This site is about my work, that of my late father, the historian William Manchester, and one thing that still binds us: my memoir Escaping the Giant. It's a story of a father and son and the 1960s.
B.B. King died last week. This is a strange tribute, I know, but nonetheless a tribute. At a turning point in my life, the great bluesman pulled me from the abyss.
PSYCHEDELIC HORROR ALERT
February, 1969, Freshman Year, Wesleyan University
It was Saturday night around ten thirty. I bought a hit of acid from a guy down the hall. Later –too late – I would hear that there was something wrong with that batch. Too strong, or maybe poisoned.
It came on fast and strong, bearing down like a train. I wandered the dorm halls looking for someone who was still awake. I heard music followed it into a room of strangers. The Beatles’ “Glass Onion, ” John Lennon’s creepy report from the other side of 1000 LSD trips. When the downward guitar slide came I felt my spirit sliding right with it, towards the edge of some precipice. I’ve never been able to listen to that song since.
I got in bed and tried to go to sleep. The moment I closed my eyes my vision exploded into a kaleidoscope of dark, roiling diamonds that rearranged themselves in sync with my pulse, sucking me towards the void. I opened my eyes before I was lost. It didn’t seem possible, but the acid kept getting stronger.
The words looped in my mind –I’m freaking out, freaking out. The decades have softened the punch of those words, eroding their meaning, until today you hear – “I got to my car and freaked out when I saw a parking ticket! “ “I freaked out when she showed up in that pink dress!” - from people who, bless them, know nothing of its origins.
Let me tell you about freaking out.
I leapt from bed and ran out into the night down a path at the bottom of a canyon sliced through the snow of a week ago. A zero degree wind breathed death in my face.
I stood in the door of Dope Central. For a moment my sprits rose at the sight of Clem and Ira. Friends! But as I looked at them I went down the chute again. With identical brown Afros and full beards, they looked like twins even when I was straight. Now I saw twin insectoid devils, the ends of their mustaches nozzles that squirted a steady stream of curlicues and periwinkles scything off into the incensed gloom of their den, humming in time with my pulse as they flew.
I said, “I’m going crazy.”
Clem opened his proboscis. His voice buzzed like an electric razor. “No you're not.”
He handed me a pipe. “Here, this will mellow you out.”
The grass didn’t mellow me out. It just turned up the red and green patterns teeming over every surface of the room to vermillion and chartreuse.
I said, “I’m going crazy.”
Clem looked annoyed. He couldn’t exactly send me out in that bitter cold.
But I wasn’t going to be much fun. His face lit up. Crazy. Perhaps there was fun here after all. “How about a little music?”
He put on the second side of the Procol Harem album “Shine on Brightly.” It’s filled with a suite entitled “In held (sic) twas I.” A first person account of a descent into madness, some of it sung and some spoken, against a musical background that runs the gamut from rock to circus music.
I heard a Hammond organ and was instantly transported back to when I was ten and by mistake tuned the TV into a soap opera, “The Edge of Night.” Some dismal apartment where it was always dusk, where the gloom pressed down on the inhabitants, hunching their shoulders down, collapsing their faces into perpetual frowns. They barked at each other in endless argument, though they agreed on one point - life was hopeless. As the scene climaxed that organ swelled -Stay tuned! Back in just a minute, with another round of misery.
I lurched back to the present. The organ was gone. A voice narrated, telling of a pilgrim’s audience with the Dalai Lama. The pilgrim asks, “What’s the meaning of life?” The Dalai Lama says, “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?” I was instantly young, on my father’s lap, hearing him tell of Jack and the magic beans. Life was indeed like a beanstalk, with the Giant sitting up there…
Jaunty circus music, and I entered a funhouse. Steeled myself for my image in a distorted mirror, for what was surely lurking around the corner, waiting to pounce.
The song got down business. Gothic rock, a blazing guitar punctuating the lyric:
“In the autumn of my madness when my hair is turning grey...” Madness. I nodded my head. And then:
I know if I'd been wiser this would never have occurred
but I wallowed in my blindness so it's plain that I deserve
for the sin of self-indulgence when the truth was writ quite clear
I must spend my life amongst the dead who spend their lives in fear.
How could this singer know my story so well? Gobbling a magic bean when I knew better. And punishment, so richly deserved.
A lull, and then the worst moment. That thing lurking in the funhouse. It pounced. A razor guitar vomited an atonal barrage, which leapt from the speakers and lunged at me in the form of a giant spider. As it attacked I held my breath and clenched my fists.
Finally the suite ended, with a reprieve: an uplifting, baroque-rock chorale, evoking the Christmas carols of my youth, if not Bach himself. Like sprays of rain after a thunderstorm that wicked guitar interrupted in places, reminding me that the spider was still out there. But I saw a glimmer of hope that the sun was about to come out.
It was dashed a moment later when the needle rose from the last grooves of the record and moved to the beginning, a sight with the same effect as the blade of a guillotine rising.
As Clem’s grin widened I understood his plan. Ever the scientist he had come up with an experiment to pass those hours. He was going to let this suite keep repeating all night. Turn the thing I loved, music, on me. Keep playing it over and over to see if he could topple me into full psychosis.
It was working. The Dalai Lama, Beanstalk and evil circus evoked the identical associations in me. Except now I knew that the spider was around the corner. Riveting as the music was, a part of my mind was busy making thoughts. Thoughts that I was sure proved that I was insane.
I was a nobody, a nothing. I had nothing. No girlfriend. No success at anything. All I’d ever done was run away.
What I’d been running from my whole life was my father, the giant, who’d recently become a giant before the world. I had become nothing because he had become everything.
The record ended for about the tenth time. In the moment’s silence as the arm rose to start it again, I pointed out the east window, in the direction of the state mental hospital I knew was there. I rose from the floor and stood over Clem. “Take me to the nut house.”
He shook his head violently, and I knew that even insectasoids know fear. His plan was working too well. He scrambled to his feet and shoved me back to the floor. It was freezing cold out there. The hospitals would mean police, which wouldn’t do at Dope Central. The song started again.
What strikes me now is that while my visual hallucinations were quite in line with psychosis, the thoughts that I believed meant I was crazy were anything but. I’d actually never been so clear about the truth of my predicament.
What was deluded, if not crazy, was the denial I’d lived with my whole life. The belief that my parents were perfect parents, our relationship fine. And that I was fine.
That, as my mother often said, there was “nothing wrong with Johnny.” Nothing that wasn’t my fault for being an under-achiever, for not finally giving it that push that would make me that famous scientist they always wanted, that would let me catch up with my father…
LSD brutally shoved my face into the plain truth: Going my parent’s way I was bound to lose. The new way, the Way of the Hippie Prankster, seemed impassable to me. It had landed me here, at the edge of the abyss.
Dawn finally came. I woke up my friend Michael. We went to the dining hall and watched the sun illuminate Indian Hill cemetery. Michael reassured me,
“You’re not crazy. Just had some bad acid. You’ll come down.”
A trickle of gratitude. I was not alone.
By evening I was almost down. Michael and his girlfriend Linda invited me to a concert. I followed them reluctantly into a cavernous building, where my father had once taken me to see basketball games. The floor was covered in black plastic to protect it from concertgoer’s shoes. I stepped towards the edge and it rippled like water, then started churning like it was going to suck me down.
Michael’s girlfriend smiled and said, “You’re fine.” She and Michael took my hands and ferried me to our seats on the floor.
B. B. King walked on stage with a big smile and his precious guitar “Lucille.” That smile never left as he gently sang and pulled silky licks from Lucille. I had a glimmer, then burst of good feeling – something 12 hours ago I was sure I’d never know again.
There at the bottom, where I was nobody, where I had nothing, I’d forgotten something. I had my own Lucille. I’d been right to switch my major to Music. But I’d been neglecting my guitar. I got serious about practicing.
My friend Michael died a year ago. The dining hall and place where we heard the concert. are demolished. And now B.B. is gone.
“Don’t it always seem to go. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” –Joni Mitchell.
I started blogging at Open Salon almost five years ago, with a post (a love letter, really) to Joni Mitchell. As of the 9th of March, OS is officially dead.
Open Salon was a bloggers dream: a platform with a built in audience. I made friends there. A few I met in person, others on the phone, and many through exchanges in the comments. And I learned a great deal about writing. I had started writing five years before. Writing a book, a memoir no less, not knowing how challenging that form is. I ignored a friend’s advice that I might want to practice with a few songs before attempting the B Minor Mass. Ignored all the novelists who started with short stories.
Blogging gave me practice in a short form. Someone suggested posts should be under 1000 words, so I tried to stay under 2000. That alone taught me a lot about self-editing. Finding the wheat and tossing the chaff. As I received comments, and ratings, I began to think about readers. I was mystified by how my assessment of my work wasn’t always in line with that of my audience. I became a little less mystified when I realized that readers have topics that interest them more than detailed explorations of the inner landscape of my cranium. Write about The Beatles, and many readers will come along just for the ride. People love lists. They like hearing about my (once) famous father. They like it when words strike some emotional chord. Love. Loss. Passion. Poetic ramblings about frog life along a country road? Not so much.
