FORWARD: In his last year prior to dying of cancer, I got to know Al Aronowitz, the highly respected and much-maligned journalist responsible for introducing the Beatles to Bob Dylan (possibly the greatest cultural meeting of white musicians in music history). He actually confided in me and felt compelled to call one afternoon to tell me he had terminal cancer. That was difficult. I felt privileged to have met his acquaintance.
But Aronowitz was a stubborn man who despised magazine editors and hated the way book deals went down. He began organizing his works prior to death but felt publishing agents were trying to rip him off. In the ‘70s, he became sidelined by cocaine abuse and time spent in jail on drug charges. He never got his big break or a chance to tell his stories to the mainstream, but the books he left behind, especially “Bob Dylan and The Beatles: Volume One of the Best of the Blacklisted Journalist,” offer compelling evidence of his involvement with the greatest musical icons. Also included here is my second Aronowitz interview concerning his book “Bobby Darin was A Friend Of Mine.”
Quite simply, Al Aronowitz is a living legend. As the “Godfather of Rock Journalism,” he was an ambassador to young folk and rock aspirants during the most rebellious, politically challenging decade – the Swinging ‘60s. As a writer for Saturday Evening Post, Aronowitz had unlimited access to beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but more importantly, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other disparate genre-defining rockers. He developed a personal relationship with these icons, gaining their trust and confidence before getting involved with crack cocaine while destroying his career in the ensuing Me Decade.
The profound ‘60s uprising, with its frenzied excitement and social turbulence, created a truly bizarre, totally necessitated phenomenon that still engulfs a less naïve, though still cruel, world desperate for enlightenment 40 years hence. Now a defiant septuagenarian with a walking cane, depleted voice, facetious half-smile, and pissy disposition, Aronowitz embraced the Beat Generation as a fly on the wall during the great countercultural revolution that influenced the whole Civil Rights Movement, provoking the universe to think differently and more independently.
When I visit Aronowitz at his cramped Elizabeth, New Jersey apartment, there are tapes, CD’s, and newspapers scattered about walls and floors. He has covered the shelves holding his extraordinary record collection to prevent the landlord from ripping off more valuables. He takes me to the local post office to mail promotional material for his newly released book, Bob Dylan and The Beatles: Volume One of the Best of the Blacklisted Journalist. A journey back in time, the bold text revisits old acquaintances, pulling no punches and cleverly hiding many mind-bending particulars ‘til the last chapter.
The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Aronowitz was named after 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, Al Smith, a liberal-minded sage he seems proud of. As a child, his older sister would take him to the library, where he initially became interested in writing stories. He attended Rutgers University, broadcasting football games for a year while studying journalism. By the ‘50s, he befriended the beat poets, Bobby Darin, and sundry well regarded artists. But it was his meeting with Bob Dylan at West Village speakeasy, Chumley’s, that would forever change his life.
“Many people thought Dylan was the messiah. I did. He’s the Shakespeare of our time,” Aronowitz says retrospectively. “But I wasn’t a music critic. I wanted to write stories with a punchline at the end.”
By ’64, Beatlemania swept America and Aronowitz got to hang out with the Fab 4 at Manhattan’s posh Delmonico Hotel, eventually introducing marijuana and Dylan to the Beatles. Believing Aldous Huxley’s claim that marijuana opens the doors to perception as nourishment for the brain, he turned on the young, impressionable Liverpudlians straightaway. Lennon was cracking up so much the first time he inhaled, he’d subsequently quip, “let’s have a larf” as a rally cry to party.
So began a long relationship with the biggest band the universe has ever seen. Soon, Aronowitz would get a reluctant Dylan to rendezvous with the Beatles, thereby influencing the poet laureate to go electric and the moptops to bring in folk elements. By ’65, Dylan penned “Mr. Tambourine Man” at Aronowitz’s Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, home (the historic 56 Briarwood Drive West) after listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness” repeatedly. The Beatles, conversely, brought Dylanesque acoustical refinement to ‘66s twin pillars, Rubber Soul and Revolver.
