From Dylan to the Blacklist

"Of course, now I realize that smoke should never enter the human lung. Not smoke from a cigarette, not smoke from a marijuana joint, not smoke from the exhaust of a car, not smoke from a burning match, not smoke from a smokestack, nothing! Smoke should never enter the human lung! Smoke is anti-life!"

Al Aronowitz is sitting in a booth at the International House of Pancakes in Elizabeth, N.J., reflecting on lessons learned. He's thinking back on a time in his own life when he smoked an awful lot. Specifically, he's remembering a night, Aug. 28, 1964, in Manhattan's Hotel Delmonico on Park Avenue. The night when he introduced his pal Bob Dylan to the Beatles – and introduced the lads from Liverpool to a poorly rolled joint of his own "evil weed." That night, he'd later write, "I was well aware ... that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music."

Once upon a time, Aronowitz knew everybody. As a cub reporter, he interviewed Marilyn Monroe. He could phone Frank Sinatra at the Sands. He traveled to San Francisco to study the burgeoning Beat movement with a sociologist's rigor and a hedonist's abandon. The unexpurgated, 10,770-word manuscript of his 1964 article on Beatlemania for the Saturday Evening Post is a masterpiece of long-form reportage, a kaleidoscopic up-close view of a seismic cultural shift. (It sold more copies than any issue since Ben Franklin founded the magazine, in 1728.) In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his "Pop Scene" column in the New York Post had him rubbing shoulders with the Stones and the Band, and had people whispering his name when he walked into clubs.

But Aronowitz did more than just profile his subjects. He became their friends, and they his. Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" in Aronowitz's kitchen. Aronowitz drove Dylan to buy his infamous Triumph motorcycle (the one he crashed in 1966 under still-mysterious circumstances). John Lennon photographed him with and without pants. Miles Davis played him his records over the phone. Johnny Cash once threatened to punch him out. Aronowitz was writing about rock and roll before that vocation became a cliché, but he was less reporter than participant. Art Garfunkel called him "Uncle Al, the man who introduces everybody to everybody."

But things fell apart. In 1972, Aronowitz's wife died of cancer. He lost his column thanks to conflict-of-interest charges made by his editor. (Aronowitz suspects there was a personal vendetta at work.) He had managed middling, money-hemorrhaging rock acts in the 1960s, and it cost him his house. The mid-1970s country music concerts he promoted in New York City were bombs. He was freebasing cocaine, dealing drugs, and descending into something approaching madness. "It all made me crazy," he says. "I was crazy. Really crazy." Suddenly, the man who had built his life around others was all but alone. If he wasn't officially blacklisted from journalism, the effect was the same. No one wanted to know the man who knew everyone. Not New York editors, not Bob Dylan. And to hear him tell it, Aronowitz didn't want to know himself.

But then, in 1995, his daughter introduced him to a still-new phenomenon: the Internet. If magazine and newspaper editors wouldn't take his calls, then fuck them; here was a new way to publish. In his dark and druggy days, he'd put out a scattershot Xeroxed 'zine called the Blacklisted Masterpieces of Al Aronowitz. ("YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FAITH that this book will be recognized as an important literary work and a valuable collector's item to want to pay $100 for it!" trumpeted the 'zine's ad in the Village Voice. "MORE THAN SIX COPIES NOW IN PRINT!") But this was something else: a vast, uncharted expanse that a "compulsive writer" could fill with millions of words, a place where Aronowitz could tell his stories. He cleaned up his act, and got down to it. "The Blacklisted Journalist" was born.

Ten years later, sitting in his dark and detritus-filled apartment, Aronowitz, now 76, still writes almost every day, torrents of words preserving his rock-and-roll memories in cyber-amber. Some would argue the last thing the 1960s need is more documentation, more solipsistic, I-was-there-man reminiscences. But his Web site, and his self-published Bob Dylan and the Beatles: Volume One of the Blacklisted Journalist (AuthorHouse), a chunky paperback tome that collects the best of Aronowitz's writing from then and now, offer riotous and rambling time capsules, comprising detailed vignettes and told in a voice that's direct, disarming, and self-deprecating. It may or may not be true, as the book's promo materials proclaim, that FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP LISTENING TO Bob Dylan and the Beatles, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!, but Aronowitz's anecdotes offer an inimitable inside look at the rock era's biggest players. (Next up, look for his "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine," a new book he says is timed to coincide with – and challenge the authenticity of – Kevin Spacey's forthcoming Darin biopic, "Beyond the Sea.")

