Nine years ago, I wrote a biography of Barry Bonds titled, Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero. It was my second book, and a strange experience. Over the course of two years I sought out everyone who knew the then-San Francisco Giants slugger, and the negativity was unreal. Bonds was famous for his surliness, his rudeness, his dismissive nature—and the quotes mostly backed up the perception. I desperately wanted supporters, but they were awfully hard to find.
Now, in 2015, I’ve got one. Well, sorta of.
Nikolai Bonds is Barry Bonds’ oldest child and the 203rd Quaz Q&A. He’s a 25-year-old model and musician; a lover of marijuana and Anchorman, as well as the possessor of a truly noteworthy Golden Gate Bridge tattoo across his chest. He also happens to be a Barry Bonds defender, as well as a Barry Bonds detractor. He’s both—honest, embracing, dismissive, clear, combative, empathetic.
Niko Bonds, your dad has 762 home runs. But you’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Niko, weird first question. I noticed from an Instagram photo that you have an enormous tattoo of what looks to be the Golden Gate Bridge across part of your chest. So let me ask—A. Why? What inspired it? B. How long did it take and how much pain? C. What did your parents think?
NIKOLAI BONDS: Yeah, that’s the Golden Gate Bridge! I got it about six years ago with a buddy of mine. I got it because that’s home and home will always stay close to my heart no matter where I am. I have plenty more tattoos to go to complete the piece. But I love my home. The Bay Area raised me and gave me so much, so I wanted to always keep it with me no matter where I go. But I won’t lie—it hurt pretty bad the first session. The most painful part was right in the middle of my chest. But the second session didn’t hurt at all.
As for my parents, they didn’t say anything. I already had tattoos so it wasn’t a surprise.
J.P.:So I’ve never talked to the son of a celebrity about being the son of a celebrity. But I’ve always assumed, growing up, it must sorta suck. I mean, yeah, you’re raised in material comfort. But the pointing, the whispering—just seems awful. Nikolai, I’m riveted, what was it like growing up as Barry Bonds’ son?
N.B.: Growing up as Barry Bonds’ son was many things. As a son to my parents it is no different than growing up as any other son. Your parents love you and push you to be your best. I didn’t live with my father much. I usually was with my mother. But looking at it from a son’s standpoint, it was no different.
But there is another side and that is the celebrity side. Now that had its ups and downs. There will always be perks and in the city of San Francisco my family is royalty. And I don’t really listen to people whisper. But there will always be that one person who wants to take it too far, or bring it somewhere it never needs to go. That’s tough. You want to stand up for yourself and your family but everybody is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can all point at you. But after a while you just get used to it and speak up when needed and walk away when needed.
Photo by Brad Mangin.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask something that might sorta suck, but I’m dying to understand: A decade ago I covered your dad’s home run chase, then wrote a book about him. I watched him a lot. Like, a lot a lot a lot. And what bothered me most wasn’t the PED rumors or anything like that. No, what bothered me is he didn’t seem to treat people very nicely. The clubhouse staff, the PR department, the media, teammates. I just thought your dad was sorta mean. And I know it sucks to say that to a son, but, well, it was my observation. So I ask you, was I missing something? Was I correct? And if he was, indeed, mean, why? And if he wasn’t, why did so many people see it that way?
N.B.: My dad is a difficult person to understand. Is he always the nicest person in the world? Absolutely not. But then again—and I don’t mean this to sound offensive—but are you the nicest person in the world every day of your life? That’s an impossible standard for anybody to ask you to achieve.
Now, I’m going to break it down to everybody so that maybe some people will understand, some will care—and others simply cannot be swayed. My father gives more to people then anybody I know. My father helps more children and families than most athletes/entertainers. Once you become someone everybody wants a piece of you. The good people. The bad people. The people who were always there and the people who weren’t. Some of my dad’s closest friends turned on him. My father pays for Bryan Stow’s kids to go to school. Not because he has to but because he chooses to.
My dad is a hard ass. Absolutely. He can be one of the biggest jerks in this world. Absolutely. But my dad also has the biggest heart in the world and never has any intentions to hurt anyone. He had to sit and watch as people threw things at his wife, at his daughter. Attack his family. My family had to stand quiet and tall while people were sending him death threats every single day. Over baseball. People threatening his family. So now he has to protect his family. My dad doesn’t owe anybody anything. He owed the fans entertainment, and his family a life. Beyond that he didn’t owe anything. If someone threatened your family and a reporter now wants to get into your personal life, where this person now might have access to your family, would you give it? Would you allow people close? It was easy to portray my dad as a villain. He was an easy target. A closed-off athlete. But spend a real day with that man and tell me if he is a bad person. Because he and I have had our differences but I will never say he is a bad person. My dad is a great man who. He just isn’t perfect, and he tries to protect himself and his family the best way he knows how.
J.P.:You and Alex Belisle make up the hip-hop duo, Airplane Mode. I just listened to Higher Learning, and you guys seem to really love pot. So I’ll ask: A. When did you start rapping, and what drew you to it? B. What is it about cannabis (Smoke so we don’t come down/Because this makes our world go round) that inspires your music? C. What’s the goal?
N.B.: Well Airplane Mode is no longer. And Higher Learning is actually only me. Nobody else. But I’ve been rapping since I was 13 with my friends. We would just freestyle because we liked to. But everybody started to tell me I was good. So I kept going and fell in love with music as a whole.
As far as cannabis I just enjoy it. It calms me down, makes me creative. Feeds my soul. And when it comes to music it simplifies it for me. It slows my brain down to be able to process the little things. The goal was just to have fun and inspire others to do the same.
J.P.:Related to that—there’s a long line of hip-hop artists who are inspired by their upbringings, from the guys in Run-DMC to Eminem and Jay-Z to Kurtis Blow and KRS-One. You did not grow up poor, on the streets, in a gang. So what pushes your music? What drives it? Biography? World events?
N.B.: You don’t have to be poor or in the hood to inspire others. But I also didn’t grow up with my father. I grew up with my mother and we didn’t have the extravagant lifestyle everybody thinks. We lived a normal, everyday life. Ask anybody I know. People perceive I had a silver spoon my entire life. Not true. I’ve even been homeless briefly. But that wasn’t when I was a kid. My music is driven by what I’ve gone through in life. It’s driven by me and my surroundings. My story. Little things. Simple things. That’s what I like to talk about.
J.P.:What’s your relationship like with your dad? How close are you guys? Do you talk a lot? Hang out? Vacation?
N.B.: My dad and I aren’t the closest. I mean, I love him and he loves me. We just didn’t spend a lot of time together. So we don’t know each other really. Everybody just saw me on the field. I only spent a couple weeks with my dad at a time, and then I wouldn’t see him for months. My dad and I just have never really been close like that. We are cool but, I mean, we don’t hang out and do things really or talk much. He’s an amazing person but it is what it is. The last vacation we took was Hawaii when I was 18. We have gone to wine country together once also but that’s it. I’ve gone on more vacations with my mother than my father.
J.P.:What’s your life path? I mean, I know your parents, I know where you’re from. But that’s pretty much it. You’re a little kid, you’re going to Giants games, you’re in school. Then … what?
N.B.: Then I graduate and get my degree and just live life. Does any 25 year old really know what’s coming? I just started a company with a couple friends managing music artists and I love doing that so that’s what I’m going to continue.
J.P.:OK, weird one. I was reading over your Facebook and Instagram feeds, and you use “nigga” a lot. Like, a LOT. There are a couple of schools of thought on this one, but I want to hear yours. Why use the word?
N.B.: Haha. I mean “a nigga” is just a person. It’s everyone. By me using it to everyone then it makes it show that you are no different then I am. I’m not being derogatory or insulting. It’s just how I talk I guess.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
N.B.: Greatest moment of my life is every day. I don’t really have one that stands out. I’ve been fortunate to experience so much. Probably when I graduated college. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college so that felt good.
J.P.: I’m gonna be honest, Niko. I believe your dad cheated in baseball and shouldn’t be listed as the all-time home run king. Even if steroids and PED weren’t banned in the Major League Baseball rule books, they were illegal in America without proper medical prescriptions. It’s just how I feel, though I can certainly be swayed. You’ve stated that you believe in your father. So why am I wrong here?
N.B.: There are so many reasons why he will always be the home run king. But everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Here is mine. My dad’s job was what exactly? To entertain. That’s it. That’s the first reason. Second is, as you said, he didn’t break any rules of the game. So what did he do wrong? Third, Hank Aaron admitted to greenies. An enhancer. Babe Ruth drank during prohibition. Illegal. Ty Cobb beat a woman during a game. What we are talking about is someone who is enhancing his performance within the rules of the sport he plays to entertain the rest of this world … and he is getting crucified for it.
It’s like Michael Jackson. His entire life he entertained and wanted to be loved by the people. Once that was taken from him what did he have left? My father did nothing wrong but play the game he loved to the best of his ability. So is he wrong for that? I would hope not. Everybody tries to say you’re a bad influence on the kids. How? My dad isn’t the one out there marketing steroids or putting them on the news. That’s the media installing it into the minds of the people. If nobody ever said anything people would continue to train. Continue to get education on substances that are good and bad for you. And continue to strive to be just like the greats who gave them hope and faith that they can be there, too.
Really, think about it. We are talking about a record of a sport. Does it really matter all that much? If the world wants it they can have it. The record doesn’t bring happiness. It’s a number. But if you strip my dad of it, everyone who did something that we don’t agree with has to get his/her biggest achievement taken also.
Now does it still matter that much?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NIKO BONDS:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nothing. I went blank.
You’ll likely read the 202nd Quaz and presume I don’t like Charissa Thompson.
Actually, lemme rephrase that: You’ll likely read the 202nd Quaz and presume Charissa Thompson doesn’t like me. Which may well be true. In the four-year history of this interview series, she certainly offers some of the most biting responses to date. She doesn’t take shit, she doesn’t bring forth cliches, she doesn’t agree with everything she’s supposed to agree with.
Which, to be honest, I love.
A co-host on both Fox Sports Live and Extra, Thompson is one of the biggest stars in sports-entertainment media. But she’s no phony, and she works her ass off. I actually first met her more than a decade ago, when I appeared as a guest on The Best Damn Sports Show. I remember little from that experience, except that Charissa was well-prepared and as professional as could be. That stuck with me.
Anyhow, enough babbling. Here, Charissa defends her Seattle rooting interests, poses a question for Sheena Easton and explains how she went from aspiring lawyer to media stalwart. One can follow Charissa on Twitter here and on Instagram here.
Charissa Thompson—you’re Quaz No. 202, dammit …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Charissa, generally in journalism one keeps the critical questions toward the end. You load up on softballs, and then break out the bat. But I’m going to reverse that here. During Seattle’s amazing run to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, you did an on-air segment about being a Seahawks diehard. There were shots on you in a Seattle jersey, cheering, screaming, etc. And, to be honest, it rubbed me the wrong way. Because I think, in sports media, there’s something to be said for maintaining impartiality, at least professionally. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.
CHARISSA THOMPSON: Well … Jeff. Can I call you Jeff? I am an employee of Fox Sports. This just in—in case you read the wrong Wikipedia page and you thought you were interviewing the other Charissa Thompson who is a porn star. I digress. I work for Fox, they told me to fly to Seattle, do a feature on being a 12th (man/woman) so I adhered to the request … like a good little employee. As for it rubbing you the wrong way … that’s on you. Do you have a problem with Michelle Beadle being open about her affinity with the Spurs? [Jeff’s answer: Yeah, I do] Linda Cohn is a diehard Rangers fan. Erin Andrews roots for the Florida Gators and, as an alum, she should. Melanie Collins loves Philly teams. (Please notice I am just mentioning the females, but if you want me to include the long list of men in the sports journalism field that show their allegiance to a team or their hometown, I will oblige). Now, where were we? Ohhhh right, question No. 2 …
J.P.:OK, so your bios are filled with lots of career highlights, but few details of your pre-media existence. I mean, I know you attended three colleges, got a law degree from UC Santa Barbara, etc. So, Charissa, who the hell are you? How’d you get here? When did you know this might be the career you wanted?
C.T.: I’ll give you the abbreviated version. I always wanted to be a sports reporter. I made a fake newscast with my brother when I was 11. I pretended he was Jay Buhner and I used a paper towel roll with a tennis ball attached to it. I moved from Seattle to Orange County at 18—I wanted sunshine. I went to community college for the first two years because I needed residency (I wasn’t born with the old silver spoon … blah, blah, blah). I transferred up to Santa Barbara and graduated with a pre-law degree. I wanted to be a lawyer—wait, let me back up. Being a lawyer was my backup plan. I wanted to be a sports reporter but cue the, “You know how hard that is to actually get an on-air job, unless you want to move to the middle of nowhere and start from the bottom …”—which I had no problem doing.
