My mother had been an assistant research chemist during the Second World War at the Edgewood Arsenal, Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland (where she met not only my father but also Frank Zappa's parents). Later in life she worked editing scientific journals. She let me help her with the proofreading. I was sixteen years old. But I had caught the journalism bug long before that. One of my grandfathers had been a newspaper reporter in London before emigrating to Canada.
When I moved to New York City in 1969, I already had a job lined up as proofreader and layout assistant for the publisher responsible for, inter alia, Other Scenes magazine, Al Goldstein's SCREW, an assortment of porn rags, Arthur Frommer's Travel on $5 a Day books, as well as Andy Warhol's newly launched inter/VIEW magazine.
Those were the days of cutting, pasting, and stripping with scissors and glue. The IBM Selectric ball wide-body typewriter was as modern as it got. Galley proofs were typed on special paper, long and shiny. Layout was all done on long boards. We used light-tables to sort out the photo-positives. We delivered our copy to the printer on Long Island by courier, just like the magazine and book editors delivered their copy to us. Occasionally, an author or editor himself would stop in. Soren Agenoux and Paul Morrissey were regular visitors, and just the one time, Andy Warhol came by with Gerard Malanga.
Someone had mentioned that Simon & Schuster were looking for copy editors, so I applied for and got a part-time job in their non-fiction department. That was the first time I had ever seen yellow post-it notes. Several personal-adventure books passed through my hands, plus a few sordid tales of true romantic loss, stories of mental illness, and a pinch of cookbooks. One of these got me fired by Mr S himself.
The cookbook format has changed little over the course of centuries. Only the personal introduction to each recipe has got longer and more tedious. Still, there are rules for listing ingredients and instructions. The author of my nemesis had broken every rule of recipe writing. Let us call this book 'Mamma Mia!', by Giuliana Fulgantino. My yellow post-it note that caused all the kerfuffle said something like "Even the infallible pope himself could not follow this recipe, and he's Italian." That, dear readers, was too much. Still, I had had a good run. And this gave me a chance to get my next job – writing my own copy!
The magazine in question was called Zygote, and its goal was to be the East coast equivalent of Rolling Stone, mixed with the skill and inspiration of Crawdaddy. At Zygote, I could use my earlier Warhol contacts and connections to get entry into the film world and the rock music business. I wrote reviews of rock concerts at the Fillmore East, newly released albums, underground films, theatre productions, and so on. I interviewed Lou Reed and had chats with Miles Davis and other musicians who stopped into the office. I shared office space with the man who had collaborated with Thomas Pynchon on the futuristic musical 'Minstrel Island'. And MY boss was the fellow who later at Crawdaddy discovered and promoted THE Boss, Bruce Springsteen. But I shall leave these tales for another time.
NOVELS – I have no idea what Bruce Springsteen sounds like, honestly, hand on heart, but I have heard that one of my favourite novels from the mid-60s has been given the accolade as the best novel ever written. It is Stoner by John Edward Williams. I must emphasise that it is the 'best', not the 'greatest'. It is a simple story, simply told, with such precision, such efficiency, that not a word is wasted, not a word out of place. In that sense, it might be considered the 'perfect' novel.
There are novels, usually short, that are buoyant enough to float on the surface of one's spirit and shimmer seductively even in the darkest of times. A few of my favourites are, in no particular order:
Giovanni's Room, by James Baldwin;
Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera;
The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan;
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier;
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima;
Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh (and all of his other books);
Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene;
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson;
Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers (and all her other books);
They Came to Baghdad, by Agatha Christie;
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne (and all his other books).
One book is missing. First, I must confess a personal interest in Jules Verne. He was a friend of my great-grandfather in Amiens, France. Back to the above-mentioned books. I would re-read any of these at the drop of a hat. Indeed, I often drop my hat just to do so.
