Leather

WITH MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL’S first work stoppage since 1994 looming, here’s a question: Do your remember your first baseball glove? This was mine:

I remember my dad taking me to buy it at a sporting goods store near Bachman Lake. On the caramel-colored leather was inscribed the name of the manufacturer, HUTCH, of Cincinnati, Ohio; and the words SAIN MODEL. I was 9 or 10 and needed Dad to explain to me that SAIN referred to Johnny Sain, who was then retired but had been an all-star pitcher for the Boston Braves and the Yankees in the ’40s and ’50s. Not sure I ever bothered to find out how good he was — or that sports editors in his era were capable of poetry.

From his obit in the LA Times when he died in 2006 at the age of 89:

His best year as a pitcher was 1948, when he and Spahn led the Boston Braves to the World Series, where they lost to the Cleveland Indians.

The popular saying — “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” — came from a poem written by Boston Post sports editor Gerald Hern that reflected the state of Boston’s starting pitching.

Spahn and Sain were dominant — especially during the pennant stretch — and the rest of the rotation was unheralded.

“First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain,

Then an off day, followed by rain.

Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain,

And followed, we hope, by two days of rain,” the poem read.

During the pennant drive, the right-handed Sain pitched nine complete games in 29 days, winning seve

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Crushed by a Crowd

WHEN THESE crushed-to-death at concert venues stories appear now and then, I am reminded of the scare I had senior year at Brown when some of us drove up to Boston to see Santana at a large club (The Boston Tea Party maybe). General admission, and before the show even started we found ourselves in a scrum being pushed toward the stage, bodies pressing in from every direction, no chance of escape. Could not move. Did not get to the could-not-breathe stage, but that was next. Frightening. I was not going to get to hear “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” live after all, though I know I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about whether I was going to remain alive myself. Then, mercifully, something gave, and it all loosened up. I don’t remember where we positioned ourselves after that, but I know, stupidly, we stayed for the show. College kids. But ever after, I could see how these terrible things happen at concerts, and I never wanted to be in the mosh pit again. Rock promoters rarely gave much thought to crowd control then. Looks like that tradition is still in place. Sadly.

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When Kaepernick Was a Kid

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick will surely go down in history as a profile in courage for daring to take a knee during the national anthem played before San Francisco 49er games in 2016, incurring the wrath of President Trump, team owners and bar stool patriots everywhere. Kaepernick’s gesture, which inspired players throughout the league to join him, was a way of calling attention to mounting acts of unchecked police violence against unarmed Blacks, a way of questioning whether the phrase “land of the free” in the anthem truly applied to all Americans. Images on the nightly news suggested otherwise.

For this entirely rational protest, Kaepernick was demonized by conservatives and blackballed by team owners after he became a free agent at the age of 30. As a result, he never played another down in the NFL despite having abilities many teams could have used. His name is likely to be included with U.S. track Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Muhammad Ali as Black athletes who used their status to call attention to the nation’s racial inequity, risking their careers in the process.

But Colin in Black and White, the new six-part docudrama on Netflix, does not tell this story, only references it while focusing on Kaepernick’s coming of age as an adopted bi-racial kid in a white supremacist Central Valley town in California. This will come as a disappointment to anyone hoping to get the full, ugly story of how an elite athlete with anti-establishment political views was run out of the NFL for exercising his right of free speech. Instead, the series aims to explain how Kaeperkick got woke from the get-go, struggling against racial prejudice in youth sports leagues, having to prove himself repeatedly to patronizing coaches and officials. That’s a story worth telling, too, but here in the docudrama created by Kaepernick and the esteemed director Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us), we get a Scholastic Magazine approach to drama, with narration by Kaepernick, who also steps in front of the camera as himself to provide instructional asides about the history of racism in America.

THE HISTORY is significant, as are the examples of discrimination in his own life, but the two are slapped together in what feels like a middle school lesson plan, with unsubtle storytelling making the same points over and over again, as if the writers were being paid by the page. The NFL “Combine” that inspects and evaluates prospects has been compared in the past to slave auctions, considering the number of Black players on display, but it may never have been caricatured as starkly as it is here in Kaepernick’s scenario.

Jaden Michael is winning as the young Colin if not entirely believable physically as a superstar high school pitcher and quarterback. Veteran thespians Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman get the thankless roles as Colin’s underwritten earnest white parents, whose inner lives and personalities remain well disguised under the knowing, caring expressions they must substitute for character development. By the way, Mom and Dad have two other children about whom we learn almost nothing.

