lived his life by his rogue mama’s credo, articulated so memorably in her brilliant autobiography, Leading with My Heart: “Too many people seem to think life is the tablecloth, instead of the messy feast that’s spread out on it…. That’s not life. Done right, life leaves stains.”
In all likelihood, the occupant of the White House from 1993 to 1997 would have been the most raked-over president ever no matter who he was; the media beast, engorged and inflamed, was ready to tee off. It’s not inconceivable that even Bush, had he won a second term, would have endured a new wave of zealous press and Internet inquiries into his alleged infidelities. (Dirt digging is not solely a right-wing pursuit: the San Francisco–based online magazine Salon has lately forged a rather more Australian path, dredging up Henry Hyde’s long-ago extramarital affair.) But it was providential that the person who did end up president of the 90s was the most hittable piñata possible, overstuffed with scandal stories and moral conflicts and undiscovered half-siblings and risible P.C. turns of phrase. Bill Clinton was fate’s gift to the Tabloid Decade: the Karmic convergence of individual and Zeitgeist.
“Tabloid” is not an inherently pejorative word, and in some respects the Tabloid Decade has been a great ride; you’d have to be a humorless prig not to enjoy the goofier revelations of the Starr Report, or the gossip columns of the revivified New York Post, which revels in its villainy with the wicked élan of Joan Crawford in The Women. But cumulatively the Tabloid Decade has been a downer: a meal of potato chips, a guilty pleasure that’s been overindulged in and now leaves the stomach sour. It’s not just the sheer pervasiveness of the tabloid sensibility, but also what the 1990s have done to it. James Ellroy, writing about his Chandleresque 1950s parents in My Dark Places, refers to them as “a great-looking cheap couple.” Alas, there’s no such thing today—your cheap couples are overfed, surly, and sweat-suited. The gabardines have been replaced by polyesters, the fedoras by ball caps, the saloons by “gentlemen’s clubs,” the Jilly Rizzos by Bobby Kardashians, the Judy Campbells by Monica Lewinskys, the Louis Primas by Michael Boltons, the long Weegee shadows by the klieg-light glare of Jerry Springer’s studio. The Tabloid Decade has sucked the noir romance right out of tabloid. “You had a sense of living in a morally constrained time—‘you want it but you can’t have it.’ It was tremendously seductive,” says Ellroy. “But it’s all explicit today, not implicit. Everything has a name now.”
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 (perhaps the situation in Russia, currently doing its best imitation of the Weimar Republic) is going to rear up and demand our penance for ignoring it. Let’s just hope the ending isn’t too heavy. Lively as the Tabloid Decade has been, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if it uncharacteristically just dribbled out, bereft of new material.
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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With that ringing directorial endorsement, the four-hour epic Cleopatra unspooled before the public for the first time. It was a crack-up to Carson and company because poor Parks was evidently the only man in town willing to keep up appearances, to pretend that the world had trained its cameras on the Cleopatra premiere because it heralded the arrival of a spectacular new filmed entertainment in Todd-AO with color by DeLuxe. The truth was that everyone had come to see the train wreck. Everyone knew that Cleopatra was an extraordinarily botched production that had cost $44 million—an unheard-of sum for 1963 which was all the more astounding considering that Hollywood’s previous all-time budget record setter, Ben-Hur, had only four years earlier cost a mere $15 million, chariot race and all. Everyone knew that Cleopatra had nearly gutted the studio that made it, Twentieth Century Fox. Everyone knew that it had taken two directors, two separate casts, two Fox regimes, and two and a half years of stop-start filmmaking in England, Italy, Egypt, and Spain to get the damned thing done.
Above all, everyone knew that Cleopatra had given the world “Liz and Dick,” the adulterous pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, irresistibly cast as Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Never before had celebrity scandal pushed so far into global consciousness, with Taylor-Burton pre-empting John Glenn’s orbiting of the Earth on tabloid front pages, denunciations being sounded on the Senate floor, and even the Vatican newspaper publishing an “open letter” that excoriated Taylor for “erotic vagrancy.” When she signed on for the role, Taylor had already been four times a bride, once a widow, and once a purported home wrecker, but it was during the making of Cleopatra that she truly transcended the label of mere “movie star” and became, once and for all, Elizabeth Taylor, the protagonist in a still-running extra-vocational melodrama of star-crossed romance, exquisite jewelry, and periodic emergency hospitalizations.
“It was probably the most chaotic time of my life. That hasn’t changed,” says Taylor, who has seldom discussed the Cleopatra experience publicly. “What with le scandale, the Vatican banning me, people making threats on my life, falling madly in love ... It was fun and it was dark—oceans of tears, but some good times too.”
For old Hollywood, Cleopatra represented the moment when the jig was up. No longer would anyone buy the studio system’s sanitized, pre-packaged lives of the stars, nor would the stars and their agents bow in obeisance to the aging moguls who’d founded the place. It was the moment when every schnook on the street became an industry insider, fluent in Varietyese, up to speed on Liz’s “deal” ($1 million against 10 percent of the gross), aware that a given film was x million dollars overbudget and needed to earn back y million dollars just to break even. Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Waterworld—the modern narrative of the “troubled production” began here, though none of these films would come close to matching Cleopatra for sheer anarchy, overreach, and bad Karma. Here, too, originated the mixed-blessing concept of “the most expensive movie ever made”: in strict economic terms, Cleopatra still holds the title. Last year Variety estimated Cleopatra’s cost in 1997 dollars to be $300 million, a full $100 million more than Titanic’s. Even if you perform a straightforward consumer-price-index conversion of the $44 million figure, Cleopatra’s adjusted-for-inflation budget comes out at $231 million.
Mankiewicz called Cleopatra “the toughest three pictures I ever made,” and his epitaph for the film—that it was “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in confusion, and wound up in a blind panic”—is one of filmdom’s most famous quotes. Even now the movie’s survivors talk of its making almost as if they’re discussing a paranormal experience. “There was a certain ... madness to it all,” says Hume Cronyn, who played Sosigenes, Cleopatra’s scholarly adviser. “It wasn’t anything as clear as ‘Richard Burton is moving out on his wife, Elizabeth is leaving Eddie Fisher.’ It was much more complicated, more levels than that.... Paparazzi in the trees.... We were weeks behind.... Hanky-panky going on in this corner and that.... There were wheels within wheels within wheels. God, it was a messy situation.”
Although it ended up turning a small profit and winning modest critical acclaim, Cleopatra had grim aftereffects on many of its principals. Mankiewicz would never again attain the brilliance and prolificacy of his late-40s-to-late-50s peak, during which he pulled off the still-unmatched feat of winning four Oscars in two years: for writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). “Cleopatra affected him the rest of his life,” says his widow, Rosemary, who worked as his assistant on the film. “It made him more sensitive to the other blows that would come along.” Mankiewicz would make only three more features, concluding with the minor gem Sleuth in 1972, and then spend his final 21 years disillusioned and idle, “finding reasons not to work,” in the words of his son Tom.
Taylor and Burton, in Cleopatra’s aftermath, would marry each other twice, make one good movie together, Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and otherwise fritter away their acting careers on a series of blowsy, drink-sodden exhibitions of international jet-set filmmaking: The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, The Taming of the Shrew, Dr. Faustus, The Comedians, Boom!, Divorce His, Divorce Hers.
As for the film’s producer, the 68-year-old legend Walter Wanger, he would never make another movie. He had meant for Cleopatra to be a happy culmination of a distinguished career that had begun in 1921, when he persuaded Paramount to put Rudolph Valentino in
And where on this magical night at the Rivoli were the two people everyone wanted to see, Taylor and Burton? In England, where Burton was filming Becket. “We’d just had it with Cleopatra by then,” says Taylor. “The whole thing. It was years of my life.” A few weeks later, however, Taylor reluctantly hosted a London screening of the film. She dutifully sat through the picture, mortified by the memories it evoked and the butchery, as she perceived it, of Mankiewicz’s vision. Immediately afterward, she hurried back to the Dorchester Hotel, where she was staying—and threw up.
An Inauspicious Beginning: New York, Los Angeles, 1958–59
“He would never have pulled the plug on >Cleopatra. That would have been like giving up a child.”
—Stephanie Guest, daughter of Walter Wanger
Everyone in the movie business loved Walter Wanger—he spoke well, was Dartmouth-educated, wore Savile Row suits, and was reliably couth and hail-fellow-well-met, the antithesis of the shouters who ran things.