Salon published three of my OS pieces on what we OSers called “Big Salon.” Even then Salon had started its long slide into (mostly) the click-bait swamp. But it was a shot in the arm to finally “be published.” And to be told that my piece had garnished 90,000 page views. The Salon pieces led to publication at Talking Writing (edited by an OS blogger), and The Good Men Project, even a paid gig! ($300.)
Commenting at Open Salon was of course a game – you comment on your favorites, and they’ll comment on you. But it was more than that. I could tell what comments were heartfelt. A lot of them. And I tried to return in kind. An Open Salon blogger turned me onto Gillian Flynn, before Gone Girl. More than a few writers made me envious. The good kind of envious, which makes you write better.
I’ve been a lousy blogger in recent years because I’m busy working on three books. I started writing eleven years ago, in which time I’ve become codgerier, tireder, with a memory that’s increasingly sieve-like. But I still have ambition. I WILL publish my books, preferably by traditional means, but one way or the other. And I WILL have readers! Five, fifty, fifty-thousand? Does it really matter?
Death is terrible and sad no matter what form it takes. But I find particular eeriness in the demise of online institutions. Maybe because they don’t feel alive in the same way as a newspaper or a magazine. There’s something insubstantial about a blog where the writer hides behind an avatar. Is it a he, a she, or a bot writing it? And the anonymous trolls that savage comment threads. Could there really be that many hate filled people, or is it just one with different handles? Or more Bots? At the same time, everything online feels eternal. Isn’t that what people are afraid of, the fact that everything posted online is forever?
Content may be forever, but people are not. When the hilarious political satire blog Jon Swift went dark it was because some person named Al Weisel had died. It left a small hole in my life, and I tried to fill it by reading everything I could about the man behind the blog. But there wasn’t much. Doghouse Riley brought curmudgonery to the level of high art. When its proprietor Douglas Case died he left us with nothing but a name. Andrew Sullivan revealed much more about himself at the Daily Dish, but when it ended last month I really felt the loss. It had become my morning source for news and all kinds of weird stuff, after the NYT site.
Fortunately, the death of Open Salon doesn’t correspond with anyone’s demise. And many of the people there are still around, at Our Salon, or on their own blogs. But whatever happened to Scarlett Sumac, Hoop Jr., Bellwether Vance? (To mention just a few.)
I would love to hear from any OSers who want to keep in touch. Please feel free to email me: johnkmanchester (at) gmail.
I’ll be posting in the future at Luminous Muse, my website and Our Salon.
I keep getting tangled up in strange loops of time. I’ve told the true fairy tale of how I came to Mill Valley in the summer of 1970, vowed to live there and then found myself doing just that, 44 years later. But that was last month. Whatever time-release spell enchanted me wore off, leaving me in Oakland.
Or so I thought, until an old friend invited me back to Mill Valley, to hear Marty Balin at the Throckmorton Theatre.
Jefferson Airplane, 1967, Marty Balin top right
I last saw Marty Balin….44 years ago, at the Fillmore East, with the Jefferson Airplane. If Jerry Garcia was my Guitar Hero back then, Marty was more of a personal hero to me. He put fine lyrics to lovely melodies, and sang better than anyone else in the scene (unless you count Janis, and I don’t know that ”singing” is exactly what she did. Shreiking is more like it.) Behind all the stuff Marty did so well was something unique. He was a guy who sang unabashedly about the way he felt. Yes, John Lennon had broken that ground. But everything Lennon sang had a tinge of anger. Marty Balin expressed dark things too – regret, sorrow. But he also did love (and lust) and exuberance.
It’s obvious that the radical 60s were all about liberation – for blacks, women and gays, and from sexual repression. That time was also about the struggle for freedom from emotional repression.
When the Beatles hit and the girls screamed my parents pointed out that “they screamed for Sinatra, too,” as if that explained it. It didn’t. Sinatra and his ilk were all about pretending to express feeling while avoiding it. The way my parents did. The way I did, until the Beatles came along. I heard the Beatles and wanted to be free. I heard Marty Balin and wanted to be him.
Marty had a way of manifesting things that had previously been contradictory. His lovely tenor was androgynous, yet he was no wimp. When the Hell’s Angels started beating on a naked guy at Altamont Marty jumped off the stage to protect him and got knocked out for his trouble. He was smart, a deep thinker, yet when it came time to lay bare his heart he pushed all the thinking aside, and went for the gut.
But what was he doing now? I wondered as we sat in the Throckmorton along with maybe 150 people. Marty appeared with a guitar, a standup bass player and another guitar player. All acoustic, but plugged into amps. At first it was too loud for us geezers. But we got used to it.
They started with “It’s No Secret,” from the first Jefferson Airplane album, followed by some newer songs I didn’t know. They were decent, and at moments through the crummy acoustics I could tell, he still had his voice! That voice.
Marty hit a certain familiar riff and I got chills. I had hoped against hope that he would do my very favorite of his songs – “Young Girl Sunday Blues” from After Bathing at Baxter’s.Baxter’s was one of the only successful psychedelic art experiments in history – five brilliant but discordant personalities dropping a ton of acid at some spa and somehow emerging with a melodious masterpiece that speaks more truly of the High 60s than any other musical work. I was so smitten with “Young Girl Sunday Blues” back in the day that I felt compelled to perform it, despite the ridiculously high range. I could never hit the notes.
Marty couldn’t hit them now, either. So he sang the whole song on a lower harmony. Lesser singers might have copped out to a falsetto, but Marty Balin could no more sing in falsetto than Wyatt Earp could shoot with a pea-shooter. Unfortunately that made the song unrecognizable. All the time he sang the version from the record was playing in my head, and that thing I wanted so badly was just there, out of reach….No, you can’t go home again.
Or maybe you can. Because he followed that disappointment with “Today,” then “Coming Back to Me,” hitting the notes (they are ranged lower) and I was back in some dorm room, marveling at those words, at that unfamiliar tugging in my chest….
He covered Paul Kantner’s “Martha” from Baxter’s, and they extended the end into a little Grateful Dead style jam, and I thought – These are the original San Francisco Sound guys. Or at least one of them.
And then it was onto the Starship. Jefferson Starship is unquestionably a greasy, unclassy 80’s Big Hair band. In the early days of the Internet a number of “Worst Songs in History” lists were topped by “Built This City.” This is plain unfair. I can think of a hundred far worse songs. No, the unreasonable animus towards the Starship is really outrage at the chutzpah of implying this creaky vehicle could ever take you higher than the Airplane.
I like “Miracles,” despite it’s schmaltzy arrangement. Hearing it stripped of strings and Grace Slick’s over-enthusiastic harmonies
I realized just what an odd hit record it makes. The chord changes are all over the place and the form wanders, echoes of the eclectic, searching spirit which made Baxters.
“Hearts” is a well crafted tune, but it has an old standard vibe that threatens to reduce that voice to mere crooning. Still, a couple of days later it’s stuck in my head.
I couldn’t imagine how he could possibly cover “Volunteers” – a period piece if ever there was. Neither could he. He didn’t.
“Summer of Love” is a recent song that does a decent job of capturing nostalgia for the spirit of ’67, but with one poignant note. He sang:
Summer of Love, which I was a part of….
And I wanted to shout, Come on Marty, you don’t have to tell us. We all know!
He sang for a solid two hours, didn’t forget a single lyric, and was plenty pumped, a spry 72. Near the end of an extended encore he really loosened up (I suspect he shares with many great performers some stage fright.) His guitar player laid down a bump-and-grind riff, Marty unstrapped his guitar, grabbed the mike and lit into a most unusual song: “Stripper.”
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine….Take it all off!
He gyrated like a rock star, which was somehow surprising, except that of course he is one. But I detected in his smile a strong note of irony. Smart Marty.
As the song developed it became apparent that this was no mere sex song, but sex as metaphor for the very opening up of the heart that’s always been his gift to rest of us. He made it explicit:
Love is a stripper.
Stripping away all the defenses, all the delusions and fears.
He ended by turning the metaphor on its head, whispering some stuff that made the steamier parts of “Miracles” seem tame. I heard gasps from some of the gals (and guys) in the audience.
I’ll let Marty close this show:
Don’t you know that I have found it, maybe you’ve found it too
Today is made up of yesterday and tomorrow
Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow
My mother was a confirmed atheist. She believed in no higher power, in
nothing that couldn’t be quantified. She barely believed in the existence of emotions. But everyone’s got to believe in something, even my mother.
