Twenty-five years ago, when I was a cub editorial assistant at Spy magazine, I was obsessed with the Metropolitan Diary feature that ran every Wednesday in the New York Times. (It now runs in the Times on Mondays.) Obsessed in a love-hate way. Metropolitan Diary was, and is, an assemblage of reader-submitted vignettes about life in the big city, and I liked its fundamentally upbeat tenor—a welcome respite from the grimmer stuff in the hard-news sections of the paper. It helped, too, that in those days, the Times sent a bottle of Champagne to every reader whose submission was printed; a charming touch.
Yet I was also driven mad by Metropolitan Diary’s sameyness: how, the more you read the section, the more you realized that the contents of one Diary were nearly identical to that of all the others, with only minor details changing from week to week. I eventually concluded that all printed Metropolitan Diary submissions fell into one of six categories:
1. Codgerly reminiscences of New York City as it was
2. The awful poetry of the bourgeoisie
3. Stories in which New Yorkers are nicer than expected
4. Stories involving a “well-dressed woman” or a “woman of a certain age”
5. The awkward and/or misspelled signage of immigrant shopkeepers
6. Out of the mouths of precocious New York babes (amusing kid stories)
Metropolitan Diary was so formulaic that I thought it would be funny if I wrote a total of 36 Metropolitan Diary submissions—six in each category—and had other members of the Spy staff rewrite these submissions in their own hand, and then mail them to the Times over a three-day period, thereby flooding the submission pool. My goal: for the Times to run a Metropolitan Diary written entirely by me, though the paper would be none the wiser.
My bosses, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, signed off on the idea, and I executed it as described above. I remember that I had Martin Kihn, a young fact-checker at the magazine and now a successful writer whose book House of Lies is the basis for the Showtime TV series of the same title, submit under his name a story about how he, a putatively old man, was one of the few New Yorkers who could remember when figgy pudding was a readily available foodstuff, and not just a line in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I remember that I had my friend Henry Alford submit an “awful” poem because he and I were mutually fascinated by a poem that had run in Metropolitan Diary by an older gent who became melancholy drinking coffee from a ceramic mug that had been made in grade school by one of his now-grown children. The poet referred to the vessel as his “morning mug of memories.”
I further remember that I had a sunny colleague named Gina Duclayan submit a story in which she, a newcomer to the city, was riding on the subway when her train screeched to a halt between stations. The wait in the dark seemed interminable until Gina and the friend she was with (in my story) started singing, tentatively at first, their own rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s then-current song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Slowly, the hardened faces of exasperated commuters softened, until, by the time the song neared its end, just about everyone in Gina’s subway car was singing along boisterously. But then! The train suddenly lurched forward and resumed its trip—at which point all the commuters resumed poker faces, as if nothing had happened.
I was naïve in thinking that my rig-the-Diary scheme would work. The Times, it turns out, receives hundreds and sometimes even thousands of submissions to Metropolitan Diary each week; my 36 submissions were a mere drop in the bucket.
I managed to get precisely one of my submissions printed, on December 13, 1989, as sent in by my colleague Monica Mahoney, now a clothing designer. It was one of those awkward-signage bits:
“Hand-printed sign, spotted by Monica Mahoney in the window of a deli on upper Broadway: WE HAVE CROISSANTS, PASTA SALAD, BRAN MUFFINS, EVERY KIND OF YUPPIE FOOD—YOU NAME IT!”
In the years since, I have become an occasional contributor to the Times, legitimately rather than under mischievous pretenses, and Henry has become a regular contributor to the paper’s Styles section. It’s a better way to get published, if less subversive.
One last thing: My failed scheme’s finest moment, in my opinion, did not involve my words’ being published. A few days after she submitted her story about singing in the subway car, Gina received a lovely personal note from Ron Alexander, the gentlemanly fellow at the Times who edited Metropolitan Diary. He welcomed Gina to New York and told her he was enchanted by her story—but that it couldn’t run, alas, on the grounds that it was too similar to Diary pieces that had already been published.
February 17 will herald the return of NBC’s Tonight Show to New York, a scenario I’ve harbored fantasies about since I was a Carson-loving kid. It always smarted that I came of age in a wounded era when New York City had lost both Johnny and the Dodgers to what my great uncle called the Golden West. I was delighted to be asked by Vanity Fair to profile the gifted gentleman who’s bringing Tonight home, Jimmy Fallon, for the cover story of the new issue. A teaser for the story can be found here.
This Fallon piece is the third I’ve done in a relatively short time about a funny person I admire. I’ve also been fortunate to immerse myself in the peculiar worlds of Steve Coogan and Martin Short, should you need further light reading in these dark, wintry weeks.
How to do an article pegged to the first anniversary of the Newtown shootings that is respectful yet not dreary, that reminds us not to become inured to 12/14’s horrors yet is not grisly or strident? I’m still not sure if I have the answer, but I wrote an article for Vanity Fair’s December 2013 issue (out now) that approaches Newtown in a different way—by focusing on the lives of some of its residents as they were lived in the 24-hour period before the tragedy occurred.
