A Spring Fever Hitlist

Spring had not yet arrived by the time the local Grand Prix Running Season opened last Sunday with a 5k race at, of all places, the Lowe’s superstore in the Hudson Valley mall above Kingston. (I guess we take our sponsorships where we can get them.) The 10am start saw beautifully sunny – but sub-freezing – conditions, and those amongst us who favor speed over warmth stripped down to bare essentials, figuring we’d only be out in the cold for half an hour or so, with most of that spent running at a near sprint pace. In theory, this attitude proved correct, as I had an unusually (unseasonably?) fast debut run for the year, finishing particularly hard and strong on the uphill and even overtaking one of my generally much faster running peers (and senior) near the line. A quick trip to the car to change into slightly warmer clothes and…

It was simply too beautiful not to enjoy the blue-sky day while at least one of the local mountains still has plenty of snow. (The mountain in question, Belleayre, had in fact still been making snow right through the end of March, despite continued legitimate objections from its rivals, Hunter and Windham, that Belleayre’s State funding allows it an unfair economic advantage.) Around lunchtime, I caught up with Campbell, who was in the company of our neighbors and their two young kids. One on pole-less skis, the other on a snowboard, these two boys have the fearlessness born of the very young: they tackle double black diamonds by simply pointing themselves towards the bottom and letting gravity do the rest. Thanks to the absence of crowds this late in the year, we were able to all engage in some wild racing without injury. There was plenty snow, plenty blue sky, no lift lines, and only a mildly nagging insistence in my chest that maybe I was overdoing it.


Ah, the arrogance of the athletic. Monday I woke feeling like my body had been invaded overnight by a ton of bricks. What I initially thought was merely a sport hangover turned out to be an attack of the same winter bug that has felled almost everyone in our neighborhood – including, in the previous week, both my wife and my toddler. (Campbell somehow seems to have escaped.) I wasn’t going to let the bug postpone my midweek trip to NYC to conduct some interviews for my book – in part because I no longer have time to reschedule them. But by the time I got halfway through them, I had almost completely lost my voice, making for a rather novel interview situation.

Most interviewees, even the most gracious and engaging, don’t like to be interrupted; they prefer instead to tell the same stories they have told in every other interview. In fact, I recently received an e-mail from one interviewee, who took umbrage to the fact that I tried to turn his monologue into an actual interview – an exchange of views that kept the conversation focused on the necessary topics and which would provide concrete answers to specific questions. (I had bought this particular interviewee dinner, at his request, but there you go; paying for the meal didn’t buy me rights to direct the conversation!) Wednesday and Thursday though, I decided on a different tack; almost unable to make myself heard, I just pressed the “record” button, asked a hoarse opening question, and sat back and listened. The result? Freed of fact-checking or back-on-track interjections, my (genuinely wonderful) interviewees talked and talked, way past the hour I had scheduled, and in two cases, way beyond two hours, with me mostly nodding along and occasionally rasping out follow-up questions. It was as if time had become suspended and they had nothing else to do with the day. One of them, when I switched off the tape after that two hours, even asked if he could talk some more – and did. I’m not convinced I got any more out of them than if time had been limited and I’d had to keep the conversations very much on track, but at least I now know why therapists are so wealthy.

Wednesday morning, I met a veteran DJ from the 70s – a crucial and once truly famous connection between disco and hip-hop – for a late breakfast in Harlem. We met at a place called Edmonds, next to the Lenox Lounge. It’s a greasy soul café, food all kept warm in trays, nothing special, but my interviewee thought it would be a good place to meet and, by me standing him breakfast, enable funds to keep moving through the black community. I had no problems with any of that. We’d just ordered our food and were only three minutes into the interview when the owner, Mr Edmonds himself, came over to the counter to tell us that if we wanted to do an interview on the premises, we would have to pay him. At first we thought he was joking, but when we realized he was serious, we were totally speechless. I have conducted maybe thousands of interviews all over the world with a tape recorder, and though the presence of a TV camera can often bring out a demand for payment, I have never, in my life, been asked to cough up money for the simple act of turning a tape recorder on in someone’s premises – especially when already paying for the “privilege” by buying food. My subject, a real tough guy back in the day, has mellowed out over the years and didn’t put up a fight; he informed the owner that it was the last time he would be eating there and after I paid for our food (the server apologizing profusely for his boss), we conducted the interview in my man’s car, outside on Lenox Avenue. Through the windshield, we could see the new tower blocks of the newly booming 125th Street: one of them contained the ground floor chain stores Staples and CVS; another, the other side of Lenox, housed a Starbucks. My subject explained how he never frequented Starbucks because he wanted to keep his money in the local black community, not these omnipresent (and, certainly, white-owned) chains that are run from the other side of the country. But we both agreed – and I know from experience – that in Starbucks, we’d have been free to sit around and run the tape recorder for as long as we liked, all for an overpriced cup of coffee. Shaking his head, he lamented the short-sightedness of the old school black businessman in the face of Harlem’s ongoing gentrification; I could only shake my head and agree.

You can’t NOT call it a comeback. It’s been really hard to get by this past week and not feel pressure-saled by R.E.M.’s hyped-up media campaign. A profile on Sunday morning CBS TV; the star treatment in Sunday’s New York Times; the cover of Spin magazine; a late night appearance on the Colbert Report; and in New York City, omnipresent posters announcing the new album my “Peter Mike and Michael” (so Chris Martin’s idea of renaming the band Mills Buck and Stipe wasn’t that far off?). The final sign of renewed world domination? Seeing Accelerate on sale in the equally ubiquitous Starbucks. (Why do I sometimes frequent Starbucks? As a non-dairy drinker, it’s the only café I can guarantee getting free soy milk. The chain didn’t get rich by being stupid.) A couple of things occurred to me as I looked at the finished package for the first time:
1) Wow, do 34 minute CDs really retail for $15?
2) Will the American record labels ever NOT include “rave review” stickers from exclusively British media, in Accelerate’s case reviews the Guardian and Uncut?
I’ve often wondered at the labels’ mindset here. Do they assume that the average Starbucks customer in America is immediately swayed by the opinions of trend-obsessed British monthly magazines that they most likely have never seen? Or do the labels figure that for R.E.M. fans in particular, a good review from a British newspaper or magazine will somehow seem sufficiently newsworthy as to inspire an instant purchase? Did it work for Around The Sun, of which Andy Gill wrote in the Independent that it was “surely their best album since Automatic For The People”? Would they care to print Gill’s review of Accelerate, in the same rival-to-the-Guardian newspaper, in which he appears to have doubled this prior transgression with a two-star review that complains of it being “over-heavy with stodge and weighty riffs, and short on subtlety.” You can’t trust the British press, especially when their quotes are highlighted on the front of an American CD release. But you can trust the people. R.E.M. fans know that Accelerate is the great album they feared the group might never be capable of making once more, and whether they spend $15 on it at Starbucks or burn a copy from their friends, they’ll surely still be playing it long after Andy Gill has destroyed his copy of Around The Sun.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. Geo

    6 April, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Cool stories — can’t wait to see the resulting book.

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