Wanger had wanted to do a Cleopatra picture for years. There had been others—a 1917 silent version with Theda Bara; the opulent Cecil B. DeMille version of 1934, featuring Claudette Colbert; and, in 1946, a soporific British adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. But Wanger hoped to surpass them all with an intelligent treatment and a star in the lead who was, in his words, “the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength.” He found his ideal Queen of the Nile in 1951, when he saw Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun.
But that year Wanger was not in the best position to do a deal. After a couple of decades as one of Hollywood’s more successful independent producers, responsible for such films as Queen Christina, with Greta Garbo, and John Ford’s Stagecoach, he’d fallen upon a hitless period, the ignominy of which was compounded by the discovery that his wife, the actress Joan Bennett, was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang of MCA. On December 13, 1951, in an act that froze Hollywood in disbelief, Wanger staked out Bennett and Lang in the MCA parking lot, pulled out a pistol, and shot Lang in the groin. That Wanger got off as lightly as he did—serving only a four-month sentence at a Southern California “honor farm” in mid-1952—was in large part a testament to how well liked he was: Samuel Goldwyn, Harry and Jack Warner, Walt Disney, and Darryl Zanuck contributed to his legal fund.
By 1958, Wanger’s comeback was in full swing (he had recently produced Don Siegel’s thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, for which Susan Hayward would win the 1959 Academy Award for best actress), and his thoughts returned to his dream project. On September 30 he took his first meeting about Cleopatra with Spyros Skouras, then the president of Twentieth Century Fox. Skouras, a snow-haired contemporary of Wanger’s, was amenable, but he envisioned something more modest than what Wanger had in mind. During their meeting, Skouras had a secretary excavate the ancient script for the soundless 1917 Cleopatra—produced by the Fox Film Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox’s progenitor—and said, “All this needs is a little rewriting. Just give me this over again and we’ll make a lot of money.”
Fox was not a well-run operation in the late 50s. All the studios were suffering from the rise of television and the court-ordered dissolution of the studio system, but Skouras and company were having a particularly rough time of it—an internal report published in 1962 reported a four-year loss of about $61 million. “We were the only people who could put John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe in movies and not have them do any business,” says Jack Brodsky, a Fox publicist during the Cleopatra years.
One reason for Fox’s weak programming was the departure in 1956 of its founder and resident genius-dynamo, chief of production Darryl Zanuck, who, burned out after 23 years on the job, quit to become an independent producer. Zanuck’s replacement was Buddy Adler, who had produced From Here to Eternity and Love Is a Many Splendored Thing but proved to be an ineffectual executive. As long as Zanuck had been in place, the New York–based Skouras, a Greek immigrant who’d worked his way up from owning a single movie theater in St. Louis, had kept his distance from Los Angeles and the filmmaking process. With Adler, however, Skouras felt no such inhibitions, and began to meddle heavily.
Skouras was no creative genius, but he had made one important strategic move that temporarily “saved” the industry from television—namely, he kicked off the wide-screen era by making The Robe, a 1953 biblical epic starring Richard Burton, with the studio’s new CinemaScope technology. That film’s success ($17 million gross on a budget of $5 million) made Skouras a hero in Hollywood, and soon every studio was rushing out mastodonic sand-swept period epics in rival wide-screen processes such as WarnerScope, TechniScope, and VistaVision.
But by the time Wanger was trying to get Cleopatra off the ground, the bloom of CinemaScope had withered. The budget-minded Adler envisioned a modest back-lot picture, costing perhaps a million dollars or two, starring a Fox contract player such as Joan Collins, Joanne Woodward, or Suzy Parker. Wanger continued to argue his case for Taylor, whom Skouras didn’t want, because “she’ll be too much trouble.”
On June 19, 1959, Wanger received his first preliminary operating budget for Cleopatra: 64 days’ shooting at a cost of $2,955,700, exclusive of cast and director salaries—expensive by melodrama standards, but a piddling amount for an epic. The decade had seen one record-setting mega-production after another, starting with Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951, $7 million) and continuing on with Richard Fleischer’s Jules Verne fantasy, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, $9 million), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956, $13 million), and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959, $15 million).
By late summer, a reputable British writer named Nigel Balchin had been hired to put together a script, a $5 million budget was deemed acceptable, and the names of Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Susan Hayward were being discussed for the title role. On September 1, Wanger made his first formal overture to Taylor, who was in London filming Suddenly Last Summer with Joseph Mankiewicz. Over the telephone, she demanded—half-jokingly, she would later say—a million dollars, something no actress had ever been paid for one movie.
Finally, on October 15 Fox staged a photo opportunity at which Taylor pretended to sign her million-dollar contract. The wire services sent out the photo to newspapers across the country, and now Wanger’s idea was the world’s: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
Getting Nowhere: New York, Los Angeles, London, 1959–60
“Gentlemen: You are wasting money on Liz Taylor. Nobody wants to see her after the way she treated that sweet little Debbie Reynolds. Everyone loves Debbie. She is what the teenagers call a doll. Ginger Rogers is still popular, but Liz is not liked anymore. I heard a group of teenagers talking about Liz. They said, ‘She is a stinker.’ They’re right.”
—Letter sent to Buddy Adler and Walter Wanger by a woman in Beaumont, California, October 1959
It is the wisdom of those who consider themselves experts on the subject that Mike Todd, the producer-showman behind Around the World in 80 Days, was “the love of Elizabeth Taylor’s life.” But less than six months after Todd died in a plane crash outside Albuquerque in March 1958—leaving the 26-year-old Taylor alone with an infant daughter, Liza, and the two sons she’d had with her second husband, Michael Wilding—she was seen stepping out with her late husband’s friend and protégé, Eddie Fisher. Fisher, a pompadoured, haimish 30-year-old pop idol, was famous for his shrewdly publicized union with Debbie Reynolds; together they had two children and were known as “America’s sweethearts.” But by the time Taylor and Fisher married in Las Vegas in May of 1959, the public goodwill both had built up had evaporated, and they were the target of constant moral dudgeon and tabloid surveillance.
Skouras’s intuition that Taylor would be “trouble” wasn’t entirely unfounded, in that she had a predisposition toward illness, and alarmed moralists. Then again, she had soldiered on through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the film she was in the midst of making when Todd died, fulfilled her obligation to Butterfield 8, the last film she owed to MGM under her contract there, and delivered a first-rate performance in Suddenly Last Summer.
Reaching over Wanger’s head, Skouras tapped an old friend, Rouben Mamoulian, to be Cleopatra’s director. The 61-year-old Mamoulian was a gifted visualist, was accustomed to policing large groups of people, and had directed the original Broadway productions of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Carousel, as well as the films Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Becky Sharp, and Silk Stockings. But he had a reputation for being temperamental, and his filmmaking skills were rusty—apart from Silk Stockings, from 1957, he had made only one movie in the last 17 years. The screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath), whom Fox had hired to write additional dialogue for Balchin’s screenplay, was skeptical. “I bet Walter Wanger that [Mamoulian] would never go to bat,” Johnson wrote to his friend Groucho Marx. “All he wants to do is ‘prepare.’ A hell of a preparer. Tests, wardrobe, hair, toenails.... [But] if you make him start this picture, he will never forgive you to his dying day. This chap is a natural born martyr.”
Late in 1959, the Fox hierarchy committed its first howler of a mistake: deciding, despite obvious meteorological evidence to the contrary, that England was an ideal place to shoot a sunbaked Egyptian-Roman epic. The decision was money-driven—the British government offered generous subsidies to foreign productions that employed a certain percentage of British crew.
Adler died of cancer the following July. His death created even more of a power vacuum at the studio, but the movie’s chief detractor at Fox was out of the way. On July 28, 1960, Taylor finally signed a real contract. The film was to be shot not in CinemaScope but in Todd-AO, a rival wide-screen process developed by Mike Todd, which meant that Taylor, as Todd’s beneficiary, would receive additional royalties. It was announced that Peter Finch would play Caesar and that Stephen Boyd, Charlton Heston’s co-star in Ben-Hur, would play Antony. At the Pinewood Studios, located just outside London, John DeCuir, one of the best art directors in the business, began construction on a gorgeous, $600,000 Alexandria set covering 20 acres, featuring palm trees flown in from Los Angeles and four 52-foot-high sphinxes.
Right from the start, Mamoulian’s Cleopatra was a farce. The first day of shooting, September 28, saw two work stoppages by the movie’s British hairdressers, who took issue with the presence of Taylor’s specially imported American stylist, Sidney Guilaroff. Only after several weeks of negotiation by Wanger was a fragile truce arranged—Guilaroff would style Taylor at her double penthouse suite in the Dorchester, but would not set foot in Pinewood.