She was an orthodox liberal who fervently believed in equality. Racism, anti-Semitism, all forms of discrimination and prejudice were deadly sins in her book, and they
all grew from the original sin: stereotyping. Stereotyping arises from a need to feel that my group (insiders) is superior to theirs (outsiders.)
It’s an old, deep instinct. In one of its virulent forms – xenophobia – we can perhaps see that it once conferred an evolutionary benefit, because insiders may have had good reason to fear diseases carried by outsiders. A nasty vestige of this instinct can be seen in some people suggesting that the 50,000 immigrant children who recently arrived in the US must be carrying diseases. Never mind that the same thing has been said about every wave of US immigrants, and with as little reason.
After spending some time in Europe I observed to my mother how interesting it was that the French were great cooks and the Germans lousy; whereas the opposite was true of music. She excoriated me for stereotyping, and of course when it comes to individuals she was right: I have a good French friend who’s a fine composer, and learned to cook from someone whose family came here from Germany.
Since that run-in with my mother I hadn’t given the subject of stereotyping much thought until I started writing fiction. One of my pet peeves as a reader is cardboard characters, and I certainly don’t want to write them. Cardboard characters are two-dimensional, all surface. Rather than be formed of flesh and blood and strong bones they’re made of tics and tropes, the stuff of stereotypes. No matter how much adrenaline an author packs into a story, the story doesn’t touch me if I can’t identify with the people all the action is happening to. You can run a character over with a Mack truck, nuke them to smithereens, but I don’t care if they’re made of cardboard.
How do you write real characters? One way is by becoming a student of other people. By observing how they walk and talk, and listening to what they have to say, all the while populating an inner database of gestures, expressions, attitudes, accents, and yes, prejudices, because everyone has them. When it comes time to write you have a growing body of knowledge from which to draw.
I just moved to California from Massachusetts. I did not cross the great plains in a covered wagon, fighting off wolves and stereotypical native Americans, but flew. The morning of my flight the line at Jet Blue was long, winding around five of those corralling fences. It was too early. I was tired and toting too much crap. And I hate standing in line.
Lines evoke in me an irrational anxiety, a kind of social claustrophobia. One effect is to accentuate my sense of the others in line as outsiders. It’s like I see them through a dingy filter. They look all wrong, and I start thinking bad thoughts about them.
Judging. And stereotyping.
What’s that teenager doing wearing a Foxy Lady tee-shirt? The shirt doesn’t make her any foxier. And what the hell are those people doing wearing Hawaiian shirts, and laughing at 6:30 in the morning? Where’s the TSA when you need them?
A group of guys stands behind me. To now their conversation has just been a low menacing grumble, but they seem to be getting excited about something, and I catch a few words. The Venetian! Vegas! It dawns on me. Foxy Lady and the Hawaiian shirt folks and these guys are all headed to Las Vegas.
They coalesce in my fear-addled brain into a stereotypical group – Idiots who go to Vegas. Never mind that I’ve been there several times myself. Hey – I was there on business! I’ll admit, the lights were a kick, and so was looking down my nose at all the tacky hotels. Paris. The Venetian. Caesar’s Palace. The Bellagio….
Because you see, I’ve been to the real Bellagio, up on Lago di Como (that’s Italian for lake Como, you morons.) I’ve been to the real Paris, and Rome, and Venice.
Bellagio, Las Vegas
They both have water, but....
Looking on those ersatz palaces was when my stereotype of Vegas-goers thrust its ugly head into the light, but its roots went deeper. Back to my mother. Because while she believed herself to be tolerant of people of all races and ethnicities, at the same time she was incredibly judgmental of the actual people she knew – family and friends. And judgmental of everyone else, on the basis of class. She was, in a word, a snob. She had a longer nose than anybody I’ve known, and looked miles down it at everyone with “bad taste.” Which is to say, different taste than hers, which was strictly Modernist. (Probably the reason I came to love all things Victorian, which she despised.)
I know exactly what she would have said about those folks on their way to Vegas. The same thing I was telling myself.
I turned and cast the corner of a jaundiced eye on the group behind me. Guys in their thirties. Vaguelly ethnic. Not Hispanic, but with broad faces….Armenian? I did business with some Armenians one time…. Probably wearing polyester, though with what I know about clothes I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. And then the kicker. Thick Boston Accents.
Judgment city. And then I remembered my new job – snooping, observing, filling that database. And before my eyes these cardboard jerks on their way to throw their money away, or whatever, filled out into three dimensions. Became real people.
They were on their way to a bachelor’s party. Along with about 15 cousins. (Damn, wish I had 15 cousins!) The guy doing most of the talking had been to the promised land of Vegas and was cluing his buddy in on it.
“You won’t believe the rooms at the Venetian – they’re suites! You walk down steps to the bedroom!”
“You’ve heard about the restaurants in the hotel, they’re amazing! But you’ve got to wear businessman’s casual. I brought a white shirt. That works with anything.”
“Good. I brought one, too. What about the gambling?” The second guy sounded worried.
The first guy laughed. “Drop a couple of bucks on the slots, say you’ve done it, then move on.”
The first guy reminded me of myself evangelizing about French Cathedrals and the ruins of Rome. Never mind that their Venice was fake. These guys were no longer part of an outside group, but we were in the same group. Of people searching for that quality buzz, the Higher Ground.
Before you start inviting me to the goody-two-shoes club I should remind you that I’m still a writer. That’s topsay, a vampire. Though I wished those fellows a fine time, I had no compunction about mining their supposedly private lives for my database and using them for my characters. I already have.
"Go West, young man, go West. There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles." Horace Greeley said this, or perhaps not.
How is it that I’m suddenly living in California, after 63 years on the East Coast? I’ve been asking myself this question for the last two weeks.
The easy explanation is that our son and grandson moved here and need our help. True, but it all started a long time ago, forty-four summers to be precise, back at the end of the fairy tale 60s…..
Once upon a time there was a young hippie who lived in Connecticut. Though enrolled in college he was not much of student, for he whiled away the hours playing guitar and reading books like The Electric Koolaid Acid Test. So he was forever dreaming of the Great Wizard Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters who traveled the country in a Magic Bus experiencing unimaginable adventures, gobbling lysergic potions and dancing to the sounds of the Wizard’s minstrels, the Grateful Dead. The Wizard Kesey spoke in riddles. He said, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” The young hippie didn’t know what this might mean, because when he looked around there was not a psychedelic bus in sight.
Then one day he was strolling down the big hill at the college when he saw a bus, and no ordinary school bus, but painted the blue of a robin’s egg. At that very moment the bus door creaked open and out popped the driver, a fellow in overalls with the longest beard the young hippie had ever seen, who smiled and waved, Come on board!
In no time the young hippie was “on the bus,” rolling away to parts unknown. Many hours passed in which he became ravenous. But all there was to eat was a sack of dried hippie cereal. He gobbled it by the handful until he felt a massive bellyache coming on. But neither the bellyache nor the dreary lowlands through which they passed could stop the quivering in his chest that told him some great miracle awaited him at the end of this journey.
Then they drove onto the grounds of some kind of outdoor stadium with an enormous stage high in the air upon which began to appear the minstrel heroes of his youth. It was hard to know which was more wondrous – Buddy Guy, The Band or Janis Joplin. And then as from the pages the book which had inspired his dreams, those minstrels from the legendary bus itself, the Grateful Dead, appeared and played well and sang not so well.
He was invited onto the train the minstrels traveled on, and who should he find eating scrambled eggs and toast like any ordinary hippie but Jerry Garcia, Guitar Wizard and chief minstrel of the Dead. He greeted the young hippie with a twinkle in his eye and agreed to be interviewed for the college newspaper. Soon the young hippie’s eyes where wide as saucers, for the Wizard spoke of wondrous things, not the least the fact that he was at that very moment still flying, having eaten a slice of birthday cake that had been dosed with the Pranksters favorite potion, LSD, as was the custom with the Dead.
The young hippie’s audience with the Great Guitar Wizard lasted long into the afternoon. By the time he got off the train he was sure he’d found that wonderful thing he’d ridden all this way to find. And indeed the Wizard had gifted him with the resolve to make his career in music. And so he did.
Yet something told him that it was not time to return home yet, that more wonders awaited him out in the great land. He abandoned the big blue bus for a small blue bus, a VW camper, and continued west with two friends from the college. Their friendship was fair, and the food was better on the small bus: now they shared once a day a whole pot of brown rice with a can of Campbell’s Soup. Even so the young hippie became hungrier and hungrier as they crossed misty mountains and traced deep dark canyons on their way West.
The young hippie became convinced that the mysterious thing he sought must lay at the very edge of the continent, that the sight of the Great Pacific Sea would be a wonder all in itself.
And so it was. They stood high on a cliff gazing on a vastness that made the Pacific’s sister the Atlantic look pale and piddly as a mud puddle. The sun was about to set and the three hippies simultaneously had the same thought – How much more wondrous would this sunset appear if they could taste of the magic potion?
