The Royal Scam

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As a patriotic American and cultural Anglophile, I’ve always considered it my duty to be disgusted by the Royal Family. Hearing hosts on The Today Show gush about the latest Royal Wedding never fails to get me cursing until I’m banished from the bedroom. Isn’t this why we had a revolution in the first place? I sputter. So why would I bother to pick up a biography of the late Princess Margaret, sister of England’s ageless Queen? In fact, I not only read Ninety Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown, I enjoyed it.

As the title suggests, Brown’s study is neither straightforward life history nor rapt hagiography.  Researched and/or “curated” from around two hundred previously published biographies and memoirs, this book is a meditation on changing attitudes towards class and celebrity over the last century or so. The cumulative portrait that emerges from ninety-nine chapters (geddit?) of varying length, content and tone is never flattering yet always feels fair, even humane, though it’s far from sympathetic. Empathy for a subject (no pun intended) so above-it-all is of course is out of the question. Brown is a veteran British journalist and author with a penchant for irony, satire and terse prose. All of which are entirely appropriate to the task at hand, and put to entertaining use.

Born in 1930, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon existed for the next 72 years in the shadow of her older sister and only sibling Queen Elizabeth II. However, Margaret never shied from the limelight. Petite and pretty, at least as a young woman, over the course of her life she progressed from being considered a national, even international sex symbol, lusted after by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Peter Sellers, to earning a well-documented reputation as a interpersonal nightmare.

After the Royal Family scuttled her engagement to divorced war hero Peter Townsend, Margaret was set adrift, at least romantically. Eventually she married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) whom she divorced in the Seventies, setting aristocratic tongues a-wag, naturally. Later she became involved with failed pop singer and “loose cannon” Roddy Llewellyn, a hapless figure of ridicule.

Although she was attracted to a set of people Brown identifies as “well heeled Bohemians,” Princess Margaret never shook loose her from her privileged roots. By all accounts she was professional snob, virtuoso snubber, Olympian fussbudget and houseguest from Hades. And the accounts were legion. In Craig Brown’s words:

“Princess Margaret felt most at home in the company of camp, the cultured and waspish. It was to be her misfortune that such a high proportion of them kept diaries and more over, diaries with a view towards publication. To a man they were mesmerized less by her image than the cracks found in it. They were drawn to her like filings to a magnet, or perhaps more accurately, cats to a canary.” MEOW!

The Royal Dwarf, as she was called behind her back, vacillated between “easy-going and hoity-toity.” The latter usually won out. She insisted that her breakfast of scrambled eggs be referred to as “buttered eggs” in her presence, amid literally hundreds of other absurd verbal protocols. A human smokestack, she puffed on cigarettes throughout the meals she declined to consume while imbibing single-malt whiskey and gin by the fifth. Chronically late for engagements, she expected her companions to abide by the dictate that nobody could leave until she was finished. And so on, until the break of dawn.

“As she grew older,” Brown relates, “Princess Margaret turned pickiness into an art form, snubbing hosts who offered her items of food and drink that were not exactly what she wanted.” This is almost incredible, as she already seemed to be a master at the craft. “‘I am unique’ she would sometimes pipe up at dinner parties. ‘I am the daughter of a King and sister of a Queen.’ It was not an icebreaker.” Yet despite her rudeness and shallow pronouncements, those well-heeled Bohemians remained sycophantic followers, at least when they were in earshot. The expatriate American author Gore Vidal, unsurprisingly, takes the booby prize here, sucking up to the Princess far beyond the call of social duty.

Still, reaching middle age is no picnic for any of us, to the manor or tenement born. The Eighties were especially unkind to Margaret, as the new celebrity culture displaced and distorted the old class system. “Born in an age of deference,” Brown writes, “the Princess was to die in an age of egalitarianism.” She got into a tabloid slanging match with Boy George and a public one-upping showdown with Elizabeth Taylor. Eclipsed by another, younger Princess, the former Lady Diana Spencer, Margaret’s media profile faded as her health began to fail in the Nineties.

One question remains: why write (or indeed, read) a book like this in the first place? Craig Brown divides Royal biographers into two camps: the fawners and the psychos. The fawners study their subjects and deduce that they are Just Like Us. “They chat, they squabble, they breakfast, they barbecue: praise them! praise them!”