Not that Taylor’s presence at Pinewood ever became much of an issue. She called in sick on the third day of shooting, saying she had a cold. The cold grew into a lingering fever, and for the next few weeks she remained ensconced in her suite—attended by her husband and several doctors, including Lord Evans, Queen Elizabeth’s physician.
Physically and spiritually, the Eddie Fishers were not a healthy couple at the time. Fisher missed the singing career he’d largely forsaken for Taylor, and knew the $150,000 he was being paid by Fox for vague junior-producer duties was really for being Taylor’s professional minder. Furthermore, he was strung out on methamphetamine, having gotten hooked in his grueling touring days on “pep” shots administered by Max Jacobson, the notorious “Dr. Feelgood” who provided similar services to John F. Kennedy.
Taylor was in a continual funk because of her ill health, residual grief over the death of Mike Todd, the grim English weather, and the correct intuition that she’d lent her star power to a doomed, disorganized production. In response, she took to drinking and taking painkillers and sedatives. “She could take an enormous amount of drugs,” Fisher told Brad Geagley, a senior producer at Walt Disney, in an unpublished 1991 interview for a never completed book concerning Cleopatra. “She’s written up in medical journals somewhere—that’s what she’s always told me, and I believe her.” (Fisher declined to be interviewed for this story, on the grounds that he wants to save his “explosive, blockbuster stuff” for a memoir he’s working on.)
While Taylor spent the autumn shuttling between the Dorchester and the London Clinic, where she was variously diagnosed with a virus, an abscessed tooth, and a bacterial infection known as Malta fever, Mamoulian was having his own troubles. Balchin’s script remained unsatisfactory to him, and in the rare moments when the sky was clear, the illusion of Egypt was nevertheless shattered by the steam visibly emanating from the actors’ and horses’ mouths.
Production ground to a halt on November 18, when there was simply no more Mamoulian could do without Taylor and an improved script. The plan was for shooting to resume in January, by which time Taylor would presumably be well and Nunnally Johnson would have finished another script polish.
Back in New York, Skouras sent a copy of the current shooting script to Joseph Mankiewicz, who had made his two Oscar-winning pictures for Fox, and asked the director for a frank critique. Mankiewicz was merciless: “Cleopatra, as written, is a strange, frustrating mixture of an American soap-opera virgin and an hysterical Slavic vamp of the type Nazimova used to play ... ”
On January 18, 1961, with production resumed but still moving at a glacial pace, Mamoulian, bitter and frustrated, cabled his resignation to Skouras. He left behind about 10 minutes of footage, none of it featuring Taylor, and a loss of $7 million.
A Near-Death Experience: London, 1960–61
“I began to look at my life, and I saw a tough situation. In the hospital all the time—I mean, I became a nurse. I was giving her injections of Demerol. I didn’t want the doctors to come. I felt sorry for the doctors. I did it for two nights, and whooo-ee.... After two nights I said, ‘This is crazy.’ I actually faked appendicitis to get away.”
—Eddie Fisher, recalling the winter of 1960–61
A couple days after Skouras accepted Mamoulian’s resignation, a desperate voice broke through the static on Hume Cronyn’s telephone in the Bahamas, where he owned a remote island with his wife, Jessica Tandy. “Hume?” said the voice. “Where the hell is Joe?”
It was Charles Feldman, Joe Mankiewicz’s Hollywood agent. Mankiewicz was staying with the Cronyns, preparing the screenplay for Justine, his planned follow-up to Suddenly Last Summer. Feldman told Mankiewicz that Skouras was offering the moon for him to rescue Cleopatra. The director was skeptical, but that didn’t stop him from flying immediately to New York to meet Skouras for lunch at the Colony.
“Spyros,” he said, “why would I want to make Cleopatra? I wouldn’t even go see Cleopatra.”
Indeed, gifted as he was, Mankiewicz seemed the last person qualified (or inclined) to helm a big-budget spectacle. “His movies were dialogue-based and staged like plays, like All About Eve, where most of the action, where there is action, is people coming down stairs or going in and out of doors,” says Chris Mankiewicz, the director’s older son, who took time off from college to work on Cleopatra. Skouras recognized, however, that the elder Mankiewicz was a great writer and skilled diva-wrangler, having finessed the egos of Taylor and Katharine Hepburn on Suddenly Last Summer, and Bette Davis on All About Eve.
Mankiewicz consented to take over the project when Skouras made an offer he couldn’t refuse: Fox would not only place him on salary, but also pay $3 million for Figaro, the production company he co-owned with NBC. For a 51-year-old man whose glorious career had never quite made him rich, the prospect of overnight millionairedom was irresistible. “He was seduced by the opportunity,” says Chris Mankiewicz. “He never saw a penny from All About Eve. Now, for once in his life, they were all coming to him. All of a sudden you’ve got the ‘Fuck you’ money.”
Cleopatra seemed, for a flicker of a moment, to be in good, sane hands. Mankiewicz, citing as his inspirations Shaw, Shakespeare, and Plutarch, set about creating a totally new script for the movie. He enlisted two writers to help him, the novelist Lawrence Durrell (whose Alexandria Quartet was the basis for Mankiewicz’s Justine script) and the screenwriter Sidney Buchman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Wanger, elated by Mankiewicz’s “modern, psychiatrically rooted concept of the film,” thought he was at last getting the upscale Cleopatra he’d dreamed of.
Alas, this period of promise was when Taylor suffered what probably still qualifies as her nearest near-death experience. Late in February she returned to London from a vacation on the Continent with what her doctors described as “Asian flu,” caught while rushing back to attend to her suddenly “appendicitis”-stricken husband. By March, the Asian flu, or whatever it was, had complicated itself into double pneumonia, and Taylor was sedated and prone in an oxygen tent in the Dorchester. On the night of March 4, 1961, she fell comatose. She was rushed once again to the London Clinic, Fisher at her side screaming, “Let her alone! Let her alone!,” as paparazzi leaned in to get photographs of her unconscious. The diligence of the Fleet Street press ensured that within hours an international deathwatch was in place, some papers already reporting that Taylor was dead.
“I was pronounced dead four times,” says Taylor. “Once I didn’t breathe for five minutes, which must be a record.” Doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy to alleviate congestion in her bronchial passages. The operation saved her life, and by the end of the month she was back home with Fisher in Los Angeles, convalescing. Several months later she underwent plastic surgery to conceal the incision mark at the base of her throat, but it wasn’t successful; the scar is visible in the finished film.
Calamitous as the whole episode was, it produced two seemingly serendipitous effects. First, it bought Mankiewicz six months to get his Cleopatra together while Taylor recovered. Second, Taylor’s public image was overnight transformed from home-wrecking pariah to heartstring-pulling survivor; the London Clinic received truckloads of flowers and sympathetic fan mail, even a get-well telegram from Debbie Reynolds. “I had the chance to read my own obituaries,” says Taylor. “They were the best reviews I’d ever gotten.” During her convalescence, she collected a sympathy best-actress Oscar for Butterfield 8, a movie she hated.
Mankiewicz decided to junk Mamoulian’s footage and reconstruct the movie from scratch—only Taylor, Wanger, and John DeCuir, the art director, would carry over to the new incarnation of Cleopatra. To replace Finch and Boyd, Mankiewicz pursued Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, the latter of whom had played Mark Antony in the director’s 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But neither actor was available, so Mankiewicz set his sights on Rex Harrison, whom he had directed in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Richard Burton, then starring on Broadway in Camelot.
Skouras hated both choices. Harrison, he said, had never made a profitable movie for Fox, and Burton “doesn’t mean a thing at the box office.” Indeed, Burton, the 36-year-old product of a dirt-poor Welsh mining family, was perceived in Hollywood to be a great stage actor whose film career had never really taken off. But grudgingly, after strenuous lobbying from Mankiewicz, Skouras gave in. Fox bought out the remainder of Burton’s Camelot contract for $50,000, signed the actor for $250,000, and got Harrison for $200,000.
If you had to peg one of Cleopatra’s two male stars as a potential troublemaker on the set, it would be Harrison; Wanger later expressed surprise that he had turned out to be “the good boy.” Described by several of his surviving castmates as “the Cunt,” Harrison was known for being tetchy, difficult, and condescending. Burton, by contrast, was a charmer, adored by his peers for his erudition, basso speaking voice, Welsh-barroom raconteurship, and sexual magnetism. Though notorious for his philandering—he had romanced such co-stars as Claire Bloom, Jean Simmons, and Susan Strasberg, and had shown up at his first meeting with Wanger, at New York’s ‘21’ Club, with a Copacabana dancer on his arm—he invariably returned to his wife, the dignified, mumsie-looking Sybil Burton.
