There was someone banging on the window of this cheap Chinese takeout roach den and it was Jimi Hendrix.
I was walking down Bleecker Street in 1970, I guess it was, to review some guitar slinger or other at the Bitter End. That was how I made my living those days – as the folk and rock journalist of The New York Times. I was the first one to do this full time, and the first full-time rock journalist for any major paper. Here’s how the Times described me, in an anecdote that appears to have become boilerplate. So far it has appeared in my old editor Dick Shepard’s “The Paper’s Papers: A Journey Through the Archives of the New York Times”; Arthur Gelb’s “City Room;” and the obituary of its late managing editor Clifton Daniel.
“Mr. Daniel relished his role in expanding The Times’s coverage of arts news. ‘Any newspaper that didn’t cover a major industry in its community would be judged derelict,’ he said. ‘I thought the coverage should be conscientious, thoughtful, and thorough’ … In 1968, when The Times retained a long-haired culture writer as a rock critic, Mr. Daniel enjoyed breaking the news gently to the well-groomed former marine who was then the paper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. ‘His name is Mike Jahn,’ Mr. Daniel wrote in a note to Mr. Sulzberger, ‘and he is going to write pieces on folk/rock music.’
“Mr. Daniel went on to report that another editor had reassured him: ‘Mr. Jahn wears his hair in a somewhat bizarre style–in fact he looks like a werewolf. But since his work will not require him to be in the office very much, I don’t think he’ll bite any of us.’”
Thus began my contribution to the debasement of American culture – introducing the New York Times to the coverage of popular culture, specifically rock and roll. I am proud of my seminal role in putting our fair and sun-kissed land on the slippery slope to Paris Hilton. Anyway, a werewolf who gets three paragraphs in the middle of Clifton Daniels’ obit is entitled to have a beer with Jimi Hendrix in a roach hole Chinese restaurant.
That night he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to. We knew each other from around, running into one another in clubs in the wee hours. One time he called to ask me to meet him someplace and thoroughly baffled my non-rocker wife of the time, who said, memorably, “It’s Jimmy something.” When he saw me loping down Bleecker he banged on the window and yelled until he got my attention. I went up and we had a beer together. We talked about old blues records and young women, two of his obsessions. I think that one of the reasons he liked me is that, thanks to the attitude the Times teaches young writers, I was oblivious to celebrity and treated him pretty much like another guy who likes the blues and young women. We talked mostly about a Howlin’ Wolf 78 he found in a classic records shop in Chicago. But he also showed me a silver ring that one of his young women – he had an army of them – gave him, also in Chicago. It included a tiny sculpture of a woman going down on a man.
He blushed. He did that. And spoke so softly you had to learn forward to hear him properly. In person he was not the person you saw onstage. But he did blindside me on Bleecker Street, adding yet another chapter in the tale of my family’s gift of serendipity. I am, in fact, the fourth prince of Serendip. So were several generations of ancestors. You will hear about that from time to time.
Which brings me to the subject of my father and Harry Truman, who incidentally was Clifton Daniels’ father-in-law. My father was a newspaperman too, with the Brooklyn Eagle, later a stringer for the Times, editor of a well-respected weekly, and, finally, editorial page editor of the Long Island Press, then a Newhouse PM daily that cashed in under pressure from Newsday in 1977.
In 1956, working for the weekly, he was on a train rolling along on its way from Chicago (Chicago again) to St. Louis, which was on Harry’s trail home. It was early evening and he was sitting in his sleeping compartment with the door open reading the Times. There was a commotion in the hall. He looked out to see the Pullman porter carrying bags belonging to Harry and Bess, who had booked the compartment across the hall.
In those days when a president left office he was Citizen Truman. No special protection. Also unfazed by celebrity, my father said “Good evening, Mr. President,” and was rewarded with a nice reply that I have of course forgotten. After a while my father acquired bourbon and closed the door.
Before too long there’s a knock on the door. It’s Harry. He’s bored. He said, “the missus has gone to sleep. Would you like company?”
My father did. They drank bourbon and talked for I don’t know long, I seem to recall my father saying hours. That was long enough for my father to get some quotes about the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, and for Harry to get a promise that nothing would be printed until after his death.
Harry went back to bed, and my father retired as well. Comes seven in the morning. Knock on the door. It’s Harry again. “It’s time for my constitutional,” he said. “Want to come with me?”
Back and forth they walked the length of the train until Harry got his fill of morning exercise. I don’t know what happened after that, except that Harry’s kid married Clifton Daniel, who my father also came to know. Make of that what you will. The connection only recently occurred to me. Maybe Daniel recognized the last name when he hired me. At any rate, my father was blind-sided when he saw my byline. I don’t think that his fleeting knowledge of Daniel had anything to do with it. I’m pretty sure I got the Times gig after hearing about it from a rewrite man at four in the morning during the 1968 building takeovers at Columbia. I believe I mentioned being the fourth prince of Serendip.
Shit happens to me.
My father sat on the Harry story until the former president died in 1972. The story went out over the Newhouse wire and is mentioned online, though finding the mention is not without difficulty.
It was a few years ago I was thinking about my having drunk beer with Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend – forgot to mention him – and congratulating myself on how many famous people I had known and famous events I covered.
I covered Woodstock and the coming out of retirement of Elvis Presley and a few other things relating to the counterculture. I suppose that getting stoned with Abbie Hoffman and sitting in a WBAI studio speculating on how to politicize the hippies is one. Not too shabby a career to ponder as I await my first Social Security check.
But then I thought of my father, who covered the Lindberg baby kidnapping trial, the Hindenburg disaster, the rise of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, was an activist in the famously radicalized Brooklyn Eagle strike of 1937, and throughout the 1950s got death threats from the John Birchers for his editorials on McCarthy. And there was the train thing.
Suddenly I realized, jeez, you can have a prominent byline in the New York Times – you can be the werewolf of the New York Times — and still not do better than your newspaperman father, who hung out with the guy who test drove the nuclear terror that entertained us the rest of that century.
Sometimes in this Internet, everyone-is-famous (or can pretend to be so) age, we celebrate the inevitability of children doing better than their parents. But how inevitable is it really?
What do you think, George?
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