A whole episode is devoted to his attending his first prom. There are complications, as he accepts a date with a white white girl arranged by his parents after his Black crush gets tired of waiting for him to come back from travel tournaments and practices. More interesting and relevant is to learn that Kaepernick was heavily recruited by colleges to play baseball but judged unworthy for football until Nevada offered him a scholarship at the last minute. He had a golden arm but didn’t want to play baseball; he wanted to be a quarterback.

IT’S NOT A STRETCH to believe that so many of the coaches, umpires and other adults Kaepernick encountered in his formative years were jerks and bigots, but the obviousness of their villainy on screen sometimes strains credulity. Was there a director in the house? is a question this Netflix show raises. If so, it does not appear to be the same person who directed Selma. DuVernay only directed the first episode, but she served as executive producer, along with Kaepernick.

Colin in Black and White ends before he even gets to Reno, but we know he set multiple passing and rushing records in the Western Athletic Conference before being picked in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL draft by the 49ers. The football coaches at USC, UCLA, Wisconsin and other D I schools that failed to see his potential get some deserved shade thrown their way. And the series arrives at a happy ending, with Kaepernick reminding us it was his perseverance and unshakable belief in himself that delivered him finally to the promised land — or at least a place where he could be a college quarterback. The NFL would be another story.

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Nomadland

I HAVEN’T READ many reviews of Nomadland, but I believe the praise has been comparable to that of such “indie” successes as Roma and Moonlight. Golden Globes are tonight, though a total joke and this year more than ever with recent LA Times, NYT and Huffington Post stories exposing (yet again) the Hollywood Foreign Press Assoc. as a corrupt storefront of “critics” — like FIFA, built on bribery as modus operandi. But Hollywood is happy to go along with the scam — merely another line-item in promotion and advertising.

Nomadland might get a bump, who knows? But Frances McDormand doesn’t dress up even for the Oscars; I can’t imagine she will get out of her sweats to Zoom the Globes.

REAL CRITICS might try to separate the socioeconomic backdrop of Nomadland from Fern’s personal story of loss and existential angst. To me it was an elusive blend, which gradually took on its own mesmerizing force as the film progressed, no matter that all character questions were not answered or economic factors examined Paul Krugman style. It’s a movie, and a poetic one, with its meaning more than the sum of its parts, or that’s how it hit me and stayed with me.

I was struck by the Times Literary Supplement critic who found echoes of John Ford — and even cinematic quotes from The Searchers— in director Chloe Zhou’s scenario. I need to see The Searchers again. I can’t imagine it has music as good as the restless score by Ludovico Einaudi that Zhou found for Nomadland. Essential to the film’s mood and effect.

I DO BELIEVE if we don’t raise the minimum wage, there will be more caravans of temp workers like Fern grazing across an Interstate landscape stripped of hope and dreams. Not sure why Biden and Harris can’t send the parliamentarian to lunch and push that bill through.

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Tom Jans Revisited

MUSING ON the pros and cons of being an only child recently, I was reminded of the title of an album by the late singer-songwriter Tom Jans, The Eyes of an Only Child, released on Columbia in 1976. I loved that record and used to play it a lot, along with his eponymous debut LP on A&M, featuring his best known song, “Lovin’ Arms,” recorded by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Dobie Gray, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and many others. I had not listened to either album in years and thought I might play them for Elizabeth as she made dinner. She had never heard of Tom Jans but is always eager to learn something new and has great ears. Using my laptop and Apple Music, I entered “Tom Jans” in the Apple Music search field and got back the complete works of Tom Jones. Apple Music’s library of “60 million songs” apparently has none by Tom Jans.

Good to know. Even more reason not to unload what’s left of my LP collection! I still have those two on vinyl, so I retrieved them, album covers, sleeves and all; the only problem was that the turntable is in the other room, and I had to crank up the volume to hear the music in the kitchen. But I did this while explaining to Elizabeth who Tom Jans was, supplementing my own memories with his Wikipedia entry and a few other online biographical sources, as she prepared a beet salad with goat cheese, orange and walnuts. This is an occasional hobby of ours, happening upon a singer or piece of music and then finding how many dots we can connect while listening and scouring internet data bases. Does anyone else do this while making dinner?

TOM WAITS, LOWELL GEORGE, MIMI FARINA AND GARY STEWART are among the forgotten or unknown references that turned up in this quick review of his career. Jans was a songwriter and performer of some standing in the 1970s, a “folk” singer strumming an acoustic guitar, but he also played keyboards, plugged in and toured with a backup band. He was born in 1948, a year we had in common. He was from California and had majored in English Literature at UC-Davis (graduating Phi Beta Kappa) before playing clubs in San Francisco and being discovered by Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina.