One of the few people who remained oblivious to Burton’s charms, in fact, was Elizabeth Taylor. She had met him years before Cleopatra at a party at Stewart Granger’s house, back when she was a contract player at MGM. “He flirted like mad with me, with everyone, with any girl who was even remotely pretty,” she says. “I just thought, ‘Ohhh, boy—I’m not gonna become a notch on his belt.’”
“England All Over Again”: Rome, 1961
“It appears that the responsibility for increased costs in connection with the production falls into four categories, namely
No effort was made at this time to review the first category, due to the danger involved.”
—Excerpt from a report prepared by Nathan Frankel, C.P.A., who was retained by Twentieth Century Fox in 1962 to determine how the studio’s money was being spent on Cleopatra
The second go-round of Cleopatra, in Italy, was a folly of proportions nearly as epic as the finished film. Once again, the production rushed ahead without a completed script or adequate preparation, an indication of how desperately Skouras wanted to present Twentieth Century Fox’s board of directors with a ready-to-release film that would bring in cash and save his regime. Wanger later estimated that if he and Mankiewicz had been given more time to regroup and plan, Cleopatra would have cost about $15 million. But Skouras was not exactly at his managerial best in 1961. Taylor, Fisher, and Mankiewicz got a sense of his addled state of mind one night when he joined them for drinks in New York. The others in the group couldn’t help but notice that Skouras was addressing Taylor only as “Cleopatra.”
“You don’t know my name, do you?” Taylor said suspiciously. “You can’t remember my name!”
“You are Cleopatra!” Skouras responded.
“You’re paying me a million dollars,” Taylor said, “and you can’t remember my name. Spyros, tell me my name! I’ll give you half the money back!”
“Ehh ... ehh ... ,” Skouras sputtered, “you are Cleopatra!”
By the summer of 1961, Cleopatra was practically all Fox had left; short of funds, the studio had canceled most of its other features and had pinned much of its hope on television. The latest in Fox’s series of regent studio chiefs was Peter Levathes, a Skouras protégé who had won good notices as the head of the company’s television division.
“We decided to move the production to Rome because we thought Elizabeth Taylor would show up more,” says Levathes. “The climate would be more to her liking, and she wouldn’t call in sick all the time.” At Levathes’s urging, Skouras granted Fisher’s request to fly in Taylor’s personal physician, Rex Kennamer of Beverly Hills, for a fee of $25,000.
Interiors and Roman exteriors were now to be shot at Cinecittà, the massive studio complex six miles outside of central Rome. Ancient Alexandria was being reconstructed at Torre Astura, a hunting estate on the Tyrrhenian Sea owned by Prince Stefano Borghese. Some additional work, mostly battle sequences, would be filmed in the Egyptian desert.
Trawling through the voluminous files and correspondence left in Cleopatra’s wake, what one takes away is the abject terror Taylor inspired in powerful men. (As Fisher would later say, “One thing I learned from Elizabeth—if you ever need anything, yell and scream for it.”) Privately, Wanger, Mankiewicz, Skouras, and Levathes complained about her fragility and erratic work habits, and talked about how she deserved a good telling-off. But in her presence they lost their resolve and genuflected. Skouras and Levathes tried (unsuccessfully) in 1961 to sign her to a four-picture deal with Fox. Wanger set her up in a 14-room mansion in Rome called the Villa Papa, and flew in chili from Chasen’s for her. Mankiewicz reportedly shuffled shooting schedules to accommodate her menstrual cycle. “We could only shoot Roman scenes in the Senate [which did not involve Taylor] when Elizabeth was having her period,” says Kenneth Haigh, who played Brutus. “She said, ‘Look, if I’m playing the most beautiful woman in the world, I want to look my best.’”
But by the time the production had moved to Rome, these men had an even better reason to coddle Taylor than the usual keep-the-talent-happy ethos. Taylor, in the wake of her near-death episode, was now uninsurable. If she walked off or fell ill, the movie—which was Elizabeth Taylor—would represent nothing but red ink.
Mankiewicz, between scouting locations, assembling a cast, and consulting with department heads, wasn’t close to having a finished screenplay when shooting began on September 25: a mere 132 pages out of an eventual 327, or most of the film’s first half (“Caesar and Cleopatra”) and none of its second half (“Antony and Cleopatra”). This meant that the film would be shot in continuity, a costly process that would eventually result in 96 hours of raw Todd-AO negative.
Skouras insisted on moving ahead anyway, arguing that “the girl is on salary”—an allusion to Taylor’s renegotiated contract, which called for her to work for 16 weeks beginning August 1, with a guarantee of $50,000 for every week Cleopatra ran over. Consequently, Mankiewicz would spend the remainder of the production directing by day and writing by night, an impossibly taxing task that, says his widow, “damn near killed him.” (Yet another screenwriter, Ranald MacDougall [Mildred Pierce], was drafted in, but Mankiewicz still insisted on writing the actual shooting script.)
Casting was done on the fly: a mid-September flurry of telephone calls brought aboard such actors as Hume Cronyn, Martin Landau, and Carroll O’Connor from America and Kenneth Haigh, Robert Stephens, and Michael Hordern from England. But when the actors arrived in Rome, they discovered half-finished sets, incomplete wardrobes, and an exhausted writer-director who hadn’t yet written their parts. Says Cronyn, “I arrived the same day as Burton, September 19, 1961. Neither one of us worked until after Christmas.”
“I had a 15-week contract, which was long for those days, but it wound up being almost 10 months,” says O’Connor, who played Casca, a Roman senator who puts the first knife into Caesar’s back. “In all that time, I worked 17 days.”
The chop-chop pace demanded by Skouras resulted in all manner of jaw-dropping blunders that might have been circumvented had there been adequate time to prepare. The beach at Torre Astura, where DeCuir’s massive replica of Alexandria was under construction, turned out to be laced with live mines left over from World War II; a $22,000 “mine-dredging” expenditure was added to Cleopatra’s ledger. On top of that, the set was adjacent to a NATO firing range. Wrote Wanger in his diary, “We will have to arrange our schedule so we are not working when the big guns are blasting.” And because Italy had no facilities for processing Todd-AO film, the day’s rushes had to be sent all the way to Hollywood and then back to Rome before the director could view them.
DeCuir’s sets were grandiose and beautiful, but because no one had kept close tabs on his work, Mankiewicz and his crew discovered too late that they were almost unmanageably big. The fake Roman Forum (which cost $1.5 million to build) dwarfed the real one up the road; so much steel tubing was required to hold it up that Cleopatra exacerbated a country-wide shortage, palpably affecting the Italian construction business.
As DeCuir’s Rome grew, Twentieth Century Fox began to shrink. Earlier in the year, Skouras, desperate to stanch the hemorrhaging of the company’s resources, had engineered the sale of the studio’s 260-acre Los Angeles lot to the Aluminum Company of America for $43 million, a transaction that would come to resemble Peter Minuit’s $24 deal for Manhattan. Though the studio continued to lease 75 acres for its own use (eventually reacquired), the remaining acreage was now being developed into Century City, the gigantic office- building-and-shopping-center complex that stands south of Beverly Hills today. “You could see the village from The Song of Bernadette, New York, castles, a real railroad station,” recalled Cesare Danova, a Fox contract player who portrayed Apollodorus, Cleopatra’s majordomo. “And the first thing that I saw [upon returning to the lot in 1962] was a truck from the Acme Wrecking Company. Everything was coming down. This was a potent sign for me—that the end had come to an entire world.”
The sheer size and obvious disorganization of Cleopatra made it an easy mark for anyone practiced in the art of graft—a circumstance not lost on many of the Italians hired to work on the picture. “The Italians are wonderful at designing things, but they have this natural proclivity for larceny,” says Tom Mankiewicz, the director’s younger son, who, like his brother, Chris, took time off from college to work on the film. “Once you start saying, ‘All right, I need 500 Praetorian-guard outfits, I need 600 Nubian-slave outfits, I need 10,000 soldier outfits’—this is like an invitation. And there was no one to stay on top of it all. If you wanted to buy some new dinnerware or a set of glasses for your house, it was the easiest thing to put it on the budget of Cleopatra.”
“Later I got to see the studio’s breakdown on the money waste,” says Taylor. “They had $3 million for ‘miscellaneous,’ and $100,000 for paper cups. They said I ate 12 chickens and 40 pounds of bacon every day for breakfast. What?”
