Observations Now In 1968 a pal of mine who worked for The New
Yorker was sent to cover the Democratic convention in Chicago.
During the infamous police riots he was struck two or three times
by a cop with a nightstick, and when he managed to get back to his
hotel he found himself pissing blood. He eventually recovered,
wrote his piece and left out the attack on himself. "Michael," I
asked my always elegantly dressed, highly polite friend, "how could
you leave it out? You weren't protesting. It shows the scope of the
violence. It's important." He respectfully disagreed. "I wasn't
sent to write about myself," he said, with a certain amount of
hauteur. New Journalism was in the air back then--an approach in
which the observer was taken to be as important, or more important,
than the stuff observed (Tom Wolfe, for instance, writing about
auto shows, well before taking on the more ambitious role of
American Balzac). The New Yorker frowned on New Journalism. People
took sides. I never did, whether from laziness or a reluctance to
box myself in, I don't know. I dealt with each piece I wrote as
seemed appropriate at the time.
The closest I came to New Journalism was probably a long piece
(endlessly long, in fact) about the late movie star Steve McQueen,
written for what was then considered not the best but the hippest
magazine around, Esquire. McQueen, whom I had never thought much of
as an actor, turned out to be a nice guy. Unassuming,
straightforward, easygoing if a touch wired, he was good company.
We had fun riding 250 cc dirt bikes in the desert around Palm
Springs, drinking beer, eating Mexican food at out-of-the-way
joints and swimming in the pool behind his Palm Springs house, his
getaway pad (his mansion was in Beverly Hills, of course). It was
my first "big" magazine piece. Still in my twenties, I was thrilled
by the whole experience. I left something out of my piece, though,
something I knew the editors would probably like, and, so too, the
readers. On my third visit to his house--"Come over for lunch," he
said, "around eleven"--he surprised me.
It was an ordinary suburban neighborhood, and I drove into the
circle at precisely eleven a.m., parked the car and rang his front
door bell. After a long time the door opened. McQueen, his entirely
naked body wet and gleaming, peeked out at the street and then
looked at me. "Come on back to the pool."
Was he showing off ? His body was flawless, front and back, and
quite beautiful. One did not have to be gay (and neither of us was)
to be moved by its perfection. Was he saying he had nothing to hide
to a writer who would, he knew, be writing about him? Was he
asserting his freedom to do whatever he wanted to do--the kid from
the orphanage who grew up to be a movie star? Was it an expression
of trust? Who knows? Perhaps he just didn't think it was that
He lent me a pair of trunks, though, because he didn't know when
his wife and kids would be back. Writing for money. Not very much
money, to be sure, but I did it occasionally. (My first book,
Stop-Time, had been a critical success, but brought in next to
nothing.) The New Yorker had printed chapters from my book, and Mr.
Shawn, who ran the place, suggested I might want to try a "Notes
and Comment" now and then. I wrote a dozen or so over the next
couple of years, but finally stopped because I overreacted to
rejection. Whenever he turned one down, even with good reason, it
broke my heart. (In my teaching I emphasize that a writer must
learn how to deal with rejection, and must never be weakened or
slowed down because of it. I have dealt with it badly myself, so I
know what I'm talking about.) I also overreacted to acceptance.
Once I wrote a short story in a single go, nine hours of continuous
immersion which left me manic and exhausted. Mr. Shawn bought the
story and printed it a week later. I wasted a month
Magazines had once been an important part of American culture.
Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea was first printed in Life, read by
millions of people. The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and others
published fiction in every issue, thousands of stories a year, lots
of nonfiction, and thus supported all kinds of writers. Television
ended that era, but when I was young we still read what was left
pretty faithfully. The New Yorker was important to us. As my
drinking buddy Terry Southern used to say, "It's the top of the
One night I walked into a favorite literary hangout and sat down
with Willie Morris, the flamboyant editor of Harper's Magazine.
Charles Manson had just been arrested and the whole country was
agog. "Who's going to do Manson for Harper's?" I asked, genuinely
curious. Willie was, of course, drunk. "You are," he said
immediately. "You are. You."
I thought it was the booze talking, but he asked the waiter for
some paper and wrote out a contract on the spot. We both signed,
and two waiters signed as witnesses, and Willie bought a round of
drinks. A month later I delivered the article, a "think piece" as
they used to call them at The New Yorker, which Willie liked well
enough to make the cover story. A terrific editor, who knew when to
simply let a writer go.
Some editors were insupportable. A young guy at one of the bigger
"slicks" asked me to go out to California and do a story on Anouk
Aimée, the ethereally beautiful French actress who'd hit it
big with a movie called A Man and a Woman. "She's going to see
Disneyland, according to her PR guy." I accepted the assignment,
spent three or four days with Anouk and her guitar-playing
boyfriend, went to Disneyland with them, came back to New York and
wrote an article. It was hard work. Anouk was indeed beautiful, but
a dim bulb. A soul under water, really. I thought I captured a
certain poignancy in her situation, but the editor killed the
piece. "I was thinking of the irony of it," he said. "You know,
French sophistication against the vulgarity of Disneyland." In
other words, he had a piece in mind despite the fact that he'd
never met Anouk Aimée and never been to California. A few
experiences of this kind taught me to be very careful about
assignments. I backed off from magazine work almost entirely, in
fact, earning money doctoring movie scripts instead. (Cleaning up
dialogue, mostly, for princely sums. It didn't seem to matter
whether the producers made the movie or not. But I began to hate
the work itself--the movies were stupid--and eventually the well
Years later, after my marriage had ended and I left New York to
live in the boondocks, broke, jobless and confused, I was to look
back with mild alarm at how casual I'd been about money, how
spoiled I'd been by a decade of modest income from my trust funds
(which ran out) and my wife's (which, thank God, did not), wrapped
in a comfortable fog of well-being. The cliché is true: when
you don't really need money, it's easy to get, and when you
absolutely must have it, it's hard to come by--particularly if
you've left town. New Yorkers tend to think of anyone who's left as
having died. They simply forget about you. For quite some time I
scrabbled around, playing the piano at jazz bars, doing whatever
pickup journalism I could get. I was grateful when an acquaintance
at the New York Times Magazine called long distance to ask if I
wanted to do a piece on the Rolling Stones. "You bet," I said.
