…[T]his involved a young executive called John Kaye, who was installed in the second season by the network with some fanfare, supposedly to give the Smothers Brothers a more sympathetic ear in program practices but in reality, conjectures Ken Fritz (Tom’s manager), to get close to the core group and give the network early warning of whatever foul subversion the brothers were plotting. Says Fritz: “He wanted to be a double agent — the guy had ‘spy’ written all over him.” The brothers decided to pull Kaye’s string…
– Tony Hendra, Going Too Far: The Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor
Tom enthused about [John Kaye] to the New York Times, saying of CBS, “They gave us a much younger and more sympathetic man from program practices to pass on our material.” Ken Fritz recalls Kaye as a “real Joe College, Ivy League-y kind of button down guy,” and that both CBS and the Smothers Brothers hoped Kaye would be “the guy who would bridge the generation gap.” Instead, he proved so stuffy and out of touch that Tom engineered an elaborate prank designed to embarrass him… Tom and the writers set a trap by instructing everyone … to roar with delight whenever anyone uttered the nonsense phrase “rowing to Galveston” … Fritz remembers Kaye coming over to him, finally, and saying, “That’s got to go — ‘rowing into Galveston.’ And we said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘You know why.'”
—Dave Bianculli, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
In the summer of 2003, after the paperback edition of my second novel, The Dead Circus, was published, I was asked to do a reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. Although Skylight was a favorite haunt of mine and, along with Book Soup, one of the best independent book stores in Los Angeles, I had grown to dislike reading my work in public, not so much out of shyness but in my belief that most readings are long-winded displays of writerly self-regard, something of which I am capable but try not to inflict upon my family and friends. But my publicist persisted, waving away my objection, explaining that my attitude was selfish and, frankly, “slightly snobbish.” She went on to say, in a voice that was cold and reprimanding, that I was being both negligent and short-sighted, and that “only someone who was extremely stupid would turn down the opportunity to promote and sell his books.” I remember feeling insulted, but I also knew she was right, and eventually I caved, explaining to Kerry Slattery, Skylight’s owner, that I’d be happy to read with one condition: I wanted to share the stage with Hubert “Cubby” Selby, Jr.
Kerry was delighted. She knew that Cubby and I had a longstanding friendship, and that most of his books, including his critically acclaimed first novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn, were published by Grove Press, which was, coincidentally, also my publisher. But that wasn’t the only thing that bonded us: we were both recovering alcoholics who had raised our sons by ourselves.
Kerry asked me to call her after I spoke to Cubby so she could set a date. “Right now, the second Sunday in July looks good.”
“I hate to fucking read,” Cubby told me, when I pitched him my idea. “Why don’t we tell stories and let people ask questions. That’ll kill a couple of hours.”
“Sounds good to me. So, we’re on?”
“Yeah, count me in,” Cubby said. “By the way, I haven’t read your book, but I’ll get around to it. At least you didn’t ask me for a blurb.”
I told him that I’d thought about it. Then I said, “You know that I’m honored that you’d do this with me.”
Cubby laughed sarcastically. “Bullshit. You know that I’m gonna bring a crowd and you’ll sell more books.”
“That did cross my mind.”
“July 10th. Eight o’clock. It’s on my calendar. Goodbye.”
I knew Cubby’s health was in decline, and I was profoundly relieved when I saw him enter Skylight shortly before eight, accompanied by a cohort of attractive and worshipful young men and women. He knew he was an object of adulation, but he also knew from experience that fame did not make him immune from the ferociously cruel forces that life can sometimes bring. He’d suffered more than his share of shame and rejection, and several times he nearly died of drug overdoses or the chronic illnesses that ravaged his body. Although he could be acerbic and sometimes dismissive, what I remember most about Cubby was his profound humility and his always-sage advice.
It took me eight years to complete my first novel, and there were many times I thought I wasn’t up to the task, that the whole experience was ludicrous, even laughable. By year five I was locked into a cycle of fear and anxiety, slowly sinking into the black quick sand of a suicidal depression: I was imprisoned by the book, but I knew I couldn’t live in the world if I gave up.
At the time, I barely knew Cubby. But one Sunday morning while I was standing outside a twelve step meeting that we both attended, deciding whether to stick around for the speaker or bolt, he came over and stood next to me. He said he’d heard that I was having a rough time. I nodded my head and, trying not to sound weak and whiny but feeling that my life was utterly futile, I briefly outlined my dilemma. When I was done speaking, he was smiling, and his large, bright prominent eyes were soft with sympathy and understanding. There was a long awkward silence that seemed to go on forever. Then, with that secret smile of his, he put his arm around my shoulder, an arm that was thin and feather light, and he walked me back inside the meeting. Right before we sat down he looked at me and whispered: “Keep writing.”
That was it: Keep writing. So I did. Three years later the book was done.