At that very moment some local riffraff appeared from the beach below sold the weary travelers a potion, which they ate. The great glowing orb went down. As it approached the horizon, already resplendent with colorful jiggles and squiggles, its bottom flattened and oozed to the sides so that it resembled nothing so much as a hat. The travelers looked at each other. Was that it, what they’d come all across the continent for? Did that hat somehow contain that illusive answer, the answer to the question of existence?
They would never know, because like that the sun was gone and they stood down on the beach in the pitch black with an icy wind howling at them from Japan right through their bones. The riffraff who’d sold them the potion did have the sense to make a fire, but soon as they approached it to get warm it blew smoke in their eyes. And the riffraff spent the rest of the night telling over and over of things too boring to repeat, for it turned out they were not only riff raff, but morons.
By the time the sun finally reappeared the young hippie vowed that we would never dark the door of that potion again. And to date he has not.
It was high time to return East to the college, but one last wonder beckoned: the fabled city of San Francisco, promised land of the hippies. Yet when they reached the streets of Haight and Ashbury they found them to be not paved with gold, and as by some curse emptied of every last hippie, with not even an emaciated speedfreek in sight.
Where could the hippies have gone? Another friend from the college had told them of a girl who lived up in Marin north of the City. They drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and were immediately swallowed by the mouth a dark tunnel, and despaired, except that one of them pointed to the rainbow painted around the mouth of the tunnel and said, “I think this is a friendly tunnel.”
And so it was, for they emerged into the little village of Mill Valley, a place so rustic and cute and crawling with granola that they thought they must have dreamed it. They wound up an enchanted canyon through swirling fog to the girl’s house where she invited them in and showed them the stream that ran right through the living room, and as was the custom they cried, “Oh, wow!” And then she further blew their minds by opening her vast refrigerator, saying, “my food is yours,” and handing them her stash, “And these magic herbs, too,” and pointing to beds with thick mattresses and clean sheets, “And here you may sleep.”
To say that they were hungry at this point is to say that the Great Sea is full of water. They smoked some of the magic herb and ate a bologna sandwich, and then another one. They went outside and craned their necks up at red-barked trees that stretched to the sky. And the young hippie pronounced, “I shall make my home here, in Hippie Heaven.”
But the young hippie returned to the college. Many years passed in which he grew old. His music flourished, yet not so much that he was rich. He was not the last to discover that Hippie Heaven, and soon the houses became more expensive. So though he sometimes visited San Francisco, he could never afford to make it his home.
Until now. I’ve been living for the last two weeks up a canyon in Mill Valley. It’s only til the end of the month, as we look for a place that we can afford in the East Bay.
I have long believed that if you want something badly enough, for long enough, you’ll get it. Oakland may no be Mill Valley, but we’re here, in the Bay Area, and it’s a kind of promised land.
This post is an experiment. I normally never listen to music when I write. Like many musicians music can never really serve as background for me. I can’t help listening to it, and it’s distracting to my words. Right now I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s new album Lights Out.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with my nineteen-month-old grandson J.J. He has a limited vocabulary – “wa-wa” when he wants a drink, “whee-whee” when he hears a siren, “dig-dig” when he sees a bulldozer, apparently the most fascinating thing in the world. When he sees anything or anyone else he likes he yells, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and I can’t help but think he’s inadvertently quoting The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” number one exactly fifty years ago.
The world blasts into J.J.’s unjaded consciousness unfiltered, and his reactions blast out, unsullied by second-guessing or consideration of what anybody might think of him. It was the same when I first heard The Beatles. My musical ears were fresh as J.J.’s and I responded with my own unembarrassed “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I joined a Beatles imitation band and in a few years gave up the dreams of parents and grandparents for me and dedicated my life to music.
Fifty years later I’m done with making music and happy to finally be able to listen for sheer pleasure, without studying what I’m hearing. The problem recently is that I’ve got nothing to listen to. My ears have gotten jaded. Nothing’s been doing it for me – not Jimi Hendrix, Nerina Pallot, not even J. S. Bach, my ultimate fallback. Even the most sublime music gets tired when you hear it too often.
The obvious thing is to find new great music. I’ve been looking. And looking.
Today it found me. I was messing around on itunes when in its wisdom it flashed a banner for the new Ingrid Michaelson album, Lights Out, a wisdom informed by my previous purchases of Ingrid’s previous efforts, Everybody and Human Again.
The song that first sold me on Ingrid Michaelson was “Ghost.” It’s one of the all time great pop torch songs. I’m always a sucker for strings, and it’s got plenty, woven into a masterful and dramatic arrangement. I’m an even bigger sucker for a big hook melody, and it’s got that too. Ingrid’s voice whispers, weeps and wails its way through a downright harrowing tale of someone reduced by bad love to a wraith, desperately clinging to the melody like the lover she’s lost.
Like all great pop records I’m swept up in the sound, and only listen to the lyrics later. To find that they’re as impeccably crafted as every other aspect of her productions.
As I moved on from “Ghost” I was surprised to find that Ingrid’s “Ghost” voice was only one of several. Like the great Dusty Springfield she can reinvent her pipes when the song requires it.
And many of them do, especially on Lights Out. Here her songwriting ranges from exuberant pop (“Girls Chase Boys”) to “Ghost”-like haunted (Open Hands) to spooky and experimental (Handsome Hands), blue eyed soul (“Warpath”) to the exquisite and transcendent (“Wonderful Unknown.” ) This last song is about marriage, a sweet memento mori in which love and impermanence are perfectly balanced. The ostensible hook, (“Here we go…”) is a feint that disguises the real hook, which snuck up and eventually knocked me right on my ass. She sings it with husband Greg Laswell, in what I can only hope is a testament to an extraordinary marriage: “In the best way, you’ll be the death of me.” Lurking around the back of the arrangement are the Mellotron flutes from The Beatles “Fool on the Hill.” Almost enough to make me think she knows I’m listening…
I had a bad moment with that hook, afraid I’d just been infected with an earworm. Then came the next song, and the next with hook after hook and they somehow miraculously canceled each other out, conferring a kind of immunity. For now.
For all of the stylistic variations, Ingrid Michaelson never forgets her main mission –distilling emotion to a luscious 190-proof, as seductive and potent as the finest Absinthe, then serving it up with spoonfuls of caramelized sound that remove any hints of wormwood. Because make no mistake, this woman’s feelings run deep and sometimes dark.
There’s an ingenuousness in her voice that confers trust – the trust that she won’t lie about those feelings. It’s a quality that’s sorely lacking in so many female pop singers of recent decades, who emote and caterwaul and perform melismatic acrobatics, but whose real message is “buy my record.” (I’m not naming names – last time I did I got the Pomplamouse minions after me. It was bad.)
Many of Ingrid’s early songs, like “The Way I Am,” display a naiveté and tendency to repetition such that they could almost be mistaken for children’s songs. But the simplicity of her recent work is that of mature art, which comes from paring away all unnecessary ideas and attitude.
It’s a testament to the fallen state of the music business that this artist, who fifty years ago would have been on a major label and world famous, languishes on her own label, and is far from a household word.
Except that as of yesterday Lights Out was No. 3 in all music on Amazon. And right next to Linda Ronstadt, another woman who knows a thing or two about expressing emotion with her voice. (Sadly silenced.)
And so just in time for Easter and Passover and pagan Rites of Spring, music is reborn, at least for me.
So what’s the result of my experiment? It’s got me feeling a bit like young J.J. When it comes to Ingrid Michaelson right now, I’m all “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Nothing wakes the inner child like music and art. Except maybe the outer child.
Until a few years ago if you wanted your book published you had two options: find an agent to take it to publishers, or hire a vanity publisher. The first option was uncertain, and took a long time. The second was expensive, and (after your mom and best friends dutifully bought) saddled you with a basement of moldering books. And perhaps worse, the scorn of published authors, who considered vanity publishing the last resort of a failed writer, somewhere between shoplifting and child molestation.
In 2010 a third publishing option appeared: self-publishing, via outlets like Amazon. The avatar for this new option was Amanda Hocking, a 26-year old unpublished writer of paranormal books for Young Adults. That April she was broke and wanted $300 to travel to Chicago for a muppets convention. She uploaded one of her books to Amazon. A year later she was a self-published millionaire.
Others followed on her heels, and writers took notice. I was among them. I’m lucky to have an agent. One of my novels has been making the rounds of publishers since last spring. But I’ve been writing for ten years now, and I’m not young. So I’ve been looking into self-publishing.
Thanks to the Internet there’s a blizzard of information on the subject. I take it with a grain of salt, because outside of the occasional newspaper article, most of it comes from people involved in self-publishing. Many of them are authors who have taken to heart the advice all writers (including those traditionally published) are given today: create a social medium platform. Self-published writers blog and tweet about…self-publishing. Advising other writers to blog about self-publishing.