Aronowitz is no longer the bombastic bear of a man who can be seen in photographs hobnobbing with Dylan and Lennon. After years of drug abuse and an open-heart surgery, he seems to have shrunk. Enormous glasses enlarge his sleepy eyes. His posture and bearing are stooped and subdued. Bouts of phlebitis have him walking with a cane, and his voice is sometimes barely audible. But make no mistake: Al Aronowitz still has a voice. He's got stories to tell, and he's sure as hell not going to wait until he's dead to have them told. "My writing has gotta speak for itself," he says. "Too many people have judged me, rather than judge my work. I'm not Picasso. Maybe I'm a prick. I dunno. But this is my love of loves, this is my work. These are stories of the times. I think they're interesting. That's the job of a journalist. To make sense of the story. And express yourself."

I meet Aronowitz and his girlfriend, Ida, at his hulking brick apartment building on the north side of hardscrabble Elizabeth, N.J.. As we make our way slowly downstairs toward the exit, Ida pauses, remembering that she's left her purse in the apartment. A gentleman, Aronowitz trudges back toward the ancient elevator to retrieve it. When he returns, he deadpans like a Borscht Belt comedian: "I couldn't find your bag, so I grabbed one off the first lady I saw."

At IHOP, Aronowitz sits across from me in a red Rutgers cap and bright blue cowboy shirt and starts at the beginning. Born in 1928, he grew up the son of an Orthodox butcher in Bordentown and Roosevelt Park, N.J. "A lot of anti-Semitism," he says. "I remember when the marshal came to repossess my father's [delivery] truck. My mother was beating on his chest, screaming, 'Don't take the truck away!' I was two or three years old." He went to Rutgers and majored in journalism. "A total waste of time," he says. "I learned more working on the college paper than I ever did in journalism class." When he got out, in 1950, the Phi Beta Kappa grad landed a job as editor of the Daily Times in Lakewood, N.J. Then he moved on to the Newark Evening News, and finally across the river to the New York Post.

At first, he manned the Post's night desk, "rewriting the New York Times for the morning edition." But before long, he was doing feature pieces. One of his first big assignments had him on a plane to San Francisco to profile the Beat poets. Aronowitz says Post editor Paul Sann wanted a hatchet job on this bunch of "dumb-fuck pansies posing as poets." Instead, as he would time and again with other subjects, Aronowitz fell hard for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, awed by their libertine lifestyle, their burning fervor. His 12-part series that ran in 1960 fell just this side of hagiography.

Aronowitz says it was Kerouac's "On the Road" in particular that "changed my life in many ways. It was about real people. I wanna know these people. I had visions of being a journalist so I could get to know them! Which is what I did. I befriended them, and got to know them very well." It was also during his time with the Beats that Aronowitz first smoked dope. Not long after, the Saturday Evening Post enlisted him to write a long profile of a young folkie phenomenon who was drawing fawning crowds to Greenwich Village clubs. The moment he met Bob Dylan, Aronowitz was starstruck. "I felt honored," he writes in "Bob Dylan and the Beatles," "to hang out with this mumbling 22-year-old kid, skinny as a scarecrow and wound up as a telephone cord."

"I was supposed to write a piece on Paul Newman, but I lost interest," he recalls. "I never finished the piece because Dylan stole my interest. It got to the point where I was so hung up on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, side A, that I never got around to turning the record over and listening to side B. For months." The two struck up a relationship, and before long were friends. Aronowitz says Dylan penned "Mr. Tambourine Man" after listening to Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" over and over in his kitchen. ("All night long! I wanted to go to sleep!") He hung out in Woodstock with Dylan and his wife, Sara. Aronowitz even claims credit for persuading the folk hero to go electric. "Dylan was a folkie purist," he says with a grumble. "I hate purists. Purists are like fundamentalists. And fundamentalism is what's wrong with the world. People who refuse to budge an inch, no matter what! These red states. These Muslim maniacs. These Jewish fanatics. I said, 'Bob! Today's pop hits are tomorrow's folk classics!' That was my argument. And I was right. I know I was right."

If meeting Bob Dylan changed his life, Aronowitz says his role in helping Dylan meet the Beatles changed the course of American popular culture. Aronowitz was there at JFK in February 1964, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, when the Fab Four disembarked from their Pan-Am DC-8 to screaming, teary throngs. He knew right away what a cataclysmic moment it was. "As soon as I met the Beatles, man. The whole press corps were there, ready to shoot them down, with their poison pens pointed. But they got off the plane, and they immediately charmed the shit out of everybody."

The Beatles, of course, were swarmed by press, but Aronowitz had special access, afforded him by the fast friendship he struck up with their road manager, Neil Aspinall. (In one priceless detail in a Saturday Evening Post article full of them, Aronowitz spots Aspinall "expertly and flawlessly" forging the Beatles' signatures on programs meant for the queen.) So it was that this pop journalist was able to spirit Dylan into the Hotel Delmonico for a high summit meeting of the U.S.'s and the U.K.'s leading lights.

