Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writers: Elmore Leonard and Mike Lupica at Barnes & Noble, last night

Text and photos by George Molé

I've never read Elmore Leonard, but I've read and heard enough about him to believe I'd like his work.  He's often described as a colorful character in his own right, a tough-guy American writer in the Hemingway tradition, and a master of strong, spare prose and punchy dialogue.  Mike Lupica, in particular--the fine sportswriter for the New York Daily News, whose writing I do know and like--never misses a chance to plug Leonard's work in his Sunday column.  So I showed up last night for Leonard's appearance at Barnes & Noble's big and welcoming East 86th Street location, where he was interviewed onstage by Lupica himself.

 

Lupica introduced Leonard in glowing terms, calling him "my writing hero."

"We are here tonight to talk with and about...our greatest writer," Lupica said, "and the writer from this time who's going to be remembered."

Leonard, 86, is a small, dapper, soft-spoken and seemingly-shy man, who seemed to depend on Lupica to draw him out in conversation.  "I think you should ask me a question, to start," he directed the sportswriter.

Mike Lupica (left) in conversation with Elmore Leonard.

Lupica did, asking about Raylan, Leonard's latest novel, about Justified, the current television series based on Leonard's work, and about Leonard's long career.

"I've been writing for 60 years, and I've had a good time all the way," Leonard said.  "What more can I say than that?  I like my books.  I think all my books are good."

The rapport between the two writers was fun to watch, as Leonard, in his deadpan way, cracked Lupica up periodically.  For example, one of the plot lines in Raylan involves criminals who steal and sell body parts.

 

"I researched it," Leonard said.  "You can excise a kidney and you can put it back just about anywhere you want.  And the going price was about $10,000, and there are two of them in every body, so that's a pretty good deal, 20 grand.  So, I just got into body parts."

 

"I'm surprised you didn't make it a musical," Lupica said.
 
"I thought it was kind of funny, too, but you never know," Leonard observed.  "You don't want to go for laughs when you're excising kidneys."

 

Lupica described Leonard's writing process.  "He sits down at a big desk in the living room of his home.  He's got  these blank yellow pads, and..."

"Unlined," Leonard threw in.

"Unlined," Lupica agreed.  "Got me out of yellow legal pads.  "'Cause I keep thinking if I just get the same kind of pads..."

"But he doesn't.  He gets lined pads..."

"No, I don't.  No I do not..." 

 

This led eventually to an exchange about Hemingway.  "Oh, I thought Hemingway was terrific," Leonard said, "in the '50s when I was reading him, until I found out he doesn't have a sense of humor.  He's never written a funny line."

A free-form, wide-ranging and riveting interview.  But, for me, the best parts were afterward.

Following their conversation, Leonard and Lupica took questions from audience members...

Broadcaster Tony Guida (WCBS Radio) asks a question.

...including radio broadcaster Tony Guida.  But in between questions, Lupica introduced a frail-looking older man, sitting on the side of the room, in the back. "I was perfectly willing to be the second-best writer in the room," Lupica said. "but unfortunately I'm the third-best writer in the room tonight, because we have one distinguished guest--the great William Goldman, the author of The Princess Bride [and] Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Goldman is indeed great.  Best known for his screenplays (he won Oscars for Butch Cassidy and All the President's Men), he's been part of my life from way back due to three wonderful novels of his that I discovered many years ago--Marathon Man (later made into a hit movie, starring Dustin Hoffman, for which Goldman also wrote the screenplay); Control, a thriller involving New York City detectives and rogue government operatives; and The Color of Light, an episodic novel taking place at various points in the life of a young writer.

Goldman's plots are fine, but these novels stay with you largely because of his witty, rhythmic dialogue and prose, and his evocative New York City settings. Here's a bit of The Color of Light--the young writer, Chub, a college student in Ohio at this point, is visiting New York for the first time, with his buddy Two-Brew, a native New Yorker:

It was after seven before they got through the Holland Tunnel and then Two-Brew said to take a left and Chub did, driving through the driving rain, past ugly buildings and skittering pedestrians and as a drunk came staggering in the middle of the street into oncoming traffic Two Brew spoke again:  "Welcome to Magic Town." 

Chub stared at him.  "This is Manhattan?"

Two-Brew nodded.  "Sometimes it's even prettier.  This is Eighth Avenue--people from Hawaii come here to vacation."

Chub made a smile, but inside there was only disbelief...

"Cat got your tongue?"

"I just...I thought there'd be more...I don't know what."

"Ah, yes, with Fred and Ginger spinning on tabletops.  It can be very beautiful here--I remember one day my junior year in high school it was very beautiful all morning."

(From The Color of Light by William Goldman, 1984, Warner Books.) 

Don't worry, Chub falls hard for the city and becomes a New York lifer.

I love all three of these books and often think about them, remembering whole batches of dialogue and description almost perfectly. So I had to talk to him.

After the presentation, when Leonard had begun signing books...


...I walked back to where Goldman was sitting and chatting with one or two people, making my way down the row of chairs toward him.  The age-old question:  What do you say to someone whose work means a lot to you, but to whom you are a faceless stranger?

"Excuse me, Mr. Goldman?"

"Yes?"

"You wrote a book called Control..."

"Yes."  Reserved but friendly.

"Well, I'm a New York City cop, and I just wanted to tell you how good you got us in that book."

Yeah, I said "how good you got us" to a great writer.

But he smiled and seemed pleased.  "Oh, thank you."

"I wonder if I could bother you..."

"Sure, if you have something..."

"If you don't mind signing a piece of paper..."