I’ll let the editor of the magazine preview the piece rather than blather on further. But I do hope you’ll give the story a look.
UPDATE: The story is now live here on Vanity Fair’s Web site.
In the early aughts, I came up with the idea for a Vanity Fair feature called “The Rock Snob’s Dictionary,” a sort of deadpan reference guide to such people and things as Nick Drake, the Stooges, Rickenbacker guitars, and the Ibanez Tube Screamer FX pedal—stuff that Rock Snobs hold dear. So dear, in fact, that they are affronted if you profess to be more knowledgeable about this stuff than they are. For help, I enlisted two friends, Steven Daly, a writer and former rock musician, and Bob Mack, an old Spy magazine compadre who later fell into the Beastie Boys’ orbit. Steven and Bob were precisely the sorts of ornery human beings with whom I would engage in argumentative, showoffy discussions about the holy scripture of rock.
Well, that “Rock Snob’s Dictionary” feature became a book (co-written with Steven), and that book begat a series of “Snob’s Dictionary” humor books and a Web site that hasn’t been updated in years but remains rich with fun, inconsequential material. And now, all these years later, the new entertainment wing of Vanity Fair’s parent company, Condé Nast, has worked with me to build a “Snob’s Dictionary” series of Web videos based on the rock-, film-, and food-related dictionaries I’ve co-authored. I asked if we could get the actor and comedian Judah Friedlander, best known as Frank from 30 Rock, to be our narrator, because Judah can do just the sort of strident, grad-studentish tone—arrogant but self-aware and maybe just the slightest bit kindhearted in his bid to educate—that I heard in my head. Thankfully, Judah was game.
Two videos are up so far: this one, about American International Pictures (for Film Snobs), and this one, about the aforementioned Nick Drake (for Rock Snobs). Eight more Snob’s Dictionary videos are en route in the next couple of months, with further batches likely to follow.
A note on Nick Drake, by the way: I love his music; Steven doesn’t. I tended to write my dictionary entries from a perspective of self-mockery, making fun of my own precious tastes, while Steven wrote from a place of roiling Glaswegian anger. (And, in the early days, Bob Mack was the angriest of all; it was he who coined the phrase “trustafarian pretty-boy” to describe Gram Parsons, and who once graffito’d a Village Voice ad I’d clipped for a Richard Thompson concert with the words NO! BAN THE ROCK-CRIT ESTABLISHMENT!) The books’ sense of conversation is why the whole thing works, and why I always bring in collaborators on Snob projects. In the spirit of cultural snobbery, I invite you to suggest further topics for Snob video shorts. Try to be less strident than us.
For Vanity Fair’s June issue, I did this plot-dense piece about why Rebecca, The Musical, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel for the stage, has not yet made it to Broadway. The article defies tidy explanation, so my best advice is to just set aside some time and read it. Maybe I’ll do some Web updates if and when its various storylines resolve.
(The man of the hour)
So we’ve just witnessed Charles Ramsey’s transformation from, in short order, anonymous dishwasher to TV-news hero to Auto-Tuned internet meme. It’s been both fun and discomfiting. Fun because the guy’s a natural raconteur (even to the 911 operator: “Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eatin’ my little food, right?”) and discomfiting because A) his fame has come via the revelation of a horrific scene of captivity; and B) because the attention he’s commanded has run the gamut from admiration to ridicule.
Like Sweet Brown (“Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That”), Antoine Dodson (“Bed Intruder”), and Michelle Clark (“Kabooya”), Ramsey is a lower-income African-American whose camera time came as a result of tragedy. (Brown’s apartment complex caught on fire, Dodson’s sister survived a rape attempt, and Clark’s community was ravaged by a violent hailstorm.) If the people who leave comments on YouTube are anything to go by, a lot of viewers regard these individuals purely as figures of fun: found objects repurposed in the service of a new digital minstrelsy. And that’s reprehensible.
But YouTube commenters don’t necessarily represent the greater part of YouTube viewers—a lot of the former are ignorant kids and unevolved doofuses—and I think there’s a more charitable and uplifting way to look at the fascination with Ramsey et al. These endlessly replayed local-news clips are, in a way, like the field recordings made by the father-and-son folklorists and ethnomusicologists John Lomax and Alan Lomax in neglected pockets of America during the Depression years and beyond. These mini-monologues appeal because they capture authentic, idiomatic, unmediated American voices that are more alive to us than the glib, slick patter that usually comes through the speakers of our TVs and laptops.
In his book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus coined the term “the old, weird America” to describe the Delta and backwoods milieux where the Lomaxes’ finds sang their songs, and where the archivist Harry Smith’s favorite balladeers and bluesmen came from. The inference was that America is no longer weird—that its old variety of strange ethnic, regional, and racial subcultures was snuffed out by suburbanization, prosperity, and cultural homogeneity.