Meanwhile the psycho-biographers “blame the Royal family for all that is wrong with the world, and attribute diabolic motives to everything they do. In this way, they invest them with superhuman powers.”

If this sounds like the way we regard celebrities in the 21st Century, well, it should.

Ninety Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret lands squarely between these two extremes. Craig Brown is neither fawner nor psycho. As for Princess Margaret, she was far from superhuman and nothing like anyone you know. I hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Smiling Faces Tell Lies

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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

— William Faulkner Requiem for a Nun

      Self invention is a process which normally (on the average) occurs in young adults. For people in their late teens or early twenties, setting out on a path in life concurs with constructing — or concocting — a persona. Who we aspire to be mirrors what we hope to accomplish, though sometimes that self-created image becomes warped, distorted or in the most radical cases completely unrecognizable. 

      Enric Marco came to self-invention rather late. In The Imposter, Spanish novelist and journalist Javier Cercas compares Marco to the literary anti-hero Don Quijote, the Man of La Mancha who at age 50 rebelled against his dull life and styled himself a knight in shining armor. Marco’s midlife crisis was far less comedic and arguably more tragic. First he invented a bogus past for himself as a heroic partisan of the Spanish Civil War and then, mind-bogglingly, successfully passed himself off as a Holocaust survivor. Near the end of The Imposter, his fascinating and fraught examination of Marco’s monumental scam, Javier Cercas can barely believe what he’s unearthed in the preceding three hundred pages. “The president of The Spanish Association of Nazi Camp Survivors was never in a camp.”

      Enric Marco’s con job was first unravelled and revealed in 2005 by Spanish historian Benito Bermejo.  Reading about the case, Cercas gradually became obsessed with Marco and began to feel a nagging compulsion to write his own book, further exploring the life of this “shameless charlatan.” But should the book be a novel, or a “novel without fiction” in the manner of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? Javier Cercas’ friend, the great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, “insists all novels tell a truth by telling a lie — a moral or literary truth through a factual or historical lie.” A Spanish newspaper reporter calls Enric Marco “the liar who tells the truth.” To Javier Cervas, Marco is a kind of failed novelist, a man unable to write who by constructing a tissue of lies turns his own life into a malignant fiction.

      Enric Marco brazenly attempts to rationalize or justify his deception as an act of altruism, suggesting his false testimony nevertheless publicized the suffering and plight of actual Holocaust victims and survivors. In The Imposter, Cervas reprints a letter Marco received from a troubled young man who contemplated suicide, until hearing of the imposter’s inspiring “endurance” and choosing life. This twisted take on “the ends justify the means” enrages the ambivalent author, pushing him to pursue a series of interviews with “our man,” this “peerless trickster.” The encounters between Cervas and Marco are tense and riveting, a high-stakes cat and mouse game with profound moral implications.

      Manipulative and dissembling to the end, Macro tries to maintain his virtuous facade even after his fraudulence has been repeatedly exposed.

Me: You’re ashamed?

Marco: Of course. I regret what I did. I had no reason to do it, I don’t know why I did it.

Me: You did it so people would love you. So they would admire you.

Marco: Yes but I didn’t have to do it. And by the time Bermejo exposed me, I was tired of doing it; that’s why I came clean: I was tired of lying. When Bermejo found out that I had been in Germany as a volunteer worker, I could have said yes, but prove I wasn’t in a concentration camp, prove I wasn’t in Flossenbürg. Bermejo couldn’t have done it, nobody could. But I didn’t. I was tired of all the lies and wanted to tell the truth. That’s why I came clean. You believe me, don’t you?

Me: I don’t know.

Marco: Well, believe me, for once you have to believe me. Although at this stage I really don’t care. What I’m telling you is that in my life I’ve done some bad things, but the rest is good, or pretty good, and it makes for all the rest.

      

      In the end Enric Marco comes across both as a monster and, in the words blurted out by Javier Cercas’ college-aged son when he and his father discover Marco’s forged camp ID in the Flossenbürg archive, “the fucking master.” By focusing brilliant white light on Marco’s dark lies, The Imposter simultaneously renders the grey area between fact and fiction that much murkier and difficult to discern.