Naturally, Cubby was the star of our joint appearance at Skylight Books. No one paid much attention to me, and deep down I was relieved that just about all the questions were directed to him. His answers were always insightful and humorous, filled with his natural charm and a storyteller’s gestural grace; and when he was asked about the censorship fights and obscenity trials that swirled around Last Exit To Brooklyn, preventing it from being published in England for many years, he replied without rancor, praising the courage of Barney Rosset, the legendary owner of Grove Press.
Cubby said, “Barney had already published Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Naked Lunch, so he wasn’t going to back down from a fight.” Then he looked at me and said, “I guess we’re in pretty good company.” I felt my insides cringe — D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and Hubert Selby? I knew I didn’t belong in that league — but that didn’t stop me from smiling. “Right, John?”
“If you say so, Cubby.”
After the reading I stuck around to sign several copies of my novel — Cubby was right: his presence definitely boosted my sales — then I made plans to join some friends for drinks and a late snack at the Bourgeois Pig, a trendy cafe on Franklin Avenue. I found a parking space in front of Counterpoint, a used book and record store, where later that evening, when I popped in for a quick browse, I would discover — in a coincidence that now seems laced with irony — the used paperback edition of Going Too Far, the book by Tony Hendra that’s cited above.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. The book was discovered by Miranda*, the woman I was seeing at the time, and it was she who sidled up next to me at the cash register, where I had just purchased a copy of The Collected Stories of Patricia Highsmith. In her expression there was a kind of bewilderment.
“Have you seen this?” she said, holding up the cover so I could read the title.
“You’re in it.”
She turned to the index, and there, unaccountably, was my name — Kaye, John followed by a page number. While Miranda flipped through the book my mind raced backward, retracing my career, tabulating the possible reasons I might be included in this omnibus of boomer humor. I knew that Tony Hendra, in addition to writing for Spy Magazine and editing the National Lampoon, had also co-created the National Lampoon’s first record album, Radio Dinner, which featured many performers from Saturday Night Live, including comedian Bill Murray, who later co-starred as Hunter S. Thompson in Where The Buffalo Roam, a film I wrote in 1980. My conclusion: Bill Murray, that was the connection. Of course, I was wrong.
I looked over Miranda’s shoulder as she silently read down the page. When she was done, she paused for a moment, waiting until I was finished, before she said, “Is this really you?”
“You mean — was I a censor on the Smothers brothers show?”
“Yeah. It’s hard for me to picture that.”
“It happened. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did.”
Miranda began to read out loud. “‘He wanted to be a double agent—'”
“That’s total bullshit,” I said, in a helpless rage, and I snatched the book away from her. “It never happened. The whole thing is a fucking lie.”
Miranda could hear the anger rising in my voice, and she gave me a warning nudge. “Take it easy, John. It’s just some stupid book that came out fifteen years ago.”
“All Hendra had to do was call me,” I said. “I would have told him the truth.”
“Well,” she said, taking my arm and walking me toward the door, “that’s not going to happen.”
Miranda had read my semi-autobiographical first novel, Stars Screaming, so she knew that my protagonist, Ray Burk, was a network censor trying to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter. But like most people, she assumed the “censor” part of the story was made up. On the way home in the car, she asked me to confide in her, to explain what really happened. And when I told her I was reluctant to dredge up that part of my life, she persisted, suggesting correctly that by suppressing the truth and not fully revealing myself, I was stuck doing a lousy impersonation of who I truly was.
“And not only that,” she said, “you’ve been carrying around these resentments for over thirty years. You know what they say in the rooms. It’s like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Time to let all that go.”
I told Miranda that the eighteen months I worked at CBS — from the early summer of 1967, when my son was born, through the winter of 1969, the winter my wife was first confined to a mental hospital — were exceedingly strange and tumultuous times. “Not only was my wife going crazy, we were also experiencing a national nervous breakdown as well.”
“I know about the sixties,” Miranda said. “I lived through them, just like you did. I want to know about you and the Smothers Brothers,” she said, using her voice like a club, to strike down any resistance. “Tell me what happened.”
So I took a chance, dropped all the pretenses, and I…what? Confessed? No, I told her the truth.
Before I continue, I should mention here that I spoke to Tony Hendra not long after I saw my name mentioned in his book. His number was unlisted in Manhattan, where he was living at the time, but I was able to track him down through some friends. When I introduced myself over the phone and told him, in the bumbling manner of someone who was reluctant to discuss something that was offensive to him, why I was calling — my desire to set the record straight — he listened politely but seemed puzzled.
He said, “You wrote American Hot Wax and Where the Buffalo Roam? You’re that John Kaye?”
“I liked those movies.”
“No, seriously. I’m a big fan. And you’re the same guy, the censor for CBS I wrote about in Going Too Far?”
I said that I’d been mischaracterized. “The stuff you wrote about me was bullshit. If you would’ve interviewed me, I would’ve told you the truth. I know it’s too late to do anything, but I needed to clear the air.”