Post-graduation I moved to Los Angeles and took a job in the only department hiring at Fox Sports—human resources. Anyone who knows me will tell you that’s the last place I should be working. I worked there a year, and during that time I would go up the highlights department at night and log tapes to learn the production side of the business. I took a job in Denver as a production assistant a year later—they didn’t renew the girl’s contract who was previously on air and the FSN (regional Fox Sports channel) was kind enough to let me try some standups (TV talk) and report on a few things. Eventually they gave me my first contract and on-air gig! I traveled with the Rockies and I eventually moved back to LA. I worked on the Best Damn Sports Show, I started sideline reporting for the Big Ten Network (a Fox property) and some NFL games. I was living my dream—and that’s not me being cheesy. It’s true.
Did I say I was going to give you the abbreviated version? Anyway, I later worked for ESPN, NFL Network, Yahoo Sports; I hosted rodeo shows, games shows, reality shows and even covered hockey. That’s still one of my favorites to this day
It was a circuitous route to come back to Fox but I’m thankful to be “home” again.
J.P.:Most trying stretch of your life? And what did it entail?
C.T.: The most trying time of my life was when I took my job at ESPN. It wasn’t the job. The job was my dream. I had “finally” made “it” … but my struggles were on a personal level. I was going through a really tough divorce, most people didn’t even know I was married, living in Connecticut all alone, not knowing anyone. Thank God for people like Sara Walsh, who became my best friend, and Jay (Williams) also came into my life at a really bad time. I will always be thankful to both of them for helping me through that. (Grab a tissue) I know this is emotional for you. (In case you haven’t figured out I use sarcasm to avoid dealing with reality) at least that’s what my therapist tells me. Just kidding—I don’t have a therapist … well, not any more.
J.P.:On Instagram you posted something that read, BEAUTY SHOULD BE THE ICING … NOT THE CAKE. You’re tall, pretty, thin and blonde—which seems to be, to varying degrees, the on-air demographic many networks look for in women in sports. I also happen to think you’re talented and excellent at your job. But I do wonder whether you think women in sports media are treated fairly, because—from here, it least—it seems like if you’re a woman who is the physical equivalent of a Chris Berman or Joe Buck, you’re not going very far in TV. Fair? Unfair? True? Not true?
C.T.: Here’s the reality: I am blonde, I work in sports. Period. I am over this whole pretty girl narrative. I took a likeness to the quote because in any field of work or a relationship … beauty should be secondary. I know some gorgeous men and women and their looks might get them into some doors, but if they don’t have talent to back it up, well, how long with they last? There has to be substance. I have been in this business 10 years now and I would hope that I am not in this business still because I fit a mold.
J.P.:You’ve recently started working on Extra as a co-host alongside Mario. I have a theory about our obsession with celebrity lives, and it’s this: We’re bored, and we think the famous have more interesting existences than we do. Do you agree? And, well, do they?
C.T.: I completely disagree. Are you bored with your life, Jeff? Should we talk about this further? Enough about me–let’s discuss how I can help you. I’m kidding. Honestly, I think our celebrity obsession is because (at least it was for me—originally, pre-Extra) was because it’s an escape. After talking sports all day I loved going home and watching horrible reality shows and, as I like to say, “mindless” TV where I can just veg out and be entertained. And now working on a show like Extra, the curtain has been pulled back on this world and it’s fascinating. There is so much more to it. And yes, I am forced to talk about Kim Kardashian booty pictures but … whatever. It’s OK to make light of things like that. It’s not serious. There are much larger issues going on in the world and sometimes people just want to be entertained. The same way sports is an outlet for some people, entertainment is also an escape from people’s own reality. And whether or not those people are bored (like yourself—kidding), well, I can’t say. All I know is I am having a blast hanging with Mario, who is truly one of the nicest people I have ever met, and embarking on this journey with someone as sweet and accomplished as Tracey Edmonds.
J.P.:You’re very natural on TV. It’s a huge strength, one that, I’m guessing, didn’t always come easy. So how’d you learn to be yourself? Hell, are you being yourself? And what are you thinking when you’re standing there, talking before a camera?
C.T.: Well, that’s a very nice thing to say. Who wrote this question? Ha. Jokes aside, that is a very nice compliment.
Without coming across as oblivious, I don’t think about it. I don’t even think about the camera and when I do acknowledge the camera it’s to try connecting with the audience (That sounds like such a corporate answer). But I like when a host or reporter acknowledges the audience. Also, do not take yourself too seriously. I should probably not be so goofy at times but I am afforded the luxury of talking about sports and entertainment. I mean, c’mon. If I can’t have fun with that then I need to do something else.
J.P.: I’m going to throw a random one at you, for kicks: I have no religious faith whatsoever, and I’ll tell you why: I’m living a great life. A great, great life. So I’ve been told I’m supposed to be thankful for that and thank God for all the good he’s giving me. But there are kids bleeding from their eyeballs because of Ebola; there’s someone right now dying in a car accident, in child birth, in a tornado, etc. There are millions of people living in poverty throughout the world. If God is so great, why do all these awful things happen? And should I really be grateful to God if so many others are suffering?
C.T.: Since this is our first “interview date” I will abstain from elaboration. But I will say I am a proud Christian.
C.T.: Tom Arnold is currently sitting next to me with his adorable son. He is such an awesome dude who never fails to make me laugh. Tom and his baby! As for Best Damn I will never say an ill word about that show. Those people are my family and any pundits of the show are just that. Y’all media types can beat up on a show that’s been off the air for eight years but I won’t! I still keep in touch with Chris Rose, Rodney Peete, John Salley. Those dudes were all big brothers and family to me. I think that show concept still works. Athletes and entertainers alike loved coming on that show. It was a laid-back, not-so-serious show where people opened up and were more themselves than a serious sit down interview.
J.P.:You’ve earned the rep for being refreshingly honest, so I’m gonna ask what might be an awkward one: Last year Fox replaced Pam Oliver with Erin Andrews. Pam is, for my money, one of the absolute best in the business, and it struck me as a setback for older women in the business. Not that Pam is even that old. You agree? Disagree? And do you worry that the interest you get now, at 32, won’t be there 10 years down the line? That men running the biz will want younger, perkier?
C.T.: Older women? Did you really just say that? Jeez Jeff. What year is this? Should we also just get back into the kitchen? Enough.
Pam has earned a great reputation in this business and has done her job extremely well and at the highest level. I have nothing but respect for her. The decision to move people around is way above my pay grade. It’s no mystery Erin is one of my best friends so if you are trying to get me to say something for a headline … try again. Erin and I have the same birthday and we joke all the time about getting old. It’s a reality. I learned a long time ago a valuable lesson from a women in this business who will remain nameless. She was so mean to me when I got hired for an on-air position. I vowed to never do to young up-and-coming girls what she did to me. I am not interested in competing with anyone in this business. There will always be someone prettier, younger… you have to hope the job you’ve done will keep you anchored in the business because we can’t all stay 25. No BS. I want everyone to make it. I am 32 and haven’t always been perfect. I haven’t always done things the right way. I am sure I have hurt people or said things that the 32-year-old me regrets. I am work in progress and Erin makes fun of me now for being l’il miss positive lately but I have decided I am going to approach life from a glass-half-full perspective.
I used to waste so much energy on trivial things. And, heck, I am no poster child for how to navigate through this business. But I will say I will do what I can to encourage any young woman in this business and I may not be able to get you a job but I can give you some of my time and what little advice you’re willing to hear from my own experiences. I am a smart-ass and sometimes my sarcasm might be taken as bitchy but I really hope when all is said and done I will be someone who was respected for her work, didn’t take herself too seriously and was nice to people along the way. Even the assholes.
J.P.: What do you love about doing TV? Like, what does it for you? What about the medium? The moments …
C.T.: Becoming a sports broadcaster was my dream, I’m beyond grateful it’s now my reality. And now adding entertainment or anything that comes my way … I will relish the opportunity and continue to try to get better at my job each day. Cliché as it sounds, it’s my truth.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHARISSA THOMPSON:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Beach Boys, Chris Evert, Willie McGee, soccer moms, Brian’s Song, Walter Isaacson, Dan Patrick, Peter Criss, Michael Vick, crab legs, KFC: Dan Patrick’s my favorite. I don’t have any “least.”
• You shower three times a day—and you live in a state being decimated by drought. Um, are they at least quick showers?: Ask anyone who knows me … one long shower in the morning and all other showers are, literally, a rinse off. Cleanliness and hygiene are critical. I will let my flowers die before I won’t take a shower before I go to bed. We all make sacrifices.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. I can make something up if you want me to.
• Greatest on-air screw-up of your career?: Working a college football game in Minnesota at the end of the year. It’s the last game, and outside of the stadium I was frozen and instead of saying “Play clock” I said something else.
Back when I was a kid, I was quite certain my autograph and baseball card collection would make me rich.
Hell, why wouldn’t it? My binders were filled with some of the hottest cards on the market—Scott Bankhead’s Topps rookie, Billy Swift as a kid just out of the University of Maine, Gregg Jefferies and Cameron Drew and Dave Fleming and Roberto Kelly and Jeff Kunkel. My autographs were just as dazzling. Men like Brad Arsnberg and Dave Collins had taken time from their busy days at Yankee spring training to sign my 50-cent program.
Um, it didn’t end well.
Today, all those cards and signatures sit on a shelf in my office, and they’re worth oh, $250. Which is sad and disappointing and an enormous letdown. But it also serves as the perfect setup for Ron Keurajian, the historic 201st Quaz and a man who has devoted much of his life to sports memorabilia and, in particular, autographs (and the authentication of autographs). Ron’s riveting book, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, is a breathtaking breakdown of every Baseball Hall of Famer’s signature. Which, to be honest, sounded sorta dull … until I opened the text and found myself still reading two hours later.
Anyhow, the man does his research. Which makes him a wonderful ally of sports history.
And an even better Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Ron, you’re the author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, a book that evaluates the signatures of every Baseball Hall of Famer. I’ll ask a very blunt, open-ended question, and feel free to go crazy with it. Namely, why do you care about this stuff?
RON KEURAJIAN: It is very difficult for a collector to explain to a non-collector the desire to possess something. It is sometimes hard to believe that a mere scrawl of ink can be worth so much. The really rare baseball signatures, like Addie Joss, Jake Beckley, and Sam Thompson are valued well over $25,000 each.
Why do I care about this stuff? I have often asked myself that question. I am sure many other collectors do the same. I thought maybe it’s a way of preserving history or perhaps the way signatures display so nicely on the wall. Upon reflection, I think the real reason is much more personal. Baseball autographs take me back to a time of my youth when life was a lot simpler. They remind me of listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey broadcasting a Tiger’s game on radio. I have signed baseballs of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. I can remember visiting with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, who lived close by. He would tell me stories of Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, etc… That signed baseball takes me back to a time I wish I could have visited. In short, baseball autographs take me back to my childhood.
Besides, they have proved to be a great investment as well.
R.K.: The key word in your question is “tons.” The card manufacturers simply produced too much inventory. The market is flooded with this stuff. The cards you have were produced in the tens millions. They will never be worth anything. Two hundred years from now when you and I are long gone these cards will still be worthless. The cards that have value are pre-1960 Topps cards. The older the better. Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig and Mathewson will always be treasured by collectors. Those are the gems of the industry. Wouldn’t be interested in J. R., but if you have an old Honus Wagner card lying around … give me a call.
An authentic Babe Ruth-signed baseball.
J.P.:Your book is insanely detailed. Like, insanely, insanely detailed. You include, for example, examples of 11 different signatures from Ty Cobb’s life. What is your reporting process? How do you go about finding these things? How long did the book take to complete?
R.K.: I am told the unofficial title in the industry is “The Reference Guide From Hell,” so that’s got to be good. The text was easy, that took maybe six months. I have been studying signatures and forgeries for over 30 years. I have everything catalogued in my head. The hard part was getting the illustrations. That took close to four years. The best source for the rare material was local government offices. I had municipal employees in over 30 states digging through probates, mortgage records, deeds and the like to locate that elusive signature. Some really rare signatures turned up. Eddie Plank’s will and a document signed by Kansas City Monarchs’ owner J Leslie Wilkinson were some of the finds. The National Baseball Hall of Fame granted me access to some rare baseball documents dating back to the 1870s. The National Archives in Atlanta scoured through World War I draft cards and found some pretty amazing stuff. I am currently working on a second book titled “History of Autographs.” It’s a guide to historical autographs and I find myself doing the same again. This time I am contacting governments in Armenia, Russia, England and Germany.