He and Farina toured for a year as a duo, opening for Cat Stevens and James Taylor. They made an album for A&M before he went his own way with the self-titled disc for A&M, recorded in Nashville, followed by The Eyes of an Only Child, produced in part by Little Feat’s Lowell George, with backing by marquee talent like Fred Tackett, David Lindley, Billy Payne, Jeff Porcaro, Herb Peterson, Valerie Carter and Jim Keltner. The best.

Little Feat was one of Elizabeth’s favorite bands when she was growing up in Ithaca, N.Y., so the Lowell George connection was an ah-ha moment in our search and seemed only fitting.

Jans recorded a final LP for Columbia, Dark Blonde, that I never heard, though I see now it was produced by Joe Wissert, who produced the historic Silk Degrees for Boz Scaggs. One music website calls it his masterpiece.

BUT THE ENDORSEMENT of music royalty and a hit song for others were not enough to make a place for Jans on the big stage of American pop in those years. After none of his albums clicked commercially, he went to Europe for a while, returning to the states and settling in L.A., at a house in Brentwood. In 1983, he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident and six months later died suddenly at the age of 36 “of a suspected drug overdose,” says Wikipedia.

Paul (“We’ve Only Just Begun”) Williams recited the lyrics to “Lovin’ Arms” at his funeral. Bette Midler took out a full page tribute in Billboard. Tom Waits dedicated the song, “Whistle Down the Wind,” to Jans on his album Bone Machine. A painter and former musician named Robert Florczak, who knew Jans in L.A., posted a recollection on a posthumous website that mentioned he often recorded funny greetings on his answering machine and did a good impression of the singer Nat King Cole.

I SAW JANS PERFORM in Dallas at the old Electric Ballroom on Industrial in 1976 and reviewed the show for the DTH, finding comparisons to Van Morrison in his delivery: “deep-throated blues-colored vocals with understated arrangements…a gutsy sound complimented by genuinely poetic lyrics.” Before I had located that old review, Elizabeth also heard echoes of Van Morrison while listening to him for the first time. On some songs she detected the piano and vocal stylings of Elton John that had not occurred to me but that I had to acknowledge all these years later. Jans was so versatile, and that might have been an obstacle in the biz at the time — not sounding the same on each cut. He could write a tender standard like “Lovin’ Arms” and an uptempo two-step like “Out of Hand” that honky tonk hero Gary Stewart (more royalty) made into a #4 country hit.

Other keepers include “Gotta Move,” “Struggle in Darkness,” and “Green River.” Somebody should be playing these on the radio.

WHEN I SPOKE to Jans after that Dallas show, he said he was worried about the shock and awe trend then powering the popularity of groups like Kiss and Queen. “But there are so many good people around,” he added, “like Lowell, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris and Janis Ian. I guess there’s still hope. Obviously there’s an audience for this type of music and we plan to keep on doing it if for no other reason than I can’t imagine what else to do.”

I have no inside info on Jans’ life and personality and can only speculate on what led to his untimely demise, but it’s sad and sobering to be reminded of how briefly he was here and gone, someone of such talent and promise. Hard not to see him as an unnecessary casualty of the music business — its fast fame and money, punishing expectations and concomitant drug culture — that claimed so many young lives in the 1970s. Tom Jans is on that list, along with Lowell George himself, Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley, Judy Sill, Danny Whitten, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and so many others. But we still have his music, on vinyl at least.

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THE LETTERS OF TOM ADAMS

This is a version of my article that ran in the September, 2020 issue of D Magazine.

TOM ADAMS WAS ALREADY DREAMING of becoming the head baseball coach at St. Mark’s when he sent me a letter from his boyhood home of New Canaan, Connecticut in the summer of 1964. “I’m hungry for that job,” he confided, sharing his eagerness to move up to the varsity along with players he had coached on the JV team during his first three years at the school. He said he had done “considerable thinking” about this and scribbled a prospective lineup: 

  • 1) B. Kohler c 2) MacAdams cf 3) T. Kohler p
  • 4) Rozelle 3b 5) Mitchell ss 6) Nobles 2b
  • 7) Lucas 1b 8) Baldwin rf 9) Heyer lf

“If Olson pitches,” he went on, “T. Kohler goes to 1b and George bats 9th, with Baldwin and Heyer moving up to bath 7th and 8th.” All eventualities considered! He couldn’t help himself. And he had Rozelle batting ahead of me?

“Don’t show this to anybody,” he added. He was 26 and aware that the current varsity coach wasn’t stepping down.

I remember all the players in that lineup, but I don’t remember the letter from 56 years ago. It’s one of 14 that I have from him — hand-written on 6×8 manila-colored stationary — representing our correspondence over my schoolboy summers starting in 1962, artifacts from a previous era of innocence and trust between teachers and students. I stashed them in a box and hadn’t looked at them again until recently, after he died in Dallas at the age of 82.