Skouras, though the man with ultimate authority, placed a lot of the blame for the film’s rampant disorganization on Wanger. “You have to know Walter Wanger well,” Skouras later told an interviewer. “He is a fine man, but he likes to have lots of people to help him. Off the record, he does not want to work so hard.” Levathes felt that Mankiewicz was a prima donna whose extravagant requests were being indulged by Skouras regardless of financial consequence. Wanger complained with some justification that Skouras and Levathes were undermining his authority by circumventing him in favor of Mankiewicz and the department heads, but too often he merely complained. The surviving actors and crew remember the producer eventually devolving into a sweet but powerless “greeter” whose most visible duty was to escort visiting European royals to the set.
As a bout of torrential, London-like weather precluded outdoor shooting for much of the fall of ’61 (at a cost of $40,000 to $75,000 for every day rained out), many of the film’s principal actors realized that they were going to be in Rome at least through the spring of ’62. So they moved out of the luxurious Grand Hotel and into their own apartments, becoming idle, semi-permanent residents of the city. Given that Fox had to keep the actors on salary the whole time—Hume Cronyn at $5,000 a week, Roddy McDowall at $2,500 a week, Martin Landau at $850 a week, etc.—the cost pileups were tremendous.
At one point in autumn, Skouras and Levathes approached Burton to see if he’d mind terribly if the movie ended with Caesar’s assassination, thereby cutting out half of the plot and roughly 95 percent of Antony’s part. Burton was succinct. “I’ll sue you until you’re puce,” he told them.
Given the messy state of affairs, morale remained remarkably high on the set. “Everyone was in a very gay way,” says O’Connor. “We knew the picture was going to be O.K., even if it wasn’t going to be one of the greats.” The rushes were impressive enough to prompt hope in some quarters that the film was en route to greatness. On Christmas Eve, Fox publicist Jack Brodsky wrote the following to Nathan Weiss, his colleague in New York: “The first 50 pages of the second act have just come from Mank’s pen and they’re fabulous. Burton and Taylor will set off sparks, and already Fisher is jealous of the lines Burton has.”
Hell Breaks Loose: Rome, Winter 1962
“For the past several days uncontrolled rumors have been growing about Elizabeth and myself. Statements attributed to me have been distorted out of proportion, and a series of coincidences has lent plausibility to a situation which has become damaging to Elizabeth ...”
—Statement issued by Richard Burton, then disavowed by him, on February 19, 1962
Le scandale, as Taylor and Burton later termed their affair, didn’t begin until their work together did, in December or January, after Mankiewicz had written enough material for them to start rehearsing the film’s second half. “For the first scene, there was no dialogue—we had to just look at each other,” says Taylor. “And that was it—I was another notch.” Burton further endeared himself to Taylor by showing up hung over. She had feared that he would lord his talent over her and make fun of her lack of theatrical training; instead, she found herself steadying his trembling hands as he lifted a coffee cup to his lips. “He was probably putting it on,” Taylor says. “He knew it would get me.”
As for Eddie Fisher, he had not been having the best of times in Rome. Though he was on the Cleopatra payroll and was trying to learn how to become a movie producer, his presence wasn’t expected or needed at Cinecittà. “I remember Eddie one day walking onto the set, trying to be funny, and shouting to Mankiewicz, ‘O.K., Joe, let’s make this one!’” says Brodsky. “No one reacted. It cast a pall.”
“Eddie and I had drifted way apart,” says Taylor. “It was only a matter of time for us. The clock was ticking.”
But right through the end of January, the only suspicion that Fisher held was that Burton was encouraging his wife to drink too much. In his self-described capacity as a nurse, Fisher took exception to the influence the Welshman’s prodigious boozing and peaty joie de vivre were having on Taylor, who had grown tired of her husband’s predilection for dining in. “Remember,” says someone who worked on the production, “Elizabeth was a very self-indulgent person at that time, a sensualist who’d just been confronted with possible death, and was probably rebounding from it by tasting as much life as possible.”
Several people associated with Cleopatra point out that sensualism and high living were the order of the day in Rome, particularly with so little work for the actors to do. “There was a tremendous sense of being in the right place at the right time,” says Jean Marsh, who played Antony’s Roman wife, Octavia, well before her PBS fame as the creator and star of Upstairs, Downstairs. “Fellini was there, and Italy was the capital of film. And the film was so extravagant, so louche, it affected everyone’s lives. It was a hotbed of romance—Richard and Elizabeth weren’t the only people who had an affair.”
Taylor and Burton filmed their first scene together on January 22. Wanger happily noted in his diary, “There comes a time during the making of a movie when the actors become the characters they play.... That happened today.... It was quiet, and you could almost feel the electricity between Liz and Burton.”
Some people on the set, including Mankiewicz, knew already that there was more going on than just electricity. At one point Burton had stridden triumphantly into the men’s makeup trailer and announced to those present, “Gentlemen, I’ve just fucked Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!” Whether or not this boast was for real, it was true that he and Taylor were using the apartment of her secretary, Dick Hanley, for trysts.
On January 26, Mankiewicz summoned Wanger to his room at the Grand Hotel. “I have been sitting on a volcano all alone for too long, and I want to give you some facts you ought to know,” he said. “Liz and Burton are not just playing Antony and Cleopatra.”
“Confidentially,” Wanger later told Joe Hyams, his collaborator on My Life with Cleopatra, a rush-job account of the film’s travails published in 1963, “we all figured it might just be a once-over-lightly. That is what Mr. Burton figured, too. I know it. He told me.”
Several firsthand accounts support the idea that Burton began his dalliance with Taylor with only short-term pleasure in mind. Brodsky recalls the actor’s genuine surprise, as the weeks advanced, to find himself in the midst of both an intense affair and an international incident: “He said to me, ‘It’s like fucking Khrushchev! I’ve had affairs before—how did I know the woman was so fucking famous!’”
Mankiewicz and Wanger harbored hopes in the early going that the situation would simply blow over. But Taylor’s notoriety since her grieving-widow days had made her the most-hunted tabloid prey in the world. Well before the affair had begun, the Roman gutter press had planted informants in Cinecittà and arranged paparazzi stakeouts of the Villa Papa. Word got out fast, even before Fisher knew anything was going on.
As February dawned, rumors were swirling so madly around Rome—“the whispering gallery of Europe,” as Wanger called it—that Fisher could no longer ignore or brush off the gossip. One night early that month, as he lay in bed beside Taylor, he received a heads-up telephone call from Bob Abrams, his old army buddy and Jilly Rizzo–like amanuensis.
Fisher hung up the phone and turned to his wife. “Is it true that something is going on between you and Burton?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said softly.
Quietly, defeatedly, Fisher packed and spent the night at Abrams’s place. The following day, he returned to the Villa Papa, and for about two weeks slept by Taylor’s side, hoping that the situation would somehow resolve itself. There was never any kind of knock-down-drag-out confrontation. “She just wasn’t ‘there’ anymore,” Fisher said in 1991. “She was with him. And I wasn’t ‘there.’ She talked to him once at the studio, in my office, with all kinds of people around. And she was talking love to him on the telephone. ‘Oh, dahling, are you all right?’ With this new British accent.”
By mid-February the rumors had gone worldwide, and Taylor-Burton innuendo was everywhere. The Perry Como Show ran a comic “Cleopatra” sketch in which a slave named Eddie kept getting in Mark Antony’s way. Taylor was visibly upset, and the entire production was in a bad way. Mankiewicz, run-down from his Sisyphean work schedule, had become feverishly ill. So had Martin Landau, who had a large part (as Rufio), and whose illness necessitated the cancellation of a day’s worth of shooting. Leon Shamroy, the cinematographer, a cigar-chomping sexagenarian known for his seen-it-all stoicism (he had shot the Fox epics The Robe, The Egyptian, and The King and I, as well as the Gene Tierney classic Leave Her to Heaven), collapsed from exhaustion. Forrest “Johnny” Johnston, the film’s production manager, fell gravely ill and died in Los Angeles in May.
Morale back home was also low. Pro- and anti-Skouras factions were taking shape on the Fox board, and rumors swirled of a coming putsch. “This was where my hair went gray,” says Levathes, who is now 86. “I used to look younger.”
Burton, contrite, met with Wanger and volunteered to quit the production if that was what was best. Wanger counseled against this option, arguing that “what would solve the problem [is] putting an end to any basis for the rumors.”
In the meantime, Burton’s older brother Ifor, a powerfully built man who functioned as the actor’s bodyguard-factotum, used his fists to get the message across. “Ifor beat the living shit out of Burton,” says a Cleopatra crew member. “For what he was doing to Sybil. Beat him up so that Richard couldn’t work the next day. He had a black eye and a cut cheek.”