But Charles Ramsey reminds us that the weirdness is still with us. It’s just been updated and accelerated. Whereas, in the old days, sixty-two years would pass between when John Lomax recorded Vera Hall of Alabama singing “Trouble So Hard” a cappella and when Moby sampled Hall for his song “Natural Blues” (from the album Play, the soundtrack to many a bourgeois dinner party in the early Aughts), now all it takes is a day for some clever white twerps to transmute a field recording into a thumpin’ hit.
Yes, there’s an uncomfortable sense of patronization that goes with all this—the celebration and embrace of heretofore marginalized black individuals for their “realness.” But in Charles Ramsey’s case, at least, the net result is positive. When we as a nation are able to find a silver lining to that otherwise unspeakable crime story in Cleveland, that’s a dead giveaway that we’re responding, first and foremost, to Ramsey’s humanity, not to how funny he is.
Heaven help me, I’m giving Twitter another try. About four years ago I set up an account and teenyposted steadily for a while, but I simply never mastered the form—basically because I was putting too much thought into it, doing misguidedly ambitious things like writing young-adult vampire novels as a series of tweets. Also, Twitter, to this day, upsets my acute, Des Esseintes-like aesthetic sensitivity. I find its feeds visually noisy, what with all the hashtags and ampersets and bit.ly and pic.twitter cmprssns of wrds.
But, in the interests of “branding,” “professionalism,” and “not sliding out of view and thereby spending my remaining days penniless in a rented room where a bare, solitary bulb hangs listlessly from the ceiling,” I am re-embracing the medium! Follow me or give me a howdy at @MrKamp.
Last month’s Vanity Fair, the one with Taylor Swift on the cover, included a long article I wrote revisiting the mania surrounding the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition that toured the U.S. in the late 1970s, as well as the political and cultural forces that conspired to make the tour happen. I had fun doing the article and put a lot of work into it, but, based on the crickets-chirping non-response it elicited, hardly anyone read it. (Perhaps you will, now that it’s online?) Ah, well. This is much less of a crisis than the one Egypt’s tourism industry is currently suffering because of post-Arab Spring political instability in the Morsi era.
My Egyptophile sources tell me that, if you can summon the bravery and funds to get over to Egypt right now, it’s a great time to visit the pyramids, Luxor, and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, because hardly anyone else is visiting and the lines of years past are nonexistent. The Egyptian Museum is where the King Tut relics from the ’70s tour are currently housed, and all indications are that, tales of looting aside, the Tut stuff is intact and okay. (It’s my understanding that the Egyptians will never again let Tut’s famous gold mask travel, so Cairo is now the only place you can get to see it.)
Lots of eccentric plotlines and sub-plotlines of my V.F. story wound up on the cutting-room floor, among them the fact that singer Pearl Bailey, an ardent Richard Nixon supporter, muscled her way onto Nixon’s June ’74 tour of Egypt and the Mideast—his final overseas trip before he resigned—as the president’s so-called “Ambassador of Love,” performing for the president and his Egyptian counterpart, Anwar Sadat. A year later, when Sadat paid his first state visit to the U.S., hosted by Gerald Ford, Bailey subbed for an ill Johnny Cash—one of Sadat’s faves—as the entertainment, pulling Sadat out of his chair for a dance (he blushed), mugging in reading glasses borrowed from Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and in general acting genially bonkers.
The most poignant bit cut from the V.F. story is how Tut-mania represented a sort of high-water mark for U.S.-Egypt relations—or at least the hope for sustained, stable, mutually beneficial U.S.-Egypt relations. The Tut show was the first gesture of diplomatic goodwill that Sadat granted the U.S. after switching allegiances from the Soviet Union to America, and it’s not overstating things to say that the positive feelings this gesture engendered played a part in the lead-up to the historic Camp David Accords signed by Sadat and Israel’s Menachim Begin in 1978, on Jimmy Carter’s watch. (Personal note: It was at this point in my schoolboy life that everyone began addressing me as “Kamp David.”)
Sadat is to Egyptians a little bit like Mikhail Gorbachev is to Russians—an overseas rock star who doesn’t get much love at home. (A much bigger cult of nostalgia surrounds his nationalist predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.) Yet he was was precisely the kind of strong, West-friendly leader that the U.S. State Department can only dream of Egypt’s having now. His assassination in 1981 was a violent bookend to the period of genuine U.S.-Egypt love that began with Nixon’s 1974 trip and crested with Camp David and Steve Martin.
(Shadow Morton, before the Ba-CAH-di took its toll.)
“Little nose and big hair. Very strong hair. I think he’s very talented, and very bizarre.” That’s how Jeff Barry, the great Brill Building songwriter behind such hits as “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” described Shadow Morton to me. Morton, like Barry a songwriter but otherwise utterly unlike Barry or any other songwriter, died of cancer on Valentine’s Day at the age of 71. The New York Times obit of him quotes extensively from the oral history of the Brill Building that I wrote in 2001 for Vanity Fair.
