Not Quite “Almost Famous”

22Jul09

It was November of 1968.  I was 18 and a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz.  About a year before, a magazine called Rolling Stone had started in San Francisco and I’d quickly become an avid reader.  Back in high school, I’d actually subscribed to what was arguably the first rock “zine” – the mimeographed Mojo-Navigator R’n’R News1.  It was created by fellow Redwood High alum David Harris (not the peace activist/husband of Joan Baez – same name/different guy) along with the late great Greg Shaw (who went on to publish Who Put The Bomp magazine and found Bomp! Records).  Jann Wenner “borrowed” a lot from the Mojo-Navigator – but added production values. 

So… I was up in my dorm room, reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone and saw that they were soliciting reviews and articles from readers.  “What the heck?” I thought.  I’d written for my high school newspaper and was passionate about rock music; I could write record reviews.  Anyway, it was more interesting than finishing my term paper on Emperor Ashoka.

[Note:  Some things never change – such as procrastination.  Writing this blog is enabling me to postpone the proofreading of training materials for a healthcare company.]

Record albums came out on Tuesdays, so the next Tuesday I went to a music store.  The Steve Miller Band had released its second album, Sailor

Sailor

I bought the record, hurried back to campus, and listened to it 3 times in a row.  Then I pounded out a review on my portable typewriter and, the next day, mailed it off to Rolling Stone.

About a week passed and an envelope from Rolling Stone arrived in my mailbox, with a check inside for $12.50.  It sounds paltry now, but I was pretty damned excited.

I rushed off to pick up the new Rolling Stone.  At first I couldn’t find it.  It turned out that the newsstand had put a brick on top of it to hide the picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bare butts on the cover2.  I looked for the record reviews; they weren’t in the usual place.  On the cover, it said, “Inside: The Complete John and Yoko Record Cover.”  The Two Virgins album cover was printed on one side of a pull-out insert… the front was a full-frontal nude shot of both of them.  

Two Virgins Cover 

On the other side of the insert were the record reviews, including mine.  The insert could be removed if obscenity issues arose – I wonder how often my review got tossed by nervous newsstand owners. 

[Sidebar:  Check out that pubic hair!  I don’t think it grows as vigorously these days.  Has human evolution or environmental contamination led to a defoliation of bush?  Or, alternatively, did all the drugs that people were taking back then act like fertilizer, stimulating rampant shag carpet growth?] 

Anyway… eventually I found my review of Sailor3.  I read it in disbelief – only half of the published review was what I’d written.  An editor had added comments that were in a totally different style from my writing – some directly contradicted what I’d said in a previous sentence.  Here’s the portion of the review that discusses the best known song on the album, “Living in the USA” (reissues actually changed the album title to that) – the words I didn’t write are in red:

“‘Living in the USA’ starts off appropriately enough with drag strip sound effects.  The song is a commentary on the US scene, but unfortunately some of the lyrics are rather weak.  A good editor could have really perfected the words.  The song is a real rocker though, and one cool moment occurs at the beginning of the fade out when Miller yells desperately, ‘Somebody get me a cheeseburger!’  That line captures everything.”

I understood that editors had a job to do and that I was just an amateur writer.  Nevertheless, that comment seemed aimed at me as much as at Steve Miller.  The editor did, however, have one ace up his/her sleeve.  The review ended with this sentence, added by the editor: 

“It is also a pity that the group is breaking up — and the tensions are evident in the construction of the album, so many fragments — because the best was still yet to come.” 

Well, they had me there:  I didn’t know the band was breaking up.  Of course, it turned out the band wasn’t exactly breaking up… Boz Scaggs just left to have a huge solo career and Steve Miller went on to churn out a string of mega-hits.

I talked with friends.  They emphasized the positive – I’d been published in Rolling Stone!  I started to feel better about the experience.  Then I made the mistake of phoning my parents to tell them about it.

My mother was not impressed.  In fact, she was quite unhappy that I was spending money (specifically my parents’ money) on records.  She just wanted to know if I was doing my class assignments. 

On the other hand, my father was surprisingly supportive.  He wanted to buy a copy of Rolling Stone and send it to his parents.  At this point, of course, I had to explain about the pictures of John and Yoko – which would be a bit more than Grandma and Grandpa Dorn back in Brooklyn could handle.  The nude photos clinched it for my mom – she let me know, in no uncertain terms, that this was not what they were paying to send me to college to do. 