Playing It By Ear

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For music fans of a certain age, the Sire Records logo triggers primal images of classic punk and new wave album covers. From the CBGB blitzkrieg (Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Dead Boys) and big-haired eighties breakouts (Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen) right up to the era-defining superstar Madonna, Seymour Stein’s once-scrappy indie label stayed on top of the vanguard even after becoming a branch of Warner Brothers.  Succinctly written with (or dictated to) author Gareth Murphy, this autobiography of Sire Records’ 75 year old founder is a bracing read. Siren Song is briskly paced, propelled by a disarming frankness that reeks of authenticity.

“Damn it, kids were growing up with that Sire logo spinning through their teenage years,” he says, “and of the things I treasured most, that thought made me the happiest.”

Seymour Steinbigle was raised in Brooklyn. His father worked in Garment District, maintaining a solid lower middle class existence for Seymour and his older sister. “My obsessive hobby was collecting stamps, bottle caps and trading cards,” he recalls, “anything interesting and flashy.”  The next step was perhaps inevitable. Listening to Martin Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom” program on the radio every week turned young Seymour into a pop-chart pupil. He studied Billboard like the Talmud and then, brashly, began haunting the magazine’s offices in Manhattan. Editor Paul Ackerman took a shine to the teenaged Seymour, eventually introducing him to a visiting record mogul: Syd Nathan of King Records in Cincinnati. King was the home of both gutbucket R&B (James Brown) and hardcore country (Cowboy Copas), ruled by an overweight, garrulous, potty-mouthed, cunning and canny monarch. Syd Nathan employed Seymour first as an intern and then a promo man, though not before demanding a name change.

“It’s Stein or Beagle or back to New York.”

When Seymour Stein moved back to New York, he brought with him invaluable experience in the ways and means of the old school music business.  He’s unsentimental about the days when records were distributed from car trunks and generously stuffed envelopes guaranteed radio airplay from regional DJs. Stein bounced between jobs at independent labels before starting Sire Records with musician and producer Richard Gotthehrer. Through the late sixties and early seventies Sire basically survived by licensing European hits and releasing them in the States. Bidding for major acts was beyond their budget. Working the margins, Sire managed to stay above water with fluke hits like the immortally silly yodeling novelty “Hocus Pocus” by the Dutch band Focus.

“The thing about pop music is that no matter how hard you work the land, you’ll always be at the mercy of the weather. The mainstream scene just wasn’t that great around 1974 and 1975. In England, glam and progressive rock had grown along the edges, but apart from Elton John, David Bowie, Jethro Tull and a few others, not much new English stuff was gaining traction in the States.”

Above all else Seymour Stein prided himself on his musical instincts (as opposed to his non-existent musical ability): his “ears” in music biz parlance. So he was well-placed to pick up an underground NYC band who played one-minute ditties at punishing volume. After The Ramones came the deluge, from New York and once again England, as Sire became identified with each successive ripple: punk, new wave, synth-pop, and so on.

When M’s “Pop Muzik” reached Number One on the Billboard Top 40 in November 1979, Seymour’s affinity for new sounds and strategy of snagging European hits fully merged.

“Much has been written about CBGB in the late seventies, but the early eighties in downtown New York also deserves history’s full attention.”

See? I’m not the only person who feels this way. More from Mr. Stein:

“The early eighties were magical years, blindly pushing the late seventies into a whole new world order and not even realizing the lasting effect all these sounds and global ideas were having on the next batch of kids coming up. It was like the whole music world had been spinning leisurely at 33 RPM throughout the couch bound seventies. The combined forces of punk, disco and new wave had pushed everything up to 45 RPM.”

Siren Song brings the anecdotes; legendary like Madonna negotiating her first contract at the hospitalized Seymour’s bedside, and embarrassing like Dee Dee Ramone stripping down, leaping on a bed and offering Stein his services. Yes and no, respectively.

As eighties become the nineties, corporate machinations engulf both Sire Records and the narrative, rendering the book’s last third mostly of interest to music biz insiders. And while Seymour is unfailingly honest about his troubled marriage and not-so-secret gay life, the murder of his ex-wife Linda and early death (from cancer) of their daughter Samantha cast a tragic gloom over the final pages. But his ears pull him through.

Despite the decadence and disillusion of the nineties music business, Seymour Stein maintains something approaching a healthy perspective. Or at the very least, his sanity.

