things in youth, I didn't realize it at the time.
As Talking Heads -- my first cover subjects -- hauntingly sang, "You may ask yourself -- how did I get here?" How did my level of pop-culture fandom, consumerism, and opinionating rise above the normal American level and become a profession? Simplified answer: childhood trauma.
I was in fourth grade, at Jimmy Strogoff's birthday party.
Everyone else there started singing "Jeremiah was a bullfrog...." They all knew the words. What the hell? I felt left out of some secret society.
Tom Lehrer, The Chad Mitchell Trio, Allan Sherman, Flanders and Swann.
(I will always have a soft spot for Sherman for singing the name "Handelman" in his song "Shake Hands with your Uncle Max." The only other use of the name in pop history was by The Knack.)
And, being the eldest -- just as for a long time I didn't know people got clothes from anywhere besides Sears -- I did not know about top 40 music. But that day I resolved to find out as much as I could. By fifth grade, I remember proudly bragging to a friend that I had bought the new album "Ram" by the Beatles. He scoffed that they had broken up and it was just a solo record by Paul McCartney.
Clearly, I had much to learn.
In sleepaway camp, I befriended a guy named Joe Shalleck. Whereas I lived in suburbia, Joe lived on Central Park West. He went to school with Mel Brooks's son. He knew music, and stereos. (I had bought mine from Lafayette, the poor man's Radio Shack.) I went to my first concerts with Joe: Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden, Jethro Tull (!) at Shea Stadium (!!!). I joined the Record Club of America and was able to buy albums (and cassettes!) by mail. There was a radio station that broadcast within the camp, and I deejayed many rest periods. (I remember conducting a poll to find the favorite song among campers, and that I was sad to play what won: "Magic" by Pilot. )
Blinded by the Light."
That kind of peer pressure/slash/networking exploded during my last two years of high school. Not just Springsteen, but the Clash and Elvis Costello, Steely Dan, Warren Zevon. I subscribed to Rolling Stone and bought records I couldn't hear on the radio, solely based on the writer's enthusiasm: The Ramones' Road to Ruin, David Johansen.
Idiot's Delight, on WFUV), Meg Griffin (who, like Vin, is alive and spinning on Sirius's The Loft).
And when I got to college, I was exposed to even more. My roommate was deep into David Bowie, Neil Young and jazz; the guy across the hall was a Talking Heads stalker. I joined the college radio station (I remember there was a written exam which included successfully identifying who "The Glimmer Twins" were and completing a lyric couplet from...."Blinded by the Light.").
During finals studying period, we broadcast "orgies" of one band or type of music; I did six hours of the Kinks, the Who, movie soundtracks, and, if I'm remembering right, an hour of just songs with whistling in them.
I also had a 6 a.m. shift the morning after John Lennon was killed, and I remember while all the other stations in town were playing "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine," the dark punk in my soul had me spinning "Happiness is a Warm Gun," and "Run for Your Life." Ah, undergraduate angst.
Instead, I joined the college paper (it was also a competition, but my mentor, Jeffrey Toobin, was supportive), and did my first two celebrity interviews: Brinsley Schwarz (above, of Graham Parker's band The Rumour, who'd also had his own band with Nick Lowe) and Julian Cope of Teardrop Explodes (who I woke in his hotel room and took photos of in his pjs.) And when legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael came to campus, I wrote up a starry-eyed tribute. But mostly I wrote reviews. It came naturally, and, as I've said, got me free screenings and albums.
And when I was a senior, Rolling Stone's college journalism award had a "Film Criticism" category. It had been won two years before me by Paul Attanasio (who would go on to write at the Washington Post, and then write Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco, and produce House....) I sent in reviews of a rerelease of D.B. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, Dennis Hopper's neglected Out of the Blue, (starring Linda Manz from Malick's Days of Heaven), and the Jack Nicholson movie The Border. I won.
Clearly, I decided, this was a sign. I was destined to write for Rolling Stone. I sent a few ideas to the music editor Jim Henke (now the curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). He passed, but encouraged me to get in touch when I was in New York.
Bonfire of the Vanities which was being serialized in the magazine [left], is now the long-reigning editor of Elle.)
So I used every connection I could find and started freelancing for other publications. I temped for an agency that placed people at Conde Nast, and worked in Vanity Fair's ad sales department. The women there made an introduction to the editor of the short pieces, and he made an assignment to me about geisha bars (which I knew about because a friend worked at one).
I worked as an editorial assistant at Esquire with the terrific editors David Hirshey (now at Harper Collins) and Adam Moss (now the edtor of New York), and reported the hell out of some very short items on the movie business. After selling the aforementioned Malick piece to California, Moss assigned me to profile the youngest person ever to create his own sitcom:
Moss picked me because he knew I had a leg up, knowing many in the world Borowitz had come from. I buried my feelings as deep as I could. But what Moss wanted was the somewhat Machiavellian story of his rise -- e.g., cannily giving a Lampoon award to Bud Yorkin as a stepping stone to Hollywood. (He went right to Yorkin's show "Archie Bunker's Place," then "Square Pegs" and "Facts of Life".)
Dreams" and starred John Stamos and Jami Gertz and concerned a rock band in Philadelphia. Every week there would be a new original song, like "The Partridge Family."
I remember a chilling moment when the writers were struggling to come up with a joke, and I pitched something. They all looked at me not just like I'd farted, but as if the janitor had acted like he was running the company. It scared me off of writing for TV for 15 years.
Maybe they could have used my help. "Dreams" was cancelled so fast that my piece hadn't even run yet, and Borowitz refused to pose for a photo, so the magazine ended up running a blurry enlargement of his college graduation photo, which Borowitz later joked made him look like "either a sniper victim or a serial killer."
(He did all right after that -- creating the gold mine "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and becoming an internet humor brand name.)
Eddie and the Cruisers, finished with -- I kid you not -- "I Don't Want to Hang Up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes."
I thought, how is this motivational speaker EVER going to live this down. His career is FINISHED. His name? Tony Robbins.
A few months later, I had another gift: it was the holidays, and few of the Rolling Stone staffers were available, and a cover subject had fallen through.
In a scramble, the magazine reached out to Talking Heads, who amazingly had never been on the cover through their heyday -- and David Byrne, now a movie director, had already been on the cover of Time as "Rock's Renaissance Man." This, it would turn out, would provide a goldmine.