It’s not just writers. As in the California gold rush, people have figured out that there’s more money in hawking picks and shovels than there is in prospecting. So cottage industries have sprouted up offering tools to the DIY author: editing, cover art, manuscript critiques, and endless marketing advice.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned. If I decide to self-publish I can have a book up on Amazon in a matter of hours, and begin collecting royalties immediately, at the rate of 70%. If I wait (and wait) for a traditional publisher I’ll get less than that rate – Amazon takes 30% from all comers, and a publisher needs to make money. On the other hand, a publisher will pay me an advance. And my books will appear in bookstores, and might get reviewed by traditional media, things which won’t happen if I self-publish. As much as ebook sales have increased, they are still only 20% of the market.
The arguments of some of the most vehement advocates of self-publishing, like J A Konrath are rooted in the belief that there’s simply more money for the author in self-publishing, and they are persuasive (at least when you’re reading Konrath. He’s a very persuasive guy.)
But mercenary as we writers can be, there’s more than money involved. There’s art. And there’s prestige. I can’t help but think that the intensity of many of the arguments in favor of DIY publishing stems from a chip on the shoulder, the sense that “real” writers are somewhere out there dissing them as “failed writers.” And it’s true.
The real imponderable for me is – who reads self-published books? I’ve read a few in my genre, mystery/thrillers. They’re not terrible, but they lack nuance and complexity, attributes I hope my books display.
On the other hand (and this is an area where there always seems to be another hand) I’ve read about how the traditional publishers have been abandoning mid list authors as they chase the next blockbuster. Some of those mid list authors are very good, and where will they go? To Amazon. Will their readers follow?
For now, I’m waiting. But I don’t have forever.
This post was originally published on Cognoscenti, wbur.org’s ideas and opinion page.
Sometime in the early sixties my father took me to see Pete Seeger at the local High School. It was my first concert, and the first time I’d seen a banjo. What I remember most of that night is my father’s loud baritone as he sang along with Pete, “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union…until the day I die.” My father had real trouble expressing his emotions. It’s the thing that made him such a good writer. He wasn’t a great singer, but singing was another way he was able to express what he felt. We didn’t watch much TV in our house, but even if we wanted we couldn’t have seen him – he was still being blacklisted.
A couple of years later, a month and a day before JFK’s assassination my father took me to see Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan University. I remember his booming voice – I’m sorry to say, clearer than Pete’s voice - but again what most brings back that night is the sound of my father singing along next to me – “We shall overcome some day.” I didn’t know that night that Pete Seeger was the reason we sang that song, the reason it became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
Later as the 60s went crazy and tore a rift between my father and me, I’d forget that the man who railed against long hair and loud music (and for a while anyway, the anti-war movement) had once stood up for the unions, and blacks, when it wasn’t easy. That he’d covered the Army-McCarthy hearings for the Baltimore Sun and stood up to the Senator from Illinois.
Pete was there at Newport when Dylan went electric, and though he never threatened to cut the wires with an ax, that apocryphal story lives on because it so neatly captures the rift among lefties wrought by another kind of ax – the electric guitar. My dad hated them, and I don’t think Pete ever liked them much.
A year or two after seeing Pete play that banjo I saw one next door at the house of the chairman of the Wesleyan music department. I pestered my mom to buy me a banjo, and she finally relented and got me an acoustic guitar, saying “Banjos are too weird.”
I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and got an electric guitar and played in a Beatle imitiation band, launching a career as a musician. I didn’t think to thank Pete, but he’s right there in the chain of events that led to my becoming a composer.
At a left wing camp in 1967, the Summer of Love, we proto-hippies sang “Where have all the flowers gone.” Just as “We Shall Overcome” symbolized Civil Rights, this song found its way into my heart as the best shorthand for my connection with the Peace Movement. Again, I didn’t know to thank Pete Seeger.
The closest I ever got to the Bible in my agnostic upbringing was my dad reading Luke on Christmas eve. When I heard the Byrds chiming Pete’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” over the radio, I fell in love with three-part harmony, and considering the source of the song, thought for the first time that maybe there was something to the Bible after all.
Pete Seeger “stuck with the union” until yesterday. He never gave up on the causes dear to him – peace, and cleaning up the Hudson River. He stood in the rain and snow and protested wars well into his nineties. I still don’t understand why they never gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Most Fridays in the fall of 1963 my father was working at American Education Publications, publishers of “My Weekly Reader.” I was in my eighth grade class.
But that Friday, November 22nd, my father picked me up early from school in his green Austin-Healey Sprite. My father loved that car. He’d grin and say, “Let’s go for a spin,” crank the top down and we’d go flying out over the hills of Middletown, Connecticut. The Sprite gave him license to become a different person from the tightly wound writer who worked all day as an editor, then wrote late into every night. He was always writing. Even at dinner you could see the phrases playing on his lips, almost hear the whirr of his brain.
The air rushing past loosened his tongue, and he told me stories. were another form of writing – its purest.
He told those stories well. He’d aspired to acting before writing, and it showed in the dramatic pauses he inserted to set up the sotto voce hiss of a villain, or a single word sentence for effect, so clear you could hear the period. My memory of those tales is sweet and warm, although they were anything but. His stories were inevitably dark, from the bizarre to outright screaming horror.
We headed to my soccer game, the only sports event of mine he ever attended. Which was fine by me – I was as hopeless at team sports as he’d been as a kid. He was clumsy as an adult, and never overcame the shame of being the last to be chosen when he was young. That Friday I was strangely hopeful what had been missing all along in my game was my dad’s presence. That wasn’t the case. With him there I was bad as ever.
And then the world stopped. Someone stalked onto the field and announced, “The president has been shot.”
The world started again. Now I made no pretence of trying to connect with the ball, because I was blinded by tears. How could we still be playing this foolish game?
Finally, the game ended. My father didn’t say anything about our loss, or about the news. He just got in his car with a strangely apologetic expression, gave a little wave and drove off without me. I rode home sardined into the back of some mom’s station wagon, an extra passenger. In that era before seatbelts, we usually took that opportunity to horse around. Not today. We didn’t make a sound, didn’t move. There was just that voice on the radio, and the faintest candle of hope. Sometime during that ride the voice snuffed it out:
“President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 p.m. Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas.”
The car dropped me at a friend’s, where I stayed for the next four days. I didn’t see my father again until I got home. We never discussed it, but I can only think it was because he couldn’t bear for me to see him do what his father had forbade him to do: cry.
That March, Jackie Kennedy asked him to write the definitive account of her husband’s murder. He’d met John Kennedy on the Boston Common shortly after World War Two, and counted him as a friend.
In the fall of 1964 my mother and sisters and I followed my father down to Washington where he was busy interviewing 1000 people for his book. We lived in a fine Victorian House a few blocks from the Washington Cathedral. My father was pleased as punch that the great journalist Walter Lipmann lived at the end of our block, and Kennedy friend and humorist Art Buchwald lived around the corner. We watched LBJ’s inauguration that January from the window of my dad’s office in the National Archives.
Johnson was the only person with whom my father never got an interview, though not for lack of trying. He told me how he’d go to the White House at dawn and camp out until dusk waiting to nail the president. When they finally met there was still no interview – only the offer of a “bourbon and branch water and the dirtiest joke I’ve ever heard.” (He never told me what it was.)
That spring my father took me to meet Bobby Kennedy, then a New York senator. The senator spent 10 long minutes with a pimply kid who didn’t know the first thing about politics or history. He recounted his recent climbing of Mount Kennedy in Alaska. I was surprised that he was so short. He was the first of a few important men I’ve met who had that knack of locking eyes with you and making you feel like you’re just as important as they were.
My father had an inhuman capacity for work. A colleague from back in the 1950’s accurately tagged him: “Bill Manchester is a writing machine.” By fall of 1965 he’d completed
his 1000 interviews and returned to Middletown Connecticut to write about the assassination. When he later wrote that he was working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, he was not exaggerating.
The work was emotionally grueling. He watched the Zapruder film of the assassination 75 times.
I was away from home for the first time that fall at boarding school, but returned Thanksgiving. I stood numb in the front hall as men in white coats wrestled my father down the stairs and out into a waiting ambulance. He spent three weeks in Elmcrest Hospital across the river. “Resting” my mother told me.
In the spring of 1966 my father finished writing his account of the assassination, put well over a thousand manuscript pages in a large suitcase, hauled it to New York and delivered it to Bobby Kennedy’s people. He was also happiest writing, and immersed himself in the project the Kennedy book had interrupted – his account of the German munitions dynasty.
He was unaware that his writing was about to be interrupted, and that life as he’d known it up to then was about to be over.
