David Gambacorta | Longreads | March 2021 | 15 minutes (4,190 words)
They needed a song, but not just any song. It had to be a throat-clearing, lapel-grabbing, hey-what’s-that-sound number that could open what was shaping up to be one of the most anticipated albums of 1970: the debut of the super group to end all super groups, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. “We don’t have that song where you know that a listener will not take that needle off the record,” Graham Nash told Stephen Stills sometime in the fall of 1969, after they’d already labored for countless hours in a recording studio in San Francisco. “We need that song where we’ve got them from the very beginning.”
Nash, a skinny, shaggy former member of the British group The Hollies, and Stills, a soulful, straw-haired survivor of Buffalo Springfield, knew plenty about grabbing listeners by the ear. A year earlier, they’d discovered — at Joni Mitchell’s house in California, maybe, or Cass Elliot’s, no one’s quite sure — that they could create heavenly harmonies with David Crosby, the ex-Byrds singer who wore a droopy mustache, and the amused grin of a man who was in on some cosmic joke. They released an album, Crosby, Stills & Nash, that was filled with instant classics like the soaring “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Then, at the urging of Ahmet Ertegun, the owlish Atlantic Records honcho, the trio turned themselves into a quartet, adding — with some reluctance — Neil Young’s reedy voice, barbed-wire guitar playing, and unpredictability to the mix. After the four of them played in front of 400,000 swaying, stoned people at Woodstock, their own concerts started to take on the feel of what Rolling Stone described as “mini-Woodstocks” that unleashed “effortless good vibes.”
Katy Hershberger | Longreads | August 2019 | 25 minutes (6,207 words)
“Will you pray with us?” It was my fifth day as a camp counselor; I was 17 and the three girls who asked me were probably 12. The five years between us was a teenage lifetime, though now as adults, we could be classmates, colleagues, barflies on adjacent stools. Then, we were children. I pushed myself up from the cool summer ground. “Um, yeah. Do you — ” my voice cracked, “ — want to be saved?”
It was July 2001 in rural Virginia, the last night of Christian summer camp. A hundred girls sat in a circle around the campfire, the smell of embers and bug spray permeating our clothes. We sang praise songs, lifting our hands toward the Virginia stars, toward God. The camp director led us in prayer. Then she implored the campers: If you want to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, ask a counselor to pray with you.
A week earlier, I had graduated from CILT, a three-year counselor prep program. The acronym stood for Camper in Leadership Training, though Caring Imaginative Loving Teachers was printed on our t-shirts. I collected songs and games in a “resource file,” I taught a daily drama class during the week-long camp sessions, and I stockpiled readings and Bible verses for daily devotionals. I did not learn how someone becomes a Christian.
I don’t remember what the girls wanted to ask God that night, but it was, blessedly, not to be saved. We huddled away from the crowd, holding hands, and I stood above them, just barely the tallest. I prayed, my voice husky with uncertainty, and stared at the grass, glancing at the girls’ faces to see if I was doing this right. I asked God to help and guide them, and I silently asked the same for myself.
David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (5,128 words)
The sun was beginning to set over a mostly deserted expanse of beach in Malibu, casting long shadows behind a pair of visitors as they strolled a few feet from the water’s edge. They had the innocuous, no-particular-place-to-go demeanor of average beachgoers, except for the fact that their every step was being recorded by a local news cameraman. One was a guy who was intimately familiar with being filmed, photographed, analyzed, idolized, ridiculed, and praised: John Lennon. Read more…
Adam Morgan | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)
Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.
The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.
Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”
Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 48 minutes (8,041 words)
In 1973, East Coast rock promoter Howard Stein assembled a special New Year’s Eve concert at New York City’s Academy of Music. It was a four-band bill. Blue Öyster Cult headlined. Iggy and the Stooges played third, though the venue’s marquee only listed Iggy Pop, because Columbia Records had only signed Iggy, not the band. A New York glam band named Teenage Lust played second, and a new local band named KISS opened. This was KISS’s first show, having changed their name from Wicked Lester earlier that year. According to Paul Trynka’s Iggy Pop biography, Open Up and Bleed, Columbia Records recorded the Stooges’ show “with the idea of releasing it as a live album, but in January they’d decided it wasn’t worthy of release and that Iggy’s contract would not be renewed.” When I first read that sentence a few years ago, my heart skipped the proverbial beat and I scribbled on the page: Unreleased live show??? I was a devoted enough Stooges fan to know that if this is true, this shelved live album would be the only known full multitrack recording ever made of a vintage Stooges concert.