For the next half hour or so, as I gave him the abbreviated version of what I had told Miranda on the night of the reading, he seemed to be listening cordially, and when I was through speaking he acknowledged that he’d made a mistake.
He said, “I should’ve tried harder to locate you, but it seemed like just a small part of the story.”
“Not to me,” I said.
There was a pause, and then he asked me if I would accept his apology. I said I would, and he encouraged me to look him up the next time I came to New York City. Looking back, although I was pleased that Hendra was willing to acknowledge his responsibility, there was something about the smoothness of his responses, a kind of emotional detachment that makes me now feel that he was fundamentally unsympathetic to my ancient grievances. I was likely an unpleasant interruption to his day, and the faster I was off the phone the better.
Still, when I hung up I felt — to my considerable surprise — some incommunicable solace, and for the first time in weeks the imperative for revenge that burned inside me, the source of much trouble throughout my life, had lost its authority.
Unfortunately, years later when David Bianculli’s book came out, I didn’t feel the same kind of relief after we spoke on the phone. It was a long conversation, at least an hour, maybe longer, and my voice throughout was charged with hostility. He claimed that he’d tried to find me but was unsuccessful, which I found — in the age of Google, Facebook, etc. — ridiculously hard to believe. I told him there was great story that he left untold, a counter-narrative to the party line crap that Tom and Dick Smothers, and everyone around them, especially that twerp Ken Fritz, had been handing out for years.
I said, “I’m the only person left from Program Practices who was on the ground during the whole censorship controversy. The rest — Charlie Pettijohn, Sam Taylor, and Tom Downer — are dead, and I can’t believe you didn’t go the extra mile to get the real story from me.”
By the end of our conversation, Bianculli promised to make changes in the paperback edition of his book. The revisions he needed to make were only minor. A simple paragraph or two would have sufficed, and if he’d decided to cut me out of the book entirely, allowing my role in the story to wither and fade, I would have been grateful. But he did neither, and the paperback came out unchanged.
Of course, if I wanted to I could always tell my side of the story, but why contaminate a literary career that I was proud of with the humiliating stain of once having been a censor? I was a whole other person then, and the painful task of my self-restoration was no one’s business but my own.
Until a few months ago.
It’s been announced that George Clooney has optioned the rights to Bianculli’s book. He’s planning to adapt Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour into a feature-length film.
HOW LAME CAN THEY BE?
The first time I saw the Smothers Brothers perform was in 1961, and the way it happened was totally unplanned. I was a sophomore at Berkeley, intense and chronically insecure, and I was on my way into San Francisco with an ex-girlfriend who was no longer a lover but still a good friend. Her name was Gloria*, and she had a passionate, almost worshipful appreciation of modern jazz, finding the smoky nightclubs and the musicians’ hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and loose sex irresistible. Because she was not only profoundly hip but stunningly attractive, their physical interest in her was frank and unrestrained, and she openly admitted to having affairs with bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Billy Higgins, and a member of the Miles Davis Quintet whom she wouldn’t name. Gloria luxuriated in her precocious debauchery, obsessively recounting her epic couplings and droning on authoritatively about the “black man’s sexual appetites.” But what she admired most about jazz musicians, along with their ruthless talent, was their self-discipline and professional integrity.
She said, “I was backstage once when I saw Paul Desmond shoot up right before he went on with Brubeck. He played like a dream. You would never know he was smacked out of his mind.” Knowing that Paul Desmond was white, I asked her if he was also one of her sexual partners. “No, as a matter of fact.”
“He wasn’t my type.”
“Because he was white?”
Gloria looked at me, and with a lewd smile she said, “Aren’t you forgetting something, John?”
“I fucked you.”
This conversation took place in my car while we were on the Bay Bridge, heading into the city in a light rain, both of us dressed up and feeling pleasantly soothed from the bottle of red wine we’d shared back at my apartment. We were on our way to hear alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley at the Jazz Workshop and, although we weren’t drunk, I remember feeling confident and particularly optimistic.
Finals had just concluded, and I thought I’d done well, especially in the classes I cared about, like American Folklore and European Diplomatic History. Gloria was a graduate student in Philosophy, but not too long after this night she became pregnant and dropped out of school. We fell out of touch, and the last I heard she was living back in New York, where her parents — both lawyers — owned a brownstone in Greenwich Village.
The first show at the Jazz Workshop was sold out and Gloria was unable to talk us by the doorman, a slender black man with a glistening bald head who she seemed to know well. His name was Charles Swain, a name I remember to this day, even after a gap of fifty years, because I loved how it rolled off his tongue when he shook my hand and introduced himself with a slight lisp. “Not Charles or Mister Swain,” he said, with a cocked brow. “Charles Swain. I always go by my full name. It’s the name I was born with, and it will be marked in stone on my grave when I die.” After he told Gloria that he would make sure we got seats for the second show, he suggested that we could kill the next hour across the street at the Purple Onion. “They have an opening act that has gotten some nice reviews. Two brothers that mix folk music with comedy.”
