COLUMN THIRTY-TWO, APRIL 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
HE'S A GIANT AND I'M A DEADBEAT
It was the first time I met the pint-sized-half of Simon and Garfunkel that Paul Simon let me know right off the bat he was a giant.
"I met Cubby Broccoli," Paul told me. "You know, the guy who makes the James Bond movies."
It's been so long ago, but I think we were in Paul's studio in Manhattan.
"So, I asked him," Paul went on, "'You're gonna make more James Bond movies, aren't you?' When he said yes, I told him, 'Well I'd like to read for the part!'"
I've since learned that Paul told that story to just about everybody in those days. As I recall, Paul and I got friendly through a Saturday Evening Post colleague of mine, a beauty named Maggie Paley, last seen whisked away on the arm of my old friend, the illustrious Ahmet Ertegun, the suavest man in the world and the patron saint of recording industry Casanovas. I can't remember if I've heard from Maggie since.
I was flattered that Paul was so eager to get to know me, even though I suspected he really just wanted to get to know me so he could use me to get to know Bob Dylan. I was collecting giants at the time and I was getting myself an impressive collection.
Yeah, Paul's pint-sized, but what Paul lacks in inches, he more than overcomes in stature. I'm listening to Paul's Capeman CD as I write this, Songs from The Capeman, to be exact, not only a compelling auditory delight but an inspiring experience. Certainly inspiring enough to make me sit down to write this. Listening to Songs From The Capeman can certainly become addictive.
Because Salvador Agron wore a black cape with a red lining, New York's tabloids were delighted to be able to call him The Capeman when, as part of the Vampires, a Puerto Rican gang looking for a fight with a gang of Irish teens, he stabbed two 16-year-old passersby to death in Hell's Kitchen in 1959.
"When Agron was arrested a few days later, he apparently showed no remorse," Paul wrote in his notes for the Capeman CD. "'I don't care if I burn,' he said. 'My mother could watch me.' To many New Yorkers, Agron became a symbol of evil, a symbol of a society falling apart, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. At 16, he became the youngest person ever sentenced to death in New York state."
I can't afford to go to Broadway shows and nobody sends me free tickets, so I didn't get to see the show. But the story as sung by Paul and his cast of singers is entirely from the point of view of Agron, who was born in poverty in Puerto Rico and who was in New York
in Sing Sing
after having had only one year of schooling. Even Eleanor Roosevelt joined the plea for clemency and Governor Rockefeller commuted The Capeman's death sentence. Described as a model prisoner, Agron was released after serving 20 years. As Paul's CD notes explain, "he learned to write poetry, became something of a political activist and never again committed a violent act. He was what the system would describe as 'rehabilitated,' or what he described as 'rehumanized.'" Agron died in 1986 of natural causes. He was 43.
As Paul tells it in his CD notes:
I began thinking about the Capeman story as the basis for a musical in 1989, while I was working on The Rhythm Of The Saints. It felt like a very New York story with a great musical environment; it raised the possibility of examining changing musical styles as the story unfolded and moved back and forth between Puerto Rico and New York.
Writing songs in a '50s style was very appealing to me, and so was writing songs in a Latin style, which was a significant and sort of exotic New York subculture to me when I was growing up. Since I was working at the time with Brazilian drums and West African guitars, it wasn't too much of a leap to begin thinking about music from Puerto Rico.
In the course of researching the show, I talked with dozens of people who knew Salvador Agron, or were familiar with the world in which he grew up. I talked with his mother and sister. I visited Sing Sing where he was incarcerated, and I made several trips to Puerto Rico. Collaborative work on lyrics and book began with Derek Walcott in 1993.
Postponed after three directorial changes, reworked almost to the last minute and then devastated by lukewarm newspaper reviews, the show also came under fire from victims' rights groups as well as from relatives of the murdered 16-year-olds, who accused The Capeman of glorifying a killer. There also was talk that the bad newspaper reviews actually came from critics getting back at Paul for having said words to the effect that there was nothing worthwhile seeing on Broadway. But Hispanics who saw The Capeman were quoted in New York's Daily News as disagreeing with the show's detractors.
"I don't see a lot of Hispanic critics, so I don't think they understood the show," said one Hispanic woman and another, explaining why the Spanish community couldn't support the show, said, "Let's face it: $75 for a ticket is a lot of money, especially for the Latino crowd."
For Paul to place himself in the shoes of a Puerto Rican killer would seem as much of an improbability as occupying 007's booties would have been. But Paul pulls it off with the same effortlessness with which the likes of William Shakespeare once put words into the mouths of dead heroes and villains. Paul portrays the killer as a victim.
Paul works hard. He's a serious and dedicated artist. Paul was never a member of the Whatever-You-Can-Get-Away-With school. He's a perfectionist who studies his subject until he can become the subject. He has emerged as one of our master singing storytellers. Yeah, he's a giant. What came between us? As I've said, he wanted me to introduce him to Bob Dylan. I had rock superstars who wanted me to introduce them to Dylan lined up like stacked jetliners waiting to land at JFK. Isn't Bob still the main man of our times?