Morton was a degenerate punk with just enough front and talent to make an indelible stamp upon pop music. He was from Long Island and was the driving creative force behind the tough-chick Queens girl group the Shangri-Las, writing or co-writing such amazing songs as “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “The Leader of the Pack,” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” You can get a fuller sense of what he was like in the V.F. piece, but, briefly: In 1964, Morton hustled his way into the office of Barry and Barry’s then wife and songwriting partner, Ellie Greenwich. Then he hustled himself into believing he could write a song, “Remember.” Then, when that song became a hit, he hustled Barry and Greenwich’s bosses, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, into making them believe he had a follow-up at the ready... about, you know, some guy with a motorcycle who falls in love with a girl. Leiber wasn’t impressed. Morton, extemporizing, told Leiber, “It gets better.” Leiber asked “How does it get better?” Morton, now really sweating it out, said, “He... dies.” The song that Morton subsequently wrote to fulfill this wholly B.S.’d scenario was “The Leader of the Pack.” Polished by Barry and Greenwich, it became the Shangri-Las’ signature tune, Morton’s biggest annuity, and a cultural touchstone. (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” took its title from the song’s spoken opening line.)
Thirty-odd years after Morton’s heyday, I met him for an interview at Joe Allen, a New York theater-district hangout where he was a regular. (I think he lived on the block, possibly above the restaurant.) He had the hunched shoulders and tinted shades of a horse-playing hoodlum—an aged version of Boogie, Mickey Rourke’s character in Diner. But he still had the little nose and big hair—was still handsome in a dessicated way. The removal of his shades revealed one eyelid to have a droop. From a fight? A neurological condition? I don’t know. He was a sobered-up alcoholic, and, like many in such circumstances, he was ashamed of his past behavior under the influence yet eager to talk about it. He kept talking about “the Ba-CAH-di” that did him in: “It wasn’t me mouthin’ off to Leiber, it was the Ba-CAH-di”; “I got too caught up in the Ba-CAH-di to care when the next hit was gonna come.” Shadow (his real name was George; Barry assigned him the nickname to describe his penchant for unreliability and abrupt disappearances) seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di had made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them.
Still, Morton retained the mischievous air of a hustler. He brought an attractive young woman along for company, their connection ambiguous besides her evident obligation to giggle at his wisecracks and absorb his occasional nudges. I asked him if the the dreamboat tough guy that Weiss sings about in “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (“Big wavy hair, a little too long”) was, in fact, him.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling like Jack Nicholson, “you picked up on that, good for you!” One of the wonderful things about Morton’s songs is their structural irregularity—since he was musically untrained (and, for that matter, behaviorally untrained), his Shangri-Las hits include all sorts of strange atmospheric shifts and spoken-word passages that “proper” songwriters would have never essayed. “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” has a dialogue exchange in which the other girls say, “Yeah, well I hear he’s bad!,” to which Weiss thoughtfully replies, “Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.”
“Good-bad,” Morton said. “That was me. That’s how I saw myself.”
(Michael Hainey, king of the investigative memoir.)
More than twenty years ago, as we were ratifying a new friendship over drinks, my pal Michael Hainey, then a fellow member of Spy magazine’s junior varsity and a recent arrival from Chicago, told me about his father. Bob Hainey died abruptly in 1970, when Michael was only six years old. The elder Hainey was a newspaper man, an editor at the Sun-Times. “It’s never added up to me,” Mike said. “He worked on the South Side, but his body was found on the North Side. What was he doing there? I’d love to, like, do a real investigation of it some day.”
This desire never strayed from Michael’s thoughts, and now, years in the making, comes his wondrous new book, After Visiting Friends (Scribner, out officially on Feb. 19). Let me be clear: My recommendation of this book is not forced gush on behalf of a friend. Mike’s quest for the truth about his father, and his telling of it, makes for one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in ages. In fact, a part of me wishes I didn’t know Michael because then I could have approached the story the best way one can as a reader: having no idea what lies in store.
Briefly: It’s a detective story, a hard-times story, a Chicago story, a family-sticking-together story, a glimpse of an old-time milieu of whiskey-splotched newsprint journos with an iffy code of ethics, a boom-chicka-boom evocation of the Nebraska railroad heartland of Bob’s youth, a memory exercise refracted through a poetic sensibility (Mike writes poetry, too), and, most movingly, just... a plunge into the past colored by the melancholic realization that the past is ultimately irretrievable.
Here’s a lovely little bit that’s characteristic but doesn’t give the plot away:
Life in the shadow of O’Hare. ORD—what this land was before the airport was: Orchards. Men took it for the airport’s original name: Orchard Field. The origin of ORD. Acres and acres of apple trees. As a boy, I rode my bike to O’Hare, circumnavigated its fenced-in perimeter. That’s how I found the forgotten orchards. A patch of the past. In the fall, their apples rot unwanted. All that remains.
I urge you to read on. It’s worth it.
I thought Ed Koch was going to die in 1990. I thought he would be like Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, or my old boss at GQ magazine, Art Cooper, both of whose identities were so caught up in what they did for a living that neither man lasted more than a few weeks beyond retirement. When David Dinkins was inaugurated on New Year’s Day in ’90, I assumed that Ed Koch, without the NYC mayoralty, would cease to be.