But life wasn’t a bowl of cherries for this storied writer. His wife, who died of cancer in the ‘70s, played him for a fool, cheating during marriage with the New York Post editor that hired, then fired him, and possibly, Dylan. He was able to promote a few poorly attended Country concerts featuring legends Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Charlie Rich at Madison Square Garden that ended up in the red. In fact, his Bob Dylan and The Beatles trove discusses his fall-outs with Paul Simon (“I owed him $10,000 I never returned”), creepy radio personality-hustler Murray The K, cranky misfits The Band, and more profoundly, Dylan.
“I think he was fucking my wife. I didn’t satisfy her so she went elsewhere,” the formerly gullible white-haired maven claims. “Dylan would play head games by making others feel small. He’d make up his past. First time I met him, he said he spent time in an infirmary. One time we were walking through the Village, and he lied about (folkie) Richard Farina getting killed.”
Spookily, Farina died shortly thereafter.
Aronowitz candidly dispels a few myths about Dylan, inferring “I was with Dylan when he bought the (infamous) Triumph bike he may’ve crashed on. He made it sound so dramatic. I think he was full of shit.”
Instead, Aronowitz maintains Dylan dabbled in white heat, a thought that evaded him ‘til his own ‘70s cocaine problems struck. “He had a heroin addiction so why would he care about my cocaine craze. But I’ve never seen tracks on his arms.”
Even Dylan’s former road manager agreed he used to score drugs for the folk legend. Drugs were so rampant that Aronowitz, after being fired by New York Post, sold them to gain funds for his own troubled lifestyle.
“I used to score junk for Mick Jagger in Berkeley Heights, but the dealer started ripping me off, so I disassociated myself from him. Mick and Keith Richard were long-time junkies,” he shockingly avows ‘bout the Rolling Stones’ famed Glimmer Twins, before recollecting, “Brian Jones’ drowning death was a setup. He was getting stoned, trying everything for recreation. I tried a lot with him. He got into amyl nitrate. Then, he had epilepsy, which I got too from smoking cocaine. He had an epileptic attack and drowned. Mick was mad because Brian wasn’t showing up for rehearsals and wasn’t focused. Mick felt really put out because Brian wanted to stay with the Blues.”
More disturbing, he recants, “The Band were buying coke from me. I caught Richard Manuel ripping me off for boots and a shirt. I put a curse on him. (guarded laughter) He hung himself! The Band went through a fortune being big time stars in California and trusted the wrong people. Levon (Helm) and Rick (Danko) now can’t stand Robbie Robertson for taking all the writing credits.”
A drug-addled warlock himself, Jerry Garcia was one of Aronowitz’s favorite musicians.
“He was uptight about what happened to his (stumpy middle) finger,” Aronowitz divulges. “His daughter, Sunshine, at the end of our interview, said ‘Did you tell him how your brother cut your finger off!’ He was all upset.”
Nevertheless, that hacked-up unit gave Garcia the clipped guitar sound Deadheads craved.
Another scandalously unrevealed admission is that Aronowitz was the Velvet Underground’s first manager.
“Lou Reed was hostile. The only reason Moe Tucker became their drummer is the former percussionist didn’t want to carry equipment upstairs where they’d play. (Tormented diva) Nico wanted a band to back her up even though she couldn’t sing for shit. (She appears on their debut.) But she was a beautiful piece of ass. But I have no respect for (ensuing manager/ pop art geek) Andy Warhol. I don’t like his art. He was lazy. His concept of editing a film was when the reel ran out.”
He brings forth so many disreputably delicious details in Bob Dylan and The Beatles that expounding upon the peculiar facts seems trite.
“John Lennon was a mean drunk,” he consents.
“Paul Mc Cartney was hard to get to know. He could be harsh but we got along fine. His wife, Linda, was a stabilizing force,” he reminisces.
Remaining friends with George Harrison ‘til his cancerous death despite scoffing over $50,000 from the ex-Beatle in unpaid loans, Aronowitz asserts, “He had the right attitude. He didn’t think he deserved all the money. Money changes everybody.”
Because of Aronowitz’s begrudging demeanor, distrust for editors (“They’re fucking assholes”), and suspicion towards agents, Bob Dylan and The Beatles has been self-published. According to him, former drug predicaments ruined his vocation. He couldn’t get a decent writing gig and felt like a man sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit.