Both Fisher and Sybil Burton decided it best to flee the situation. He headed by car for Gstaad, where he and Taylor owned a chalet; she left for New York. But before either had gone, Fisher paid a visit to the Burtons’ villa for a heart-to-heart talk with Sybil. “I said, ‘You know, they’re continuing their affair,’” Fisher recalled. “And she said, ‘He’s had these affairs, and he always comes home to me.’ And I said, ‘But they’re still having their affair.’ And she went to the studio, and they closed [production] down. And that cost them $100,000. And the day I left Rome, it cost them another $100,000. Elizabeth screamed and carried on. Work stopped that day. They had that in honor of me.”
When Fisher, having driven as far as Florence, called Rome to determine his wife’s whereabouts, he discovered that Taylor was in Hanley’s apartment, accompanied by Burton, who was enraged that the singer had meddled in his marriage to Sybil. Burton took the telephone. “You nothing, you spleen,” he said to Fisher. “I’m going to come up there and kill you.”
Instead, Burton summoned the courage to tell Taylor their affair was over, and left for a short trip to Paris, where he was playing a small part in Darryl Zanuck’s Normandy epic, The Longest Day. That night, Hanley called Wanger to say that Taylor would be unable to work the next day. “She’s hysterical,” Wanger wrote in his diary. “Total rejection came sooner than expected.”
The following day, February 17, Taylor was rushed to the Salvator Mundi Hospital. The official explanation was food poisoning. Wanger, who cooked up a story about some bad beef she had eaten, had, in fact, discovered Taylor splayed on her bed in the Villa Papa, groggy from an overdose of Seconal, a prescription sedative. “It wasn’t a suicide attempt,” says Taylor. “I’m not that kind of person, and Richard despised weakness. It was more hysteria. I needed the rest, I was hysterical, and I needed to get away.”
Taylor recovered quickly, but news of her hospitalization compelled both Fisher and Burton to fly back to Rome, which only fanned the flames of rumor. On February 19, Burton, eager to extinguish these flames, issued a statement addressing the “uncontrolled rumors ... about Elizabeth and myself.” The statement took pains to provide reasons why Sybil and Eddie had left town (she was visiting Burton’s sick foster father; he had business matters to attend to), but never outright denied that an affair was going on. It was a crucially unsavvy nondenial denial, and the Fox publicity team was apoplectic. The studio got Burton to disavow the statement and pin the blame for its release on his press agent, but it was too late: now the papers had a peg upon which they could hang their “affair” stories. Taylor-Burton was an out-in-the-open phenomenon.
“It was not a help to the production,” says a crew member. “You know how she got time off for her period? Now she was having three or four periods a month.”
The Whirlwind: Rome, Spring 1962
“It’s true—Elizabeth Taylor has fallen madly in love with Richard Burton. It’s the end of the road for Liz and Eddie Fisher.”
—Louella Parsons’s syndicated column, March 10, 1962
“The report is ridiculous.”
—Eddie Fisher’s response, March 10
In the aftermath of Taylor’s hospitalization, all the aggrieved parties tried to re-arrange themselves as they had been before. Fisher threw his wife a 30th-birthday party on February 27 and presented her with a $10,000 diamond ring and an emerald-studded Bulgari mirror. Burton told the press he had no intention of divorcing Sybil. But it was to no avail—the Taylor-Burton affair continued, as did the reporters’ pursuit.
Privately, there were cruel scenes between Burton and Fisher, with the former visiting Villa Papa and boasting to the latter, “You don’t know how to use her!,” or turning to Taylor and saying, with Fisher present, “Who do you love? Who do you love?” Fisher never fought back. Where others saw wimpiness and retreat, Wanger, in recorded conversations with Joe Hyams, his book collaborator, ascribed a kind of nobility to the singer’s pacifism. “Eddie always took the position that this is an evil man, and he had to stand and protect her when she was misled by this terrible guy,” he said. “He wanted to hold his family together.” Fisher left Rome for good on March 21, 1962.
Cleopatra was now about halfway finished, but it still lacked its biggest, most challenging scenes: Cleopatra’s procession into Rome, the arrival of her barge at Tarsus, the battles of Pharsalia, Philippi, Moongate, and Actium. Moreover, there remained several weeks’ worth of “Antony and Cleopatra” scenes to be filmed. The fictive and the personal dovetailed to the point where even the actors got confused. “I feel as if I’m intruding,” Mankiewicz said one day as his shouts of “Cut!” went unabided by Taylor and Burton during a love scene. In a less pleasant coincidence, the very day that Burton announced to the press he would never leave Sybil was the day Taylor had to film the scene in which Cleopatra discovers that Antony has returned to Rome and taken another wife, Octavia. The screenplay called for Cleopatra to enter Antony’s deserted chambers in Alexandria, pick up his dagger, and stab his bed and belongings in a rage. Taylor went at it with such gusto that she banged her hand and needed to go to the hospital for X-rays. She was unable to work the next day.
The day-to-day developments of Taylor-Burton were now a full-time news beat. Martin Landau remembers a night shoot on the island of Ischia involving Taylor and Burton where the crew’s spotlights, once turned on, revealed paparazzi bunched up like moths. “Behind us was this cliff, with shrubbery and growth coming out of it,” he says, “and there were 20 photographers hanging off these things, with long lenses. A couple of them fell—30 feet!”
In actuality, the affair was, as Taylor would note a few years after the fact, “more off than on.” “We did try and resist,” she says today. “My marriage with Eddie was over, but we didn’t want to do anything to hurt Sybil. She was—is—such a lovely lady.” Taylor still won’t discuss the scenes and machinations that went on between the Fishers and the Burtons, calling the subject matter “too personal,” but other observers on the set remember moments when the lovers’ similarly combustible personalities caused near explosions. In the midst of le scandale, Burton was also carrying on with the Copacabana dancer he’d been seeing in his Camelot days; one day Taylor took exception to her presence on the set, prompting Burton to shove Taylor slightly and snarl, “Don’t get my Welsh temper up.” In another instance, Burton showed up for work wrecked, again with the “Copa cutie,” as she was known on the set, in tow. When he finally rallied himself into performing condition, Taylor admonished him, “You kept us all waiting.” To which Burton responded, “It’s about time somebody kept you waiting. It’s a real switch.”
Far more so than Taylor, Burton was flummoxed, unable to choose between his wife and lover, desperate to have it both ways. Speaking to Kenneth Tynan in Playboy after Cleopatra had wrapped, he futilely tried to defend the Liz-Sybil arrangement with a choice bit of baroque doggerel. “What I have done,” he said, “is to move outside the accepted idea of monogamy without investing the other person with anything that makes me feel guilty. So that I remain inviolate, untouched.”
For all its unpleasant side effects, Burton was elated by his new worldwide fame. Kenneth Haigh remembers him “calling me into his room and saying, ‘Look at this! There are about 300 scripts! The offers are piling up everywhere!’” Hugh French, Burton’s Hollywood agent, began boasting that his client now commanded $500,000 per picture. “Maybe I should give Elizabeth Taylor 10 percent,” said Burton.
Alas, the seesaw nature of the affair was not conducive to the efficient completion of what was now routinely described in the papers as a “$20 million picture.” Between his euphoric highs, Burton was drinking heavily on the set. Taylor, too, became erratic, alternately showing up unprecedentedly early to work on scenes with Burton and failing to show up at all. A production document titled “Elizabeth Taylor Diary” indicates that on March 21, the day Fisher departed, Taylor was dismissed from Cinecittà at 12:25 p.m. after “having great difficulty delivering dialogue.”
The unexpected work stoppages didn’t always bother Mankiewicz, who welcomed the opportunity to catch up on his writing and his sleep. He was by now a physical ruin, sometimes writing scenes the night before they were to be shot. A stress-related dermatological disorder caused the skin on his hands to crack open, forcing him to wear thin white film cutter’s gloves as he wrote the script longhand. Somehow, he retained his equanimity and sense of humor. When an Italian newspaper alleged that Burton was a “shuffle-footed idiot” deployed by the director to cover up the real scandal—that it was Mankiewicz who was having an affair with Taylor—Mankiewicz released a statement declaring, “The real story is that I’m in love with Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor is the cover-up for us.” (The same day, Burton shuffled up to Mankiewicz on the set and said, “Duh, Mister Mankeawitz, sir, do I have to sleep with her again tonight?”)