Gloria said, “We came into the city to hear jazz.”
“Just a suggestion.”
Gloria said she wanted a glass of wine. Because she was twenty-one, she could drink legally, but my fake I.D. was rejected at the first two bars we tried. It was now raining too hard to stroll around North Beach, so we ducked into City Lights Books, where there was a flyer stuck on the wall advertising the Smothers Brothers gig. Dressed in blazers and ties, they looked like mischievous fraternity boys, but their pasted on smiles called up a response in me that veered toward the negative.
Gloria, surprisingly, was intrigued. “Maybe their act is a goof,” she said, examining the flyer. Then she pulled me toward the door. “Let’s take a shot. I mean, how lame can they be?”
As we walked down Columbus, she rattled off a few hip acts she’d recently seen perform at the Onion — satirists like Mort Sahl, Lord Buckley, and Tom Lehrer — and when we reached the box office I bought two tickets for the first show. The details of the brothers’ act are wiped clean from my mind-screen, but I do recall that the audience — all eighty seats were filled, by the way — seemed to find their mixture of music and mirthful mischief endearingly anachronistic.
We had just finished our first drink when Gloria leaned over and whispered, “I think I’ve seen enough,” and together we rose slowly and made our way to the stairs. The club was in the cellar, and I’m not sure if we commented on the show once we were finally on the sidewalk, but what happened next remains indelibly engraved in my memory. The rain had stopped and we were walking up Columbus, in the general direction of the Jazz Workshop, when I heard someone scream Gloria’s name. Across the street, on the second floor of the Swiss-American Hotel, a shirtless man with dark curly hair was leaning out of a window, waving. It took me a moment or two to realize that the man in the window with the fanatical expression was comedian Lenny Bruce, and by the time I did, Gloria had already torn herself away from me and was weaving through the traffic on Columbus. Once she reached the other side, she spun around and shouted: “Wait there. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Now Lenny Bruce was a hero of mine — I’d seen him perform earlier that year in Los Angeles at the Unicorn and have never laughed harder — and a chance to actually meet him would have been a spectacular coup, something that would have been unimaginable a few minutes earlier. I was already rushing into the future, rehearsing what I’d tell my friends back on campus: Hung out with Lenny Bruce last night. Smoked a little reefer and shot the shit. The opportunity to have my hipness ticket punched forever had never been closer.
But it didn’t happen.
Ten minutes later Gloria’s round, lovely face appeared in the window on the second floor of the hotel. Gazing down at me and speaking loudly but not shouting, she said she was going “to hang out with Lenny for a while.” She also said that I should not wait around to drive her home. She didn’t apologize for abandoning me or try to placate me in any way, and when I asked her how she would get back to Berkeley, she said that she would worry about that tomorrow. A moment later her face disappeared from that square of private life, and with my mind racing — first came the anger, then the disappointment, and finally the pain — I walked back to my car.
Four years later almost to the day — by this time I had graduated from Berkeley, lived in New Orleans and then Jamaica, spent six months in the Marine Corps and a year in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin (before deciding I was not cut out to be a scholar) — Lenny Bruce, in the midst of one of his many obscenity trials, his nerves over-stretched, stoned on speed and heroin and, according to those who were present, speaking rapidly and incoherently, tumbled backward out of that same second-floor window in the Swiss-American Hotel, his fall resulting in two broken legs and a fractured pelvis.
Fortunately, he survived.
In the late summer of 1965, after leaving Madison, Wisconsin, the city where I would meet Harriet, my future wife and muse — and one of those blazingly beautiful women for whom the words deeply troubled had been invented — I drove cross-country with no particular plan for my future. The unlimited possibilities of my youth were over, and the only certainty, along with my need to find a job — something creative, where I could bring my energy and imagination — was knowing that my masters thesis on the “Origins of Fascism” would remain unfinished.
Once back in L.A., my first thought as I exited the Hollywood Freeway and drove west down Sunset Boulevard, where the traffic was backed up bumper to bumper and all the radios were tuned to KRLA, simultaneously blasting “Mister Tambourine Man” by the Byrds, was: I should find a job in the music industry. Was this a professional dream? Did I see it as my destiny? No. But I had a great record collection and loved rock and roll — actually, when it came to doo-wop and early R&B I was a musical obsessive — so it seemed like a career choice that was plausibly hopeful.
That I had no contacts in the music business seemed like a minor obstacle. I knew I had to start somewhere, so I took Harriet’s advice — she was still back in Madison, but we spoke on the phone every few days — and began knocking on doors.
“As soon as they meet you,” she said, “I bet you get snapped right up.”