At first, Aronowitz recalls, the encounter was "very awkward, very demure. Nobody wanted to step on anybody's ego." So they tried to loosen up. Dylan wanted cheap red wine. The Beatles swilled their whisky and Coke, their pep pills in plastic bags on the nightstand. "They offered us pills, and we offered the Beatnik line," Aronowitz says. " 'Ah, pills are chemicals, man! You don't wanna put those in your body! Marijuana comes from the ground! It's natural!' " Still, the Liverpudlians were skeptical. Ringo was the guinea pig. Remembers Aronowitz in the book: " 'You try it,' John said."

"Soon, Ringo got the giggles," he writes. "In no time at all, he was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing. ... We kept laughing at each other's laughter until every one of us had been laughed at."

In his cluttered apartment, Aronowitz reclines on an unmade bed with mismatched sheets, his wizened, stubbly face bathed eerily in the half-light of a single bulb. "It was all a big laugh," he says wearily, with a weak smile. "John's code word for getting stoned was 'Let's have a larf.' Then, later he called it 'Let's Al Aronowitz!' " He chuckles. "But reporters like to say it was Dylan who turned 'em on. I was the invisible man."

Still, Aronowitz was always keenly aware of the momentousness of the larf-fest he engineered. "I was just a proud and happy shadchen, a Jewish matchmaker, dancing at the princely wedding I'd arranged," he writes. "I hate to think that putting Bob together with the Beatles is the only thing I'll ever be remembered for, but I think it certainly was the right thing to do. Hasn't the whole world benefited? Look at all the beautiful music we have as a result! The Beatles' magic was in their sound. Bob's magic was in his words. After they met, the Beatles' words got grittier, and Bob invented folk-rock."

But regrets? He's had a few. "If I had one stinking iota of junk-bond swindler Michael Milken in me, I would now be worth millions for all the music mergers I arranged," he writes. "But I guess I wasn't enough of a hustler and a con man to compete with the sharks, wolves and snakes with which I had to deal. So now, I'm just a poor, broke, forgotten and ignored blacklisted journalist who has to give away all my stories for free on the Internet because I don't want to wait to be published posthumously. Boo, hoo."

Aronowitz admits that he idolized these megawatt luminaries, Dylan especially. Perhaps too much. "The Cat's Meow, The End, The Ultimate," he calls him in his book. "I adored Dylan too much to see him through critical eyes. I was too impressed with his hipness and too humbled by his artistry." Dylan could have "charmed the bracelets from the tails of rattlesnakes. I found him to be one of the most beguiling men I've ever known. ... To be with Bob was always magical. Every word out of his mouth impressed me as a gem. ... The universe I'd see in Bob's eyes never stopped jolting me."

He's also honest enough to recognize that these starry-eyed musings might as well be the study-hall notebook scribblings of a seventh-grader. But he doesn't disown them. Dylan might sometimes have been a cold and abusive person, but Aronowitz was willing to subject himself to his barbs just to be in his presence. "I liked being friends, I liked hanging out with Dylan," he tells me. "I mean, my God! I was just crazy enough to think he was the new messiah! We all had that feeling about Dylan. We really revered him."

But as his own life began to unravel, more and more friends started to fall by the wayside. He doesn't discount his own failings as a contributing factor. "Bob is another one of those old friends who have written me off," he writes. "I don't blame him. I got to be pretty much of a wreck. I can also look back at myself being something of an asshole. But then, assholism seems to be a chronic condition with me. As hard as I try to cure myself, there's hardly a day goes by without me remembering an occasion as recently as the day before when I was an asshole again."

Aronowitz was also starting to question the life he was leading, this go-go go-between, surrounded by supernova rock stars more than a decade his junior. "My wife was dying, and I didn't want to stay up till four o'clock in the morning getting high and then come in the morning to write a column, then come home and do the shopping, and everything I had to do to raise a family," he says. "My wife was dying, and I had three young kids, and I'm hanging out with the Stones."

He wouldn't be for much longer. It wasn't until just before he was unceremoniously stripped of his column and his life started to disintegrate that Aronowitz even began to intuit that his own personality, brio and writing chops were making him a semi-celebrity in New York City. "I'm unaware of all this," he says, still incredulous. "I'm unaware how big a star this column is making me. They call me a living legend! I walk into a club" – he whispers behind a cupped hand – "Al Aronowitz is here!" Oblivious to his own renown, he was happy instead to surround himself with the glow of stars. "I worshipped these people. I recognized them as immortals, as giants, as icons." He was building his personality around others, measuring his self-worth by the caliber of those who kept him around. But "I liked that position," he says. "It gave me some self-esteem. Which I was terribly lacking. It never occurred to me that I was worth anything."