Astonishingly, there had been a time, early on in Rome, when the Fox brass had chastised their publicity department for not getting Cleopatra enough attention. By April and May of 1962, as le scandale superseded news coverage of the Mercury-Atlas space missions and the U.S.-Soviet tensions that were leading up to the Cuban missile crisis, it was almost impossible to keep up with the whirlwind. Fisher was briefly hospitalized in New York with exhaustion, and after his release took to opening his nightclub act with the song “Arrivederci, Roma.” A congresswoman from Georgia named Iris Blitch called on the attorney general to block Taylor and Burton from re-entering the country, “on grounds of undesirability.” And in April, the Vatican City weekly, L’Osservatore della Domenica, printed a 500-word “open letter,” signed only “X.Y.,” that began “Dear Madam” and went on to say, “Even considering the [husband] that was finished by a natural solution, there remain three husbands buried with no other motive than a greater love that killed the one before. But if we start using these standards and this sort of competition between the first, second, third, and the hundredth love, where are we all going to end up? Right where you will finish—in an erotic vagrancy ... without end or without a safe port.”
The complicity of the Catholic Church in the sport of Liz-bashing undid Taylor’s nerves at the worst possible moment for the production. She was due at last to film Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome, the centerpiece of the entire picture. The premise of the sequence, commonly known as the procession, is that Cleopatra, having borne a son to Caesar in Egypt, must now go to her lover’s home turf to present herself to the Roman public. If they accept her, then her dream of a globe-straddling Egyptian-Roman empire is realized; if they boo and hiss, she is finished. Mankiewicz, hewing to Plutarch, addressed the situation precisely as Cleopatra did: by devising the most lavish, eyeball-popping spectacle he could think of, a NASA-budgeted halftime show.
As Caesar and the senators watched, agog, from the Forum’s reviewing stand, a seemingly endless parade of exotica would stream through the Arch of Titus: fanfaring trumpeters, charioteers, scantily clad dancing girls with streamers, an old hag who changes magically into a young girl, dwarfs tossing sweets from atop painted donkeys, comely young women tossing gold coins from atop painted elephants, painted Watusi warriors, dancers shooting plumes of colored smoke into the air, a pyramid that bursts open to release thousands of doves, Arabian horses, and, for the finale, a two-ton, three-story-high, black sphinx drawn by 300 Nubian slaves, upon which would sit Cleopatra and her boy, Caesarion, both resplendent in gold raiment.
Originally the procession was to have been one of the first things shot, in October, but bad weather and inadequate preparation made a hash of that plan, forcing Fox to pay out money to various dancers, acrobats, and circus-animal trainers to ensure their availability through the spring. (Furthermore, the original elephants that had been hired proved to be unruly and destructive, one of them running amok on the Cinecittà soundstages and pulling up stakes; the elephants’ owner, Ennio Togni, later attempted to sue Fox for slander when word got out that his pachyderms had been “fired.” Said a disbelieving Skouras, “How do you slander an elephant?”)
Six thousand extras had been hired to cheer the queen’s entrance and ad-lib reactions of “Cleopatra! Cleopatra!,” but Taylor, mindful of their Roman Catholicism and the Vatican’s recent condemnation, feared an impromptu stoning. Comforted by Burton and Mankiewicz, she summoned the courage to be hoisted atop the sphinx. When the cameras started rolling, she assumed a facial expression of blank hauteur and felt the sphinx rolling through the arch. “Oh my God,” she thought, “here it comes.”
But the Roman extras neither booed nor (for the most part) shouted “Cleopatra! Cleopatra!” Instead, they cheered and yelled, “Leez! Leez! Baci! Baci!,” while blowing kisses her way.
Operation Homestretch: Rome, Ischia, Egypt, Spring-Summer 1962
“Mr. Skouras faces the future with courage, determination ... and terror.”
—Groucho Marx, speaking at a testimonial dinner held in honor of Spyros Skouras at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, April 12, 1962
In the spring of ’62, Skouras saw the writing on the wall. He knew that his reign as Fox president wasn’t going to last much longer. By May he was stricken with prostate trouble, and when he arrived in Rome on May 8 to screen a five-hour rough cut of Cleopatra-to-date, he had been fitted with a temporary catheter and was heavily sedated—and fell asleep several times during the screening. Satisfied nevertheless with what he saw, he began a push to finish the film as quickly as possible.
The month had begun with Taylor indisposed on account of what Wanger described as “the most serious situation to date.” On April 21, Taylor and Burton, without forewarning any members of the production, left Rome to spend the Easter weekend at Porto Santo Stefano, a coastal resort town a hundred miles to the north. Unprotected by handlers and publicists, they were surveilled the entire time by a swarm of reporters and paparazzi, and the following day newspapers around the world ran pictorial stories of their “tryst at seaside.”
“It was like hell,” says Taylor. “There was no place to hide, not in this tiny cottage we had rented. When we were driving somewhere, they ran us into a ditch by jumping in front of the car. It was either Richard hits them or he swerves over, so we swerved over.”
One of the Porto Santo Stefano “tryst” stories appeared in the London Times, which infuriated Sybil Burton, who was at home in England with the Burtons’ two small daughters, Kate and Jessica. Sybil had studiously ignored the London tabloids, but to have the Taylor-Burton affair splashed across the Times was the last straw. She went to Rome on April 23 to await her husband’s return. Wanger, fearing a public scene, detained her at the Grand Hotel for as long as he could.
In the meantime, Taylor returned abruptly and solo from Porto Santo Stefano, and was rushed, for the second time in four months, to the Salvator Mundi Hospital. The following day’s papers carried news of a “violent quarrel” that had prompted Taylor to walk out on Burton as he stood, smoldering, on the porch of the stucco bungalow they were staying in. “Burton told her to go and get rid of herself, and she tried to,” Wanger later said confidentially. “This was the one time that she really took an overdose and she was really in danger.” Taylor again denies that suicide was her intent, saying that, as had been the case in February, she needed some respite.
The hospitalization could be explained away with the old standbys “exhaustion” and “food poisoning,” but the reason she didn’t work again until May 7—that she had a black eye and facial bruises—could not be so tidily addressed. Skouras, in a letter to Darryl Zanuck several months later, matter-of-factly referred to “the beating Burton gave her in Santo Stefano. She got two black eyes, her nose was out of shape, and it took 22 days for her to recover enough in order to resume filming.” But Taylor maintains that the truth was what the press was told—that her bruises were incurred during the ride back from Porto Santo Stefano. “I was sleeping in the backseat of the car,” she says, “and the driver went around a curve, and I bumped my nose on an ashtray.”
Once Taylor’s bruises healed, she went back to work. But more bad luck followed. The winds came up on some of the days the extras and dancers had been convened to continue work on the procession, canceling shooting at a cost of $250,000. A successfully completed scene that required Antony to slap Cleopatra to the ground—a loaded proposition made more so by the fact that Taylor had a bad back—was erased when the film was damaged in transit back to the United States; June retakes would be necessary. Then, on May 28, word slipped out to Levathes that Taylor had filmed Cleopatra’s death scene, in which she commits suicide by letting an asp bite her hand. The death scene was, in the eyes of Fox’s impatient executives, the one sequence the film could absolutely not do without. Knowing it existed, Levathes headed for Rome to shut down the picture.
On June 1, Wanger met with Levathes and learned that, effective the following day, he was being taken off salary and expenses. This was in every sense a quasi-firing, in that no one discouraged him from continuing to work on the film. So continue he did, contesting, with Mankiewicz, the New York office’s demands that Taylor’s last day be June 9, that the battle of Pharsalia sequence be canceled, and that all photography be completed by June 30. (A week later, back in the states, Levathes fired Marilyn Monroe from her abortive final film, Something’s Got to Give. A Fox spokesman said, “No company can afford Monroe and Taylor.”)
In haste, the Cleopatra production moved to the Italian island of Ischia, which was standing in for both Actium, the ancient Greek town near whose shores Octavian defeated Antony, and Tarsus, the Turkish port of the Roman Empire where Cleopatra made her second great entrance, aboard a barge. (The barge, complete with gilded stern and Dacron purple sails flown in from California, cost $277,000.)
It was off Ischia that a paparazzo named Marcello Geppetti took the photograph that most enduringly represents the Taylor-Burton affair: a shot of Burton planting a kiss on a smiling Taylor as both sun themselves in bathing suits on the deck of an anchored boat.
Taylor completed a successful take of Cleopatra’s arrival aboard her barge on June 23. By studio decree, it was her last day on the picture—272 days after Mankiewicz had begun at Cinecittà, 632 days after Mamoulian had commenced shooting at Pinewood.