I was wrong, to Koch’s credit. Simply being a New Yorker, as opposed to the king of New York, was more than enough to sustain him. He was a neighbor and I saw a lot of him, both in person, eating the salty food he wasn’t supposed to eat (at Minetta Tavern, or in line at Balducci’s before it became Citarella) and in The Villager, the homely neighborhood weekly of Greenwich Village, where he reviewed movies. (He hated Avatar, which was “hyped beyond the point of forgiveness,” and remarked of Walk the Line, “I sing better in the shower than Joaquin Phoenix.”) And he was always popping up on NY1, the endearingly shabby, spiritually pre-Bloombergian local-news channel that comes with your cable box in the big city.
There was plenty not to love about Koch, such as his callousness towards his black constituents and his not-good-for-the-Jews stridency in purporting to represent what all Jews think about Israel, Jesse Jackson, and, well, everything. But I retained affection for the guy and am stricken by his passing. That it occured just a day short of the fifth anniversary of my father’s death is resonant, too. As charismatic old Jews go, my dad was an altogether warmer, gentler force than Koch, but he grew up in the same Ashkenazic milieu of bagels, salt-cured fish, Depression-era penury, unquestioned duty to country, astounding work ethic, and recreational kvetching. With Koch down, I feel like we’ve lost another of Dad’s cohort, and not just in the ethno-gastric sense. Like my father, Koch was a product of a time that celebrated the “common man,” when leading a middle-class life was a good thing, a desired path rather than a sad consolation prize for the un-entrepreneurial and unbeautiful. New York City used to be a place where you could be this nice sort of middle-class. But it isn’t anymore. Ed Koch, over these last 23 years, was a vestige of that place, as much so as Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop and Kossar’s Bialys.
Was privileged to actually know:
For Vanity Fair’s new comedy issue, I wrote a profile of perhaps my favo(u)rite of all the funny Canadians, Martin Short. The piece is now online here, and, as it happens, Short is hosting this weekend’s Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live.
One note: In my kicker, I mention, in talk-show plugeroo style, that Marty will be appearing at a theater in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 14. That appearance has actually been cancelled because of S.N.L. preparations. But the Yellowhammer state’s loss is the nation’s gain.
Since the Rolling Stones are in town for their abbreviated 50th-anniversary tour, I thought I’d share a memory of my one extended encounter with a Stone. It was with Charlie Watts. This was 1996. I was assigned to do a one-page thingy on him for Vanity Fair, on the occasion of a new album he was putting out with his swing band. I’ve always been enervated by those who say “Charlie Watts looks so old!” or “Charlie Watts is a corpse!,” because Watts is about as perfect-looking as a man can look. He is white-haired, slim, and 71—and becomingly all of those things. He was only in his mid-fifties when I met him, but he has not changed much since. I took the assignment to look at him as much as to talk with him. I can’t find the article but I remember that I led with, “Are there others out there for whom Charlie Watts is the focal point of the Rolling Stones?”
We met at the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he was staying. He had an elaborately furnished suite whose skyline beauty he did not take for granted. “I mean, look around here,” he said, motioning his arm panoramically. “It’s like bloody Cary Grant, innit?”
I recently heard it said somewhere—perhaps by Keith Richards himself—that whereas most bands are anchored by the drummer, with the bass and guitar following, the Stones are anchored by Richards, the senior guitarist, with Watts, the drummer, hanging a half-beat behind him: one of the secrets to the Stones’s sound, their distinctive controlled sloppiness. This would have been useful knowledge for me the day I met Watts. It took about ten minutes for me to figure out, but he was hanging behind the beat even in conversation. It sounds cute, like exaggeration for the good of a story, but it’s true: Every time I asked a question, he answered the question before last. We fell into a sort of conversational fugue, wherein his answers overlaid my questions, which I adjusted on the fly to be belated follow-ups to his belated answers. Strangely, it worked: What was meant to be a perfunctory, transactional half-hour appointment became a two-hour talk, and Watts, to my delight, was in no hurry to be rid of me.
But I should add that what made this episode stranger, and perhaps contributed to the peculiarly laggy rhythm of the talk, was that this was my first time out of the house since the birth of my first child. My daughter had been born only three days earlier, and my wife and I were still consumed by the joy and terror of not quite knowing how to live in this state: with a baby. Severely sleep-deprived, I’d shaved for the first time in days and put on my nicest clothes, knowing that Charlie was himself quite the clotheshorse. Near the end of the interview, after I’d become perhaps too comfortable in Watts’s presence, my fuzzy-headedness got the best of me. I unleashed upon him a question that I’d always wanted to ask a Stone or ex-Beatle: What is it like to live a life where you’ve nothing left to prove, nothing necessarily to motivate you artistically, but still plenty of life ahead of you?
Except I asked this question in the most sloppy, logorrheic way possible, with some mortifying addendum along the lines of, “I always imagine that for someone like you, life must be something like a perpetual Sunday brunch, where you’re always sitting on the veranda with people bringing you mimosas and café au lait, with a wedge of cantaloupe and a tray of croissants in front of you, and no set plan for the day.”