14 letters from New Canaan

IF THEY WERE TO PUT UP a statue to anyone at St. Mark’s, it would surely be to Tom Adams, a teacher-coach with a panoply of uncommon talents and a personality that was part scholar, part play-by-play announcer, an art historian who was also a one-man Elias Sports Bureau. He arrived straight out of Princeton in my eighth grade year and stayed almost half a century, offering instructive attention, laugh-out-loud irony and friendship to thousands of students through the years, including me, back in the beginning.

As that 1964 letter suggests, he was not just a young history teacher relaxing back home over summer break but a man possessed – possessed by the organizing principle of sports and the puzzle pieces of teams, in particular the San Francisco Giants but also a school team he likely wasn’t even going to get to coach (yet).

“I’m sorry, but I’m hopelessly in despair now and am incapable of writing a decent letter,” he said before promising to write again soon and signing off with his customary “Sincerely, Mr. Adams.”

His despair had to do with a series of losses suffered by the Giants of the National League to whom he had pledged allegiance and entrusted his happiness since growing up with them as the New York Giants before they moved west in 1958. He was 13 when Bobby Thompson hit his famous home run against the Dodgers in 1951 to win the pennant, “the greatest moment in sports,” he assured me.

Mostly that’s what he wrote about in the letters: the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants, whom he followed with tireless devotion, sharing his thoughts, joys and complaints, offered sometimes with ironic hyperbole and what would later be known as trash talk. “Did you notice how the Dodgers went into an immediate tailspin as soon as their ‘invincible’ Koufax lost to Pittsburgh? He’s their leader, but he’s only second best to Marichal who could easily have 20 wins right now.”

HE ALSO PROVIDED REPORTS on the American Legion team he coached every summer in New Canaan. “The American Legion team is 6-8 with 4 games left in the next 7 days. Lack of hitting is the big problem.” And there were his experiences in softball and basketball leagues, plus the occasional golf tournament. He often shot in the 70s. He was Sports Center before there was Sports Center.

I have little recollection of what I wrote to him, but his responses indicate it was mainly about baseball, the center of my universe then. That was our connection. At the time I had not heard of Ring Lardner, but Mr. Adams was like having Ring Lardner as a pen pal. I never had him in class, yet his erudition and playful irreverence surely influenced me, a fledgling sportswriter and student athlete with the ambition to follow in his footsteps and go to Princeton, where he had earned letters in baseball and basketball. He scored 14 points in a first round NCAA Tournament game against Duke. I wondered how he missed being a Rhodes Scholar? At 6’4”, with his square jaw and long-legged build, he looked like he could be pitching for the Giants or playing for the Knicks.

In July of that first summer of 1962, as I was heading into 9th grade, he wrote, in a familiar non-cursive lettering: “As I tried to tell you this spring, Sean, this San Francisco club is now an experienced, mature club that is not going to be seriously affected by a slump or even a key injury, unless it be to Mays.”

A MONTH LATER, in August, he related how he “got killed” in a play at the plate in his softball league when “the catcher’s knee got me right in the ribs as I slid, and I could not play golf at night until Friday.” (He neglected to mention whether he was safe or out.) He closed with, “I hope everything is well with you and your parents…I certainly have enjoyed your letters this summer and any others, of course, will be appreciated.”

Coach Adams in 1962 

The next summer, 1963, with him back in Connecticut, we exchanged six letters. His included such observations as “I guess it goes without saying that the Giants have made me sick, and today’s postponed doubleheader with Pittsburgh just prolongs the agony and frustration.”

There’s nothing here about contracts or salaries, sabermetrics or Willie McCovey’s launch angle (which would have been impressive). The game was simpler and less about money, like the country itself.

 “I just had to let off a little steam, but keep one thing in mind – S.F. is going to come back yet despite their many problems, mainly their infield which has been totally inadequate both at bat and in the field – I mean, the whole infield, too.”

 The record shows they did not come back.

“As for the American League, forget it – any league that cannot begin to pick up ground on the Yanks minus M&M [Mantle and Maris] must have some feeble teams.”

I must have sent him MLB all-star picks that didn’t include a sufficient number of Giants because he responded, “I won’t bother to comment on your biased viewpoints regarding the all-star selections. When you decide to look at things objectively, I’ll consider your opinions worthwhile.” Ha. The bite of his signature sarcasm, which I had learned to enjoy and not take personally.