I started on Monday, and by the end of my first week I had gone to the West Coast headquarters of all the major record companies — Capitol, Columbia, RCA, Warner Bros, etc — but I never made it past the front desk. At each of these labels the receptionists would stare at me placidly, with a kind of amused disdain, while I dutifully filled out an application. But I knew even before I turned it in that my resume would never get me hired. I mean, let’s face it: How does a degree in European Cultural History qualify me for a job with a record company? It doesn’t.
The next time we spoke, Harriet could tell I was depressed. She encouraged me not to give up, to keep trying, and then she told me she was thinking of dropping out of school. “It’s boring here without you around. Do you miss me?”
“Of course I miss you.”
“I could come out to L.A. and give you moral support.”
I told her that it would be a mistake to leave before she graduated. “Stick it out. It’s only a year.”
“A year’s forever, John. And I hate living in the dorms. I want to live someplace where I can have a dog. I want a puppy. Either a basset hound or beagle,” she said, and then she became inflexible. “I’m gonna tell my parents I’m leaving, so hurry up and get a job.”
That night I did what I should have done at the beginning of my job search: I drove to World Book and News, the largest newsstand in Hollywood, and I bought copies of Billboard and Cashbox, the weekly trade papers for the music industry. In an earlier conversation Harriet had advised me to “think about the songs you love most when they come on the radio. Then find out what company made the record and start there.” So I scoured both the pop and R&B charts and wrote down my current favorites. Topping my list were “No Pity (in the Naked City)” by Jackie Wilson and “You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers. Then I read through all the articles and made a list of record producers and A&R types who I might, if I got up the courage, contact directly.
My first stop the next morning was the office of Phillies Records, the Righteous Brother’s label, a two-story building on the corner of Sunset and Doheny Drive that was owned by legendary record producer (and now convicted murderer) Phil Spector. After I found a space in front, I sat in my car for several minutes listening to the radio, trying to ignore my fear, which sat on my shoulder like a vigilant companion. When I finally gathered my nerve and walked inside the building, I encountered, in an elegantly furnished outer office, a large, overweight, querulous-looking woman — I found out later it was Spector’s mother, Bertha — seated behind a huge desk puffing on a cigarette, surrounded by newspapers, loose 45s, reels of tape, and stacks of promotional material. When the phone rang — and it never seemed to stop — the conversation on her end went something like this:
BERTHA (inhaling, wheezing): Phil Spector productions…Phil’s recording. You can leave your number but don’t expect him to call you back…(wheeze, cough) Phil Spector productions…Phil’s recording. He can’t be bothered…
At one point Ike Turner called and she told him that the check he was expecting would arrive by messenger that afternoon. When there was a brief pause between calls and she noticed me standing just inside the door, she seemed to make a little grimace with her mouth, before she asked me what I wanted. I told her I was looking for a job. “Doing what?” she asked.
“I’ll do anything,” I told her.
“Do you sing?”
“Play an instrument?”
“Then what’s the point,” she said, looking at me impatiently, and while I squirmed under her scrutiny she took another call. When the conversation ended, I told her I was a huge fan of the Righteous Brothers. “So what? You think because you’re a fan, Phil should give you a job? That’s not how it works.”
“How does it work?”
“You’ll have to figure that out,” she said, and before she took the next call she gave me a piece of advice. “Let your hair grow out.”
She pointed out the window, where the sidewalks on Sunset were filled with long-haired, exotically-dressed teenagers, laughing and singing and holding hands. “You don’t look like those kids, and they’re the ones listening to the music and buying the records. You want to fit in, let it grow.”
I told her I was in the Marine Corps Reserve, that I was required to keep my hair short for my monthly meetings. “If I don’t, they can put me on active duty.”
“Then you got a problem,” she said, reaching for the ringing phone. A moment later she swiveled her chair around and, with her back to me, started a new conversation.
Feeling the sting of rejection but still determined, I forged on, deciding to visit several of the smaller independent labels on my list: Imperial, Mercury, Liberty, Monument, Aladdin, Duke, Brunswick, and Cameo-Parkway. This took me most of the next day, and at none of these places — several were within walking distance of each other — was I able to talk my way into seeing anyone who could offer me a job. And this time when I was asked to fill out an application, I declined: I had no references, no prior employment history, so that whole charade seemed passive and pointless.
Brunswick Records, Jackie Wilson’s label, was the last company on my list, and the aggressively attractive black woman manning the front desk searched my face, nodding silently, her expression wary but also amused, while I rattled off all the reasons I wanted a job. When I was done with my impromptu pitch, she scrawled a name and address on a pink message slip and handed it to me. “This guy runs Del-Fi records,” she said. “Tell him that Mona* over at Brunswick sent you over.” When I thanked her, she sat back in her chair and smiled, looking pleased with herself: “Good luck.”
