Vanity Fair Archives

American Communion (Vanity Fair, October 2004)

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

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


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

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

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September 4, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

The Hit Factory

An oral history of the Brill Building, 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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September 4, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

Live At The Whisky

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


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

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September 4, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

The Tabloid Decade

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

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

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September 2, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark

When Liz Met Dick

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

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

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

Rivoli Theater, New York City, June 12, 1963

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 2, 2006  Link  Vanity Fair  Share/Bookmark


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