Back at Aronowitz's apartment, you'd hardly guess that the guy who lives here used to hobnob with rock-and-roll royalty. The place is a mess. "I never won any housekeeping awards. I never tried for any either," he says unapologetically. The shades are drawn; the only light comes from a single wan bulb and a blue-glowing old computer. He putters around this cramped and cluttered labyrinth of ancient filing cabinets, stacked to the ceiling with books and files and papers from decades of journalism. Tall shelves are crammed with vinyl albums, old reel-to-reels of interviews, and studio masters of the bands he used to manage. He's covered them over with wide sheets of tattered newspaper, because "people kept stealing my records." Tabletops are covered with stuff: plastic bags, cassette tapes, orange prescription bottles, browning bananas, a canister of Ovaltine, a box of matzo. A transistor radio sits on the bathroom floor. Above one of the shelves hangs a large color photograph of Aronowitz, a cigarette between his fingers, his face fringed with Brillo-pad hair and stretched with a wide-mouthed grin. "Yeah," he says flatly, looking away. "That's when I was smoking cocaine."

On his desk, half-obscured, is a CD of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," the singer's T-shirt emblazoned with the same motorcycle Aronowitz helped him buy. Propped against a shelf on the floor next to his chair is a vinyl record of the same album. A screensaver rolls slowly across his monitor, orange letters on black background: FUCK ... SHIT ... PISS ... CORRUPTION.

Discovering the Internet was "the thing that made me sane," Aronowitz says. Becoming a cyber journalist offered the chance for a fresh start, "allowed me to make an end run around the blacklist," to free himself of editors' restrictions and revisions. Aronowitz hates editors. Not only has nearly every one he's ever known been a know-it-all, corrupt, or both, but he suspects one once may have cuckolded him. And they make him curb his word count.

He thinks back on a conversation he had with Frank Sinatra in the mid 1960s, when Aronowitz was still with the Post. "I called him. He was at the Sands, getting drunk. He picked up the phone. 'Al, I got $7 million. I don't need the New York Post. What do I wanna talk to you for? I don't need you. I don't trust the editors.' Now I understand. I don't trust editors either. They make me look like an asshole. My whole career! All editors are arrogant. Every editor thinks they can do it better than you wrote it. They're all full of shit. Dummies. If they could write, they'd be writers."

"Bob Dylan and the Beatles" and "Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine" are just volumes one and three in Aronowitz's self-published "Blacklisted Journalist" paperbacks. (Volume two was penned by poet/firebrand Amiri Baraka, who's been friends with Aronowitz since the Beat days, back when he was still LeRoi Jones.) Two more books are forthcoming. One, "Mick and Miles," remembers when Aronowitz introduced Jagger to Davis. The other, "For Adults Only," features risqué pieces from six writers who pen guest columns on the "Blacklisted Journalist" Web site. Distribution for that one might pose a problem, however. "Some hick salesman in Indiana said it was pornographic. His mind is in the 18th century."

On Aronowitz's computer screen are two documents, works in progress, with just a few sentences and fragments at the top of each blank page. He's got plenty more stories to tell. Sure, he's no longer surrounded by A-list stars. He sits at home and writes, watches "The Price Is Right" and the Red Sox. ("I'm anti-Yankee. I don't reward arrogance, and that's all they have going for them.") He goes to the movies. He really liked "Ray." "I didn't see any difference between the Ray [Charles] I knew and the Ray on the screen."

One wonders if he misses the people he was once so close to. He used to be a confidant to Bob Dylan; has he ever thought of making an effort to get back in touch with the guy? Aronowitz just stares at me, bemused. "Why do I wanna?" He laughs mirthlessly. "What am I gonna ask him? He kicked me out!" He stares at me again, long and disconcertingly. "If he wants to be friends again, it's fine with me."

If not, Aronowitz is happy to keep telling tales. "Some writers say, 'I gotta challenge the reader!' I don't believe in challenging the reader," he says. "I believe in putting my arm around 'em and telling 'em a story."

Sitting in the gloaming of his tiny apartment, Aronowitz seems glad to have someone to tell his own story to. As I leave, he grabs a copy of his Bobby Darin book from a box full of them, and inscribes it with a shaky, old-man scrawl. "For a good LISTENER! – Al Aronowitz." With his Web site and his books, the rock-writing pioneer is doing for himself what he once relied on others, the stars he surrounded himself with, to do for him: ensuring he'll be remembered. "I was collecting giants," he says. "I was collecting immortal souls." Then, after a long pause, "I thought some of their immortality might fall on me."
#story_page_ below_article

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.