J.P.: I have two kids—one in middle school, one in elementary. And penmanship simply is not taught like it once was. My kids are pretty much learning script on their own, for example. It’s all typing, typing, typing. I’m wondering, as a guy who has devoted so much time to penmanship issues, what you think about this …
R.K.: It is sad but the art of the written word is dying off. When I was in grade school proper penmanship was a requirement. Today, nobody really gives a damn. You can see this evolution (or perhaps de-evolution) in the world of autographs. A signed baseball of the 1935 Tigers, for example, has many legible signatures. Greenberg, Goslin, Gehringer, Cochrane and Rogell. You can read them all. A signed baseball from a current Major League team contains a bunch of chicken scratch. Nothing legible, just nonsensical gibberish. It’s not limited to sports signatures. In general, handwriting has taken a backseat in favor of expediency. Recently, I received a signature of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. I couldn’t read it. It looked like a spider that had been stepped on. The death of good penmanship will likely be impossible to reverse.
J.P.:What was your path, memorabilia-wise, from birth to here? What got you into collecting? What was your first autograph? When did it go from something to occupy time to passion?
R.K.: You don’t pick a hobby, it sort of picks you. Once you are targeted there’s no escape! Like most kids, I started collecting fossils. No money involved. Just go to the nearest rock pile and find limestone with a trapped brachiopod or crinoid. I started collecting baseball cards in 1976. I tried to complete Topps sets. I was a Rusty Staub fanatic … I used to hoard all his cards.
My first Hall of Fame autograph was from Charlie Gehringer. When I was in middle school I was assigned a book report. My choice was either Ty Cobb or Panzer General Heinz Guderian. Who do you think I took? I called up Charlie for some insight on his manager, one Mr. Cobb. After we talked he invited me over to his house. He showed me his collection and signed an autograph for me. I was hooked! I started to write through the mail for signatures and the names started to roll in. Joe DiMaggio, Al Lopez, Duke Snider, Joe Sewell, Stan Musial, spitballer Burleigh Grimes and on and on. My first big purchase was a 1920s bank document signed by Tiger Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann. I paid $35 for that one back in the early 1980s. I don’t really collect anymore. The vintage material is way too expensive and forgeries and counterfeit material are everywhere.
R.K.: Collecting autographs was, at one time, a gentle pursuit. Back in the old days (the days of Smalley and Robertson) signatures had little monetary value. In the early 1990s the popularity of autographs exploded and prices soon followed. When I started collecting a pristine signed baseball of Cobb or Ruth was valued at $75 to $100. I mean, these were high-grade gem baseballs. Today, those same balls now sell at auction for more than $50,000. Baseball has such a powerful grip on America; it’s almost a sacred religion. This fuels demand for signatures. Signatures of modern players have good value—Cabrera, Trout, Jeter, etc. If there is a buck to be made, suddenly greedy individuals surface like weeds. Paying kids to be shills makes me nauseous. It sets the wrong example. When players get wind of these dubious tactics it turns them off to signing autographs. It hurts the kids who genuinely want an autograph from one of their heroes. Where did they come from? Probably crawled out from under a rock. I wish they would go back there. As for me, I like the Cobbian-era signatures so the guys I want have been dead for more than 30 years.
J.P.:It seems to be you have to be a special type of greedy asswipe to forge the signature of another person. Maybe it’s too vague a question, but who are these people? Like, who are the guys faking celebrity signatures? Is there a common profile? A kingpin?
R.K.: Most forgers are inept and their work product is rudimentary. These types of forgeries are exposed on cursory examination. The skilled forger, on the other hand, will produce convincing forgeries that sell for big money. The really good forgers never get caught and their identities remain a mystery.
It used to be the biggest threat to the autograph hobby was forgers. Today, it’s the authentication companies. These companies will, for a fee, certify autographs. They have become the forger’s best ally. They certify so much bad material as genuine it will make your head spin. It allows fake material to seamlessly enter the memorabilia market. Forged signatures are now everywhere and not just baseball. Hollywood, rock, presidents, science autographs are all targeted. The amount of fake material that comes with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and dumped in the market is mind boggling. I would say it is at least a $100,000,000 million dollar a year problem, if not a criminal enterprise.
It’s sad to say but at least 90 percent of the vintage hall of fame autographs in the market today (Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, etc ..) are nothing but forgeries—and many come with COAs. Authentication companies fuel the black market of forgeries by certifying thousands upon thousands of forgeries as genuine. If a signature comes with a COA, chances are pretty good it is a forgery
The authentication companies have attracted the attention on law enforcement. I would urge anyone who has had problems with the major authenticators to contact the New York office of the FBI. They want to hear from you. Their number is 718-286-7100.
J.P.:You’re an expert on spotting fakes. Are there dead giveaways for the common fan to suspect something isn’t legit?
R.K.: Studying signatures takes years. You can’t learn this stuff overnight. Having said that there are certain red flags to look for. Signing your name is second nature. You don’t really think about it. Your hand takes over and it produces a nice flowing signature. You and only you can sign your name. A forger, no matter how good, cannot replicate the target signature perfectly. There will be some defect that usually manifests itself as hesitation in the stroke. A genuine signature is flowing and exhibits a certain reckless appearance. A forged signature will, at most times, contain slight hesitation. The strokes will appear labored and wobbly. This is a telltale sign of forgery.
When looking at old-time autographs (Cobb, Ruth, Cy Young, etc.), the ink and the paper should look vintage. Mellow shades of ink and aged paper have a wonderful take-you-back-in-time look. It is an antique patina that only time can create. If the paper is too clean or the ink is too bright that should send up a red flag. A signature created 80 years ago should look 80-years old and not like it was created yesterday.
A ball signed by Ty Cobb.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your memorabilia career? Lowest?
R.K.: The greatest would have to be the interaction with players and collectors. I have made many friends over the years and learned a lot about history and baseball. I knew Ernie Harwell, Charlie Gehringer, golf legend Henry Picard, and crime author Elmore Leonard. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent was gracious enough to write the foreword for my Hall of Fame autograph book. His words greatly enhanced the final product. Collectors were ever so helpful in providing signatures for illustration in the book. In a nutshell, it’s the friends you make along the way.
Lowest: Every time I examine a forgery. This seems to happen more and more. The criminal element seems to become more dominant in the sports memorabilia industry as the years go on. It’s not just autographs. Fake game-used equipment, counterfeit baseball cards and altered photos seem to spring up more and more these days.
J.P.: Apparently no known signatures of Rube Waddell exist. How is that possible? And to what lengths have you searched?
R.K.: Actually, during the course of my research Rube’s 100-year-old divorce file was unearthed in the sub-basement of the St. Louis court house. It contained three genuine signatures. Those signatures did not match any Waddell signature that had been sold over the past 50 years except for one specimen. Imagine that!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON KEURAJIAN:
• I often make the case Rickey Henderson is the greatest ballplayer of the last 40 years. Am I closer to being right or wrong?: Wrong. It’s George Brett. All time—Ty Cobb hands down.
• Why are so many ballplayers assholes?: They are pampered, given big signing bonuses and paid $20 million a year. They can afford to be jerks. Gosh, I would love to see these prima donnas play in the olden days against the likes Cobb, Wagner, Carl Mays and the days of the sharpened spikes.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Archi Cianfrocco? How long does it go?: Archi who? Better him than Jack Dempsey, I suppose.
• One question you’d ask El DeBarge were he here right now?: Where’s Johhny?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Marty Lyons, maggots, Coke Zero, Tears for Fears, pantyhose, O Magazine, the smell of tapioca pudding burning, KISS, Prime Minister Pete Nice, Garry Templeton: Abe’s Hat, Garry Templeton, KISS, Marty Lyons, pantyhose, burning pudding, Tears for Fears, maggots (they do serve a purpose in nature), Coke Zero. Never read O, so can’t comment. As to PM Pete Nice (a.k.a. Peter Nash), as a baseball historian I would rank him fairly high. As a music artist, well that’s a different story. Give me Vivaldi over 3rd Bass any day.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I find flying dreadfully boring. I take a Xanax and sleep through most of the flight. So if a plane I was on were about to crash I wouldn’t know it until the splat. By that time who cares?
• As I write this, I feel like I’m about to vomit from the shitty slice of pizza I just ate. What should I do?: Don’t resist. Get it over and done with. You’ll feel better.
The professor sits behind a desk, typing at a computer. He looks like any number of other professors you and I have had in our lives—worn shoes, a slightly wrinkled collared shirt, grayed hair going this way and that way. Here, on the UCLA campus, in an office on the sixth floor of the Luskin School of Public Affairs building, Michael Dukakis blends in like the brownish walls. Students pass, faculty pass, hi, bye, see ya later, let’s grab a bite to eat …
It is a strange place to find the man who was almost president.
You’ve read that correctly. Michael Dukakis, visiting professor of public policy for the winter quarter, could have defeated George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. He was the Democratic nominee; a wildly popular Massachusetts governor who enjoyed a 17-point lead in the polls following his party’s convention that July. Then, however, Dukakis made the greatest mistake of his life. Bush’s campaign manager, a cagey Texan named Lee Atwater, went after the Democrat hard—using any and all negative means. A rumor was leaked that Dukakis had been treated for mental depression. Disturbingly racist ads tied Dukakis to Willie Horton, an African-American convicted criminal who, during his furlough from a Massachusetts prison, raped and murdered a woman. On and on and on—one hit after another after another.
Only that wasn’t sorta that. Michael Dukakis is now 81, and he’s, well, awesome. Just awesome. Yeah, I’m a pretty liberal guy. But sitting down with Dukakis a few weeks ago served as a unique reminder that not all who enter national politics are crooks/tools/cons/thugs. As I texted to Kevin Broughton (Tea Party official and Quaz alum) earlier today, “You wouldn’t agree with anything Dukakis said politically, but you’d find him extremely decent and honorable.”
These days, when he’s not spending the winters in Southern California, Dukakis lives in Brookline, Mass. with his wife, Kitty. He helped with the campaigns of Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and is heavily involved in the movement to develop high-speed rail as a transportation alternative. He’s a fanatical Red Sox fan, makes a wicked clam chowdah and ranks Jim Rice and Tony Eason ahead of Kanye West.
Gov. Michael Dukakis—to hell with the presidency. You’re the 200th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:My last book was about the 1980s Lakers. And the coach before Pat Riley was Paul Westhead. And I interviewed Westhead in his office at the University of Oregon, where he coached the women’s basketball team. And in his career, after being fired by the Lakers, he coached everywhere. Denver, Loyola Marymount. Everywhere. And he had this amazing life. And I asked whether his life has been better not being the coach of the Lakers. Pat Riley did the same thing every year. Do you ever think, “I hated losing a presidential election, but maybe my life has been better, having not won”? Or is that ludicrous?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It’s not ludicrous. But the answer is no. My life is not better having lost. I’m happy Kitty and I … Christ, I’m 81, I feel 21. My wife is 78, and I keep introducing her as the best-looking Medicare recipient in America. And we’ve had a great life since. But there’s nothing like being the president of the United States, and having that kind of opportunity. And as I say to people, “I owe you all an apology. Hell, if I’d beaten Bush I you would have never had a Bush II. And now we have Bush III? My God. So blame me for all of that.”
J.P.:Do you really feel that way at all?
M.D.: No, I’m kidding.
J.P.:It’s so interesting. Because I told a friend I was coming here, and he had just read a book on Gary Hart. And Gary Hart had lamented not winning the 1988 election, because there would be no Bushes in the White House. Do you ever think of the dominoes of history?
M.D.: Well, that’s not the way history works. You can be responsible for significant change, but the world’s the world. There are forces out there nobody controls. It’s a problem we’ve had since World War II—that we think we can control things we can’t. We keep intervening and we get our heads handed to us. One of these days we’ll wake up to the fact that either you do broad international consensus, or it won’t work. But the ability to make a difference, which is what politics is really all about if you take it seriously, is real. I saw that as governor. I don’t want to overdo it, but I think we would have had universal health insurance had I been elected in the 1980s. Of course we should have had it in the 1970s when Nixon proposed it. And then, if Ted Kennedy were here today, he would admit the worst political mistake he ever made was not joining Nixon right away on Nixon’s plan, which was actually a pretty good plan. When they finally decided to get together it was 1973, and then Watergate hit and it kind of blew up Nixon and blew up Nixon’s health plan.