Like Bob and like Paul, all giants have giant egos. On the battlefield of art, the weapons with which giants compete are the very qualities which put them in the same league, their purity, their perfection, their psychic power. Even with Capeman, perfectionist Paul preferred to let the show bomb rather than compromise his music. He was said to have been more concerned with how The Capeman sounded more than how the audience perceived it. To me, Paul Simon's sounds are always perfect. The CD is another pearl in Paul's necklace of masterpieces.
Unfortunately, the show was a hit only as a flop, a big enough hit as a flop to make the front pages of New York's two remaining daily tabloids. The show wasn't just a bomb but a giant of a bomb, the biggest bomb in Broadway history, a bomb that stuck its producers for $11 million. I stuck Paul for only 10 thousand and he hasn't talked to me since.
Yeah, Paul was after me to meet Bob. Bob not only told me it was OK to bring Paul over, but he even joked that I should charge Paul a commission. I was too busy collecting giants to worry about collecting money. I was busy collecting them and spinning them into a network---a web of all the giants I thought should get to know one another. Even then, I wanted that to be my role in helping create the '60s. In the music business, people who put the kind of moneymaking talent together that I put together usually walk away millionaires. I was as greedy as anyone else, but the idea of collecting a commission for doing what I thought had to be done was repulsive to me. I just laughed at Bob's joke about asking for a commission, whether or not he meant it as a joke.
I got Paul and Bob together in the comfortable Fire Island summer beachhouse my wife and I and our children were sharing with Bob and his wife and their children during I forget which summer nearly 30 years ago. Bob and Paul didn't seem to hit it off really great. I forget what they talked about. Paul, still dragging tatters of his uptight Jewish upbringing, and the ultra-intense Bob, jiggling the one leg he habitually crossed over his other.
As far as I can remember, everybody had a tense time. But Paul said it went off fine. Afterwards, it seemed to me as if Paul really started kissing my ass. "Is there something I can do for you? Are you sure there's no way I can help you? Do you need any money? Just ask me and I'll be glad to lend you some."
Sure, I needed money. My daydreams were more immense than I could afford. My ambition had always been to have to pay a lot of income tax. I told you I was as greedy as anyone else. I also was arrogant enough to make the mistake of thinking I was smart enough to make a million dollars in the rock and roll business. Besides, how could I afford to hang out with all these giants on the pay I was getting as a writer? In other words, my eyes were bigger than my pocketbook.
Yes, I was greedy but I must have had a streak of the heroic in me, too, because I was determined not to sully myself by selling tickets to meet Bob Dylan. I wanted to rise above the kind of greed so obvious in the music world. I wanted to be pure and perfect and psychically strong because I wanted to be a giant, too. Like Paul, I wanted to be bigger than I was. Isn't that what everybody wants?
As I said, my greed got in the way. In my lust for a million dollars, I was also arrogant enough to think I could turn a sow's ear into a purse. In other words, turn an anonymous folksinger into a star. In my foolish belief that I could, I'd accepted a loan of $50,000 from George Harrison that I'd never asked for. George has always been sweet, kind and
All my attempts
at making money in my life have failed
generous that way, but why he offered me that much money, I still don't know. George has never asked me to repay that debt because he knows what a deadbeat I am. But Paul wanted his money back. He even had his lawyer write me a letter asking not only for the 10 grand but for interest.
See, after I used up George's $50,000 on the folksinger, I was at the edge of a precipice. Without funding, all my efforts would spill over the edge and crash. After having given Paul so many no-thank-yous to his offers of money, I had to call him up and say I changed my mind.
As a manager, I took this anonymous folk singer from the $25 a night he was earning when I found him to the $3,000 a night I paid him for playing on one of my country shows in Madison Square Garden. That's when the anonymous folk singer committed career suicide by stabbing me in the back, leaving me holding the bag for the $25,000 in expenses I had laid out for him. As the late Albert Grossman once told me, "Every act needs management but none of them want to pay for it."
Paul Simon had to write me off as a deadbeat because that's what I turned out to be. Even today, at the age of 69, I have to get by on a Social Security check. My ambition once had been to pay a lot of income tax, but all my attempts at making money in my life have failed. Not even when I tried dope dealing did I make any money. Except for the time I put together enough cocaine profits to buy myself a third set of teeth. Implants. I figured if I got busted, no prick of a prosecutor could ever confiscate my teeth as ill-gotten gains. Otherwise, all my other cocaine profits went up in the same smoke into which my sanity disappeared.
So that's how I lost Paul Simon from my collection of giants. I was supposed to repay him with interest after a year? Two years? I forget. I had squandered the money in my arrogance. I never heard from Paul again.
I'm left to comfort myself with the thought that Paul by now must have gotten his $10,000 back out of the meeting I set up for him and Bob. At the time, I thought they didn't really connect, but Bob ended up recording Paul's Boxer and the royalties Paul's already collected must've more than made up for my unrepaid loan. ##
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