Del-Fi records was located two blocks away, on Selma Avenue, in a run down, one-story, stucco building with spotted rugs and walls. In the waiting room, strumming on an acoustic guitar and singing softly, was a handsome young man dressed in blue jeans and a rolled up white T-shirt. Slumped next to him on the beat-up sofa was a skinny, tense-looking Mexican kid in his late teens. I handed the receptionist the note from Mona and she told me to take a seat.
I heard a clash of voices, and a moment later a sharply dressed black guy walked into the waiting room, followed by a white man around forty, with thinning blond hair and a round, soft, almost boneless face. This, as it turned out, was Bob Keane, Del-Fi’s owner and the man who discovered, among other hit makers, Richie Valens, the Sufaris, and Brenda Holloway. I found out later that the kid in blue jeans sprawled on the couch was future rockabilly star, Bobby Fuller, whose tune “I Fought the Law” would be released in two months and shoot up the national charts. A year later he would be dead in circumstances that, to this day, remain unexplained. The police ruled that it was a suicide, but the word on the street leaned toward a mob hit.
The receptionist whispered something to Keane, and he glanced in my direction but not directly at me. After he told the Mexican guy that he had not listened to his tape — “Come back in a few days” — he motioned for Bobby to follow him into his office. Before Keane disappeared from view, I heard the black guy say to Bobby, on his way out the door, “I think you wrote a hit, son.”
When I was alone in the waiting room, I asked the receptionist what I should do.
“Is he going to see me?”
“Did he tell you to leave?”
An hour later the intercom buzzed, and I heard Keane say to his receptionist, “Send in Joe College.”
Once I was inside his office, Keane stared at me carefully for several moments while he drummed his fingers on the desk. Then, with an air of grave deliberation, he gave me the disappointing news. He said there were no openings at Del-Fi, that he ran “a tight ship with a scaled back staff.” There was only one talent scout, he said, and that was him, and in the basement there was a recording studio where he produced or co-produced most of the records himself.
“I hire the sound engineer and the back-up musicians, and Leon, the colored guy you saw come in with me, he’s my promotion man. He handles the grease. My wife handles the bookkeeping and that’s it.” He said he’d spoken to Mona over at Brunswick. “She was impressed. Said you know a lot about R&B. I said, big deal, he likes music. So does my cat. How bad does he want to learn the business?” I started to answer, but he cut me off, his eyes boring into my face. “Bad enough to work for free?”
I stared back at him and said, “Yes.”
That’s when he outlined his offer. “Show up tomorrow at nine. I don’t get in till ten, but Shirley” — the receptionist — “will be here. She’ll give you the keys to the studio. It’ll be a mess, because we’ll be recording all night. Get it cleaned up. After that we’ll play it by ear. Basically you’re gonna run errands, do food runs, go to the bank, chauffeur people around, deliver shit, whatever needs to be done. You okay with that, college boy?”
I wanted to tell him not to call me college boy, to use my real name, but I decided this would be the wrong time. Also, there was something about his watchful, continually moving eyes, that made me nervous, and when he smiled, as he was doing now, the curl of his lip registered not as amiability but as meanness. After we shook hands on the deal and he walked me out of the office — standing by the curb he looked uncomfortable in the sunlight — he had some advice to offer me, and it was given in a pay-attention tone: “Learn how to keep your mouth shut. That’s part of the job, not repeating shit you hear or gossiping about what you see. You got a college degree. I respect that. But this is the record business. You’re starting over in the school of hard knocks. I’ll know in a week if you have what it takes. If you do, you’ll get some bread. Not much, but some. You married?”
“You got a girl?”
I told him about Harriet, and I mentioned the bizarre anecdote she’d revealed to me — she swore it was true — when we first started dating. She was from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and once, on a high school field trip to Philadelphia, she was picked to dance on American Bandstand, which was broadcast live each day at four in the afternoon. I said, “She snuck away from the museum her class was visiting and went over to the television studio. The Coasters were the musical guests, and when she tried to do the dirty boogie with Cornell Gunther, the lead singer, pulling him on to the dance floor, Dick Clark went nuts and the stage manager dragged her off-camera.”
“You’re shittin’ me? With all those wops on that show, you’re lucky she didn’t start a race riot.”
I could tell by his smile that Keane liked the story. He said that Dick Clark was a phony prick, but he had to “keep him sweet” if he wanted to get his acts booked on the show. Then he reached into his pants and pulled out a thick roll of bills, peeled off two twenties and stuffed them into my pocket. Before I could thank him, he told me to “get lost” and disappeared back into the offices of Del-Fi records.
I drove away elated and was tempted to stop at the nearest pay phone and call Harriet collect. I could imagine her in her dorm room as she received the good news, her face lit from the inside by pride and sheer happiness. She would see nothing wrong with working for free. What mattered to her was our future. Okay, it might bother her a little that I thought Bob Keane was a hoodlum with a disagreeable personality that would probably become oppressive. But more than likely she would see the job as a temporary first step, a way station until my magic passport arrived, enabling me to climb up Hollywood’s ladder to success.