To go back to your original question, you don’t run for the presidency for the hell of it. You run because you really want to do things and you think you can do things. So I don’t think my life has been better since. On the other hand we’ve been fortunate to be able to live a good, fulfilling life. Despite the loss.
J.P.:I’ve always wanted to ask someone this, and you’re the perfect person. You always hear people in elections say, “The American voters are savvy” and “Never underestimate the American voter.” I live in Orange County, and you would think there’s no drought going on. Just as an example, you see people watering their boats, five sprinklers for a lawn the size of a postage stamp. People don’t believe in climate change. They literally don’t believe it exists. I kind of feel the American public makes me feel smarter than I probably am. So is that just nonsense, when politicians speak of the sophistication of the American voter?
M.D.: Well, is the American voter sophisticated? First, I’m not quite sure what sophisticated means …
J.P.:But it’s a line used a lot …
M.D.: Who was the guy? Bill Bennett. Remember Bill Bennett? Williams, Harvard Law School. All of that stuff. Not an unintelligent guy. But where was he coming from? Paul Wolfowitz. Who’s the really crazy guy who was Bush’s U.N. representative? Still yapping …
J.P.: John Bolton.
M.D.: Yes, John Bolton. Highly educated. I don’t think he was a poor kid. I don’t know what his background is. But I think these guys are nuts. Now, are they sophisticated? Intellectually, I doubt it. But that’s the … the guy who came to fix my plumbing the other day. He was born in Mexico, he has a small business, he works his head off. He does reasonably well. He was expressing his unhappiness about something politically. So I said, “Lorenzo, who do you like?” And this guy is not a Democrat, and he’s kind of an independent guy, runs his own business, works his head off. And he said, “I like that [Elizabeth] Warren woman from your state. I like her.” I asked why. He said, “Because she’s kind of taking on these big boys who don’t care about us.” Well, that’s a pretty wise, thoughtful comment. Does he have a college degree? No. The guy’s a plumber. So who’s sophisticated and who isn’t? Who’s smart and who isn’t?
Look, over the course of a long career in this business I’ve come to have a lot of respect for a lot of folks. All of them? No. And a lot of this has to do with folks who are deeply and actively involved in the process do. Why did Elizabeth Warren beat Scott Brown? Let me tell you, that was a tight race. Four of five days before the election, both Boston newspapers of record published polls. One said Brown was a little bit ahead, the other said it was tied. She won by eight points because she had a field operation—and I’ll take a little bit of credit for that—that was as good as anything I’d ever seen. It was the best grassroots organization I’d ever seen. And without that she wouldn’t have won. Was that a reflection of the sophisticated electorate? Well, you’d like to think Massachusetts has a lot of people who are interested and informed. And probably to a higher degree than many states. But they’re not all PhDs. Over time I’ve come to have a lot of respect for the folks who are just coming out to vote because they want a better world and the challenge if you’re running is to connect and see if you can persuade them to believe you’re the one who makes sense.
J.P.:OK, but last week I was watching a YouTube clip about you, and the helmet you wore during the election. And I’m watching it, and everyone is speaking with sincerity how this helmet was a horrible mistake. And I kept thinking how this is the dumbest thing ever. If this is the type of thing that sways people to vote for one person over another person, we must be the dumbest people of all time.
M.D.: But, see, I didn’t lose because of that. I lost for two reasons. First, I made a decision—it was my decision, and nobody else’s—that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign. In retrospect, it was one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.
J.P.:Why did you decide to do that?
M.D.: Because I’m a positive guy and I thought people were tired of the polarization we had under Reagan. And we had a lot of polarization under Reagan. I mean, this notion that somehow the Reagan era was this era of consensus is nonsense. This was a very sharply divided country over his policies. And Clinton essentially reversed them in six months. People talk about the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Revolution died six months after Clinton took over.
So not being ready for the kind of attack campaign that came at me and having a carefully thought-out strategy for how to deal with it was a big mistake. I’d been through negative campaigns for governor. Lost one, beat the same guy the second time around.
M.D.: Yes. And the second mistake I made was spending too much time talking to people who I thought knew more about winning the presidency than I did. All of who poo-pooed the kind of grassroots organizational stuff that had gotten me elected. Repeatedly. And that means a precinct captain and a six-block cap, and every precinct making personal contact with every single voting household. That’s what we’re talking about here. And it took Barack Obama to finally demonstrate that beyond any doubt a precinct-based grassroots campaign is just as effective when you’re running for the presidency as it is when you’re running for dogcatcher. Had I dealt with the attack campaign much more effectively—and there were ways to do that—and had we had the kind of grassroots effort … there are 200,000 precincts in a national campaign. That’s 200,000 precinct captains. That should not be that difficult. But it took Obama, not once but twice, to prove it works. So those are the two reasons.
I mean, there are always gonna be things. Look, Bush was in the tank three times. And people are gonna … they went after me on the Pledge of Allegiance, and then he couldn’t even repeat the Pledge of Allegiance at some event. Yeah, we could have run a spot on that. But it didn’t seem to me that made sense at the time.
J.P.:And then he died. I wonder, when you hear that … because that was the most sinister, ruthless, racist, nasty, vile … and you tried rising above it.
M.D.: Not rising above it. You have to deal with it. Politics is a contact sport.
J.P.:This guy apologized. Are you like, “To hell with you …”
M.D.: The apology—so what? Here’s the contrast. King beats me. I’m 40 points ahead of him with five weeks to go in the Democratic Primary. Not a pleasant experience. So for a variety of reasons I decided to run against him. He had a lot of money. And beginning in February he started running attack ads against me, accusing me of signing the biggest tax increase in the history of Massachusetts. Which is true. So what do you do about that? He starts putting out bumper stickers with my colors that say DUTAXUS. Get it? He taxed you once, he’ll tax you again. So how do you deal with it? I did not ignore it. Fortunately for me he’d run a pretty sleazy administration. And I’m not even sure who came up with this idea, but we said, “OK, this guy didn’t raise your taxes. But you’re paying a huge corruption tax as a result of King.” In other words, we took his attack campaign and flipped it on him. And I beat him decisively. And I don’t think there’s any question that they made a difference.
Now I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what I should have done differently with Bush. But the fact of the matter is, with this Willie Horton stuff, the most liberal furlough program in America was the Reagan-Bush furlough program in the federal prison system. I mean, they were furloughing people for 45 days. One of their furloghees went out and murdered a young pregnant mother. There was some guy who stole a helicopter while on a furlough program. And Reagan himself had had a furlough program here in California, and two of his furloughees had gone out and murdered people. I never said that. I don’t think Bush knew they had a furlough program. But, hey, if you make the decision I made not to respond, which is retrospect was a pretty dumb decision, you don’t have to win by 20 points in this business, all you have to do is convince one more than 50. And it was just, in retrospect, a dumb thing to do.
J.P.:Do you build up hate for an opponent the way supporters build up hate for an opponent?
J.P.:You just don’t?
J.P.:Why is that?
M.D.: When you’re in this business for 25 years you don’t have time to hate people. You wanna go out there and win because you think you can make a real contribution. But hate? No.
J.P.: If George H. W. Bush is visiting UCLA today, do you go see him?
M.D.: I might. I might. But I haven’t got time for hate. And you’re trying to do it in a way that’s forceful. But you want to be a grownup about this stuff. There’s also a lot of humor in this thing. Every time Saturday Night Live has an anniversary they run the debate. They ask me what I think about it. You don’t watch a lot of television when you’re campaigning. It’s 16 hours per day, so you’re not interested in turning on the television set. But I remember watching that and saying, “Yeah. How am I losing to this guy?” It was kind of funny.
I mean, you’re competitive obviously, and you want to win. But you don’t get personal.
J.P.:Do you form a bond with a running mate during an election, or is it just a marriage of political convenience?
M.D.: Well, you certainly try to. And I had a great running mate. Lloyd Bentsen was terrific. One of the other things I would have done is to spend more time with Lloyd. We were both out there campaigning night and day. We and our staffs should have gotten together on a regular basis. After all, this is a guy who beat George Bush decisively for the senate. He knew him. And beat him. But a great running mate and a good guy.
M.D.: I have no idea. Certainly Lloyd was ready for it. There was no question about it. Now how did he know it was a likely statement? Or did he simply respond that way? Because it was kind of devastating. He was just a very good guy. And I picked him because A. I had a lot of respect for him; B. He was highly thought of in the senate; C. I was not a Washington guy and I wanted a running mate who was a seasoned, experienced person in Washington. He filled all three. His wife Beryl is wonderful, and I’m in touch periodically. She was tremendous. So, yeah, you try and develop something. I mean, John Kerry and I—Kerry was a damn good lieutenant governor, and when Paul Tsongas had to leave the senate because of his illness, John came to me and said, “Look, if you want to run you’re first in line.” I told him, “I didn’t work my head off to get here and go to the senate. I’m staying here as governor. I have a lot to do.” So he ran, and I’d like to think the work we did in our two years together helped him get elected. And now he’s the secretary of state. Which is great.
J.P.:After you lose a big election, is it hard to bounce back into life and say, “OK, let’s do this!”?
M.D.: Of course it is.
J.P.:Were you watching TV and eating ice cream?
M.D.: No, I wasn’t doing that because after the presidential thing I had to go back to the governor’s office. Because we were sinking back into another national recession. But winning is better than losing. Now was I a better governor the second time around because of the defeat? No question.
M.D.: Look, when I went into the legislature in 1962, Massachusetts was one of the three or four most corrupt states in the country. Here we were, we’d just elected this terrific young president in 1960. And we are who we are. So a bunch of us younger Democrats got elected in 1962, and then again in 1964. And we were determined to clean this thing up. And I kind of became the leader of the young Turks. It used to give my father heartburn. He was this Greek man born in Western Turkey, who comes to the United States and reads in the paper that his son is the leader of the young Turks. I had to explain that it was just a figure of speech. So I was a reformer; I was a rebel of sorts, even within the legislature. And pretty effective as a legislature. But the party establishment—I was the last guy they wanted to see in the governor’s office.
J.P.:Why was that?
M.D.: Because I was a guy who did things differently. Not necessarily better, but I did them differently. And I was not a consensus builder. And what you discover if you’re a chief executive … Obama tried it, and it didn’t work. If you wanna get things done, trying to develop consensus around the solutions to the problems you think your state or your country is facing is always the better way. Getting defeated and spending some time thinking about that, and then coming back and doing it differently and much better made all the difference. I had a very successful run. Ran into another national recession in the late 1990s, and that wasn’t fun. But generally speaking, I think people will say I was a good governor and the state performed brilliantly in the late 1980s.
J.P.:When we started you mentioned you’re 81 and feel 21. Aging fascinates me. When you’re 15, you almost think aging will never happen. Even when you’re 30. How do you feel about being 81? Do you worry about death? Do you think about it?
M.D.: Well, occasionally. You keep reading the obituaries and it’s a lot of people in their late 70s, early 80s. This is an age when people tend to start having problems—this, that and the other thing. So far, knock on wood, I’m a very healthy guy. People ask me what medication I take. And I say, “A multivitamin and a baby Aspirin.”
M.D.: Yes. I’ve been taking them for years. Because my doctor suggested it 25 years ago. But, look, I often say that if you want to live a long life, pick your parents carefully. My mother lived until she was five months short of 100. And Kitty’s dad was conducting the Boston Pops until he was 94. So knock on wood, we’re in pretty good shape, at least genetically.
J.P.:I have this horrible habit where sometimes I wake up and think, “Oh my God, I’m going to be dead one day.” You?
M.D.: No. Never. It’s never been a thing. I love what I’m doing, I love teaching and working with these kids. And I’m still deeply and actively involved. People say, “It must be better now that you’re out of politics and the pressure is off.” I say to them, “You don’t understand us guys. We love pressure.” I’m as deeply involved in stuff today as I was 20 years ago.
J.P.:Would you run for office again?
M.D.: No, no. I think at some point you have to put that to one side. I like teaching, I like working with young people, trying to open up doors to public service for them. But I’m also very much involved in a lot of stuff.
J.P.:You wrote a book with the late Paul Simon, How to Get in Politics and Why. And when I was a kid I wanted to be president. I really wanted to be president. But it seems today high public office is so much about fundraising, about corporate influence. I can’t understand why anyone would want that. It just seems like such a nightmare. No?
