Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil - A Kind Word for Albert Goldman

Albert Harry Goldman is inarguably the most controversial music biographer of the last generation. His biographies of first Elvis, then John Lennon, have been spit on by the best and worst critics on both sides of the Atlantic. “Bio-porn” Gore Vidal called his writing. And when Goldman veered off into wild sensationalism, as when he referred to Elvis’ uncircumcised penis as a “hillbilly pecker,” who could argue?

Yet, I have a confession to make. I like the work of Albert Goldman, rotting carcasses and all, and I liked the man himself. To be philosophical about the Elvis book, I believe his scabrous take on the man was necessary, an antidote to the agitprop nonsense written about the man his whole career, and upon long reflection I feel it is a proper bookend to the balanced portrait presented in the definitive, and far politer, biographies by Peter Guralnick.

Goldman, to me, is the Yin to Guralnick’s Yang, and when Guralnick was too gentlemanly to go down the ratholes of Elvis’ final skid, Goldman relished the opportunity and came up with a morality tale and an American nightmare. I have been privileged to personally know three Elvis biographers, not to mention a score of other writers who have contributed masterfully to the Elvis canon. But no one explored the dark side of Elvis better than Albert Goldman.

My friend Dave Marsh, one of those three Elvis biographers, unsurprisingly detested Albert Goldman and in an interview with me suggested that if he met Goldman in a dark alley he would feel obligated to throttle the bastard. He also stated emphatically that Goldman not only had a welter of inaccuracies in the book (more on that in a minute) but that the book was full of outright lies. This accusation confuses the issue with Goldman’s John Lennon bio which to me and others seemed calculated to create controversy by deliberately placed distortions (or outright lies). The most notorious of those about Lennon was Goldman’s assertion that Lennon trolled exclusive sex parlors in New York City for boys. To my knowledge no one has ever found one shred of evidence to back up that preposterous claim. So why would Goldman say it? Answer: to sell books. My take on it is that Goldman felt so bloodied and beaten down by the hostility towards his Elvis book, which Goldman felt was truthful and accurate, that he had nothing to lose by exaggerating a few things in the Lennon book. He knew coming out of the gate that he would be reviled no matter what he wrote.

I was in my mid-twenties when Goldman’s Elvis came out. Being a Memphian, you can’t imagine the reaction to the book in Elvis’ hometown. Of course the fans went completely apeshit; none of them wanted their idol besmirched, particularly by some smirking, sneering New York Jew (Goldman was right when he said much of the reaction against him was rooted in anti-Semitism) who hated Elvis and everything about the South. I was a part of the Memphis youth who had more or less rebelled against the Elvis faction when the Beatles stormed America. Elvis was old and déclassé, a greaser who still slicked his hair back with hair cream at a time when the rest of us kids were fighting our dads to let our hair touch our ears. Elvis and his Las Vegas lounge act were hopelessly out of date to many of us who were hip to Rolling Stone magazine, and when Elvis went off the grid to visit Richard Nixon in the White House we shut the door on him.

Goldman’s book confirmed all those rumors that had circulated about Elvis for years. If you lived in Memphis you couldn’t help but hear what was going on. He had become the Howard Hughes of the rock generation. One evening at a local café I bumped into a friend who was the brother of a local lawyer. This friend had a copy of Goldman’s Elvis in his hand. We started discussing the book. He told me that his brother was one of Priscilla Presley’s attorneys and that it was he who had discovered that Col. Tom Parker was born in the Netherlands under another name. This lawyer had passed the information on to Goldman. I told this friend that I had noted about a dozen or so factual errors in the book, primarily small things about people and places in Memphis.

This chance comment set in motion a chain reaction of events that led me to the man himself, Albert Goldman. Goldman was preparing revisions for the paperback edition of the book and wanted to weed out every mistake he could from the first printing. He asked me to go back through the book and note everything I could. I did and subsequently 14 minor changes were made to the manuscript. He also asked me to do some library work for him and verify a movie Elvis would have seen at a particular movie theater on a particular date. That was easy enough.

Goldman struck me as very funny (he had tried his hand as a standup comic, and failed) and obsessed with getting his book right. He was also very helpful in giving a budding writer some advice and encouragement and even sent an article of mine around to a few editors he knew, which is something no writer has done for me before or since. I told him I would be in New York within a few weeks and he invited me to his apartment that overlooked Central Park. I took him up on the invitation and spent a very pleasant afternoon with him discussing all kinds of things, but particularly the Elvis book.

I remember the conversation well. One thing I very nearly argued with him about was his insistence that Sam Phillips in private said, “If I could find a white boy who could sing like a nigger I could make a million dollars.” His argument ran that ALL Memphians used the n-word universally, that changing the word was revisionist and political posturing. Undoubtedly the months Goldman had spent in Memphis convinced him of this because he was absolutely right that a majority of Memphians in the 1950’s spoke just that way. What I feel he didn’t get was how different Sam Phillips was from the Memphis norm. Phillips was weird by any definition and the fact he recorded black music at all set him far apart from day-to-day Memphis racism. Sam Phillips was exactly the kind of man who would refrain from racial invective.

I also remember that Goldman had the crappiest home stereo I’ve ever seen in an otherwise wealthy man’s apartment. It was a beat up Pioneer system and, I swear, he had masking tape wrapped around one speaker to keep the grill cloth attached. When I asked him jokingly about it he replied blithely that he had an expensive European sound system “in the back.” Needless to say, I got no tour of “in the back.”

Goldman tired of me in later years; the young writer (me) wore out his welcome. I read the Lennon book and shook my head. I heard he was working on a biography of Jim Morrison. Then I heard that he had become a member of a very exclusive mile-high club: He died of a heart attack en route to London.

I still read Goldman from time to time. At times his writing was brilliant, as in his acclaimed biography of Lenny Bruce that few dispute was a major work. At other times his writing was little more than hysterical piffle, a very bad imitation of Tom Wolfe and the other New Journalists. He was a champion of disco when others, like me, were dismissive and he wrote eloquently on the subject. He wrote a strange but insightful book about marijuana (he wrote a lot for High Times magazine and apparently enjoyed the effects of cannabis) and I’ll never forget a story he told about smoking some hashish so potent that he believed he couldn’t swallow. He went to the emergency room in a state of panic and was greatly embarrassed when the doctors laughed and assured him he would, in fact, get better.

He reported wrongly that Albert King was B.B. King’s brother, a lie Albert told for years to unsuspecting journalists to bring himself closer to B.B.’s brighter flame. In that same piece he brilliantly evoked a head-cutting contest between B.B. and Albert and in another article brought the drum contest between rivals Elvin Jones and Ginger Baker to vivid life. Lastly, he wrote a savage piece for Life magazine comparing a Rolling Stones concert to the Nuremburg rallies. Robert Christgau later reported that as he and Goldman passed a joint between them one night, Goldman laughed and admitted that he never even attended the concert.

That’s probably true. But I still liked him.


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