“Like all the protagonists, I had an ego and a habit of irresponsible, selfish misbehavior. I was certainly no choirboy and had consumed my share of blow…[T]he difference was that I didn’t harbor any dark fantasies to take over labels or companies that other people had built. All I’d wanted from life was to keep sailing the good ship Sire into my own personal sunset. But by letting them all do what they were going to do anyway, with or without me, I was one of the very few who survived.”

Bon voyage, and mazel tov. Thanks for the music.

 

 

New York Drops Dead & Rises Anew

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The front page of The New York Daily News on October 30 1975 carried a headline that made history. FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD communicated the nadir of the city’s fiscal crisis in unforgettable bold-type tabloidese. Eventually the President relented and New York City received some Federal aid (though nowhere near what was requested) to help it stave off impending bankruptcy. In Fear City, NYU professor Kim Phillips-Fein delivers a balanced and white-knuckle paced retelling of the city’s frightening race right up to the financial precipice. Default and the ensuing social chaos were avoided, but at what cost?

The city government’s financial irresponsibility, beginning with Mayor Robert Wagner in the early Sixties and increasing during the administrations of John Lindsay and Abe Beame, is fully acknowledged and documented. But Phillips-Fein points to external economic factors that also crippled New York. Middle class residents fled to suburbs via the highways built by developer Robert Moses while traditional manufacturing bases like the garment industry and the printing presses moved away from New York in search of cheap labor, first to the Southern states and eventually overseas. As the Sixties rolled into the Seventies, the city dug deeper into a money pit, refusing to raise transit fares, eliminate civil service jobs or cut social services, borrowing to pay interest on its ballooning debt. However Phillips-Fein points out fecklessness on both sides, borrower and lender. Banks were only too happy to finance New York City — until they weren’t.

The city turned to debt in an effort to sidestep an open debate over whether it could continue to make good on its efforts to carve out a distinctive set of social rights. New York expanded its borrowing at a time when public debt was growing across the country, when bankers were enthusiastically marketing and buying its bonds and notes. Although they would later excoriate the city for its irresponsibility, these financiers played a central role in encouraging its indebtedness when it suited their purposes to do so.

Born on the Lower East Side to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, Mayor Abe Beame had previously served as the city comptroller and budget director. The former book-keeper got elected in 1973 by running on his reputation as a prudent, less than charismatic bean-counter. Yet once in office Beame was unwilling, or maybe constitutionally unable, to execute Draconian decisions like raising the subway fare from 35 cents or charging tuition at CUNY. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for free tuition” he declared during one of many tense meetings with the banking community.

In the end belated pledges of austerity, and the fancy financial footwork engineered by Felix Rohayton, saved the city from bankruptcy and what would have undoubtedly been a catastrophic aftermath. But in Phillips-Fein’s interpretation, this solution was too austere and tilted toward the upper classes. In the face of widespread protests, some social services were preserved but the belt-tightening was drastic. Cutbacks included closure and consolidation of firehouses, mass layoffs of transit police and street sweepers. The result was a dirtier and more dangerous city through the next decade. Crime and poverty increased during the Eighties while tax breaks fueled high-end development and Wall Street boomed. It’s no accident that second best-known New York tabloid headline (behind FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD) comes from the Post on April 15, 1983: HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR…

Donald Trump and the developers who exploited the city’s desperation to build their towers had little interest in the rest of New York. The fact that millions of dollars went to subsidize their building projects instead of restoring public services or promoting recovery in the poor and working class neighborhoods never registered as a moral concern.

I borrowed this book from New York Public Library, one of the last vestiges of pre-hierarchical NYC. Fear City earns the slightly cliched recommendation that it “reads like a thriller.” I turned its pages breathlessly, though I already knew the ending.