Neither Bobby nor Jackie Kennedy read the manuscript, instead handing it to various minions. The initial reports they gave my father were positive, but soon he began hearing complaints that the book was unflattering to President Johnson. Johnson feared – with good reason – that Bobby would challenge him for the nomination in 1968, and Bobby’s people were all hungry for jobs in a new Kennedy administration. It would not do to anger the President.
And so my father was dragged into presidential politics. Bobby’s people started picking at the manuscript, and it went on for months. My father would make
the requested changes, but there were always more.
By the end of July my dad thought he was finally in the clear: He had a telegram from Bobby, which he saw as a green light for publication.
And he was suddenly, unexpectedly rich.
Most of the proceeds from The Death of a President would eventually go towards the creation of the Kennedy Library (over a million 1967 dollars.) All that he retained aside from the advance that he’d long since depleted was the magazine rights. But, they became the subject of a bidding war. Look won for the then record amount of $665,000.
My father took the family up to Belgrade Lakes in Maine for a very well-earned month long vacation. I always looked forward to our vacations, because they were a time when he finally set down his pen, relaxed and spent time with me.
It was not to be.
The phone was already ringing in
a the tiny cabin next to the water when we arrived.
The call was from Homer Bigart at the Times. Jackie viewed the Look magazine sale differently than my father. It was the beginning of a very public battle over the publication of the book.
I’d walk past and hear him his voice raised in anger and incredulity. I barely saw him, so I had only the faintest idea of what this battle entailed. But I could feel something huge going on.
I only remember seeing him once that August. He emerged from that cabin, pale, blinking in the sun. He was grinning. “I just spoke to Henry Luce, who was on his boat. He said, ‘What will it be, Manchester?’ I said two words, FUCK YOU, and hung up on him!”
I was shocked. Like every other boy at my school fuck was a mainstay of my vocabulary. But I’d never heard him say it.
I said, “Who’s Henry Luce?”
My father, exasperated - as if I should know this- said, “The publisher of Life magazine. The most feared man in my business. He’s the William Randolph Hearst of our time.”
What my father told me couldn’t have been true exactly. First, Look won the magazine rights before we got to Maine, so any phone call would have taken place back in Middletown. Second, it was Life’s managing editor, George P. Hunt, not Henry Luce, who was on a boat at the time, and who was representing Life in its bid, and was therefore the man to whom my father would have delivered his answer. But Hunt didn’t have a phone on his boat - that fact was the very reason Life had dropped out of the bidding with Look. During the crucial hours of the auction Hunt had been at sea, incommunicado.
Perhaps he moved around the details for effect, maybe I misremember. At the time I honestly had no idea what he was trying to tell me. Now I do. He was saying that he was now playing with the big boys. Playing, and winning.
Jackie Kennedy, like Bobby, didn’t read the manuscript. Instead she assigned the job to her secretary, who joined Bobby’s people in demanding changes from my father.
It was a David and Goliath story – my father and his agent against some of the most powerful men, and the most admired woman, in the world.
My father flew from Maine to Hyannis, and had a bizarre meeting with Jackie. He saw Bobby in Washington. They continued to demand changes to the book. They escalated. Bobby decided the book should not be published at all. The lawyers stepped in.
Jackie sued my father to stop publication.
They gravelly misjudged their opponent. My father was the most stubborn man I have ever known. He’d been given extraordinary access, done what he considered an extraordinary job, at great cost to himself. And he owed publication of this work to History.
They duked it out on the front page of the New York Times, on Network TV.
My father escaped to London on the Queen Mary. The night before he sailed he heard the former Attorney General of the United States pounding on the door, demanding admission.
They followed him the England. My father got a bad case of the flu. He told his agent, Don Congdon, “I have reached the point where, if the integrity of my manuscript is violated, I have no wish to go on living. It sounds vainglorious, I know, but I am ready to die for this book.”
That fall my father was becoming world famous. I was in my second year at boarding school. My father told me he was afraid I’d get kidnapped, like the Lindberg baby. I laughed. I was sure kidnappers had nothing on the resident bullies.
The one perk of my dad’s fame was that I no
w longer had to correct people when they called me “Mansfield.” Mike Mansfield was the majority leader of the Senate, but he wasn’t on the front page of the Times every day.
My father returned from England and the circus came to Middletown, Connecticut.
Our gray colonial house had a bright red door. Growing up my father bragged, “It’s the only one in town.” It made me feel like we must be somehow special.
Apparently I was right.
I came home for Christmas to find the house surrounded by TV trucks, reporters crawling in the bushes. My father was literally hiding in his study in the back of the house above the kitchen. My mother hated his fame from day one. When the knocks on the door came she said to me, “It’s good you came home. You answer it.”
I was happy to. I stood there grinning, babbling, pleased to have somebody’s attention. But all they wanted to know was, “Where’s your father?”
The day after Christmas his flu turned to pneumonia and he went into intensive care at Middlesex hospital. The TV trucks followed him. One Kennedy person said, “Christ, I thought we’d killed him.”
On January 16th, 1967, my father and Jackie signed a document releasing the book for publication. The Death of a President became an instant bestseller. All of his books that followed were bestsellers.
His fame was a mixed blessing. It allowed him to pursue his passion – writing – fulltime. But he was intensely shy, and though he enjoyed praise, he also squirmed in the spotlight.
One of the great ironies of my father and I is that in 1968 we were together on the campus of Wesleyan University. He was a distinguished scholar in the office the university had given him high in the columned Olin Library overlooking the campus.
I was a freshman living in a small, cinderblock room.
But the contrast between our stations only begins there. Wesleyan was at the forefront of the liberation movements of the 60s. My father embraced the first wave, Civil Rights, taking me to hear Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan just a month before Kennedy’s assassination. But as women and gays started clamoring for rights and as the anti-war demonstrations became louder and more frequent, this ex-Marine dug in his heels and said - enough. He clung to Victorian values, and retreated into writing history.
My first class was English 101.
The professor introduced himself, and said, “We will start with a book by a great American author…” His words brushed against my face, slightly annoying, like sand on a beach breeze. “…a great American author, William Manchester, a man whom I am privileged to call a friend. ‘THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT.’ I sat up straight in my chair, my heart racing.
The professor continued, “Bill’s a personal hero of mine, and I am pleased to have his son in our class!” He pointed at me. I blushed and slunk behind my desk. I didn’t hear another word he said, and when the bell rang I fled and never came back.
People occasionally asked me, “”What’s it like having a famous father?”
And I’d answer quite truthfully – “I never think about it.” The effect that his fame might have on me was too enormous. It was years before I finally faced it.
At the end of that semester I crept to the office of that English Professor. We were both frankly in a bind. If I flunked English I was likely to end up in Vietnam. The professor had another problem. How was he going to explain to his good buddy Bill Manchester that he’d failed his son in English, of all subjects?
His proposed solution was that I read that damned book and write a long paper of it. With only hours left in the semester I read the book in one shot – all 750 pages, wrote the paper, and escaped by the skin of my teeth. What started as an onerous task ended with my honest conclusion that it was a great book.
In the months after my mother died in 1998, a picture of Jackie Kennedy appeared on the antique cabinet behind my father’s place at the head of the dining room table in his house in Middletown.
I never gave it more than a cursory glance until after his death in 2004. Now I did. She appears statuesque, like some ideal of feminine beauty, more lovely than any flesh and blood woman could be in any real moment. Her luminous eyes stare out at someone other than me, no mere man, but some Prince. Her image is as otherworldly, as idealized as some portrait from the height of French Romantic painting.
Why she should have been banished from our house while my mother lived was no mystery: my mother hated her. And not without reason. It wasn’t just that during the mad fall of the Controversy he’d slipped on occasion and addressed my mother as Jackie.
My mother saw Jackie as a rival for my father’s affection.
In flesh and blood, he stayed married to my mother for all her life, through thick and paper thin. But he spent much of his time in a parallel world of mythology – where the heroes and devils of his books fought their great wars, where people appeared as archetypes, where sons still wear crew cuts and daughter dutifully marry. In that world Jackie Kennedy was the epitome of womanhood, and the unrequited love of his life. How could my mother ever compete with that?
After he met Jackie at the beginning of their ill-fated project, he wrote, “ She’s incredible. She’s all woman. You’ve got to spend time with her, to see her in the full spectrum. When she looks at you with those big eyes…’” It’s clear he was smitten.
Later as feminism took strong root at Wesleyan, my old school father clung even tighter to his notions of how women should be. And Jackie came to represent all that he believed was being lost. He wrote, “If she met your plane at the Hyannis airport, she automatically handed you the keys to her convertible. Men drive, women are driven: that was the logic of things to her, and it is impossible the think of her burning a bra or denouncing romantic love as counterrevolutionary.”
My father’s unusual capacity for loyalty is no better seen than in his actions of early 1968. It was barely a year after he and Bobby Kennedy butted heads. Bobby and Jackie had by all accounts “treated him shabbily,” as one player in the Controversy put it.