 THAT SUMMER, HEADING into my sophomore year, I was deliberating whether to continue with football, considering myself undersized for the varsity, and evidently I asked his opinion. He had been the assistant coach of our overmatched 9th grade team that finished 0-6, with me as quarterback. “You have a lot of ability in football, Sean, but your size may work against you in the long run, and you’d never feel it was really worthwhile hanging on. I hope that doesn’t discourage you if you want to play badly…I feel that you’ll be making a good decision either way.” Diplomacy, thy name was Adams. Come September I opted out of football.

 No curves, please

He reminds me in the letters that I was playing golf in the summers before high school, and he was encouraging me. I have only the faintest recall of this and also why I gave up golf until decades later. I’m pretty sure I had never played with him until the St. Mark’s alumni tournament in 2011 when he announced to our struggling Class of ‘66 contingent in his best Les Keiter voice, “OK, on every hole from here on, we’re going straight for the flags.” Which was hilarious at the time and an uncanny flashback to the weekend afternoons of our youth playing touch football, softball and tennis with him while he offered dramatic play-by-play commentary.

HE SOUNDED LIKE NO ONE ELSE, practiced in the locutions of academic authority yet captivated by the archness of old radio melodramas and the squawk of the press box. He invented an eccentric theatrical persona for himself as “The World’s Fastest Talker,” brought to life each year in the school talent show. In top hat and tails he would emit at incalculable speed a torrent of words representing the names of all 50 states and their capitals, the 66 Books of the Bible, the alphabet backwards, the 28 train stops between New York and Chicago the 32 points of the compass and more, his mouth galloping to a finish in under 1 minute, stopwatch in hand. It was both amusing and astonishing.

Tennis was not really his sport but he was often available to play doubles on the courts at school, always bringing along a transistor radio to monitor the baseball scores provided at regular intervals on WRR. If a Giants game hadn’t been updated in a while, he would frown and utter ruefully, “The Cards have been up for a long time in the sixth.” A stony stare conveyed the message: “Don’t you boys realize what’s at stake here?”

Dallas didn’t have an MLB team then, but the Astros were in their infancy and, more important, were in the National League, meaning the Giants had to visit Houston a few times each season. No way he was going to miss those opportunities, and in the spring and fall he hauled carloads of Marksmen down US 75 to see our first major league baseball.

MY SINGLE MOST VIVID MEMORY from all those games was sitting down the right field line once and seeing Felipe Alou, the Giants’ right fielder, scoop up a single and fire a long strike all the way to 3B to cut down a runner trying to advance from first. From our vantage point right behind him, the ball soared all that distance as if catapulted from a rocket launcher, straight as an arrow and almost as fast. OUT! It was an up close and personal revelation you couldn’t get on TV of the athleticism of big leaguers and what they were capable of. I can still see it. 

“Speaking of S.F.,” he wrote in one of those early letters, “they’ve been in their usual June slump of late, but don’t worry about them, Sean, they’ll bounce back on top in due time. I hope you’ll be ready to watch them clinch the pennant in Houston in late September.” I’m not sure any of us became Giants fans, but the trips with him were a blast, playing 20 questions in the car and making up athletic contests for the motel pool. Competition always.

Only one letter in 1965 and a comment about that Houston team: “I notice that the Astros are back to normal – just throwing in the towel game after game. The idea of starting Dierker and Cuellar in a doubleheader against the Phils today is absolutely ridiculous – they might as well not even bother to play the games.”

SENIOR YEAR, WHEN COACH BROWN had a meltdown during our final home game and disappeared, Mr. Adams stepped in as third base coach, travelling to Austin with us the next day for the conference tournament. I think most of the team welcomed his presence and wanted to show our feelings by winning the SPC title. That did not happen despite his best efforts: in one game he was able to read the opposing pitcher’s body language and flash a sign to the plate when a curve was coming. I still couldn’t hit it.

15 SPC championships

In the end I didn’t apply to Princeton, and in the summer of 1966, before I left for a different east coast college, we exchanged two letters. He was in graduate school at Harvard (though commuting back to New Canaan to coach his American Legion team). “Another half-assed baseball season draws to a close,” he said tellingly in his last letter, postmarked August 17. “The Giants are almost as bad as the Yanks. Herman Franks, who I thought did a good job in 1965 [as manager] has gone to pot this year. His best players sit on the bench half the time.”

MR. ADAMS WAS LEAVING ST. MARK’S for what would turn out to be a brief sojourn at Albuquerque Academy before returning to 10600 Preston Road for a run of 47 years, during which he would get that head coaching job in baseball and win 15 conference championships, plus six as head basketball coach. Before he retired in 2011 he received seven yearbook dedications, starting with our class of ‘66.