Forget the editor’s changes.  Forget the parental disapproval.  As it too often is, money proved to be the deciding factor.  I did the math:

 $12.50 (payment for the record review) – 2.98 (the price of a record album) – .12 (sales tax) – .06 (postage) = $9.34 (profit) 

$9.34 ÷ $1.60 (minimum wage in 1968) = 5.8375 

If I could listen to an album and bang out a review in just under 6 hours, I’d be making minimum wage – and that was not what my parents were paying to send me to college to do.  My career as a rock journalist came to an abrupt end. 

So… what can we learn from this? 

  • John Lennon was not circumcised.
  • The road not taken could have been a highway to hell (Lester Bangs – dead at 33 from an overdose of darvon and valium) or a stairway to heaven (Cameron Crowe – who based his script for Almost Famous on his experiences at Rolling Stone).  The key point – you’ll never know! 

Later… 

  1. http://www.rockmine.com/Archive/Library/Mojo.html
  2. http://www.rollingstone.com/photos/gallery/5392210/1968_rolling_stone_covers/photo/19/large/frankzappa
  3. http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/album/163396/review/5941547?utm_source=Rhapsody&utm_medium=CDreview
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6 Responses to “Not Quite “Almost Famous””

  1. 1 ted

    I still have your review, minus the nudity, in a paperback anthology Rolling Stone published a few years later.

    Your review is solid gold, and I’m sure it gave the Steve Miller Band the extra boost they needed to become a sensation later in the 70’s.

    But your editor was right. They never really perfected the words, did they?

  2. 2 Mr. Fish

    I am so glad I couldn’t afford to by the Rolling Stone that week.

    Best Fishes,

  3. 3 suzdent

    I was in college, too, at that time. I remember that my best friend mailed me the insert from Rolling Stone. Pretty amazing for the 60s! Wish I still had it.

  4. 5 JIm Laffan

    Mike: You can NOT blame this on Sol and Estelle! I spoke with your grandparents just yesterday (both still living in a 1 bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn and soon to be celebrating their 90th wedding anniversary! Sid says his ticker is not so great. Estelle, at least, is feeling a little better after the cataract surgery, and privately? tells me Sid goes on with everybody about his heart; “What a complainer! the man is as strong as an ox, he’ll live to be 114!”—As if anybody ever thinks to call them once in a while and ask…

    Anyway, Sid has been following your blog: “I saw the name; I got curious,” he shrugs. He says this whole thing with Rolling Stone is plain wrong. He would have LOVED to see the naked photo of Yoko Ono. What a bush! And those knockers– a little floppy, maybe, but c’mon, not bad at all. Still, he acknowledges that the photo would have upset your grandmother. “She’s never seen an uncircumcised penis in her life; it would have floored poor Estelle.” In a separate email your grandmother denies this: “But don’t tell Sol for godsake! He finds out who I used to date before I met him, I’ll never hear the end of it!”

    Anyway, they both did the math and said you’d better sharpen your pencil. The proper way to calculate these things, according to your grandfather, is ask yourself: what would I be doing INSTEAD of writing a Rolling Stone review, and who cares? This is called the Money Value of Time; John Maynard Keynes wrote a book on it, I think. Here’s how it works: The magazine pays you $12.95 for spending 2 1/2 hours listening to rock and roll music that you would have listened to anyway. You took 2 more hours than you needed to writing the review because you insisted on smoking a reefer to get inspired. The thing could have been done in 30-40 minutes, max if you’d been straight, according to Estelle, who calls you, by the way, “a very bright boy.” Now, subtract the actual labor (the review) and what have you got? You bought an album you liked and smoked a joint listening to it while staring out the window. Who’s gonna pay you for doing THAT? –Even if you throw in 15 minutes of vigorous masturbation and eating at the Cowell dining hall during the same time six hour work period.

    Plus, as both your grandparents point out; at the time, you were attending UC Santa Cruz, notorious for its seminars where NOBODY ever read the materials but EVERYBODY had an opinion in class. You could have just listened to the lead single on KQED–if you cared to spend that much time on research–and faked the entire article. And of course, who can even measure the ad valorem impact on the sex life of a college sophomore from being a Rolling Stone writer in the middle of the biggest hormone-crazed intramural group-grope since Nero was emperor. Livin’ in the USA, indeed!

    Back to basics: Even if you insisted on the full 2/3 of an hour to write the review, that 60/40 x $12.95= $19.42/hr, a staggering sum for a student job. Per year, in 1969, working a regular 40 hour week, with two week paid vacation! —$40,404.00. According to http://www.dollartimes.com :$40,000.00 in 1968 had about the same buying power as $248,058.00 does in 2009. But who’s counting?

    Call your grandparents, Mike; tell them you’re sorry. Tell them it was just bad judgment on your part and next time you’ll do things differently. The lines are open.


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