On the music beat: Gibberish and cat shit

Searching for some info on Esperanza Spalding, an enchanting young woman I’d been introduced to on Friday’s Bill Maher show, I stumbled into a review of her latest album in Rolling Stone.

“The lyrics, flowing in disjunctive clusters, are about deleted narratives, glass ceilings and dreams deferred – ultimately a complex, funky prog-rock concept opera about love and identity,” writes Christopher R. Weingarten.

This sentence notified me that nothing has changed since my brief time as an editor of a music magazine 47 years ago.

It’s all about showing off, writing gibberish disguised as the language of the in-crowd. It sure ain’t English.

In the spring of 1969, I was a 22-year-old reporter at the Livermore Herald and News when my Uncle Jack offered me a job with a magazine he was starting called Changes.

“It’ll be the East Coast answer to Rolling Stone,” he told me. My salary would be $150 a week. Pretty good money, I thought, and a welcome return to my hometown of New York from the sticks of northern California.

But the highpoints of my three months on the music beat were hanging out with Richie Havens and keeping Charlie Mingus company while his lady friend made sales calls for the magazine.

From my first day in the grungy Changes office on Fifth Avenue, at 14th Street, I knew I was out of my depth. My co-workers were so hip they were unfathomable.

There was an editorial staff of four. Uncle Jack Banning – he’d changed his name from Becker when he was a young actor doing bit parts on Broadway – was editor and co-publisher with Sue Ungaro, also the advertising manager. Terese Coe and I were associate editors.

The writers, if you could call them that, were all freelancers plucked from the counter-culture Rolodex.

Terese showed me the respect I deserved – none. She made it clear that my only qualification for the job was being Jack’s nephew.

I never figured out what I was supposed to do, or what anyone else was doing.

I hung around the office and tried to help out, which meant mainly running errands.

My one assignment for the first issue was to meet with Richie Havens and edit a short essay he wrote for the mag. I was excited to meet Havens.

His first album, Mixed Bag, was a favorite. I’d worn out the tracks of San Francisco Bay Blues and Dylan’s Just Like a Woman.

We huddled in the magazine’s dingy back office. Havens asked me for guidance. I didn’t have any.

But he was gracious and I was puffed up meeting a celebrity who seemed to enjoy my company. (I’d see him again, twice: in Paris and Toronto.)

He handed me his story, which he titled: Everything is Music. It began:

How many times have you lay awake at night and listened to the city? A conglomeration of sounds that almost sub-passes your listening, when you are of course moving within it.

I had no idea what he was writing about. But I read on, all the way to:

So like the sound of one hand clapping, so like the sounds of the entire universe (heard from the moon).

“Far out, man,” I told him, all the editorial judgment I could muster.

We sat and talked for a while, shared a joint, and talked some more. Other people came in, more drugs came out.

When we ran out of refreshments, Sue and Mingus – they’d marry before he died in 1979 – took me for a ride in his Cadillac to get more.

On this and other occasions I would sit with Mingus in his Caddy while Sue went about her business. We didn’t say much, since I knew nothing about jazz or other cool Greenwich Village stuff and Charlie knew nothing about growing up in the suburbs and living with your parents in Queens.

The one subject that interested both of us was how he had taught his cat to shit in the toilet.

“It took me only a couple of weeks to toilet-train Nightlife,” Charlie said with great pride. “He’s even learned to flush.”

The debut issue of Changes came out in May and was dated June 1, 1969. It was tabloid size, on rough newsprint, sold for 50 cents, and had a psychedelic drawing of Dylan on the cover.

Terese wrote the cover story, defending Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album against criticism of its country bent.

At least that’s what I think it was about, since I found it as incomprehensible – with references to Camus, Beckett, Genet and Antonioni – as the rest of the stories in the magazine.

In July, I left my job and parents’ apartment in Queens, where we’d been bunking, and moved with infant daughter Kate and then-wife Anita to her hometown of Bern.

Switzerdeutsch and cuckoo clocks made more sense than Changes.

***

Postscript:

  • The last time I spoke with Uncle Jack was at my dad’s funeral in 1995. I came across his 2005 obit in a San Diego paper. He’d gone back to acting and was apparently highly regarded on the SoCal theater scene.
  • Terese Coe is a poet, according to Wikipedia.
  • Sue Ungaro Mingus has devoted the years since Charlie’s death to keeping his music and legacy alive.
  • On a visit to Paris with Anita in 1970, I spotted a poster for a Richie Havens concert. We went to the Odeon Theater to get tickets, and ran into Havens. He invited us to sit in the empty theater for rehearsal, back to his hotel for drinks, and gave us passes for that night’s show. Years later, my wife Linda and I saw him at a small club in Toronto, and visited with him in his dressing room afterward. “Of course I remember you,” he said with a smile.
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