I wonder now if I ever really knew him? He was the greatest of characters who often seemed in character, more comfortable onstage than off. He once narrated an imaginary title fight between Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and Laotian prince Souvanna Phouma, but he was reluctant to talk about himself — beyond the measure of sports. In those years, in those letters about all things athletic, it didn’t matter. He was smart and funny, considerate and edifying.

 “On my way to Albuquerque,” he concluded the letter in his regular blue-penned script. “I’m going to stop in Dallas Thursday nite Aug. 31 and stay for a few days. I’ll see you on the court.

“Sincerely, Mr. Adams.”

I wouldn’t have missed it.

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About Those Two Paul Simon Songs

I’M IN A WEEKLY pandemic Zoom group with five college classmates, and the other night talk turned to the music that was on the radio when we got to College Hill in Providence, R.I. in the autumn of 1966. Doug John, whom I met during freshman week that September and discovered also knew every song on Simon & Garfunkel’s first album Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., said he could remember the first time he heard “Sound Of Silence” in the spring of his senior year in high school in Honolulu. But it wasn’t clear if he meant the Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. version or the electrified rearrangement that became a hit, almost accidentally. So I posted this follow-up:

In Robert Hilburn’s recent biography of Simon, he points out that Paul attracted the attention of Columbia producer Tom Wilson by playing him “He Was My Brother” and “Sound of Silence.” Both ended up on Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. released in Oct. 1964 (when we were juniors in HS). The LP was a disappointment, sold only a few thousand copies apparently, and no one much noticed “Sound of Silence.” Not sure how I knew about it, but I bought the album and remember taking it to school and sharing it with another guitar player, David Laney, who later became head of Amtrak under George W. Bush. But that’s another story.

THE ONLY AIRPLAY the original, un-amplified “Sound of Silence” got was in Boston on one station and later in Florida during spring break 1965, but that was enough encouragement for Tom Wilson, who heard the world changing in the Byrds’ rendition of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and thought maybe “Sound of Silence” could use some of that. Wilson, a Harvard-educated African-American from Waco who was into jazz, had produced Dylan’s rock breakthrough “Like a Rolling Stone” and was leaving Columbia. But as a last act, he hired session players to overdub the original 1964 acoustic tracks of “Sound of Silence” from Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. S&G were not even there. Paul had moved to England. Columbia released the reworked version as a single in January of 1966 and the rest is history. As it rose on the charts, Columbia rushed Paul and Artie back into the studio to record a new folk-rock album with “Sound of Silence” as the banner, the album title making the phrase plural, SOUNDS of Silence.

I hadn’t heard Sounds of Silence in a while, got it out and listened this morning. (The original album cover shows the two of them in winter coats and scarves heading up a dark, brush-lined trail that I assumed to be Central Park but in fact was in a rustic area near the Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A.) Produced by Bob Johnston, the Texan who was working with Dylan at Columbia, it’s a little noisy and rock aspirational, though it includes the elegant “April Come She Will” that almost seems out of place. “Richard Cory” is a harsh rebuke of egotistical American affluence and ends with Richard Cory “putting a bullet through his head.” And there’s a second song about suicide, “A Most Peculiar Man.” Had forgotten those details. Pop music was moving on from Be-Bob-a-Lula, and Simon & Garfunkel were a thing.

Footnote: Tom Wilson died of a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 47, but what a legacy: In addition to working with major jazz innovators like Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, he produced “Sound of Silence” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Good grief.

I DON’T RECALL the first time I heard “Sound of Silence” (either version), but I do remember the first time I heard Simon’s other anthem, “Bridge over Troubled Water.” The album with “Bridge” as the title song was released in January of 1970, but S&G previewed the song during a TV special on CBS in November, 1969, called The Songs of America. I watched it in the TV room of my fraternity (in black and white) and will never forget it.

S&G had decided not to do a typical TV special but to illustrate the rough patch America was going through. “Bridge” played over footage of the slain Martin Luther King and the funeral train of Bobby Kennedy. To this day when I hear the line “Sail on, silver girl…” I think of the emotional sight of that long train moving forward (when in fact Simon reportedly had added that verse in the studio, and “silver girl” referred to his wife Peggy’s first gray hairs). The power of the song was instant for me but apparently many Americans were unmoved, found the show too downbeat and changed channels, according to this account from the BBC:

Songs of America was screened on the eve of the country’s first draft lottery since World War Two, amid the years of the My Lai massacre, the Manson murders, the Days of Rage demonstrations in Chicago and the anti-Vietnam War March Against Death in Washington DC. But the average CBS viewer didn’t want to see the world crumbling. The heaviest sequence was a dark twist on the film’s travelogue theme, juxtaposing clips of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King on the campaign trail with footage of mourners watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train go by. The musical accompaniment was unfamiliar: a kind of white gospel song, stately and hymn-like, building to a shattering climax as the long black train sped through America’s broken heart. One million viewers responded by turning the dial and watching the figure skating on NBC instead. Some sent hate mail. Songs of America wouldn’t be seen again for over 40 years. This was the US public’s inauspicious introduction to what would become one of the defining songs of the 1970s and beyond: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Footnote 2: Simon composed the song with Garfunkel’s high register in mind, but was not happy when in concert Garfunkel would bow and bathe in the adulation at the conclusion without signaling that Paul had written it, allowing the audience to believe it was co-authored.