Yet here he was campaigning for Bobby for president, writing op-eds, speaking at a rally at Madison Square Garden.
In the terrible days after Bobby’s assassination, Jackie wrote him letter to thank him. He attached a copy to the back side of that picture of her. It’s inscribed:
“For Bill - with my best wishes always - Jacqueline Kennedy,” in her fine finishing school hand, and reads in part:
“I thank you with all my deepest heart - for President Kennedy - For Bobby
- For me - For everyone who will ever know or hear of what you did ----
because they will be made better by it - far into hundreds of years from
And you must always know - in these last months of such pain and toil for him - you gave him something so fine
- You gave him just what he was pleading for others - a wiping off of the blackboard of the past - a faith in now
- and a generosity of such magnitude and sacrifice -
Thank you dear Bill - with all my heart - those two pathetic inadequate words - but I mean them so much
- with my deepest gratitude - and always, affectionately
Reading the letter I felt myself temporarily under her famous spell, understood how he could have fallen for her. He hadn’t just cooked up her myth by himself. She’d colluded
The picture at the head of his table confirmed that though once banished, he’d been invited back, would always have a place at the table of Camelot.
When she refers to “what you did” lasting into the future she doesn’t mean supporting Bobby – though that’s the ostensible purpose of the letter, but the writing of The Death of a President.
Ironically, thanks to the terms of the settlement she signed with my father in 1967, the book was long out of print I am pleased that The Death of a President is finally available in a new paperback edition, and as an e-book, which I’m hoping will attract younger readers.
My father gave his all in the writing of The Death of a President, investing part of himself that he and my family never completely retrieved. That’s what lends the book such passion, and what makes it indispensable to understanding the wound that dark day in Dallas wrought on America.
(Part of an occasional series on writing)
The process of learning to write comes in distinct stages, like peeling the layers of an onion. Each new layer first appears smooth and shiny. But over time the surface dulls and spiders with wrinkles. Somehow the layer that once appeared as an achievement has morphed into an obstacle to overcome.
Each Eureka! moment is followed by Aw, shit.
Layer 1: You can write! It’s easy to put words on the page.
Ah, snap! They are terrible. People will read them and know: You are a fool.
Layer 2: Ah, but you can hide behind your words! Embellish and embroider, lay on adjectives, adverbs, diversionary phrases and fancy words, so thick that no one will notice.
Nuh uh. Not fooling anybody. You’re naked under all that armor, and it’s not a pretty sight.
Layer 3: Big buzz! If you feel what you’re writing about, the reader will feel it, and it must be good. So you SHOUT, in all caps, italicize. Gush, turning every sentence up to 11.
Sorry, it’s “Not on the Page.” The feeling. Just a bunch of annoying tics.
Layer 4: You’re finally growing up. Learning to understate. Putting your prose on a diet.
It’s dead, mired in generalities. Because you forgot “Show don’t tell.”
Layer 5: The power of Description! The color of her skirt and the smell of her hair, shape of the clouds and every minute detail…
Way too much. Boring.
Layer 6: Now you’ve got it. Editing. To paraphrase the late, great Elmore Leonard – “Cut out the boring parts.”
And so on down through the layers. There are brief moments when you stand back from your work, the remaining layers miraculously become transparent, and you glimpse your goal at the center of the onion:
And you see there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with adjectives, description, style ,spare or florid. The value of these things is all in relationship to the question: How do they advance the story?
The next layer requires special attention.
Layer 7: THE METAPHOR.
From the first one you birth you’re head over heels, narcissus in love with his own creation. And why not? In metaphors dull words take flight from the quotidian into the realm of the supernatural. And you’ve always been a sucker for magic.
Oh, you love your metaphors. They smile so sweetly, bat their eyes and you’re lost.
But then you notice this odor about them. The smell of darlings.
The darlings that the same cats who exhort you to “show don’t tell” are always saying that you must kill.
“Kill your darlings.” Why? You’re not a violent man. Who aside from Hannibal Lecter goes about that kind of bloody business?
A good writer, that’s who. The danger with metaphors is the same as with the other layers: they can distract from THE STORY.
And metaphors are more dangerous than superfluous adjectives and defensive writing and all the rest, because while that stuff can slow the story down, an over-ripened metaphor can grab your tale by its ears and run it off down the street and right out of town, as your readers eyes glaze over, and prepare to fling the book across the room (Not my iPad, please, Dear! ) Because you’ve lost the thread of the story, and betrayed the reader’s trust.
Which is a cardinal sin in this business.
The potential to highjack the story is intrinsic to the metaphor, because its whole raison d’etre is to diverge from the logical, the factual.
So you vow to cut back on the symbolic language, to stick to a diet of lean similes and near beer allusions, occasionally indulging in a glass or two of organic allegory.
Though perhaps you’re merely in denial. Because what is this suspicious odor of onions, not to speak of these metaphors running down the street.
A meta-metaphor. Sheesh.
Speaking of the street: just now one of those darlings, those femme fatales comes sashaying down your street, making eyes at you, crooking her finger, Come here big boy!
But, you remember, you’re just getting started on that new novel. Novel writing is serious business – no fling. If you’re lucky, true love. But in any case, it’s a marriage.. Once you get going it will not do for this floozy to come barging in, wrecking the story.
But hey. You’re barely engaged. And who will ever know?
No one, because soon as she’s done you’re going to do with her like what’s his name with Sheherazade, kill your little darling, and no one will be the wiser…
She sits by the bed, lights a cigarette, and gets her metaphor on:
Think of your new novel as this rectangular object you want to move from your house
down to the bookstore at the end of the street. A rectangular object, i.e. a book. Except right now it’s more like a dumpster. You toss in ideas, characters, settings, maybe even a theme of two if they fit. Like all dumpsters, this one is plain and ugly and a dull prosaic shape.
And it’s heavy, too heavy to move. So you get a few trusted friends to help push. You brainstorm with them, and you get it to budge an inch or two. But at this rate you’ll all be dead before you get out of the driveway.
Aha! Wheels. You look around the yard and see some rusty spokes and a spare tire with a big hole in it. You cobble together some wheels, mount them on the dumpster. Grease them up.
You shout for your buddies, they come out and with their help you get the thing down the driveway and out on the street. But now they have better things to do. “See ya. Let me know when it gets published.” After all, this is your trip.
What to do?
Odd thing, while you were busy pushing, somebody’s been spiffing this thing up. Painted it nice bright colors, the way you like. And its shape is somehow more svelte.
But the son of a gun is still heavy.
Bingo. You forgot the engine. The lifeblood of the book, the deep emotional currents of love and hate, fear and betrayal. All hooked up the heart of every good story, conflict.
You get the engine in there, tune it up just so until its humming, and what do you know? That darned old dumpster is cruising down the street, by itself. You hop on. Now you’re just along for the ride.
Will you crash into that old Dodge Dart before you get to the bookstore? Will Amazon have shuttered the thing by the time you get there?
Who cares. Because this is the good part. The reason you write.
Funny, for some reason I forgot to mention Layer 8:
See how well I write! Having penetrating the preceding layers I’m ready to impress you with my talent and skill as a writer.
Oops. You forgot your audience. They want to hear a good story. You’re like that guitar player who runs up and down the neck showing you how fast he can play. It’s boring.
Listen to some Mozart. He makes composing sound effortless. Now try to do it yourself.
Didn’t think so.
William Manchester’s account of JFK’s assassination, The Death of a President, is finally back in print after many years. Jill Abramson of the Times wrote an interesting overview of all the books on the subject, concluding with this about my father’s: “The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.
It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book.”
No one writing about the assassination has had as many sources as my father – including extensive interviews with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy. And no book captures the dark emotions still surrounding that time.
If you read it, or re-read it, you may want to give it a review, at Amazon or Goodreads.
By John Manchester
Little Brown has agreed to reissue William Manchester's account of the JFK assassination, The Death of a President to coincide with the 50th anniversary of November 22nd, 1963. This seminal work has long been out of print. Little Brown will also be issuing the first ebook version, and Blackstone Audio the first audiobook version.
When Jackie Kennedy asked my father to write his account of her husband's murder she gave him unparalleled access to sources which he used to conduct over 1000 interviews. Those included a 12 hour interview with Jackie and 8 hours with Robert Kennedy, the audio and transcripts of which are under seal until 2067.
RossetaBooks is also about to publish the first ebook versions of three other William Manchester classics:
Controversy, a collection of essays anchored on my father's account of the notorious conflict over the initial publication of The Death of a President.
The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-72
Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken My father's first book about his mentor.
A few days ago I got an email confirming that something I suggested to someone a few months ago had resulted in a cool thing. Nothing scandalous, but it made a fun story.
Something. Someone. Thing. Nothing. No, this is not an exercise in bad (i.e., purposely vague) writing. Please read on.