Notwithstanding, he agrees there’s therapeutic evidence of marijuana’s lingering positive affect on our culture. Chapter One pictures him with buddy, George Harrison, enjoying a joint at Friar Park.
“My voice has deteriorated so I’m congested and stay away from it. I cough up phlegm,” he insists. “Last time I had marijuana it was in a cookie. It’s easier. You’re stoned all day.”
He claims “the government is full of shit” and prohibition created the Mafia, which in turn led to drug gang crime.
“Pot could be a good Kentucky cash crop. I wouldn’t recommend hard drugs. I had my taste and now I have too much to do in my golden years. But I don’t like politicians,” he declares. “Bush stole the election and took over the country in a coup. It’s totalitarianism. He wants to start a Christian crusade. He’s a cynical moron and evil liar.”
Obviously, this old hipster may be withered, but he’s not feeble, though he’d rather watch 60 Minutes or Nightline than pay attention to newer artists. He pops in a tape of powerful mezzo-soprano Jean Maderi leading the Vienna Symphony Orchestra after discussing beloved musician-friends Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman.
Aronowitz plans on releasing more books as soon as possible. Perhaps the Bobby Darin treatise will surface next. Either way, there’s no denying Aronowitz’s rightful place atop the elite literary pop culture pantheon.
UNDER-APPRECIATED JERSEY ICON RESCUES BOBBY DARIN’S LEGACY
How many times do you befriend a cultural figure who had the luxury to turn the Beatles on to weed, introduce Bob Dylan to the Fab Four, hang out with nearly every important ‘60s artist imaginable, and stand by terminally ill premier Italian-American ‘50s entertainer Bobby Darin from the beginning? If you’re a valued columnist like my own humble self, the answer is ONCE! That’s how much!
So before 75-year-old self-described ‘Black Listed Journalist” Al Aronowitz finally succumbs to whatever heart, leg, or throat complication he next tries to endure (editor’s note: he died of cancer by ’06), you’d better give this prized writer his fuckin’ due. (Are you listening, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame snobs?) Continuing to mount a strong comeback after cocaine addiction nearly destroyed his life two decades hence, this true “Godfather of Rock Journalism” follows up recent godsend Bob Dylan and The Beatles: Volume One of the Best of the Blacklisted Journalist with equally compelling Bobby Darin Was A Friend Of Mine.
Unlike more recognized rock and roll raconteurs or media peers such as American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, troubled New York discjockey Murray The K, and olden television host Ed Sullivan, Aronowitz maintained unlimited access to the era’s most talented and widely exposed stars. He’d contributed frequently to now-defunct Saturday Evening Post and the still-viable New York Post (whose editor fired Aronowitz in ’73 shortly after the luminary reporter’s wife died of cancer, most likely contributing to his spiraling junkie downslide). Absolutely nobody gained as much first-hand knowledge concerning the inner fears, turmoil, and contradictory lifestyle rock’s tumultuous giants experienced as Aronowitz did. The proof is in the pages of both above-mentioned tomes this once-Berkeley Heights, now-Elizabeth, New Jersey native drafted.
Focusing on Bobby Darin Was A Friend Of Mine, Aronowitz details the dramatic accounts of Bronx-bred Walden Robert Cassotto. Born May 14, 1936, to 16-year-old mother, Nina Walden, whom he believed to be his sister ‘til post-fame adulthood, and unschooled low-level mobster, Saverio Anthony Cassotto, killed prior to his son’s birth, Darin fulfilled his adolescent dream of reaching major worldwide stardom. Growing up poor in various tenement dwellings with rent-skipping parental vagrants, ‘The Kid,’ as Darin referred to himself, suffered from rheumatic fever and was heavily pampered by matriarchal grandmother, Vivian Fern Walden. Before husky, hulking professional agent Steve Blauner took over Darin’s business duties, brother-in-law/ stepfather Charlie Maffia worked as Darin’s original trusted road manager, and astonishingly, womanizing companion.
Recalling Darin’s gloriously sex-starved star-fucking days, Aronowitz affirms, “Bobby liked to walk in on other people when they were fucking and he liked others to walk in while he was fucking. He’d even wear a condom onstage because he’d sometimes reach orgasm.”