Several years ago, after a risky operation on my one remaining eye, I set myself the problem of choosing which book I would (re-)read if it were to be my last. Anything from the list above, or indeed anything by these authors, immediately went into the final round. I added a wild card – Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov. Then I eliminated all those whose plots were overly familiar from re-reading. I was still left with far too many. (One great advantage to having a really bad memory is that I forget most plots entirely after each reading. It's like having a never-emptying packet of cigarettes.)
A few weeks passed, and I was still actively trying to decide. Then, walking to an appointment at the eye doctor, I passed the railway line at the same moment a prisoner train rolled by, looming in the Olten fog. The windows were tiny, the structure heavy with tank-like symbolism. The Hulks! The prison vessels in Dickens's Great Expectations! My last book ever had been chosen for me by circumstance.
ANDY WARHOL'S BIG MISTAKE
Ring Moe. Ring. Moe. Got her on the first ring. Got your message. Listen Andy wants the book redone. It's not selling. I bought one for my mother. Well she's that type. No really every mistake has to be corrected. Punctuation. Spelling. Layout. Four-letter words restored and all. How many people were transcribing? Put one person on the job this time. I can do it but I need one full-time assistant with me. You still have the galley sheets? What's his name at Grove Press? The Archives. Yes. How many pages? He wants what? What? Andy? It's wrong enough? Open doors to what? OK. Abbreviated names instead of fake. They're not hard to figure out, most of them. Can Taylor help me? I won't upset him. Fine. Let's get this going...
So that was how I started cleaning up the proofreader's nightmare which was a, A Novel by Andy Warhol. I got the first package of original transcripts later that week (my notes say February 7, 1970). Paul M. told me to keep them safe, so I kept them in my bathtub when I wasn't working on them. The cover served as a countertop, as the tub was in the kitchen.
I wanted to hear the tapes, but I had to go to the Factory to listen to them. No one wanted the responsibility of letting them get lost. Andy was never there. Some tapes had already been destroyed, so integrity wasn't the real issue. So what WAS the issue?
To understand the problem, you must realise that the 'novel' is supposed to be a transcription of a twenty-four hour conversation between Warhol and Ondine, one of his actors. The tapes of these conversations were given to transcription typists who typed the conversations word for word. Moe had refused to help. So far, so good. But the typists were prone to error for various admitted reasons, including distraction, disgust, and shock at what had been said. These written texts were then printed and published as is, without any further editing. At the time, Warhol had approved, saying famously, "I love mistakes."
Now, because of my previous work with inter/VIEW magazine (called merely A Monthly Film Journal in those days and printed as a newspaper) and my contact to Paul (Morrissey), Warhol's director, Andy was about to make another mistake – getting me to edit the book. I had read it earlier, more as masochistic pleasure than anything else, much as I had read Yoko Ono's Grapefruit.
I worked sporadically with the galley proofs plus my original copy of the book. After listening to some of the tapes, I decided to ignore them, except for a few sections which Paul had flagged for elaboration. Taylor (Mead) had just got out of hospital and had a long scar on the side of his torso of which he was fantastically proud. He kept wandering around my flat with his shirt off, rubbing the scar and commenting on what I read out to him for clarification. As shy as he was, he was still self-centred and managed to turn everything back on himself.
My bathtub was filling up with galley sheets, which Taylor had assured me cockroaches found inedible. Pages were falling out of the book copy. The only joy I had was that I didn't have to spread out beyond my desk. Then, about two hundred pages in (I was doing the work strictly sequentially), Taylor showed up with the news that the whole project was going to be scrapped. Just like that? Just like that.
I had signed no contract for the work, no money had been paid, and Taylor was still in love with his scar. We walked around Tompkins Square Park for a while, then headed up to the Factory at Union Square. Taylor disappeared, and I found Paul wandering about. Don't worry, he told me. We'll find something else for you.
That something else was "Trash". I wrote the first review of the film before its general release, comparing it to "On the Waterfront". That set the ball rolling for the good-to-great rave reviews that followed. Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Vincent Canby all found it praiseworthy. And thanks to that, I was able to interview Lou Reed for Zygote magazine. But that's yet another story.