M.D.: But you don’t have to do it that way. Obama refused to take PAC money and wouldn’t let lobbyists raise money for him [Jeff’s note: This was true for a while. Then, sadly, Obama wound up taking the dough]. So how come he raised $750 million in 2008? Must have been more in 2012. Well, part of it is the technology of the Internet, which gives you the opportunity to connect with lots and lots of people out there. Obama had five million individual contributors in 2008. Average contribution was $110. And 2012 must have been even more than that. No funny money, none of this going to Reno and paying obese fundraisers. I never did that. I wouldn’t. My campaigns, we didn’t have the Internet in those days. But it was try and raise money from a broad base of relatively moderate contributors. I did the same thing Obama did—no PACs, no lobbyists. And up until 1988 I was pretty successful. And I never had a money problem in 1988.
J.P.:So you would still encourage people to go into politics?
M.D.: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yes. But what do you have to do? You not only want to raise your money from a broad base of relatively moderate contributors. You want to turn those folks in precinct workers. That’s the challenge, and that’s what Obama did. He not only raised a lot of money from a very broad base, but the whole point wasn’t just to raise money from them. It was to raise money from them, and then turn them into active, precinct-based organizers. And he was successful in doing that. That’s the challenge. That’s what Elizabeth Warren did. She raised a ton of money. A ton of money. But that didn’t get her elected. What got her elected was a grassroots organization.
On the campaign trail with Lloyd Bentsen, 1988.
J.P.:Do you think Elizabeth Warren is too liberal to be elected president?
M.D.: I mean, what’s liberal when it comes to standing up to people?
J.P.:You know she’ll be targeted and labeled …
M.D.: I don’t know what the hell they’ll label her for. She’s somebody who thinks a lot of Americans got screwed because some people in the financial world were behaving in terrible ways. Now, a lot of that had to do with a Republican administration that didn’t believe in regulating financial institutions. If there’s one thing you learn in this business it’s that you have to regulate the hell out of financial institutions. I don’t care whether you’re right, left or center. Weren’t all of these conservatives mad at the bailout? Why are we bailing out Wall Street? These guys were making millions, playing around, doing all this derivative stuff?
Is that right, left, center? Is it liberal? Conservative? It sounds very conservative to me, the idea that you want to make sure these folks are regulated carefully. And regulated well. My state has 145 state-regulated banks. Not a one of them gets into trouble. Not a one. Why? I mean subprime mortgages? Are you kidding me? They wouldn’t be permitted. What’s a subprime mortgage? A subprime mortgage is a mortgage that never should be written. I mean, today there was a story about one of the big banks deciding it will no longer finance subprime auto loans. No surprise to me. But what is this? Left? Right? She’s too liberal? I don’t know. I think she makes sense. I think she understands that we don’t want another collapse; that we don’t want to go through what we experienced in 2007 and 2008. But those guys are back doing the exact same thing they were doing before, doing everything they can to weaken Dodd-Frank. Which was not the toughest law in the world, but it was important. And they’re doing everything they can to weaken it. It’s the same old stuff. I mean, and you just have to … this is liberal? Sounds to me quite conservative.
Interesting. In Clinton’s last year, Jeff, we had a budgetary surplus of a quarter of a trillion dollars. It was the first time we had had back-to-back budgetary surpluses in 50 years. And it happened under a Democratic president. Isn’t that amazing? Now the Republicans are saying, “Hey, we want a tax cut. We want a tax cut.” By the way, we had 4-percent unemployment. We had full employment. And they wanted a tax cut. Clinton, one of the smartest guys I’ve met in this business, basically said, “Looking down the road, a tax cut mostly for the wealthy doesn’t make a lot of sense for me. We have to somehow see if we can act responsibly fiscally and make sure we’re using that surplus in ways that will guarantee a very strong, stable financial future.” What does he do? He comes up with a plan—nobody remembers this—that will eliminate the national debt in 10-to-12 years. Eliminate it. At that time it was $12 trillion. Now it’s $17 trillion. And take the interest saved from paying down the debt and put it in the famous lock box. So as to provide for financing in social security when in 2027 or 2030 when the social security trust fund starts slipping into the deficit position.
And when the pollsters went out and asked people whether they’d rather have a tax cut or what the president was proposing, by 2:1 the American people said forget the tax cut, let’s do what the president is proposing. It sounds pretty wise and sensible to me. Don’t you think? And if Gore had been elected—and he was, the damn thing got stolen—that’s what we would have had. With almost zero debt. In fact, Alan Greenspan was very concerned, because if there’s no debt how can the federal reserve function? What Clinton was proposing was a very, very conservative and wise plan to use this surplus in ways that would be economy-building and responsible and so on. Well, he was succeeded by a guy who was the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history and called himself a conservative. That’s conservative? Invading Iraq is conservative? Intervening all over the world militarily is conservative? Doesn’t sound like that to me.
J.P.:I find it strange how Obama is getting killed about ISIS, and ISIS probably isn’t a threat if we never go into Iraq after 9.11 …
M.D.: Look, ISIS is 20,000 people. Please. I mean, it’s not that I’m not horrified by what they’re doing. But if there’s one thing we know it’s that governments, no matter where they’re coming from, don’t like terrorists. It doesn’t matter who they are. Putin doesn’t like terrorists. We don’t like terrorists. The Chinese don’t like terrorists. So we ought to be working right now to come up with an international plan for defeating these folks. And we will. We will.
We’re talking about 20,000 people. And you’re absolutely right. Had we not gone into Iraq, and the Syrian thing was also nuts. I remember when it first started, and even Obama was saying Assad has to go. And if there was ever a candidate for non-intervention, it’s Syria. If you know anything about the history of Syria, and the people of Syria, and the communities in Syria … including, by the way, the oldest Christian community in the world, which will be annihilated if these guys take over … intervening. No. Libya. Now, Gaddafi was no bargain. But Gaddafi gave up his nuclear stuff. Well, OK, so we went in there, he was assassinated, and what do we have now? Chaos.
J.P.:Is that on Obama?
M.D.: Well, it’s certainly partly Obama. The French, the British—a lot of people are in there. And poor old Putin is saying, “I don’t know … look out.” Well, OK, we’ll go along with a no-fly zone, which we violated almost immediately after the UN voted on a no-fly zone. And Putin was the guy who pulled the chestnuts out of the fire with Syria with the chemical warfare stuff. And here we are. Lybia is chaos. Syria—three million refugees and 200,000-plus people dead as a result of this. So my view of the world is either we act internationally and build broad international consensus around what we’re doing, or we’re going to have continued problems.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL DUKAKIS:
• What’s your greatest moment as an athlete at Brookline High School?: When my cross country team won the Metropolitan League Championship. I wasn’t the No. 1 runner. I was No. 3. We won that thing. Or maybe running and finishing the Boston Marathon at the age of 17 in 1951. That wasn’t a high school thing. I ran it in 3:30. I wore low Keds sneakers. Because there were no shoes to run that distance. I ran 26 miles in low Keds sneakers. The following day, I was the captain of the high school tennis team, and we had a match. And my tennis coach, who had been a world class hurdler at Dartmouth in the 1930s. His name was Monte Wells. He had pleaded with me about doing the marathon. I get out of bed. My mother’s preparing breakfast for me downstairs. I can’t walk down the stairs. Honest to God, I sat on my rump and bounced down the stairs. Ate breakfast, went to our tennis match, we beat Malden Catholic, not a tennis power, by a score of 8-1. Who do you think the one was? I couldn’t move laterally at all. All I could do was hit the ball and come to the net. If the guy hit the ball to my left or right, I couldn’t reach it. Took me about a week to get over it.
• I wrote a book about the 1986 Mets. Want a copy?: Oh, God. Jesus. I was debating my opponent for governor the night of Game 6. And I kept announcing what was happening. People would hand me a piece of paper with the score. I was at a televised debate. There were about 40,000 watching our debate on television, and about 2.6 million watching the game. And then we get home and flip it on and go through that horrible inning. Why McNamara didn’t take Buckner out? Dave Stapleton was the best defensive first baseman in baseball. I think it was one of those things where sentiment outweighs reality. Jesus. Poor Buckner. Could hardly walk, for God’s sake.
• Two memories of your first-ever date: My first date? God. I’d gone to one or two dances. But my high school girlfriend—the first date with the girl who became my girlfriend, and ultimately introduced Kitty and me. Her name was Sandy Cohen. She’s a very good friend. It was a disaster. I was tongue tied. I subsequently got over it, but that first date was a disaster.
• Who are your five all-time favorite Republicans?:Abraham Lincoln—not just because of the Civil War. I’m a train fanatic, and Lincoln was the guy, in the middle of the Civil War, who pushed the transcontinental railroad. He’s the president responsible for the transcontinental railroad, which transformed the country; Teddy Roosevelt—Who, by the way, was the first serious presidential candidate to propose universal health insurance, in 1912; George Norris—George was a Republican senator from Nebraska who was the father of the TVA. And he was a close ally of Roosevelt’s during the Great Depression. A remarkable guy; Dan Evans—He was the governor of the state of Washington when I was first elected. A wonderful guy. Just a great guy. Who really reached out to guys like me and shared experiences and thoughts. Just a lovely man; Tom Kean—He’s a remarkable guy. From New Jersey. And a good person, and a gutsy person.
• In 1988, did you consider Jesse Jackson a legitimate contender for the nomination?: I didn’t think he’d win the nomination, but Jesse is an interesting guy. He can drive you nuts, but I never listened to him without learning something. Both in the way he expressed himself, as well as the things he talked about.
• John Williams wrote a song, Fanfare for Michael Dukakis. How many times have you listened to that in your lifetime?: Well, I listened to it a good number of times in 1988. Since then, not much. Wonderful guy, by the way. He’s a lovely man. It’s a good song. Everything he writes is good.
• Should the Red Sox retire Roger Clemens’ number?: No. Because I think there are grave doubts about this guy and what he was doing. I don’t think you want to do that. And he left us. Not only that, but he had said before that the only way he would leave us is if it was a Texas team. Then he could go back home. And as he’s going to Toronto someone said, “He must have turned the map upside down.” I love that.
• Do you remember your first Red Sox game?: I was young, and at that time we lived on Boylston Street. About a 10-minute bus ride from Fenway. So we go down. Lefty Grove is pitching, Rick Ferrell is catching, Jimmie Foxx on first, Bobby Doerr, who had just come up, at second, Joe Cronin—the player-manager—shortstop. Jim Tabor third. So we come home very excited. “Mom! Mom! Can we go again?” And she says, “Boys, if you wanna go you can go again. But I won’t be going with you. I’ve never been so bored in my life.” She had no idea what was going on out there.
• I’m coaching my 8-year-old son’s little league team. How should I come up with lineups?: Well, first thing you have to do is make him a catcher. It’s the best position on the team, and he’ll always be in demand. I was catching for the seventh grade team when I was in the fourth grade because nobody could catch a swinging strike except for me. Because I was 9. I used to catch my brother, Stelian. But there’s nothing like being a catcher. You have the whole field in front of you, and you’re kind of in charge.
• Best advice you ever received: I had a great high school basketball coach named Johnny Grinnell. He had been a great basketball player at Tufts in the 1930s. He couldn’t stand Joe McCarthy during the McCarthy period. And because I lived in the south side of town and a buddy of mine named Bob Wool moved to Newton, and Grinnell lived in Newton, at the end of practice we’d jump in the car with him and he’d take Wool to Newton and leave me off at the intersection of Route 9 and Hammond Street and I’d hitchhike home. I was 17 at the time, and we were talking about McCarthy. He said, “You know, Mike, you ought to seriously think about running for public office.”
A little less than two years ago, the 100th Quaz featured Adrian Dessi, the father of two boys I grew up with and a man who was in the midst of a tragic-yet-inspiring battle with ALS.
Today, with Quaz No. 199, I offer up Chris Dessi—Adrian’s son.
But were this merely about sentiment and nostalgia, well, I would have picked a different person. Truth is, Chris Dessi is an absolutely fascinating guy. He is (as I am) a survivor of the gang-infested streets of Mahopac N.Y. He is (as I am) a Bon Jovi and Dave Righetti admirer. He is, as I am, eh, righthanded.
Chris also happens to be one of America’s leading social media experts. He’s a guy who saves individuals and companies by showing them the Internet light; who views technology five steps ahead and is always looking for the next stroke, the next emergence. As the founder and CEO of Silverback Social, Chris is a leading thinker on what’s coming and going. He’s a regular TV presence, an author and an absolutely brilliant dancer. Oh, and he knows if your website sucks.