I knew nothing about rock, never listened to it except in passing
on the car radio and had no interest in it. (The Beatles were
another story. I bought all their records and even played a few of
their tunes with my trio.) I had to ask my twenty-four-year-old
girlfriend, "Who are the Rolling Stones? I mean, I've heard of
them, but what's the big deal?"
She looked at me suspiciously, as if I'd started playing some
unspecified word game. "You mean you really don't know?"
"Does the name Mick Jagger ring a bell?"
"He's in the group, right? He sings?"
(Let me digress with another note about New York. My male pals
understood me well enough to know I couldn't live alone--indeed, I
tried it for a year, housesitting in Connecticut and feeling very,
very sorry for myself--and many of them argued that I should stay
in the city because I'd never find a woman in the boondocks. They
were wrong, as New Yorkers are so often wrong about the outside
world. The twenty-four-year-old girlfriend who proceeded to tell me
all she knew about the Rolling Stones eventually married me, and is
still with me thirty years later. We have a fifteen-year-old son
who listens to Tony Bennett.)
Once again I was to leave something out of the story. I had no
choice, really, given the venue. But I can tell it here. The
Rolling Stones were about to begin an American tour, and had rented
Andy Warhol's estate at the northern tip of Long Island to go over
their repertoire. Flashing my coded telegram at various
checkpoints, I arrived at a sprawling one-story house with wings in
all directions. I found a door, knocked and, after some time,
simply entered. To my left, an enormous kitchen. "Hello? Anybody
home?" I moved past the entrance hall and through an arch on my
right to what looked like a large, informal living room. "Hello?"
Complete silence. It was around four o'clock in the
I sat down on a couch, feeling a bit nervous, and flipped through
some magazines from a side table. After perhaps three quarters of
an hour I got up and walked over to the French windows, stared out
at the lawn and came back again. On the other side of the room were
amplifiers, mike stands, stacks of speakers, a drum set, cables on
the floor and a Steinway baby grand. I sat down at the piano and
played some Thelonious Monk. Then some Jaki Byard. I got into it,
as they say--concentrating. I played the blues, and suddenly the
sound of the drums came from behind my back. Crisp, light ride
cymbal, steady high hats and short riffs on the snare, echoing
little licks from my right hand. Classic jazz drums, something like
Kenny Clark. I just kept on playing when a bass joined in,
completing the trio with a swinging four-to-the-bar walking line.
It sounded so good to me I couldn't stop, and we must have done
fifty choruses. Finally I played the head to "Blues in the Closet,"
lifted my hands and turned around.
"Hey," said the skinny guy behind the drums. "I've played with you
before." This was Charlie Watts, the Stones' drummer, but I had
never seen the group and didn't recognize him.
"I--uh, well," I mumbled.
"The Establishment!" he said. "Back in the old days."
Ah, yes. London. A nightclub with a downstairs jazz scene where the
house pianist, Dudley Moore, let me sit in now and then. (This was
before rock hit England, when Gypsy caravans might be spotted in
the countryside.) "Right," I said. "Good Lord."
Charlie introduced me to Bill Wyman, the bassist, and we all
reminisced about the nightclub, the swinging Soho scene, Ronnie
Scott's jazz club, Lenny Bruce's first gig in London and other
matters of no particular importance. Although Mick Jagger turned
out to be a narcissistic egomaniac, Watts and Wyman were open,
friendly and masters of a certain kind of fast British
working-class humor. I went along to rehearsals at an old air base
in Newburgh, New York, and then to a performance in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana. My acquaintance with Watts, and his generosity with his
time, gave me almost completely free access to the whole elaborate
process of launching a big tour. I got to know everybody--roadies,
the cook, sound people, stage managers and all the rest. Through
nothing more than good luck, I had more than enough material for
the article. I had fun, too, but that couldn't go in. At least not
all of it.
Twenty-five years later, the Stones piece is included in this book,
slightly altered in chronology and its mention of jazz. The McQueen
piece and dozens of other journalistic pieces have been left out.
They seem dated now. A number of essays that were not written for
magazines have been included.
A long time ago I wrote a memoir, Stop-Time, which ended when I was
eighteen. A lot of people expected me to continue the story of my
life, but I was determined not to write that kind of book again.
Stop-Time stands alone, and I'm glad of that. I did not think of
the book as the start of a career, I thought of it as a thing unto
itself, and was astonished that I'd been able to make it. Decades
later I wrote a novel, Body & Soul, as an homage both to music
and to the traditional novels of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, which I loved and which had awakened my imagination. But
all along I was doing smaller things: stories, articles and essays
that now seem-- although this was never the intent--to extend the
line of the eighteen-year-old boy, however faintly, into the
present. But I hope the pieces collected here can be read for
pleasure as is. It's the caravan that counts, after all, not the
Excerpted from DOGS BARK, BUT THE CARAVAN ROLLS ON ©
Copyright 2002 by Frank Conroy. Reprinted with permission by
Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
Dogs Bark, But the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now