So I thought -why not blog about it? I asked the source of the email and they said, “No! Under no circumstances! You can’t write about it!” As I value my relationship with this person, I agreed. So I can’t tell you who or what or when or anything.
“You can’t write.” Not the first time I’ve heard that.
Right about now if you, the reader, are anything like me, or anything like anybody else, you’re getting irritated. Tell me! Come on, just a hint. Promise, I won’t tell anyone. (Sure you won’t.) But my word is good. I Ain’t tellin.
Here’s the thing. You’re not the only one feeling frustrated here. There’s nothing quite like being a writer and stumbling on a good story, only to have someone tell you you can’t tell it. It’s almost physically painful.
You Can’t Write About Me is the title of my first novel. It begins with a guy who’s writing a memoir and calls up an old girlfriend. She’s happy to hear from him until she finds out what he’s doing. She commands, “You can’t write about me,” and hangs up.
He sits there skewered on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Yeah, when they were together it was her life, and she deserves her privacy. But that time was also a piece of his life, and he deserves to write about it. Being a fictional writer, with no lawyers or burly husbands or actual propriety to worry about, he writes about her. Then he writes about other people who don’t want him to. Before you know it he’s wishing he hadn’t. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say he has more than his guilt and a pissed off ex after him.)
Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker once wrote, “Writers are vampires.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss’s book about Jeffery MacDonald, the “green beret killer,” how the writer had befriended the killer, then betrayed him by writing a scathing (and bestselling) expose of him.
We’re all vampires, all of us writers. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit to honing my long incisors before venturing out in public. Never know when you’ll get hungry.
Nobody’s safe. An old, old friend got in touch after 40 years. It was great to talk to him. It was great seeing the PBS piece he sent celebrating a long illustrious career fighting injustice. But by the time I was done watching I’d ripped off his beard, hair and high school sport and grafted them onto a character in my latest book.
Nobody who eats in the same restaurant with me is safe. Don’t talk too loud or I’ll mine you for dialog. And don’t even think of fighting. I love that stuff! Your hipster fedora, your girlfriend’s vocal creak, the exact microbrew you’re right now quaffing are all slotted away awaiting reincarnation in a scene I’ll write.
I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.
I found that telling my truth in a memoir was much harder than I thought it would be. There were living people whose secrets I could not betray. And there were things even the dead did not want revealed. Hardest was finding a way to craft my truth into words that someone would want to read. My biggest problem was that I was too close to the material. I couldn’t achieve the essential quality of narrative distance. And without it I couldn’t tell what was good story, and what was just stuff that carried a potent emotion charge for me, but would just bore a reader. After seven drafts, and seven years –like something in a fairy tale - I let it rest.
And started writing fiction. I didn’t do it because I’d always dreamed of being a novelist. On the contrary, I consider novelists an impoverished, whiny, catty, miserable lot, somewhere in the nether ranks of society between musicians and psychokillers.
It was not ambition that brought me to fiction, but the solution to the problem of “You can’t write about me.” No, I can’t write about you, but I can write about my fictional character Ray, and everyone he knows.
Writing fiction also solved the thorny problem of getting the right narrative distance. I was surprised to discover that my made up stories (which the reader might suspect had quite a bit of real life woven in) were actually truer than my memoir. Yes, the “facts” were made up. But the emotional truth was there. Working at the canvas of a novel I found it easy to step back, see what my brushstrokes had evoked, see the whole, because it was not my life. Not my life, but my truth.
So I’m very sorry, for you, and for me, that I can’t tell you this neat story I heard this week. But if you hang around my work, I will tell it in one form or another. I promise.
Twenty-four years ago my father began work on the third volume of his Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. He died without completing it. In a weeks weeks Little, Brown will finally publish it.
This Sunday's New York Times Magazine tells one version of how it was written:
Early reviews have been stellar.
The second volume of the late Manchester’s Churchill biography (The Last Lion: Alone, 1988) left its audience in suspense with Churchill’s appointment as British prime minister in May 1940 and in anticipation of how Manchester would present Churchill’s and Britain’s finest hour in WWII. Foiled by illness, Manchester tapped Paul Reid, who has magnificently completed Manchester’s work. Opening with a character sketch of Churchill in his multifaceted guises of sentimentality, egotistical insensitivity, and brilliance, Reid dives into Churchill’s war leadership in 1940 that is the cynosure of his place in history. Reid’s got the research right, down to the day, down to the minute. He shows Churchill defying Hitler and appeasers––the French leadership and figures in the British government––who even in 1940 thought peace could be arranged with the triumphant Nazis. As Reid chronicles Churchill’s public speeches, communications, and strategy sessions, he affords regular glimpses at Churchill’s private aspects—his wittiness, sybaritic consumption of scotch and cigars, and moods bordering on depression. If reading Churchill’s life after 1945 entails an unavoidably anticlimactic quality, Reid nevertheless ably chronicles its main events of writing his WWII memoirs and assuming his second premiership of 1951–55. Manchester was one of the best Churchill biographers, and this capstone to his magnum opus ought not be missed.
— Gilbert Taylor
Before his death in 2004, an ill Manchester asked former Cox newspapers journalist Reid to take his research notes and finish writing the final volume of his trilogy. The long-delayed majestic account of Winston Churchill’s last 25 years is worth the wait. Sixty-five when he became Britain’s prime minister in 1940, Churchill remained a Victorian aristocrat, self-indulgent, coddled by servants. Yet his vitality, charisma, and self-assurance made him a perfect leader in a crisis. During his first year, when Britain fought Nazi Germany alone, Churchill, say the authors, may have saved civilization. Once the U.S.S.R. and U.S. joined, Britain’s role declined but not Churchill’s energy. While FDR left war to his generals, Churchill poured out ideas, many of them imaginative failures (the bloody landing at Anzio) or simply bad (early opposition to invading France). Despite Churchill’s unparalleled popularity, his Conservative party was defeated in July 1945. Though devastated, Churchill remained the party leader, returning to office in 1951 to preside over a declining empire and escalating cold war until a repeatedly postponed retirement in 1955. Manchester (and Reid) matches the outstanding quality of biographers such as Robert Caro and Edmund Morris, joining this elite bank of writers who devote their lives to one subject. 32 pages of b&w photos, 6 maps. (Nov.)
A (very) posthumous study of the late, great British leader by the late, great popular historian, aided by journalist Reid.
Just before Manchester (A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance—Portrait of an Age, 1992, etc.) died in 2004, he handed over the task of finishing his Churchill biography to Reid, who retains Manchester’s habit of writing at extreme length, and it’s clear where Manchester left off in his own primary research: Though the book spans the years 1940 to Churchill’s death in 1965, roughly only one-tenth of it covers the “lion’s” last 20 years, while the vast bulk is given over—fittingly enough—to Churchill’s leadership as British prime minister during World War II. The documentation would not pass a professional historian’s muster, but Manchester never wrote for historians, and general readers, as always, will be taken by his boundless abilities as a storyteller. Manchester also saw patterns that may not have been apparent to most other writers. Whereas Hitler was famously known as an artist manqué, Churchill “came at every issue with a painter’s eye,” whether developing a battle plan for the invasion of Italy or “parsing geopolitical matters such as continental hegemony.” The great-man theory of history, too, may be passé in academia, but Manchester/Reid gladly subscribe to it, with an account of the friendship of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (and rivalry with Josef Stalin) that is both searching and unsentimental. The authors clearly admire Churchill, for reasons that they make evident throughout, but there is little in the way of hero worship. Indeed, their critical account of Operation Torch—which Dwight Eisenhower exaggeratedly called “the blackest day in history”—is thorough and convincing, and it does not reflect well on the cigar-chomping PM. The manuscript is replete with Manchester’s journalistic flourishes, some of which cross into cliché, and it’s as much a monument to the author as to its subject.
Essential for Manchester collectors, WWII buffs and Churchill completists.
Up to now I have stayed out of the political arena with my blog. But a recent story brought up some painful memories, and sparked some thoughts I wanted to share. They were well received over at Open Salon, and the editors at the good men project - an interesting and well-trafficked online magazine - asked me if they could publish it there. The piece is Bully.
FINAL BOOK OF CHURCHILL TRILOGY COMING THIS FALL
By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer – 4 days ago NEW YORK (AP) —
The third and final volume of the late William Manchester's beloved series on Winston Churchill is coming out this fall, nearly 25 years since the previous book. In November, Little, Brown and Company will publish "The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965." The new work was started by Manchester and completed by Paul Reid, a former writer for Cox Newspapers. Manchester, who began the Churchill series in the 1980s, was in poor health during his latter years and asked Reid to take over the project. Little, Brown spokeswoman Nicole Dewey said Sunday that the first two biographies had sold hundreds of thousands of copies and that the publisher still receives frequent inquiries about the third book. Manchester died in 2004 at age 82. Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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