Battle-sequence work in Egypt would keep Mankiewicz busy through July, and battles with Fox occupied him in the weeks prior. While still on Ischia, the director learned that Fox was killing yet another crucial sequence, the battle of Philippi. Mankiewicz was enraged, having planned for the Philippi conflict to open the film’s second half. On June 29, he sent a strongly worded telegram to Skouras and the Fox brass:
WITHOUT PHARSALIA IN MY OPINION OPENING OF FILM AND FOLLOWING SEQUENCES SEVERELY DAMAGED STOP BUT WITHOUT PHILIPPI THERE IS LITERALLY NO OPENING FOR SECOND HALF SINCE INTERIOR TENT SCENES ALREADY SHOT SIMPLY CANNOT BE INTELLIGIBLY PUT TOGETHER STOP ... WITH MUTUAL APPRECIATION OF RESPONSIBILITIES AND SUGGESTING THAT MINE TOWARD THE STOCKHOLDERS IS NO LESS THAN YOURS I SUGGEST THAT YOU REPLACE ME SOONEST POSSIBLE BY SOMEONE LESS CRITICAL OF YOUR DIRECTIVES AND LESS DEDICATED TO THE EVENTUAL SUCCESS OF CLEOPATRA.
Fox placated Mankiewicz by allowing Pharsalia to be partially reconstituted via two days’ worth of hasty shooting in some craggy Italian hills—and then Cleopatra moved on to Egypt for additional battle work.
The Egypt trip, from July 15 to July 24, was the by-now-customary fiasco, marred by delays, poor sanitary conditions, a threatened strike by the locally hired extras, and government wiretaps on the telephones of Jewish cast and crew members; adding injury to insult, there was the further deterioration of Mankiewicz’s physical condition—he required daily B12 shots to keep going, and one shot hit his sciatic nerve, rendering him barely able to walk.
Principal photography was now complete. But Mankiewicz would have more to contend with in the film’s lengthy postproduction phase: a new Fox regime. Back on June 26, under pressure, Skouras had announced his resignation as president, effective September 20.
Enter the Mustache: New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Spain, 1962–63
IT LOOKS LIKE MUSTACHE WITH ZEUS AS PLANKHEAD.
—Cable sent from Jack Brodsky (in Fox’s New York office) to Nathan Weiss (in Fox’s temporary Rome office), July 6, 1962
“Mustache” was Darryl Zanuck. “Zeus” was Skouras. Upon Skouras’s resignation, Zanuck, whose family was still the single largest shareholder of Fox stock, made a play to take control of the faltering company he had co-founded in 1933. By outmaneuvering the various board factions and their designees for president, he engineered a coup that by summertime had installed him as president and relegated Skouras to a largely ceremonial chairman-of-the-board position (ergo, “Zeus as plankhead”).
Zanuck surveyed the state of affairs at Fox like a police chief arriving at a morbid crime scene—move away, pal, show’s over. He shut down virtually all Fox productions save Cleopatra, dismissed most of the studio’s employees and executives, lowered the thermostats, shuttered most of the buildings on the shrunken back lot, and replaced Levathes with his own son, producer Richard Zanuck.
Mankiewicz and Darryl Zanuck had a complex love-hate relationship that more often tipped toward the latter. But the director was relieved to know there was now a decisive man at the top, and someone who knew the ins and outs of picture-making to boot. “When I finished a screenplay, the first person I wanted to read it was Darryl,” Mankiewicz said in 1982, recalling the days when Zanuck was Fox’s chief of production. It was Zanuck who resolved one of Mankiewicz’s biggest writerly dilemmas—how to pare down an overlong screenplay entitled A Letter to Four Wives—by suggesting that Mankiewicz eliminate one of the wives.
Back in Los Angeles, Mankiewicz and his editor, Dorothy Spencer, prepared a rough cut of Cleopatra that ran five hours and twenty minutes and reflected his desire to present Cleopatra in two concurrently released parts, with separate tickets required for each: Caesar and Cleopatra, followed by Antony and Cleopatra. Fox had long been against the idea, because of the exhibition logistics involved and because no one was interested in seeing Taylor make love to Rex Harrison.
Mankiewicz made a date with Zanuck to screen the film on October 13 in Paris, where the new Fox president lived (and continued to work, even though he was running an American studio). As this date approached, Wanger sent Zanuck a series of obsequious letters and telegrams, begging to be fully reinstated as producer: I BESEECH YOU, DARRYL ... NOT TO AGGRAVATE THIS SITUATION AND FURTHER DAMAGE MY STATUS AS PRODUCER OF CLEOPATRA BY NOT BRINGING ME TO PARIS ... I APPEAL TO YOU AS A MAN NOT TO DO THIS TO ME. Zanuck’s cold-shoulder reply was that Wanger was welcome to come along provided he paid his own way.
The October 13 screening did not go particularly well. Zanuck said little to Mankiewicz as the lights went up except “If any woman behaved toward me the way Cleopatra treated Antony, I would cut her balls off.”
Mankiewicz grew nervous when a week passed without him hearing anything further. On October 20, he sent a letter to Zanuck requesting an “honest and unequivocal statement of where I stand in relation to Cleopatra.”
On October 21, he got his statement. “On completion of the dubbing, your official services will be terminated,” Zanuck wrote. “If you are available and willing, I will call upon you to screen the re-edited version of the film.” Elsewhere in the letter, which ran to nine single-spaced pages, Zanuck described the existing battle sequences as “awkward, amateurish ... second-rate film making” with a “B-picture” look; said that the film “over-emphasized in some places the Esquire-type of sex”; described Wanger as “impotent”; contrasted Mankiewicz’s handling of Cleopatra unfavorably with his own handling of The Longest Day; and alleged, “You were not the official producer, yet in the history of motion pictures no one man has ever been given such authority. The records show that you made every single decision and that your word was law.”
A few days later, Zanuck released the following statement to the press: “In exchange for top compensation and a considerable expense account, Mr. Joseph Mankiewicz has for two years spent his time, talent, and $35,000,000 of 20th Century–Fox’s shareholders’ money to direct and complete the first cut of the film Cleopatra. He has earned a well-deserved rest.”
In response, the director told the press, “I made the first cut, but after that, it’s the studio’s property. They could cut it up into banjo picks if they want.”
Privately, Mankiewicz sent Zanuck yet another letter that painstakingly refuted every charge made against him in the October 21 correspondence: “I am, I suppose, an old whore on this beat, Darryl, and it takes quite a bit to shock me ... but never could I imagine the phantasmagoria of frantic lies and frenzied phony buck-passing that you report [in] your letter!”
By December, however, the two men’s temperatures had cooled, and they recognized that their cooperation was necessary to get Cleopatra into releasable form. Zanuck conceded to Mankiewicz that the previous regime’s cutbacks on Pharsalia and Philippi had been a mistake, and so, in February 1963—at a cost of $2 million—Cleopatra’s company of soldiers was reconvened in Almería, Spain, to do battle. Further bits and pieces were shot in—irony of ironies—Pinewood Studios in England, where the whole mess had begun with Mamoulian 29 months earlier.
When the reshoots were done, Mankiewicz, with Zanuck looking over his shoulder, edited Cleopatra down to its 243-minute premiere length. Though they were publicly allies again, the director was unhappy with this version and still thought Zanuck had done him a disservice by not allowing Cleopatra to be shown in two parts. When Mankiewicz was asked to participate in a fluffy NBC tribute program called The World of Darryl Zanuck, he said he’d do it only if they retitled it Stop the World of Darryl Zanuck.
Nevertheless, Cleopatra, at last, was done.
Coda: New York, etc., 1963–
“She is an entirely physical creature, no depth of emotion apparent in her kohl-laden eyes, no modulation in her voice that too often rises to fishwife levels. Out of royal regalia, en negligee or au naturel, she gives the impression that she is really carrying on in one of Miami Beach’s more exotic resorts than inhabiting a palace in ancient Alexandria.”
—Judith Crist, evaluating Taylor’s performance in her review of Cleopatra for the New York Herald Tribune, June 13, 1963
Cleopatra opened at the Rivoli Theater to mixed reviews, Crist’s being the most damning, Bosley Crowther’s, in The New York Times, being the most enthusiastic (“a surpassing entertainment, one of the great epic films of our day”). A viewing unprejudiced by temporal context reveals the movie to be mediocre-to-good, a tribute to Mankiewicz’s salvaging abilities and the fact that, for all the waste, you do see a lot of the money up on the screen—the movie looks handsome and expensive in an old-fashioned, 2,000-artisans-at-work way, as opposed to the contemporary, postproduced-in-the-computer-lab way. The procession sequence is as mind-boggling as it’s supposed to be.
Taylor’s Cleopatra comes off as an imperious harridan, a seething Imelda, but she’s actually effective—you believe her dream of empire. Still, you can’t help but notice the incon