CHRIS DESSI: Well, I think your readers should know that you wrote this question while Dad was still alive. Dad passed away on Feb. 3, while I was in the midst of answering these questions.
My whole family was with him when he passed away. My mother, brother, my wife, my sister in law, my cousins, aunts, and uncles, we were all touching him, kissing him, holding him. I was kneeling at his bedside, with my head resting on his chest when his heart stopped. This was a profound moment that I’m still digesting. It was beautiful, and an honor, and horrible all at the same time.
What has his fight with ALS been like for me? I’d have to use the word torture. I wish I could think of a more eloquent word, but it has been pure torture. My father was my mentor. He was my confidant and friend. To watch this strapping 6-foot man wither away slowly over the course of six years was, in fact, torture. For me it was, anyway.
Mom was an unwavering pillar of strength and loyalty. She survived this ordeal by relying on her faith and her pure love for my father. When I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d immediately deflect the conversation to Dad. “Can you imagine what he’s going through, Christopher?” No. I couldn’t.
In the final weeks of my father’s life many members of our immediate family lived at my parents’ house. We knew he was dying. We were all there. People stopped their lives for him. They flew in from Florida, from Texas. They dropped everything and we just huddled up. We spent time with him. We loved him. We joked with him. We all had our time with him. I learned what “in sickness and in health” means. My mom embodied the true ideal. Never leaving his side. It was like being at this bizarre extended holiday with your relatives. We all sat around telling stories and laughing and crying. He died at home, surrounded by those who loved him the most. It was important for us to give him that. To show him how much we all loved him, and how much he meant to us. If anyone reading this has read the Quaz you did with my father they may recall that he didn’t have the best childhood. He was always a bit confused by the love we expressed toward him. I think it was hard for him to understand just how much we all adored this man. Those final weeks—he knew. He finally knew how much we loved him. He felt it.
I know that everyone has his or her very own “bag of rocks,” but to see what my mother has endured for the past six years with dad, with such grace, such unwavering dignity. Well, that may be one of the greatest lessons I can take from all of this.
What did I learn about my dad? Adrian Dessi was unrelenting in the face of adversity. And he was really, really, really tough. Doctors predicted ALS would kill him in three years—he lasted six. He lived with this disease with grace. He did not complain. He did not seek sympathy. He fought with elegance and humility. He was a warrior
The disease also allowed me a sort of freedom to shower my father with all the love I could muster every single time I saw him. To thank him for all he’d done for me, to write e-mails to him that I know I would never have written if he were well.
So in an odd, tortuous and horrible way, ALS was a beautiful gift. But at the same time, his passing broke my heart, and I’m crying while I’m writing this.
Adrian Dessi with his son, Chris.
J.P.:OK, Chris, weird follow-up. Your father had ALS. Terrorists are building up seemingly unstoppable networks throughout Europe. Climate change. On and on and on. And yet, when I read your stuff and speak with you, you seem so damn … positive. Why?
C.D.: The reason I choose to be positive is because I understand that everything I put out there will be there in perpetuity. And I think about my legacy. Often.
I know that my grandchildren will read my posts. So I think to myself, “How will this piece affect them?” How will they view me if they read a rant coming from a grown man? Will that inform them how to be a functioning adult in society? Or will they cringe? I also believe that you get what you give. If you’re negative, it comes back. It is too easy to complain, and take people down. I believe that type of behavior is the toxic waste of our society. I refuse to join. So I choose to spread joy, and love and understanding. It’s hard to be thoughtful and caring. It is easy to be a jerk [Jeff’s note: So guilty!]
J.P.:So you run a social media agency with the goal of—in your words—driving “high quality engagement, viral awareness and revenue generating moments.” My question for you is, with easy access to Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, etc, why do folks need to hire someone to handle social media? Isn’t it all relatively self-explanatory at this point?
C.D.: I guess the best analogy I can think of is writing. Everyone can do it, but only certain people can do it well. But I get your question.
If you ask 100 pre-teens, “Are you a social media expert?” I bet 99 would say yes. They’d be 100-percent correct. So why do clients pay my agency to do things that a 13-year old can do? Because brands have no clue how to market a product or service via social media, and neither does that 13-year old.
Today, every large company in America has to keep its finger on the pulse of all that is cool, compelling and viral. Companies can’t just post content on social media and hope that their post goes viral. Brands need to meet people where they are, and they’re on social media. That’s where Silverback Social steps in. We wrap management around the beast of social media. We provide strategy, creative development, copywriting, design and reporting.
Everything we do for our client focuses on growth. We’re adding value and strategy. We are driving our new economy. Think about it—do you think 18-25-year-olds watch commercials? Of course they don’t. They either DVR their favorite show, or binge watch it via Apple TV. Or they watch it on their iPad or iPhone. We’re marketing to them on their iPhones, via Snapchat. Speaking to them in the ecosystem where they live. It’s less intrusive than old-school marketing, and it works.
We’re not just talking about posting on Facebook, or sending a Tweet. We define brand strategy, audience, marketing channels, and objectives and define resources. Each of these steps needs big ideas, with executable steps on the client side and agency site. Like how can a brand’s identity translate into social and still align with marketing objectives? What is our connection plan? Meaning, which social platforms do our clients spend time on? How will we map that activity to our media buying?
One of our sexier services includes growth hacking social for brands. What I mean is that we make introductions between Internet celebrities and major brands. We manage the relationship between the brand and creator. We commission creators to make unique creative content. Creators make Vines, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, Tweets, blog posts, etc. This targeted creative drives interaction and awareness for the brand. It’s marketing at its most granular level. We’re building software to support our services, too. That part of our business is sort of the modern-day version of what product placement in films used to be. I’d argue that social media celebrities are the new “Hollywood.” They’re making money because money goes where the eyeballs go, and the eyeballs are on social media creators.
It’s a dynamic industry with so many nuances. Every day at work is fascinating. I’m learning all the time.
J.P.:This is sorta random, but you know more about the power of media and messaging than anyone I know. So, Chris, how do you explain the Kardashians lasting this long? Being serious. Didn’t 15 minutes expire four years ago? How is this possible?
C.D.: I believe that they have seeped into our culture due to the PR acumen of their mother. She’s the mastermind.
She’s playing to our most basic Id instincts to gain fame and publicity by using her family. I don’t agree with it. But she’s a marketing and PR genius. Kind of hurts saying it because I don’t think she uses that skill for good. But that’s just my opinion, right?
If you took Philosophy: 101 in college you’ve heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In short, man believes what’s in front of his nose is reality. Kim Kardashian is everywhere, so we’re told to care about what she does and why she does it. She’s beautiful for sure. But what else is there? Not much. Zero talent. Following the Kardasians is just mindless eating to numb the pain of your own life. They’re the McDonald’s of our culture. Not to get too deep, but the people I know who have real things going on in their own lives don’t know that a Kardasian exists. So let’s all focus on what we can control—our own lives, and maybe they’ll go away. But I doubt it. Billions and billions served, right?
C.D.: In 1997 I graduated from Loyola (Maryland) University. Tim Russert delivered the commencement address. He told the story of the state trooper who caught Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. The trooper had stopped McVeigh for a minor moving violation. I forget the details, but I believe it was something like a broken taillight. The point was that if this trooper had not done his job, Timothy McVeigh would have gone free. Mr. Russert was sharing the importance of every day due diligence. Urging us to take pride in the job that you’re assigned no matter how menial. Do it well, and do it with enthusiasm, and success will come. Come tenfold, even. That lesson stuck with me, and has become a core value at our agency.
Our clients pay us to be diligent on their behalf. While conducting his due diligence our employee noticed something. A mother posted a photo of her daughter to a Facebook page we manage. It was for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It is a compelling photo. We contacted the family that posted the image and story of Makayla, who was celebrating her last day of chemotherapy. We added a logo to the image, and scheduled to post it the next day. We had a process in place for occasions like this. We did so because we had a strategy in place, and know that this type of interaction would help to grow our clients’ social media community.
About 17 million people saw the image of that triumphant little girl in their Facebook newsfeed. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society does great things, and this was one of the results of that great work.
Many brands pay us to help them to be more human. I know that sounds odd. In social media, brands are competing for attention alongside baby pictures and wedding announcements. We help them through this process. We train them, and guide them. Full disclosure—the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is no longer a client of ours. So I’m not pumping them up to get a raise. They do great things. It is a source of great pride for us that 17 million people are now aware of the good work of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I’ll put that in the win column for Silverback Social.
J.P.: So I know you’re a survivor of the mean streets, I know your family. But what’s your life path? Like, how did you end up doing this for a career? What were the potholes? The victories? How did this occur?
C.D.: In hindsight I can see that I defined my career path by one simple decision—to study abroad. That decision set everything into motion. I was a psychology major, and when I came home from a year studying in Belgium I wanted to study business. It’s because while in Belgium, I start taking these industrial and organizational psychology classes. So instead of talking about Freud, we’re discussing why casinos don’t have windows. Which was appealing, but there’s a defining twist.
We’re in these classes and the kids are from all over—Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil. Which was not unusual. The unusual thing was that the University of Chicago had a program there, too, but for their MBA students. So these students in my class are getting MBA credit for the same course that I’m getting undergrad psych credit! And I was doing great. Getting A’s. I was leading groups, and enjoying it. And it dawns on me that I’m pretty damn good at this business thing, and marketing is fascinating as hell. Business courses back home intimidated me. In Belgium I loved them. I got a nice shot of confidence that I did not have back home.
So I come home from Belgium, and of course the first thing I want to do is change my major to business. Mom and Dad don’t have enough money for me to stick around at Loyola for another year. So Dad tells me to finish my degree in psych, see how I like it, and we’ll take it from there. I got a job at a psych rehab center. I hated it, and I was desperate for direction. I told Dad I gave psychology a shot, and that I’m not happy, and psychology just isn’t for me. He sits me in the living room for a few hours. Grills me.
“Chris, what did you like about Belgium?”
“What did you hate about the psych courses?”
He’s taking notes and flipping through pages and he’s having a blast doing this, and I’m getting excited, too. I’m realizing that for the first time in my life I’m getting my arms around finding something that I’m into and I’m good at. So I mention to my dad that I’m into this Internet thing. It was fascinating to me. Remember, this is 1997 so the Internet is still an infant. Dad was a marketing executive at Avon. He was pioneering the first Avon e-commerce site. Later he would win all sorts of awards for the work he was doing. The guy was just ahead of his time. Doing all sorts of cool e-commerce stuff. So here is this guy who loves me, wants me to be happy and I just told him I want to do what he does. I want to be just like him. He lights up. Just on fire with passion. And the thing is, so was I! We’re both giddy. So we start to put our heads together. How are we going to do this? Dad mentions that he knows a friend who sits on an advisory board at New York University, and they’re launching a new program. It was for a master’s degree in direct marketing. Dad asks if I’m interested, and recommends I do it.
He says, “Christopher, the Internet is direct marketing on steroids.” I’m excited, but a little nervous. NYU is no joke. I’m concerned about the academic workload—can I handle it? Will I embarrass my father?
I still needed the business training, and he thinks it will help me mature a bit. Dad pulls some strings, and he gets me into the program. I studied like a madman. I knew Dad had put his name on the line for me. I did well at NYU. The content was fascinating. Marketing riveted me. I’d found my niche. I graduated in May of 1999 with a masters degree in direct marketing. Proud moment.
On Feb. 14, 2000 I started my career in digital media at a company called Mediaplex. Those early days of the Internet were insane. My first week at Mediaplex was a blur, but it went something like this:
• Monday: I come into the office and they tell us we’re all going on a business trip this week. There were about 15 of us in the New York office.
• Tuesday: We work in New York.
• Wednesday: The whole office flies to San Francisco.
• Thursday: We meet the San Francisco team and hold training for one day, and then the IPO party is that night at the San Francisco MoMA. The party was insane. I took a vodka shot out of an ice sculpture shaped like the Mediaplex logo. I watched Cirque du Soleil performers navigate around our founders in the MOMA. These guys were billionaires (on paper). That sticks with you when you’re 24, just out of graduate school and ready to make your mark on the world.
• Friday and Saturday: We rent trucks and drive to Tahoe to spend the weekend skiing at the “Mediaplex” house. I get altitude sickness and puke all day. Super.
• Sunday: Fly home.
That week made an impression on me. I went from an office in New York to sipping champagne while standing next to Janis Joplin’s Porsche in the MoMa. But, well, there were also potholes …
• Pothole No. 1: Mediaplex stock was trading at 88 on the day I started. And then it all imploded. One year later they terminated half the New York office, and the stock was trading for less than a dollar. So that was it. First job out of grad school, and one year later I experience getting let go for the first time.