A QUICK DRINK
Driving home from my meeting with Bob Keane, I stopped for gas at a Chevron station on Sunset Boulevard, just west of La Cienega. Directly across the street were the offices of David Wolper Productions, a documentary film company that I’d read about recently in the Los Angeles Times. According to this article, which was long and laudatory, Wolper had begun production on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and several other historical documentaries that would be broadcast on all the major networks. They were also preparing films on professional football, outer space, JFK, and a whole series of Hollywood biographies, including one on Marilyn Monroe, who had once picked me up hitchhiking when I was fourteen.
I had driven by Wolper Productions at least ten times in the last week, and it had passed unnoticed until now, at a moment that seemed to be precisely arranged. Or how was I to explain this odd conjunction: a history major with a year of graduate study staring at the home of a film company that specialized in historical documentaries? Before I paid for my gas and drove home, I was nudged by a voice whispering in my head: Pay attention, John.
I swung a U-turn, found a space to park in front of the building, fed the meter, and walked inside. The same set up as the record companies — a low-ceilinged lobby, a reception desk, a young woman answering phones — except everything here was quieter, and the smiling glances that I got from the men and women moving up and down the stairs were a welcoming change from the grimacing faces I saw at places like RCA and Capitol Records, faces that were designed to repel. Still, I expected the same old bullshit as I approached the front desk: the sweet, almost mechanical smile from the receptionist, the cool politeness, and then the inevitable brush-off when I told her I was looking for a job.
But once again I was wrong.
The receptionist — she had slender legs, big dark eyes, and her name, I later learned, was Joan — did have a sweet smile, but it was also genuine, and almost immediately I felt my nerves become wonderfully soothed when she asked me (in a voice that was the opposite of petulant) if I wanted to fill out an application. While we exchanged bits and pieces of biographical information — she’d grown up in the San Fernando Valley, had also attended Berkeley, but her degree was in Comparative Literature — a look of puzzlement dropped over her face when I told her I’d been in the Marine Corps. She didn’t look offended, just bewildered. Berkeley? Marines? It didn’t add up. If I’d joined after high school, she could excuse it as a case of youthful folly. But I had already been out of college for almost a year before I signed up.
“It was either that or be drafted,” I told her, “I thought six months in the Marines made more sense.”
“Couldn’t you get a deferment?”
“Only if I wanted to pay a shrink to say I’m crazy or a homosexual. I didn’t want to go that route.”
It was at this point that I saw a man come down from the second floor and cross the lobby with an interested smile. He was in his mid-thirties, a touch disheveled — later I found out that his shirts were custom made and so were his shoes — with an assured but kindly manner. After he told Joan that he was going to run an errand and would be back in an hour, he glanced at the application I was holding. That’s when Joan jumped in and introduced us:
“Bill, this is John Kaye. He studied European History at Berkeley and spent a year in graduate school researching Nazi Germany.”
Bill stood very still for a moment, regarding me with something like a challenge in his gaze. Then he said, “Let me see your application,” and when I handed it over Joan winked at me. “Bill’s the director of research at Wolper. His assistant just got promoted. Right, Bill?”
“That’s right,” Bill said, nodding as he looked over my resume. “And out of the blue this guy walks in who’s almost overqualified, except he’s never had a real job, unless you count waiting on tables at a pizza joint in Madison.”
“I think his stint in the Marines should count for something,” Joan said.
Bill finally raised his eyes and looked not at me but Joan. When he asked her, probingly, if she thought I would fit in at Wolper, she said that judging by my application and the few minutes we’d spent chatting, I would be her first choice among the candidates he’d interviewed.
“Do you have time for a quick drink?” Bill asked me, and then not waiting for an answer, he said, “We’ll take my car.” Leaving my beat-up Chevy parked in front, I followed him into the lot behind Wolper. He drove a red Corvette and, before he turned on the ignition, he answered a question that was silently causing me some uneasiness. “In case you’re wondering, Joan’s not interested in working for me. She’s got her eye on something else. Not that I’m offering you a job.”
But an hour later, as we sat at the bar in the Cock and Bull, a cozy British Pub on the west end of Sunset that was favored by actors who were either out of work or just between pictures, he did just that. And while Keenan Wynn and Lee Marvin were sitting in a nearby booth, drinking Moscow Mules, accompanied by an irresistibly seductive blond (who I found out later was Tuesday Weld), Bill quickly outlined what was expected of me, if I decided to accept his offer.