The fugue stopped. There was silence. Watts stared at me stonily for what felt like half an hour but was probably thirty seconds.
Then, finally, he looked down, looked up, and said to me, “Cantaloupe melon? Bloody ’ell, I’ve never ’eard that one before.”
This site was launched in 2006, in what we can retrospectively call the autumn of blogging: when it was still exhilarating that individuals were able take their words, whimsies, and ventings of spleen directly to the reading audience with no middleman, but also when blogger glut and blogger fatigue were already setting in. In other words, my site came along at a time when a writer like me could still be excited to have, you know, this unfiltered outlet, man, yet this excitement was quickly snuffed out by A) the realization that I was joining the party too late to attract an audience just because I was a professional writer with a site; B) the realization that blogging is just not my métier, though I admire those for whom it is; C) the advent of Facebook and Twitter, which is where people would increasingly choose to spend their internet time, rendering the already-theoretical audience for an author site even more theoretical; and D) my tendency to bring the spontaneity of any blog post to a halt with a tedious, alphabetized list.
All of this is a long way of explaining why, if you’re still reading, I post so infrequently on this site. That said, I felt bad for the ol’ gal that is davidkamp.com (and, yes, I’ve anthopomorphized this site into a wizened lady who was Bryn Mawr class of ’33, a Carole Lombard-like beauty in her day who now bides her time at the assisted-living facility, living for her grandchildren’s infrequent visits, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door). So I thought I’d at least post some links to some Vanity Fair stuff I’ve written, since V.F.’s site has been good about posting my work.
Here is a story I wrote for the December issue about Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, whose return is nearly upon us.
Here is a big piece I wrote for the October issue about the birth of the James Bond movie franchise, now riding high again with Skyfall.
Here and here are the first in what I hope to be many installments of a revival of an old V.F. feature from the 1920s, the Impossible Interview—in which two people unlikely to meet in this life on this earth are thrown together for a dialogue captured in a bright, grabby illo by a gifted artist. (In the old days, the Impossible Interviews were illustrated by none other than the great Miguel Covarrubias. Now the illustrations are done by the magnificent Mr. André Carrilho of Portugal.)
Finally, just because V.F. has started putting up more archival stuff on the Web, here is a piece I resented getting assigned to me 15 years ago: a cover story on a young actor of whom, in 1997, no one outside of Hollywood had ever heard—Matt Damon. He and this pal of his, Ben Affleck, were getting heavily hyped for this movie they had co-written and were now about to star in, Good Will Hunting, and it fell to me to hold up V.F.’s end of the hypeage deal. My aggrievedness is evident in the story’s lede, though I’m not proud of the tone that my younger self took; that kid (me, not Damon) should have been damn well pleased to be writing for a national magazine, period. Anyway, I spent a night watching Monday Night Football with Damon and Affleck in Matt’s hotel room in the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan. The boys were still unused to such settings, psyched that Harvey Weinstein was putting them up in a five-star hotel with unlimited domain over the room-service menu and the minibar. They turned out to be welcoming, funny, and thoughtful guys—Damon, a product of a liberal Cambridge, Mass., household, ambivalent about his pending stardom and wealth, Affleck trying to make sense of the fact that his next movie was a zillion-budget Michael Bay epic called Armageddon. (He kept bellowing the title aloud, jokingly, like an irony-attuned WWE announcer.) I also admired the candor with which Damon’s mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, expressed to me her concerns about the whole exercise we were undertaking. “What happens in a consumer society is that people become objects of attention in a way that doesn’t seem healthy to society,” she said. “I’m happy that Matt is happy in his work, but I’m not convinced he has to be on the cover of a magazine about it. It’s a little hard for me to accept. It’s all so out of the ordinary that I worry he might not grow as I want him to.”
The good thing is, Matt and Ben turned out all right.
Last year’s NFL lockout prevented me from enjoying one of my favorite August rituals: visiting the New York Giants’ training camp in Albany, New York. But this year, the Giants returned to Albany, and thus, I did, too, with my son and my friend Peter Richmond in tow. Peter and I, who co-host a “miserabilist” Giants-fan radio show that now has its own Facebook page, are always on the lookout for a training-camp character to become enamored of. Three years ago we found one in a personable fringe prospect with the awesome name Leger Douzable. (Douzable, a defensive tackle, has since bounced around the NFL, getting a few starts with the Jacksonville Jaguars; he is currently a Tennessee Titan.)
This year “our guy” turned out to be a non-fringe guy: Martellus Bennett, who may very well begin this season as the Giants’ starting tight end. Bennett was signed as a free agent after playing four years in the shadow of the Dallas Cowboys’ star tight end, Jason Witten. In Dallas, where he was a second-round pick, he is considered something of a bust, more of a talker than a producer. But Bennett, who has exhibited his art and is married to a fashion-blogging Sarah Lawrence grad, is already worth his roster spot as a fine run-blocker, and, more importantly for our purposes, as a Darryl Dawkins-style quote machine. Early in camp, he talked up his physical condition by saying, “I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, I’m faster than I’ve ever been. I could run all day. I’m kind of like a black unicorn out there. It’s amazing to watch.”