"I don't mind signing a piece of paper."

While he signed one of the folded-up pieces of copy paper on which I had been taking notes, I threw in, "And I think The Color of Light is one of the best writer's books I've read."  I meant that it's one of the best books about being a writer--and it is.

"Oh, thank you."  Sounding genuinely pleased.  A lady standing behind him, who seemed to be with him, said, "See that?"  As if my praise was a contradiction of his own evaluation of his work--and I have heard that he, for all his accomplishment, is not a confident man.

I guess I could've done better--figured out a way to engage him in scintillating conversation.  But I could've done worse, too.

He got up a bit later and was talking with people.  I got one good picture...

William Goldman

Also, while Leonard was signing books on the platform, Lupica was wandering the room and chatting. After I sat down again, he walked over to where I was sitting and I asked him to sign one of his books for me.  And as he did...

Anyone who knows Lupica's work knows his excellent sportswriting.  But Lupica also fancies himself something of a political pundit, and peppers his Sunday sports column with political comments, almost always from a far-left perspective.  The Daily News was also unwise enough to give him a weekly political column, sometimes more than one in a week--and these, though still employing Lupica's engaging writing style, can also be grating, displaying a shallow, reflexive liberalism that doesn't add much to the political debate.

Well, why shouldn't I tell him?

"Mike, I love your writing but I hate your politics."

"Well, if you agreed with me on everything you'd get bored reading me."

A reasonable answer--but...

"Well...I don't know...I'm still hoping you'll come around."

But that was enough of that--he had already turned away.

Great evening, interesting people.  And William Goldman!

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Music: Glen Campbell at Town Hall, Saturday night

Text and photos by George Molé 

I had too much to do this weekend, and a concert was not on the agenda, but there it was in Friday's newspaper: Glen Campbell would be appearing at Town Hall the following night--Saturday, January 7.

Campbell's music had been part of my youth, in the country section of the eclectic soundtrack of my family's life, along with John Denver, Marty Robbins and whatever was playing on WHN, New York's great and lamented AM country-western station.

Spending our Augusts camping with other city people at Lake Welch, a little jewel set in the forested hills of Harriman State Park, but not even 45 minutes from the Bronx, we became country folks, at least a little bit and for a little while, maybe using music to put some distance between ourselves and the decaying urban neighborhood where we lived the rest of the year.

So Glen Campbell was with me from way back, his "Southern Nights" coming from the speakers of my sister's old radio-cassette player on a warm northern night, my brother-in-law sitting by the fire with a guitar and doing a pretty fair "Gentle on My Mind."  (When my mother would hear the latter song, she'd roll her eyes and mutter, "Oh, the song with the 42 verses.")

And if some of Campbell's work was a bit shallow and poppy--though always catchy--some (especially his interpretation of songs by legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb) was brilliant.  And this would most likely be my last chance to see him--it had been announced recently that he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and that his current CD, Ghost on the Canvas, and his current tour would both be his last.

When Campbell took the stage, I was a few rows away.


As he did one after another of his well-known songs--beginning, if I recall, with "Gentle"-- a listener would not have known that he has that vicious disease.  The familiar voice was strong and clear and, except for one minor stumble, he sang the lyrics as they're meant to be sung (although I read in one review that he was helped by the presence of teleprompters, which I did not notice, on stage).  When he spoke to the audience, though, he seemed more awkward, sometimes seeming to lose the thread of his jokes or to mumble some of his words.  This might have been the effects of his illness or, more comforting to imagine, simply fatigue or the mannerisms of a man more at home singing than talking.


It's easy to forget that Campbell started out as a well-respected guitarist on other people's records, including the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and his hit records didn't do much to highlight his guitar work.  But in this performance, Campbell took a soaring guitar solo in almost every song, his fingers dancing like Nureyev across the strings, these interludes alone worth the price of admission.  May he always know that fretboard as he knows it now.
 

Campbell's best songs are full of melancholy and loss, the stories set against American landscapes, often rich in American place names, sung simply and lovingly to simple melodies.  Most of these--"Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman"--were written by Webb.  I once heard Webb refer to them as his Rand-McNally songs, because of all the place names.  (And, in an odd coincidence, Webb was performing on the same night as Campbell's Town Hall show, at the Iridium, a club a few blocks away.)

But "Gentle on My Mind," by another writer--though it has no place names in its title or lyrics, only in the surname of its author, John Hartford--with its finely-drawn landscape, belongs in the same category.  It doesn't really have 42 verses, but it's verbally dense, full of striking images: 

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us...


Was the distance from you to someone thought about ever more heartbreakingly real?

All of these songs are masterful American poetry, the kind you understand and appreciate more the more you've lived.  And though Campbell didn't write them, it took his voice to make them live.  He did them all in this performance, thankfully, and they were as powerful as they've ever been.



Campbell's band, which also served as the opening act, included three of his own children--two sons, Cal and Shannon, and a beyond-lovely daughter, Ashley.  The kids displayed a touching solicitude for their father, and he for them; at one point, when Campbell left the stage rather suddenly, or so it seemed to the audience, his daughter said something to the effect of, "My dad's going to take a break now, but we're gonna do a song for you."  They did, and Campbell was back for the next number.  At another point, Campbell walked over to her and told the audience, "This is my little girl!"


A great performance, a great musician.  Pray for his recovery, and for a cure, as I will do.

And after leaving the theater, I couldn't resist photographing...wait for it...


...yes, the cracks in the dirty sidewalks of Broadway.  I know every one.

If you don't get the reference, check out the lyrics to "Rhinestone Cowboy"--which he also sang at this show.


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