“Here’s the deal,” he said, speaking in a voice that was persuasively sincere. “We work on a lot of shows at the same time, so you’ll be moving from producer to producer, depending on what they need. Mainly I’ll be sending you down to the library to check out books and magazines or do original research. You’ll get a pass to the stacks, so there’s no hassle. Sometimes you might have to track down stock footage. If it’s a movie clip for our series about Hollywood, that means dealing with the studios, which can be a pain in the ass. Newsreel stuff is easier but just as expensive, but I’ll handle the negotiations, so you won’t have to worry about that. Sherman Grinberg in Hollywood has got the biggest stock-film archive when it comes to World War Two footage, so you’ll be spending a lot of time there, if Mel Stuart — he’s producing The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich — wants you involved. Considering your academic background, he probably will.”
As Bill rambled on, I remember we were sitting shoulder to shoulder, which meant we only occasionally looked directly at each other — everything else was expressed in sidelong glances — but in those moments he seemed to be studying me closely, oblivious to the raucous laughter and high-spirited conversations at the tables surrounding us.
After we ordered a third round of drinks, Bill told me that my salary would be $100 a week. That’s what he’d paid his former assistant and the company wouldn’t budge, so it would be pointless to negotiate. “Not that you have any leverage,” he added, smiling gently. Then he asked me where I was living, and when I told him I was staying with my folks until I found a job, he said, “I’ve got a friend who has a guest house that’s available in Silver Lake. I’ll call him tomorrow and tell him you’ll ring him up.”
Forty-five years down the road — what a long stretch, I’m thinking, as I write all this down — I’m not sure I can accurately channel how I felt sitting at the bar inside the Cock and Bull, my future appearing before me like a shining path. It all seemed too good to be true: a job at a company that was uncommonly respected, an actual weekly paycheck, and the possibility of a place to live.
If “joy” was, as I later heard someone say, a divinely given emotion, a combination of gratitude, laughter, and honesty, I suppose that’s what I was feeling, because when I left the bar with Bill I could feel myself begin to smile with a kind of childish delight, and I was still smiling when we drove back to Wolper and I saw the empty space in front of the building where my car had been parked. Bill said, “No problem. It happened to me a few months ago. I’ll drive you to the tow yard.”
After we went to the tow yard — I was broke and Bill paid the tab — I went home and called Harriet and had her woken in her dorm room. When she came to the phone, still groggy from sleep, I told her about my long day in a voice, she said, sounded more than just excited. “You sound overwhelmed. I can feel your energy through the phone,” she said. I told her that I was confused, that I was not sure what I wanted to do. “I love music,” I said. “But I don’t want to work for free, especially for a gangster.”
“Making documentary films sounds interesting.”
“I’ll just be doing research,” I said.
Harriet laughed. “This morning you had no job prospects. And now you’re already complaining. You better stop that or I’ll call off our marriage. Nobody likes being married to a complainer.”
Marriage? I remember feeling my mood crash.
“What’s the matter, John? Are you getting cold feet?”
“Yes, you are. I can hear it in your voice.”
“We said a year. After you graduated and—”
“I know what we said. But I don’t want to wait a year.” To Harriet, college was a waste of time. She was only there to get away from the fixed glare of her parents, those chastising jailers who demanded her subservience and tried, when she lived at home, to control her every action.
From Madison, she said, “If you don’t want to be with me, just say so.”
“I do. I love you, Harriet. You know that.”
“You used to cry outside my dorm when I wouldn’t see you. Do you remember that, John? It was snowing and there you were, clumping around underneath my window in your stupid combat boots. That’s how much you loved me. All the boys wanted me to be their girlfriend, and I chose you. You want to know why?” she asked me. “Because around you I can be myself. I feel completely natural. And you make me laugh. Nobody makes me laugh as much as you. That’s why.”
I started to say something, but she interrupted me before the words left my throat. “I’m hanging up now. But I just want you to know that I’ve always trusted you more than you trusted me. I’m happy you’re starting a new life. It makes me so excited that I want to scream. If you really want me to be part of it, I’ll know it. Call me when you decide.”
When I put the phone down, I tried to remain calm, but I was gradually overpowered by a swelling anxiety that lasted for several hours, pinning me beneath an avalanche of fear. Was it possible, I wondered, that our love for each other had now suddenly become negotiable. Harriet could sometimes be infuriatingly shy and childishly dependent, but she could also show spurts of temper, and to predict from one moment to the next how she might act was an impossible task. Fundamentally she was untamable and uncategorizable, and that’s why she fascinated me, and I never could let her go. Even today — she’s been dead for twenty years — I can feel an ache in the left side of my chest when I remember the touch of her skin or the particular way she tilted her head when she smiled.
When I visit her gravesite at the Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, I always call my son in New York City. The conversation is brief. I tell him how much she loved him and how good-hearted she was — she’s watching over us, I tell him: an omniscient angel — and then we pray silently that she’s finally at rest.
The morning after we spoke, I called Harriet back. I asked her if she wanted to live together, and she said, “Is this a marriage proposal?”
After a beat of silence, I said, “Yes.”
(End of Part 1. Although the names of a few people (*) in this essay have been changed to protect their privacy, most have remained intact; conversations have been reconstructed and certain moments condensed.)