The “black unicorn” comment has inspired fan art and gotten a lot of play in the press. It also prompted me to seek out Bennett at camp. On the practice field, he did indeed stand out: at a rangy, powerful-looking 6' 6”, he looked, if not like a mythical hornëd creature, then at least like the sort of big, power-forward-style tight end that the New Orleans Saints have in Jimmy Graham. Off the field, he was the only Giant to proceed past us in non-athletic gear, in his stylin’ t-shirt (a leopard-print bomb?) and straw hat. Bennett happily posed for a photo with my half-his-size son (see photo above). I asked him, “Did you really call yourself a ‘black unicorn’?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s pretty good, don’t you think?”
My son posed the above question to me recently, wondering why the most African-American-identified sport in the U.S. doesn’t have one single transformative historical figure the way baseball has Robinson. By a stroke of good fortune, GQ has just re-posted in its archives an article I wrote in 2001 addressing this very question.
The first men, plural, to break the color barrier in the NBA were a low-key group, in part because the NBA was still a low-key league, barely on its feet, when integration happened in 1950. Also, the integration of the NBA was less momentous than baseball’s because blacks and whites had already played basketball with and against one another at the college level. I’ll never forget how Earl Lloyd, the first black man to log minutes in an NBA game, framed this for me: “Most of the people who played baseball at that time were from below the Mason-Dixon Line, and most of ’em never seen a college. I mean, you got some guys from down south—hell, their first pair of shoes were baseball shoes! But my teammates were very intelligent, man.”
Nevertheless, for the NBA’s black pioneers, there was still struggle, tension, and the constant potential for slights and humiliations. Not always the stuff of happy reading, but I’m at least happy that, for once, I can answer one of my son’s questions with more than the usual distracted “Uh, we’ll look it up.”
A Tour with Photographs by the Docent, Mr. Kamp’s Younger Brother, David
In 1981, Ted Kamp left central New Jersey for the wider world, unaware at the time that he was a curator. He was simply a young man beginning the journey into adulthood, which would take him first to the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY—its non-coeducational past still sufficiently recent for his father’s more paleolithic friends to remark with lewd grins, “Isn’t that a girlie school?”—and then to Chicago, and then to the greater Los Angeles area, where he resides today.
What Ted Kamp did not yet know was that his mother was possessed of a sufficiently strong sentimental streak that she would leave his oblong attic bedroom more or less unchanged in terms of décor as the years, and then the decades, flew by. Some furniture would be shuffled and rearranged, some closet contents would be hauled off, but the walls—ah, those goldenrod walls would remain exactly as they were left in 1981, which is to say, as they had remained for the better part of the 1970s, since Ted Kamp seldom edited, “redid,” or subtracted from his wall décor; rather, ke kept making incremental additions to his thumbtacked collage of American sports and cultural ephemera. By dint of this cumulative approach to decorating, and his mother’s subsequent willful resistance to making over his room, even after he no longer occupied it, Ted Kamp created an Inadvertent Museum of the Seventies. Come have a look.
The oldest piece in the collection is most likely the NEW YORK KNICKS WORLD CHAMPIONS poster (Fig. 1). It gives every indication of dating from 1970, the first of the Knicks’ two championship years in the seventies, featuring as it does not only the stalwarts Willis Reed (No. 19), Walt Frazier (No. 10), Bill Bradley (No. 24), Dave DeBusschere (No. 22), and Dick Barnett (No. 12), but also Cazzie Russell (No. 33), who was swapped for Jerry Lucas of the San Francisco Warriors at the end of the ’70-’71 season, and Mike Riordan (No. 6) and Dave Stallworth (No. 9), who, together, were sent later that same year to the Baltimore Bullets in return for the great (and conspicuously absent from this poster) Earl Monroe, a cornerstone of the Knicks’ 1973 championship team.
Your docent’s efforts to date this poster were initially thrown off by the presence of Phil Jackson (No. 18, the “1” on his uniform obscured in the photo). Jackson, though a Knick since being drafted out of the University of North Dakota in 1967, missed the entire 1969-70 season as he recuperated from spinal-fusion surgery. Yet he is shown in game action, reaching for a rebound. This is what crossed up your docent, who vividly remembers Jackson playing a crucial if graceless and hirsute reserve role on the ’73 championship squad.*
The suspicions of ’73 provenance were compounded by the fact that Ted Kamp did not ascend to his attic lair until some point in the mid-seventies. It is the hoariest of exercises to trot out a Brady Bunch reference when discussing things seventies-related, but it is nevertheless apt to note that it was on March 23, 1973—mere weeks before the Knicks clinched their second title—that ABC aired “A Room at the Top,” the Brady Bunch episode in which Greg Brady claimed the attic as his own baroquely decorated, single-occupancy bedroom. Precisely when Ted Kamp moved to his new custom-modified attic bedroom is lost to the ages, but it was certainly some time after “A Room at the Top” had aired, and it is not a stretch to imagine that Ted Kamp and his parents were at least partly inspired by the episode to imagine that their modest three-bedroom home’s large attic, if tidied up and retrofitted with electric baseboard heaters and nautically-themed curtains, would be a better place for Ted Kamp to spend his time than the small second-floor room he had shared with his older sister, by then pubescent and very irritable, since 1966.