 

Hatereads & Hatchet Jobs

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When I first heard about Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s epic (500+ pages) biography of Jann Wenner, the title threw me for a loop. I get that the connection between the magazine and the band is obvious title fodder but why THIS of all possible Rolling Stones albums? Whether intended as metaphor for Wenner’s grasping ambition, allusion to his sexuality or both, my reaction was: eww, gross.  Since I have history with Wenner and Rolling Stone (fifteen years of freelance writing, staff editorial jobs in the 80s and 90s), friends and family members asked if planned to read Sticky Fingers or God forbid, wanted a copy for Christmas or my birthday. I politely declined for various reasons: mostly because Robert Draper’s history of the magazine, published in 1991, covers the waterfront. Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History documents the (waxing and waning) importance of the magazine, supplies needed cultural context and communicates a sense of what it was like to write or work there, while fully accounting for Jann Wenner’s inspiration and ah, inconsistency. Advance word that Hagan focuses on Wenner’s (bi)sexual adventures and drug use over the years didn’t whet my appetite.

Sticky Fingers received glowing reviews; Dwight Garner in The New York Times made it one of his books of the year, as did Rolling Stone alumnus Janet Maslin. Winter passed (insert gathering moss joke) and I swan-dived into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Fast forward to late March: trawling (not trolling!) for a book at the NYPL I noticed multiple copies of Sticky Fingers on the New Non-Fiction shelf. OK, I’ll try it.

I should have obeyed my first instincts. Sticky Fingers is a hatchet job; in this era of “hate-reading” objectionable books or articles for cheap laughs and confirmation of already held opinions, Joe Hagan is a hate writer. Let me clarify: this is not a defense of Jann Wenner, as either a person or publisher. At this late date my feelings about him and Rolling Stone are neutral. I appreciate the opportunity and experience, more than I can say. But Jann is far from the best editor-in-chief I ever worked for. Nuff said.

Credited by his peers as a dogged reporter, Hagan digs and delivers a thorough portrait. Yet every step of the way, from Wenner’s privileged and unhappy childhood to his forging of Rolling Stone in the late 60s San Francisco crucible to his relentless pursuit of pleasure and social prominence in the 70s and beyond, Hagan accentuates the negative. Of course, Jann Wenner is own worst enemy much of the time, then and now. He wastes money, mistreats employees and business partners (including John Lennon), maintains an abject relationship with Mick Jagger that resembles Trump’s humiliating bond with Vladimir Putin, and of course inhales enough cocaine to numb the minds of an entire generation. Even the positive and innovative accomplishments of Rolling Stone in various periods get cast as flukes or unacknowledged failures. Since I consider Hunter Thompson to be wildly overrated I can’t argue with his sad depiction. But to cite another example: Rolling Stone‘s widely regarded coverage of Altamont, a deeply reported package on the tragic 1969 concert and its era-ending aftermath, strikes Hagan as the latest missive in an personal tiff between the Stones lead singer and Jann Wenner.

Much is made in Sticky Fingers of Wenner’s sexual identity, including by Jann himself. Living as a gay man now, after many years or marriage and three adult children, Wenner readily admits to being tortured by his attraction to men during the closeted 1960s. He’s forthright about his inner feelings but Hagan’s breathless, cynical retelling of Jann’s many bisexual exploits during the following decades keeps it superficial. The tone is more censorious than voyeuristic — almost puritanical. At times this biography felt like reading an account of the 1970s written by one of my Catholic high school teachers. See these people you look up to so much, Mr. Coleman, these rock stars and writers? All they do is take drugs and have promiscuous sex and (whisper) some of them are homosexual…

The assumption is book buyers can’t get enough of this funky stuff, but reading about drug use is deadly dull in my opinion. And writing well about sex is famously difficult. Mercifully, perhaps, Hagan deals with Rolling Stone‘s financially flush 1980s and 90s in cursory fashion, running out of steam, focusing on Jann’s social climbing, belated cleaning up of his act and coming out as gay. By the 21st century and the UVA rape story debacle, the Wenner Media empire is once again threatened with financial ruin. No wonder Jann sold it.

Bottom line is how do you write (let alone read) a book about a subject you hold in such utter contempt? Sticky Fingers is dispiriting, and not in the way Joe Hagan probably intends. I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Greil Marcus: it’s vile.

 

 

Books I Read in 2017

Never a list-maker by nature, I dreaded year-end polls as a music critic. Deciding on a top ten was torture: I’d procrastinate until deadline’s eve, submit a hasty ballot, and then remember my real favorites when it was too late. Reading books for pleasure brings no such pressure. Until recently, I didn’t keep track of the books I read. Looking back on twelve months of reading turns out to be thought-provoking fun, allowing for reflection as well as offering suggestion for future research. Thanks to the New York Public Library and The Strand bookstore for making it all possible.