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Jack Mathews Set the Standard

I’VE KNOWN and worked with my share of talented journalists; Jack Mathews was at the top of the heap. He died in May of pancreatic cancer, foregoing life-extending treatments after he got the diagnosis a month before. “Now that the shock has subsided,” he wrote to me, “I feel okay with this. I lived in relative good health (measured by my ability to play golf) to 80, and so far past my expiration date (as measured by family history), I feel I’ve stolen time. I don’t intend to borrow more time through chemo and radiation.” And there it was.

I once wrote in the introduction to a book that Jack set the standard, certainly in the arts and culture corner of the newspaper universe. Before I met him, when I was at the Herald Examiner, I read and admired his film industry column in the Los Angeles Times. When I wrote “Why the News from Hollywood Always Wears a Tan” for the Washington Journalism Review, examining the power of publicists in Hollywood and the learned obeisance of most reporters under their thumbs, I singled him out as an exception. He was habitually resistant to major studio spin, smart and irreverent without being mean. He had a nose for a story and didn’t just regurgitate the official versions of the truth or kowtow to celebrity, an occupational hazard in L.A.

A FIVE TOOL JOURNALIST

A COUPLE YEARS LATER, when I began to write for the Times, I got to know him and found him to be very much like his copy, an unapologetic everyman in a city of masks and poses. He had a considerable knowledge of movies and their history – much greater than mine – but he was a journalist first, with wide-ranging interests and a Hemingway bullshit detector. He could have written about anything, including sports and current events. I sensed in him a kindred spirit and we became friends. For a short period he was my editor, and though circumstances soon sent us both elsewhere, we remained close for 30 years.

Jack’s sport was golf, but I thought of him in baseball terms as a “five tool player.” He was a gifted writer with an economy of style I envied; he was a reliable and entertaining critic; he could go long with ease in magazine pieces; he was fast (I really envied that); and he was an able and judicious editor. He was a no-doubt-about-it journalism all-star and should have won a Pulitzer somewhere along the way. He wasn’t given to self-promotion (another reason I liked him), and that might explain the oversight, but in truth there was no Pulitzer category wide enough for him and his skills. There’s not a paper in America that would not have wanted him on its team.

We came from very different backgrounds, and he was a bit older than me, but we shared a general world view and often similar opinions about politics, writers and people inside the trade and out. We both longed to write things other than newspaper and magazine articles and we encouraged each other’s efforts, sharing manuscripts and ideas. Hearing his praise of something I was working on was like getting a Vitamin B shot, in part because, as mentioned, he was no bullshitter. It was easy enough for me to return the compliment because his prose was something I always looked forward to reading, and he had much more to say than he could get into a newspaper column.

HE DID PUBLISH a nonfiction book, The Battle of Brazil, about Monty Python alumnus turned movie director Terry Gilliam’s war with Universal over the release of that satirical 1985 film, but I thought he had at least one novel in him and that it might be drawn from his unlikely personal knowledge of auto racing. Being a regular at Cannes for two decades obscured the biographical detail that Jack was a graduate of the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, something he had done to better equip him for his job in public relations at the Riverside International Raceway earlier in his life. He loved racing, and it gave him something to talk about with Paul Newman, another Bondurant graduate.

He hoped to publish a memoir about his experiences as a reporter visiting movie sets all over the world, observing such marquee names as Newman, Clint Eastwood, Rod Steiger, Darryl Hannah and others at work and play. “I know, many not-so-famous people have stories to tell about encounters with really famous people,” he wrote in a pitch to an agent. “Mine are unique as a movie critic, because I was more interested in how movies were made than in how they turned out and I traveled the world learning that.”

It was a good read and then some. But the “not-so-famous” thing was a problem. Though he had been a leading critic and reporter at the Los Angeles TimesNewsday, USA Today and The New York Daily News, Jack didn’t have a Q-rating high enough to get him a second chance in the celebrity-heavy book business.

HE GREW UP in a working-class neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles, far from the exalted realm of Hollywood he would later visit as a reporter. A few years ago I was writing a piece about stopping a bar fight, and I asked half a dozen male friends if they had ever been in a fist fight. Jack was the only one to raise his hand. He’d been in several — as a young man, with guys from his old neighborhood. 