The Stooges existed from late 1967 to early 1974. They released three studio albums during their brief first life, wrote enough songs for a fourth, paved the way for metal and punk rock, influenced musicians from Davie Bowie to the Sex Pistols, popularized stage diving and crowd-surfing, and were so generally ahead of their time that they disbanded before the world finally came to appreciate their music. Their incendiary live shows were legendary. Iggy taunted listeners. He cut himself, danced, posed, got fondled and punched, and by dissolving the barrier between audience and performer, changed rock ‘n’ roll.
“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.”
— Frank Black
One night not so many weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the mid-Wilshire flats — west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere else these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the city has densified: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has become increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed-in and looking for a short-cut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.
There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture “Urban Light” — a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts — fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, with a cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation; “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times a week before his project was lit. When I first came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the film Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint there. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll find a different sort of interaction: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.
At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Amy Carleton has an essay on #1000WordsofSummer, the public two-week-long writing accountability project novelist Jami Attenberg offered to writers for free, via Twitter, Instagram, and TinyLetter, from June 15th through June 29th of 2018.
Carleton writes about how Attenberg helped created a “supportive literary community” online, and I concur. In fact, I benefitted from it.
I love my work editing other people’s writing, but I have a hard time finding time for my own writing, and sometimes even forget I’m a writer. The #1000WordsofSummer project came at what seemed the worst time for me. I had lost my stepfather of 33 years less than a month before; I was in the middle of moving to a new house; and I was taking part in bringing to light a local #metoo story.
But it turned out to actually be a fortuitous time for me to commit to writing 1000 words a day; it forced me to create the time, to get up earlier, stay up later, do whatever I had to do to be accountable to myself and the others who were writing. I did it every single day for those two weeks, and proved to myself that even in the busiest and craziest of times, you can find time to write 1000 words. I also enjoyed a sense of accomplishment, and felt for the first time in a long time as if I wasn’t self-abandoning the writer in me.
Many writers, in fact, lament over the number of their words that are “wasted” responding to the latest Twitter-drama instead of focusing on their own creative projects. “If you took all the time and all the words you used on Twitter… you could have written a book by now. #sadfacts,” observes one user.
But instead of perpetuating this regret, Attenberg turned her attention to creative empowerment. Within days, there was a hashtag: #1000wordsofsummer, and within weeks, a newsletter with almost 3000 subscribers. Once June 15 arrived, the daily emails from Attenberg commenced — some featuring guest commentary from other writers like Meg Wolitzer, Alissa Nutting, and Ada Limón. I printed out the newsletters each day and highlighted the words that resonated most with me; from novelist Laura van den Berg: “Here is the bottom line: I think often of what a painter said to me at a residency: ‘work makes more work.’ Indeed it does. Let’s do what we can.
Attenberg had no idea her project would have such traction. She was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.
Eventually, what Attenberg began on a lark showed how positive and encouraging online communities can be.
“While it wasn’t necessarily my original intention,” she reflects, “it became clear quite quickly that the people participating in it had created their own corner of the internet. I hadn’t been part of something like that before…And I actually found myself looking forward to going on the internet each day, instead of being full of dread about the news. Because I could check in on how people were doing and seeing their progress and say supportive things to them. For two weeks, I was able to be positive in that space, and experience the joy of others as they made progress in their work.
For The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich tours Paisley Park, the home and recording studio of the late Prince. What she learns is that no matter how close you may get in physical proximity, even in death Prince maintains a carefully curated distance between him, his fans, and the world.
Mostly, the tour made me feel lonesome. Absent its owner, Paisley Park is a husk. In 2004, when Prince briefly rented a mansion in Los Angeles from the basketball player Carlos Boozer, he redesigned the place, putting his logo on the front gate, painting pillars purple, installing all-black carpet, and adding a night club. (Boozer threatened to sue, but Prince restored the house before he moved out.) Yet Paisley Park feels anonymous. His studios are beautiful, but unremarkable. There are many photos of him, and his symbol is omnipresent, but I was hoping for evidence of his outsized quirks and affectations—clues to some bigger truth. I found little that seemed especially personal. Paisley Park presents Prince only as a visionary—not as a father, a husband, a friend, or a son.
Although Prince’s estate has disregarded some of his preferences—his discography is now available on Spotify, a platform he pulled his music from in 2015, in part because he believed that the company didn’t compensate artists properly—there’s something profound about how Paisley Park insists on maintaining Prince’s privacy. It does not need to modernize him (which feels unnecessary), or even to humanize him (which feels impossible). In 2016, the most common response to Prince’s death was disbelief. His self-presentation was so carefully controlled that he never once betrayed his own mortality. He’d done nothing to make us think he was like us. During parties, Prince sometimes stood in a dark corner of the balcony and watched other people dance. Visiting Paisley Park now evokes a similar sensation—of being near Prince, but never quite with him.