Dava Sobel – The Glass Universe
Zadie Smith – Changing My Mind – Occasional Essays
Zadie Smith – Swing Time
Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man
Ulysses S. Grant – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant Volumes 1 & 2
Tana French – The Likeness
Dawn Powell – A Time To Be Born
Dawn Powell – Angels on Toast
Dawn Powell – Turn, Magic Wheel
Dawn Powell – The Diaries 1931-65
Jan Willem vänder Wetterling – Hard Rain
Andrew Lownie – Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring
Nathan Hill – The Nix
David Hepworth – Never A Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded
Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante – The Story of A New Name
Elena Ferrante – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Behind
Elena Ferrante – The Story of the Lost Child
Norman Podhoretz – Making It
Michael Ruhlman – Grocery
Mary Gaitskill – The Mare
Mary Gaitskill – Somebody With A Little Hammer: Essays
Peter Mayle – A Year In Provence
Jeff Guinn – The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple
Shiva Naipaul – Journey to Nowhere
Shiva Naipaul – Beyond The Dragon’s Mouth
Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer
Philip Roth – Zuckerman Unbound
Michael Connelly – Chasing The Dime
Michael Connelly – The Late Show
Michael Connelly – Two Kinds of Truth
Jo Nesbo – Nemesis
Jo Nesbo – The Devil’s Star
Jo Nesbo – The Thirst
Stefan Ahnhem – Victim Without A Face
John Williams – Stoner
J. Robert Lennon – Broken River
Don Winslow – The Force
Zeynep Tufecki – Twitter and Teargas
Richard Boch – The Mudd Club
Karin Fossum – The Drowned Boy
Karin Fossum – Hell Fire
Emma Clines – The Girls
John le Carre – The Night Manager
Hakan Ostlundh – The Intruder
Malin Persson Giolito – Quick Sand
Adam Gopnik – At The Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals In New York
Pauline Kael – I Lost It At The Movies
Arne Dahl – Misterioso
JD Vance –   Hillbilly Elegy 

Jussi Adler-Olsen – The Scarred Woman
Jennifer Egan – A Visit From The Goon Squad
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
Adam Sisman – John le Carre: The Biography
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

 

The Village Voice RIP

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Though I was primarily motivated to attempt journalism after catching local appearances by Patti Smith, Talking Heads and The Ramones, my first assignment for The Michigan Daily turned out to be a concert review of a local bar band called The Look. And by this time, January 1979, I was looking beyond the Motor City for literary and musical inspiration.

Indeed it was the deluge of fresh, outrageous music coming out of New York in those days — punk rock, new wave — that jump-started my growing fascination with the city itself. In late 1977 I subscribed to The Village Voice in order to keep up with the scene. Just reading the outlandish names of all those bands playing CBGB and Max’s was so exotic, so exciting in those heady days of discovery: Theoretical Girls on the same bill with Sick Dick & the Volkswagens! Pretty soon I was devouring the entire newspaper every week: the sharp-shooting columnists and critics, the zealous investigative reporting and most important, the weirdly mesmerizing features, where more often than not the writer became part of the story. New York mayor Ed Koch once said, disapprovingly, that “the writers run The Voice.” That’s how the paper read as well, to me anyway. The Village Voice was all about the writers’ voices: highly subjective, slightly anarchic, often political, always pointed and impassioned. Simultaneously I decided that a) I had something unique to say and b) this disarmingly personal approach to journalism was a way to say it so that other people might conceivably pay attention.

Looking back at my article about The Look almost forty years later, I see how totally in thrall I was to The Village Voice. Rather than write a mere concert review I constructed a reported essay, including: a general overview of the Top 40 cover band circuit that also specified how The Look both conformed and defied conventions with their eclectic repertoire of borrowed and original material; quotes from audience members; a brief interview with the band’s lead singer Dave Edwards; and my own (positive) critical evaluation. We were a good match: both subject and writer harbored ambitions beyond their present station. When The Look released a major label album three years later, I wasn’t as enthused about their music but felt proud of them anyway. We’d both moved on from our small-town success to a more formidable challenge: becoming bit players in a larger production.