He often lamented that his childhood buddies, as they aged, became arch conservatives, to the extent he could not discuss politics with them at all when they gathered for reunions. He and I exchanged countless emails about the presidential primaries in 2016 and again in 2020. We both saw the appeal of Bernie Sanders in a nation riven by inequality and gasping for breath under the weight of Capitol Hill-endorsed oligarchy. And we shared our dismay at watching the establishment-aligned DNC block him out twice. In between was the 24/7 outrage of the hideous bully in the Oval Office, a Constitution-shredding mob boss who soon became too awful for words. But Jack found some: “Trump is that rarest of capitalist creatures, a billionaire lowlife.”

When, last spring, the deceiver-in-chief began his daily briefings to camouflage his inept response to the Covid-19 virus, Jack wrote to me, “Every time he gets in front of the camera, I get the sinking feeling of seeing a bride’s drunk uncle rise at her reception to tell the crowd how he used to pinch her bottom and make her squeal. The looks on the other guests’ faces would match those behind Trump when he assures America that this will all be over by Easter.”

AFTER LEAVING his last job as movie critic for the Daily News in New York, Jack retired to a small town on the coast of Oregon with his wife, Cindy, and son, Darren. I visited him there once in 2011, on a trip with my son, Devin, who was scouting Oregon colleges. That’s the last time I saw him. I had hoped not only to see him again, but to finally get to play golf together. We had talked about it. He was an accomplished golfer and had played his whole life; I was a late-arriving neophyte who shared my frustrations with him over the phone and depended on him for tips and insights into the PGA Tour and its history.

In our last conversation, when he told me he had come to terms with his diagnosis and was not going to prolong the inevitable, he was appreciating that he had “lived a good life.” He only wished he could hang around long enough to see Trump voted out of office. The Orange Man would not make a good bookend. “I hate the thought of dying with him in the White House,” he said. “Because when I was born, F.D.R. was president.”

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Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

When my 50th college reunion at Brown was cancelled in May due to the pandemic, a virtual symposium was held on Zoom addressing the topic “Did Our Generation Fail?” I think the answer was Yes, but under the circumstances the verdict was rendered indirectly and diplomatically by the five panel members. I wish I had submitted as evidence the following excerpt from a late chapter in All People Are Famous, the 1974 autobiography by the eminent theater director and critic Harold Clurman, discussing “the younger generation” (us) and quoting from a letter of Anton Chekhov’s: “As long as our boys and girls are still students, they are still honest and good, they’re our hope, our future; but as soon as those students have to stand on their own and grow up, our future goes up in smoke, and all that’s left of the future are cottage-owning doctors, rapacious public officials, and thieving engineers.”

Clurman: “It would surely prove historically disastrous if the generation with a will to change society were to cool off into a neurotic complacency or into the quiet desperation Thoreau spoke of. I ask my students to bank their fires and to clean their weapons of language and thought and use them for something more than a parade.”

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George W.S. Trow

For Jeff Unger:

I was sort of startled by tripping my way yesterday to the unexpected subject of George W.S. Trow, who turns out to be a figure of interest to me now. As they say, Who knew? I suspect I might not have liked him if I knew him personally (just a hunch) but from a distance he looks significant, however thoroughly his intellectual remains have been swept off the beach. The description of his big book about television, In the Context of No Context, or something to that effect, makes me want to read it or at least look at it. I found a long article about him in The Nation, published just last year, so I guess he’s not entirely forgotten. The article posited that he wasn’t so much trumpeting his own pre-Tina Brown/Roseanne Barr literary aesthetic as superior so much as conceding it was inevitably being supplanted by the inescapable sensibility of TV. (Which itself would be supplanted or subsumed by social media.) It’s all a process, he was merely observing. Which is probably true but depressing all the same. 

However resigned he was to this cultural transformation in print, it sounds like he had a nervous breakdown and really just couldn’t find his way forward after leaving The New Yorker at a fairly young age. And who knows what else was going on in his personal life. But such a dramatic, even extreme retreat from the zeitgeist stands out as something hard to ignore, like a neon sign. How good was his prose? I’d have to revisit it, but safe to say he was no slouch. 

It occurs to me that if you were in Dallas, as you once were, we could convene a book group or one-off salon with a few others to discuss the meaning and influence of George W.S. Trow — or other topics. Exactly the sort of thing he was pointing out has been replaced by the surrogate intimacy of television. My own stab at irony for the day. Anyway, we’d have to wait til the coast is clear, which, despite the insane rantings of the salesman we call POTUS, is much further down the road.

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