After becoming a commercial jingle singer sponsored by rising entrepreneur Don Kirschner, novelty ’58 debut hit, “Splish Splash,” put ‘The Kid’ on the charts, leading to legendary Las Vegas gigs at the Sahara Hotel. Battles with headstrong manager Blauner (wonderfully staged by Aronowitz early in the book), took place often, but never to the detriment of Darin’s career.
“It was Blauner who demanded Darin to cut “Mack The Knife” as a single, even though no one else gave three pennies for its chances,” Aronowitz writes.
Preceding this crescendo-building Swing Jazz rendition of Kurt Weill/ Bertold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera German murder ballad, which easily became 1959’s runaway smash, Darin had gained notorious teen icon status with “Queen Of The Hop” and “Dream Lover,” inspiring the Italian-American pop idol craze. Fellow Bronx native, Dion, and lesser talents Fabian and Frankie Avalon profited from Darin’s massive success.
Aronowitz claims, “Bobby didn’t pay much attention to them. He didn’t acknowledge their achievements. He concentrated on getting to living legend status by age 25 because he knew he wasn’t going to live long. Then, when he found out his supposed sister, Nina, was actually his mother, it came as quite a shock to him because all his life he never liked her. She was a very crude person and had a mouth like a stevedore – very uncultured. All of a sudden, he finds out she’s his mother and he goes a little crazy. He then wants to be Bob Dylan and write protest songs.”
On his own label, Direction Records, Darin cut political song, “Long Line Rider” and a few unfairly ignored albums, which were dropped on the heels of his last Top 10 Atlantic Records conquest, ’66s sympathetic Tim Hardin-penned neo-Classical ballad, “If I Were A Carpenter.” Incredibly, Darin never consumed drugs during the hippie-dippy ‘60s, despite dabbling, jabbling, and rabbling with tons of well-known marquee tranquilizers, making him quite an anomaly amongst sundry acid-tripping, marijuana-inhaling peers.
“He tried marijuana once or twice and didn’t like it. But his manager, Steve, was a big pot head. We’d smoke in front of Bobby but wouldn’t let him in on it,” Aronowitz recollects with guarded laughter.
While Aronowitz brings out the fragile nature of many renowned musicians in Bob Dylan and The Beatles, the only significant fragility Darin endured was a weak heart from childhood. A consummate all-around professional entertainer in the manner of Sammy Davis, Jr., Darin toyed with different instruments, executed vigorous dance routines, told jokes, and occasionally pontificated during magnanimous performances, receiving myriad plaudits as a true blue one man spectacle.
“He’d say, ‘People hear what they see.’ He was a great showman the same way Mick Jagger’s a great showman,” Aronowitz explains. “Bobby was special. I loved hanging out with him and going to his shows. He was a regular guy – a practical joker and a hell of an impersonator.”
Was he as charismatic as Dylan and the Beatles? I ask.
“No. They beat him by a mile. Bobby was in his own niche. But he had such a fantastic story. He had a tremendous life fighting the odds against death. He’d do such great shows into the early ‘70s. Then, he would be so exhausted he couldn’t climb two steps down off stage. He wanted to die onstage.”
During Darin’s final months in ‘73, he had called Aronowitz to come out to the West Coast to start writing his memoirs, but quickly began struggling with paranoia, senility, and bowel problems. So Bobby Darin Was A Friend Of Mine got compiled post-death from piles of notes the aged-in-the-wool author had been saving instead.
*Coincidental Happenstance: ‘Beyond The Sea’ film*
Anyway… Famed actor Kevin Spacey recently directed, performed, and sang in the semi-biographical Beyond The Sea, a post-Christmas ’04 movie named after one of Darin’s biggest, snazziest, horn-blarin’ hits and apparently reliant on only half the facts.
Aronowitz clarifies, “It’s been fictionalized like all biopics. When Bobby dies in the film, he’s still with (formerly naïve actress, ex-wife) Sandra Dee, not last love Andrea Yeager. Hollywood just can’t do true stories. They don’t have room for that. But Steve Blauner wants the movie to be a success because he thinks it’s the only one that’s gonna get done on Bobby. He wants to start a whole Bobby Darin buzz. His records will start selling again and he’ll get a piece of it.”