One can only conclude that the makers of the NEW YORK KNICKS WORLD CHAMPIONS poster generously chose to include Jackson despite his inactive status during the ’69-’70 season, and that the poster sat idly, rolled up somewhere, until Ted Kamp’s attic room and future Inadvertent Museum of the Seventies came to be.
* It’s hard to articulate, given his silken Zenmaster demeanor now, how awkward, shaggy, and perspiratory Jackson’s style of play was: all elbows and flashes of armpit hair, every move to screen his man maximally effortful, every joule of energy expended.
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The WNEW on-air staff circa 1977, with Pete Fornatale second from left.
For a disc jockey, Pete Fornatale had a nerdy voice. But it was soothingly nerdy—imagine the friendly, reedy bleat of Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, only tamped down by Jackson Browne instead of hopped-up on Gospel.
Fornatale, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 66, was the beau idéal of the FM D.J., and I was lucky, in my youth, to happen upon him in his 1970s heyday at the New York station WNEW. In 1977, I was a pre-teen growing wary of the Top 40 AM station that I listened to regularly, WABC: the rote playlists, the noisy commercials, and the unctuous baritones that all their D.J.’s seemed to have, the aural equivalent of pompadours and bad dye jobs. What broke my faith in WABC for good was a family car ride on August 16 of that year, when we heard the station jock on duty announce, in the same brassy, hustling tones with which he’d earlier introduced Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” “Elvis Presley diiiiiiiied today!” Good god, did these men not have souls?
My older siblings were already listening to WNEW, where Fornatale had worked since 1969, and I followed them there. WNEW had what would prove, in retrospect, to be an all-star stable of free-form FM pioneers, among them Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa, Alison Steele, and Dennis Elsas, but Fornatale was the one who spoke to me, literally and spiritually. That voice, which to my AM-trained juvenile ears sounded so wrong for radio, made him seem like an underdog, a dork among the cool kids, which suited my own self-perception. And the eclecticism of his shows was liberating. It wasn’t hip to like the Beach Boys at that time, but I loved them and Pete played them, and he was unafraid to intermarble the strange, twitchy new music of the nascent New Wave (e.g., the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and Talking Heads’ “Pulled Up”) with the denimy, singer-songwriterly sounds of Browne, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.
My brother was on WNEW’s mailing list and late in ’77 received a giant wall poster (above) featuring all of the station’s D.J.’s peering through the windows of an old train car, its exterior graffitied (suitably for the period) with the slogan BUILT ON SOLID ROCK. It was gratifying to discover that Fornatale looked exactly as I expected him to: skinny, bespectacled, and bearded—your kindly adjunct professor of rock studies.
In the 1980s, I fell out of love with radio, and so, it seems, did Fornatale, who felt increasingly marginalized by formatting strictures and the rise of shock-talk. But the streaming-and-podcast era brought me back into the fold, with one station in particular, WFUV-FM, which broadcasts from the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx, enchanting me with its remarkably vintage-WNEW-like spirit. How apt, then, that this station turned out to be not only the very place where Fornatale got his start as a college sophomore in 1964, but also the place where he finally found a proper home again in his later years. (Scelsa and Elsas have also found safe haven at FUV.) Fornatale hosted a Saturday program called “Mixed Bag,” each week devoted to a specific theme; as recently as two weeks ago he was on the air, commemorating the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking with a characteristically all-over-the-place playlist.
The big WNEW poster still hangs upon a wall of my brother’s old bedroom, which my septuagenarian mother has never bothered to redecorate, rendering it an unwitting shrine to the FM era. Pete and his colleagues smile out at a poster on the opposite wall of the Willis Reed-era Knicks, and a few feet away from a tacked-up still of James and Carly from the No Nukes concert film, and near a novelty bumper sticker that reads JESUS SAVES—BUT MOSES INVESTS! It’s precisely the kind of mixed bag that would have made for a great Pete Fornatale show.
Listen here for an amazing 1977 in-studio appearance by an uncommonly chipper Brian Wilson on Pete Fornatale’s WNEW show.
The Super Bowl is two weeks behind us in the rear-view mirror, and “Tangled Up in Blue,” my New York Giants-miserabilist radio program with Peter Richmond on NPR station WHDD, is on hiatus until August. But I couldn’t help yammering on a bit more about my team, my childhood, my adulthood, my father, my son, and the way all of the aforementioned vortically whirl around in my head every time I watch the Giants play a football game. This essay, from The New York Times Magazine, is as concise an explanation of what I’m talking about as I can manage.