It’s now 2001 and I get a job as a sales person at an ad agency. But then the tragedy of Sept. 11 takes place. Days later, I find out that the captain of my rugby team, Sean Lugano, was in one of the towers and died. That experience shifted me, just as it shifted many people. But I believe, on a primitive level it changed the way I view the world. I was sort of cruising through at that point in my life/career. I needed to leave New York. So I volunteered to work at the agency’s London office. While in London, I sold a ton, and traveled a bit more. But I wanted to get back into digital. So I return to New York, leave the agency and dive back into digital. Between 2004 and 2007 is where I find my stride, and start making some money. Learning how digital marketing works. Getting to conferences, networking and enjoying it. I was director of sales at an ad network, but I wanted to be a vice president. I started to put my resume out there. I meet with headhunters and they’re sending me on interviews to be a director of sales—just at different companies. This pisses me off. I’m like, “No, you don’t get it. I want to be a vice president of sales.” I figured that the only people who knew how good I was were my clients and my boss. They weren’t going to help me get a vice president gig. So I had to somehow get the word out that I was good. I had the skill set to be a vice president. And then it dawns on me—I need to start a blog.
The early days of my blog were rudimentary, but effective. I would take trade articles, copy and paste parts of them in my blog and then write my opinion about the story. This is when something significant happened. When I would enter a room for an interview the interviewee wouldn’t ask me about my resume. He/she started to ask me about my last blog post. Defining moment.
The leverage the blog gave me helped me to negotiate a vice presidency gig at a German-based company called Zanox. They liked that I had spent time abroad, and they were thinking about buying up U.S.-based companies because they want to expand. They have a huge budget to staff up. I was flying high. Top of the world, nice salary, nice signing bonus—I took my signing bonus and bought a house in Chappaqua, New York. And then the economy imploded.
• Potholes No. 2 and No. 3: They came fast and furious. Here comes the whiplash part of my career.
The economy is bad, and Zanox is slowing down U.S. operations. I get laid off, but remember I have been through this before. I know that I have to stay calm. I think—no big deal, I’ll pick up another gig. Just two weeks later, I get offered another job at a company called Miva. I’m thrilled. A pay cut, but that’s OK. I have severance money and a new income. Put that in the win column. Five months later Miva gets acquired. I get laid off … again. At this point, my head is spinning. I need to take stock. I have a wife, a mortgage, a new baby girl and some money in the bank. This is the “pure hustle” part of my career …
I had seen Gary Vaynerchuk speak at the Web 2.0 conference in 2008 in New York while I was a Zanox. He got me excited about social media. Gary impressed me with his passion. At the time I couldn’t make the leap into social. Now I’m thinking that things are different. I’m unemployed and hungry. This excites me. I feel that fire in my belly I had in the living room in Mahopac with my dad back when I first got into business.
I sit my wife down and tell her that this is it. Social media is the next thing, and I need to be a part of it. I use my own cash to head out to San Francisco for the West Coast Web 2.0 conference. I reach out to trade publications and offer to write pieces while I’m out there for free, just to get my name out as a social media pundit. It works. I get published in Adotas. I start to Tweet to the people who were doing exciting things. I notice this young woman who is getting some attention for launching Twittershouldhireme.com. So I buy Facebookshouldhireme.com (while I’m still in San Fran at this conference). Fortune Magazine featured the site in an article covering creative ways of gaining employment.
I get back to New York, and all I want is to work for this one company called Buddy Media. I get the job, and I loved it there. I sold social media software to some big companies—NHL, Saks Fifth Avenue, Michael Kors. The first week I’m there I introduce Michael Lazerow (CEO of Buddy Media) to Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary incubated Vayner Media in the Buddy Media offices. I was in heaven. Gary is my social media hero, and he’s in the Buddy Media offices. I get to learn from this guy every day now! At this point in my career, I’m bouncing around like a 20-year old. I’m so in love with social media, the company I work for and the people, too.
• Pothole No. 4: Then something happened. They hire a GM from Google, and things get odd. We don’t click, and a few weeks later they fire me. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. I still have nightmares about it. The next day I promised myself that I’d never work for anyone ever again. Ever. Two years later Salesforce bought Buddy Media for close to $1 billion. I made money on the deal (nowhere near what I would have made if I hadn’t gotten fired), but I guess no harm, no foul.
1. Launching Silverback
2. Creating the Westchester Digital Summit (Last week Forbes named the summit one of the “Conferences That Will Keep You Ahead Of Marketing Trends This Year.” It’s only the third year of the event.)
4. Getting paid to speak about what I’m passionate about.
5. Appearing on national television.
When I stopped relying on other people for my happiness and success, things started to click. I guess that’s the biggest lesson here. No more speechless moments for this guy.
Chris, wife Laura and the girls.
J.P.:What’s the most-common social media fuckup committed by companies? By individuals?
C.D.: It’s the same f-up that people and companies do in person. Not being respectful to people. Insulting people’s intelligence. Not thinking before you speak (Tweet, post etc). Not speaking in their native tongues—i.e., posting PR announcements on Facebook and thinking you’re “doing social.”
J.P.:One thing that irks me about the modern state of us is the nonstop ode to self. I’m being serious: Selfies, Tweets, Instagram shots. It seems like social media has made us infinitely more self-indulgent and, as a byproduct, annoying. Agree? Disagree? And what to do?
C.D.: I see how the trend can irk you. I can. But that’s just because it’s a new cultural phenomenon of human expression. At first it feels egregious and narcissistic, but I choose to see the positive. It’s about self-expression, and creativity. I know it can be off-putting to some, and I agree that some of it is vomit inducing. But when my daughters create beautiful photos and cool video vignettes with APPS like Phhhoto or Instagram, I think it’s a good thing.
Also, try to remember what your parents were saying the first time they heard you blast the Beastie Boys. I’m sure they cringed when they saw Madonna slinking acrpss the stage to “Like a Virgin.” Now try to remember what your parents told you about their parents’ reactions to Elvis, or the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and it’s just the way it is. We should all try being less irked, and dive into the joy and creativity of it all.
J.P.:You and I have talked a bit about the Ice Bucket Challenge, which I had some trouble with. It just felt, oftentimes, like a trend for celebrities to take advantage of. But it also generated a ton of money. So, well, what’s your take?
C.D.: I think anything that raises money and awareness about this horrible disease is great. I can care less of someone who has never heard of ALS does it because their manager told them it would help their career. The ALS Association needs money, and support. This accomplished that—so I love it. Dad loved it too.
J.P.:What makes a crap website vs a good website vs a great website? And are websites as important now as they were 10 years ago?
C.D.: I was speaking at a luncheon in Greenwich when a woman in the audience asked a question. Well, it was less of a question and more like a statement. She said, “Why don’t people just call me?”
I gave a confused look, and she continued. “Someone just like you (meaning me) told me I need a website. But then people started to e-mail me, and I don’t like that. I want them to call me!” Now she was agitated. She continued, “So I made the font of the phone number larger, and asked people to call me.” She explained that potential customers still send her e-mails. She finally blurted out, “Why don’t they just call me!” The crowd was a little stunned. So I told her, “Who cares what you want?” You could hear a pin drop. The room was silent. I went on to explain that If she had potential clients who want to e-mail her, than she should e-mail with them and be thankful she has clients.
The point I was making is that we live in a decentralized customer-driven and customercontrolled environment. Those who lament and battle this fact will whither and die. Fact. If customers only want you to be on Facebook—then only be on Facebook. If they need you to communicate to them via Snapchat, then figure it out. This isn’t 1987, and it will never be 1987 again. People have choices, and voices. They will go elsewhere to conduct their business. Here’s the kicker—when they leave, they will do it quietly. They don’t care. They’ll just find someone else who will respond to their e-mail. And that woman will still worry that her phone isn’t ringing.
Websites are still a piece of the puzzle, and an important piece, for sure. But brands need to have a social media ecosystem supporting their site. Listening, learning and helping the brand stay relevant. Real time communication is just the reality of our world. You can’t survive with just a website anymore. You can’t.
As for a crap website? Hard to navigate and last updated 10 years ago. A good website? Easy to navigate, clear call to action, ever evolving and help the user share the great information you provide on said site. Mobile ready, too. By 2016 45 percent of the world’s population will have a smartphone.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRIS DESSI:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Archie Manning, Jon Bon Jovi, Brewster, Snickers, Dave Righetti, Amy Poehler, basketball shorts, Ice Cube, Freight House Café, Frank Miele, octopuses, James Bond movies: Jon Bon Jovi—obviously; Dave Righetti—My brother and I made a sign for him during a Yankee game in the 80s that read, “We like Spaghetti, but we love Righetti”; Amy Poehler—huge talent. HUGE. Powerful, intelligent, AND funny. I’m a fan; Ice Cube—anyone who can transition from gangster rapper to mainstream movie star is aces in my book; Archie Manning—great football player, better father; Brewster—my wife has taught there for years. Great place, great people. Plus they have the Red Rooster (mini-golf + soft ice cream = heaven); Freight House Café—It’s in Mahopac, and I know the owner, Donna. Great place, great person. I’m in; Snickers—favorite candy bar of all time; Frank Miele—He terrified me when he was my baseball coach. His heart was always in the right place. He dedicated his life to us kids. Good guy; Basketball shorts—Like the short 1980′s shorts, right? I hit puberty early and hated wearing them because my legs where hairy in 5th grade; James Bond movies—never did it for me. I always thought Vito Corleone looked cooler in a Tux; Octopuses—unless they’re on my plate, I’m not a fan;
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to pay you $100 million for 2015 to enhance her digital image. However, you have to spend the entire year living in Las Vegas, you have to clean her feet three times per day and you can only utter three words the entire year: Horse, astronaut and latke. You in?: Chris Dessi rule to live by: Never stay in Vegas longer than three days. Sorry Celine. Your heart will go one without me.
• In exactly 27 words, tell me the story of a Bar Mitzvah you’ve attended: I thought the cocktail hour was the party. I said, “Wow, this is really nice.” Then they opened the partition to the main ballroom and dance floor.
• I’m working on a book that I’ve been told won’t sell. Do you think, through the power of social media alone, that forecast can change?: To hell with the pundits. If you think it’s good than self publish, sell it for $2 a copy (ebook only), and watch it explode. Take that proof of concept to the publisher to get a book deal. And get the damn thing published. Social media is the great equalizer
• Three things you can tell us about the day you guys met Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium? And what did he smell like?: 1. Reggie Jackson took a knee next to my Dad and was chatting with him when Derek came over. Reggie moved out of the way for Derek; 2. While we were on the field, I asked one of the Yankee employees if the magic of being on the field was ever lost on her. She explained that it wasn’t. That it’s hallowed ground. I found out later she was George Steinbrenner’s granddaughter; 3. When Jeter shook Dad’s hand he addressed him as “Sir” and said it was an honor to meet him. From his wheelchair my father poked Jeter in the side. He told him how he had been at Fenway Park to witness Carl Yastrzemski’s 3,000th career hit in 1979. He said to him, “If you hit your 3,000th today that would make you the second big leaguer I’ve seen hitting their 3,000th in person.” There was an awkward pause. And my brother blurts out, ‘No pressure,’ and we all laughed.
What did he smell like? Success.
• Four companies you would never work with, money be damned: 1. Any tobacco company; 2. The Boston Red Sox organization; 3. GoDaddy. They’re the devil; 4. Vapor Cigarette companies. I just feel like it can’t be safe.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I was heading back to London while I was living there. Returning after attending my Brother’s wedding and serving as his best man. I was homesick and not happy to be heading back to London alone. I was feeling restless, but I had just gotten myself to sleep by lying down three across in an empty plane. The plane dropped out of the sky and woke me. I sit up and think we’re just plummeting out of the sky. There’s nobody around me. I’m looking around, getting no answers, until they finally make an announcement. Someone had a heart attack on board, and we had an emergency landing in Newfoundland. Not a good feeling, but I have always felt like I’m OK with dying. I’m not one to leave things unsaid. Those, whom I love, know it.
• I have a pretty exciting plan for the future: We bottle farts, mix with water and sell them as energy drinks. I need a promoter. You in?: I’m not a promoter. Call Don King.
• How did this woman end up working for you?: She was doing us a favor. Can’t answer this one. You were great, but I don’t want to mock.
• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: I love Mahopac, but I’m not sure if it’s a vacation destination anymore. We ended up in Mahopac because my Dad and his family would come up during the summer from Brooklyn. I can close my eyes, and recall these vivid, perfect, wonderful, warm memories of Mahopac. Riding bikes with my friends, playing baseball on the fields at Lakeview Elementary School. Spending summers at Camp Sycamore. I don’t have one bad memory from that town. I find myself driving through Mahopac to center myself. I’ll drive past the home I grew up in on Kia Ora Blvd.
I’m still close with the friends I made there. I have a core group of guys that I met in elementary school, and now our children are friends. I left Mahopac when I was 18, but I’ll always have Mahopac in my heart. There is something about the community, the people that I feel creates some of the worlds greatest people. People who honor the things that make this country great, you know? There are lots of hard workers who value family and community. When Dad passed his wake was at Joseph Smith’s Funeral Home in Mahopac. It was standing room only. People we hadn’t seen in 25 years where there. These are good people. The best.
Oh yeah, you said five reasons. Sorry, sorry. I love that town and can talk about it forever.
1. The people are the best; 2. The lake is gorgeous; 3. The food is great. Get the chicken parm at Gino’s or a sub at Bucci’s; 4. Lots of pretty Italian girls (I married one); 5. Friday night football games under the lights. Magic.
Back before Sports Illustrated and John Rocker and Walter Payton and Showtime, I was a kid at a student newspaper.
A giddy one.
The year was 1992, and as an assistant sports editor at The Review (the University of Delaware’s student newspaper), one of my tasks was to cover the men’s basketball team. It was an absolutely dazzling experience. The Blue Hens were in the midst of the best season in school history—a 27-4 record, a future NBA Draft pick (center Spencer Dunkley), the best dunker in the nation (forward Alexander Coles), a freshman point guard with uncommon on-court charisma (Brian Pearl), two dead-eye three-point gunners (Kevin Blackhurst and Ricky Deadwyler) and … and … and …
Stein was the Blue Hens’ coach, and well, I didn’t much care for him. He was aloof and, at times, sorta snide. I once arrived five minutes late for his weekly press conference and—in front of the entire room—he bellowed, “We’re graced by the presence of the famous Jeff Pearlman!” It was mortifying.
That said, Stein could coach. Like, really coach. He turned an awful program into a marvelous one; recruited a caliber of athlete the Hens never before touched. When he arrived, the team played in a dark and dank field house. When he left in 1995, they resided in a state-of-the-art facility.
Was he difficult? At times, yes. But he was also the man who brought Delaware into March Madness. And he’s mellowed a whole lot.
Today, Steve Steinwedel lives in Delaware. He’s a father, a grandfather, a retired basketball coach, a former counselor at Delaware Technical College … and the 198th Quaz Q&A.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Steve, I’m gonna take you back. It’s March 1992, and you’ve led Delaware to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. You’re playing Cincinnati in the state of Ohio, and Cincy is loaded. Van Exel. Corey Blount. Herb Jones. I mean, really explosive, really good. I was 19, thinking, “The Hens can do this! They really can!” But, I wonder, did you think you’d win? Or was it more, “If everything goes absolutely right, we might win?” Is there a realism a coach has that a fan lacks? And what do you recall from that game (which the Hens lost, 85-47)?
STEVE STEINWEDEL: Playing Cincinnati in Dayton. Well, that was big in so many ways. As the pairings were being announced on TV and we were all waiting excitedly in the Scrounge I had this moment, just before, that it was going to be Cincinnati and it was going to be in Ohio. I’d played high school basketball in Cincinnati, I spent seven years there and I started my coaching career at West Virginia with Bob Huggins—Cincinnati’s coach—as our graduate assistant. Over that year we became very close and certainly shared a lot of the same philosophy around how the game was to be approached, played and coached. So it was quite synchronistic in a Jungian sort of way.
I thought we could play with them but that we’d have to get some breaks and have to play very well. I thought they were the most underrated team in the tournament and they proved that by their play throughout. We had some opportunities and didn’t convert early and that hurt and if we could have played again well … just us and them in some remote gym, I honestly believe we would have kicked their asses. It was all so much to handle. I know it was for me. I mean, I didn’t sleep for nights before the game. So I can only imagine how it was for the players. We were almost too ready and it showed. Plus, Cincinnati was really good.
J.P.:You seem like a truly warm, engaging guy, and I’ve loved seeing that because—just being honest—when you were coaching Delaware and I was covering the team, I found you intimidating, a bit arrogant, sorta smug. And maybe it was just the perception of a college kid. But you didn’t seem particularly happy or jovial. Am I off on this? Or, looking back, you were, well, sorta jerky? (No offense).
S.S.: This is not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts about myself—surprise, surprise! I was very intense and determined, I cared a lot about what I was doing and it showed. Was I a jerk? Well, yes. I’m sure that I was, but like all of us I’m much more than that and I’m not sure many experienced the other (many other) Steves. I certainly didn’t help that and I was very young (how does it go? Young and dumb?) and I thought I had all the answers (or at least most of them), when in fact I didn’t even have most of the questions. One of my former players said it best: “I hated him for four years and loved him the fifth.” He was our graduate assistant coach for a year after he played and he got to see a whole different side. His perspective shifted considerably, not only of me but of how things are from the coaching side of things. It’s unfortunate that not to many of us get to see and feel, touch and taste that perspective. Because it’s eye-opening. Now, all that being said, could I have handled myself differently? Of course. But then again, who knows?
Oh, and no offense taken.
J.P.:Despite the previous question, I’ve long felt you didn’t receive the credit you deserved. Mike Brey is a great guy, and he did fantastic stuff at Delaware. But when people spoke of his “turnaround job” at UD, I’d always say/think, “No, the guy was Steinwedel.” Have you, through the years, felt at all slighted? Do you not get the credit you deserved?
S.S.: Well, you know, now that you mention it … yes, it does hurt some. To be honest. Not to take away from Mike at all. He did some really good stuff.
Of course, the place was a lot different when he came on the scene 10 years later. First, he was left with some talented players, not to mention facilities and a different realization from within the whole athletic department about what it would take to build a successful program, I’m still amazed at how many people think that Mike helped build the BOB (Delaware’s state-of-the-art arena, which broke ground during the Steinwedel era). And I’m quite sure he would say that he had a much better situation than the one I took over. But that’s the nature of the beast. Mine was better than Ron Rainey‘s, etc … etc.
J.P.:Coaches are hired all the time to revive programs or establish programs—and you actually did it. What did you find when you arrived at Delaware? And what were the steps you took to turn the program around? What are the keys to making something out of nothing?
S.S.: Well, as you know unfortunately it’s recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. And eventually we were able to put some very talented players together in a way that when it happens is kind of magical. As I mentioned above, it is an education project, too. You have to change the mindsets of the key people and get lucky, which in a way we did. I had a great staff, too. They have gone on to great careers in the business so that confirms it and they worked very hard and we got lucky. I can remember when I first started talking about a facility like the BOB. People and administrators looked at me like I had lost it and said things like, “Not in our lifetimes.” Well, things change. I grew up in Seymour, Indiana—pop. 12,000 with a high school gym that held 8,000 seats. So this was a very real possibility from my perspective and it happened eventually.
J.P.:Before coming to Delaware you spent two years as an assistant at Duke, then five years at South Carolina—all under Bill Foster. I’ve often felt Foster didn’t get the credit he deserves as a coach. So … what was he like to work for? Why was he so impactful? What did you learn from him?
S.S.: Bill is a great guy and the reason I got a shot at the Delaware thing at all. He was very smart and very intense, but in a different way that I was. He was inwardly intense and not something you felt in his manner. That was much different than myself—you could feel mine. He had a heart attack while we were playing Purdue, and that allowed me an opportunity to take over for the rest of the year and helped my career a lot. What he did at Duke with “Forever’s Team” (John Feinstein’s first book) was amazing. By the way he (Feinstein) served in the same capacity as you did when he was an undergrad at Duke. He was in our offices all the time. But Foster was much more approachable than I was. Ha. Coach was very innovative and creative in his approach to the game and I learned a lot about building a program. He moved around a lot and one of his favorite quotes—regarding the coaching profession—was, “Your friends come and go, your enemies accumulate.”
J.P.:Delaware let you go after the 1995 season, and I was convinced you’d turn up somewhere. Maybe not immediately at Duke or UNC, but certainly a Jacksonville, a Bucknell, a James Madison. Instead, you vanished—and never coached again. Why? What happened? And did you/do you ever miss it?
S.S.: Well, I guess in many ways I was ready for something different and on a deep level I was definitely moving in a new way. At the time I would have told you I wanted another shot, but after about six months I realized I wasn’t working very hard at finding that next basketball thing and nobody was knocking my door down. I had lost that fire, I guess you could say, and I didn’t really enjoy all the travel and the recruiting thing. My daughter was still very young and I didn’t want to leave her, so there were several factors but the biggest was my heart was not in it and I was being pushed in a new direction.
J.P.:Leading up to Delaware’s second NCAA tournament appearance, against Louisville in 1993, Spencer Dunkley, your center, guaranteed a win—and said he’d walk home if it didn’t come true. I wonder, as a coach, whether you were pissed about this. I mean, Louisville had more talent, was playing closer to home … they probably didn’t need more incentive …
S.S.: Yes, I was pissed and no, they certainly didn’t need anything else. But in an odd way it helped some of our other players change their attitudes about the game and open their minds to the possibility they might be able to beat Louisville. So, much to my chagrin, it may have helped some. Who knows?
J.P.:When I hear about pro coaches considering a return to college (Jim Harbaugh, for example), I think, “Who the hell would want to recruit?” It just strikes me as the worst imaginable task—you’re in your 40s, 50s, begging a 17-year-old kid to attend your college. So … what was recruiting like for you? Great? Awful? And what was your highest moment recruiting a player?
S.S.: You’re right. My most memorable recruiting moments were after the fact because I was always surprised at how my least-recruited players ended up being my best and the ones I was initially so hopeful about never really panned out. Brian Pearl, a point guard out of York, Pennsylvania was the one exception. We knew when we recruited him he would would have a great impact right away and he did.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a weird one at you, and it’ll illustrate how naïve I was, too: Back when Dunkley was a senior, I found myself sitting courtside next to a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. He was asking me about Spencer, and I starting saying the team also has this great guard, a kid named Brian Pearl, who could possibly … blah, blah, blah. The guy rightly looked at me like I had an IQ of 6. Steve, what’s the difference between an excellent college player and a pro prospect? There’s a line, clearly, but I wouldn’t recognize it. How do you explain it?
S.S.: Great question! The line is very fine indeed. I tell people it’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent who make it. Every college player was one the best in his region; the top 1 percent of the high school players. So those who are good enough and lucky enough to extend that career to the pros … well, it is the same percentage of all the college players who make it. You are in rarified air indeed when you get all the way to the best of the best.
J.P.:What’s the difference between a crap college coach, a good one and a great one?
I know … I know—it’s a flick that’s only grossed $29 million. It’s a flick produced by Disney. It’s a flick that will never generate any real Oscar buzz, and has been sort of lumped in with all of the other feel-good sports flicks of recent times.
Well, I don’t care.
McFarland USA is the true story of a California-based high school cross country team that, somehow, rises from nothingness to one state title after another. It stars Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in decades, and was directed by the excellent Niki Caro. For me, though, the performance that jumped off the screen belonged to Natalia Cordova, a 32-year-old Mexican actress who played the role of “Señora Valles”—poor abused wife and mother. There’s something about Cordova that leaps from the screen; an ability to emote sans words and express emotions without having to slam the audience over the head. Just like the movie, she was terrific.
Cordova also happens to be the 197th Quaz—which is terrific, because along with being an on-the-rise American film presence, she can shed light on Derek Jeter’s retirement and rank Gary Coleman ahead of Willis Reed. One can visit Natalia’s website here, and follow her on Twitter here.
Natalia Cordova, congratulations. You’ve joined the Quaz cast …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Natalia, this past weekend I took the family to see McFarland USA—and we truly loved it. I’d like to hear, soup to nuts, how you landed the part. When did you first find out about it? When did you audition? What did it feel like when you were officially hired?
NATALIA CORDOVA.: Jeff, I am so happy to hear that you connected with the film. Thank you for supporting it! I had been auditioning for a couple of months in Los Angeles when my representation heard about the project and submitted me and I got the audition. I did some research on the background of the story and fell in love with it. I received a call back with the director, Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) and we seemed to have a connection in the room. Three weeks later, I heard I got the part. It was an incredibly exciting moment for me as an actress, since it was the first feature film I had booked in the United States.
J.P.:How can an actor tell if the film she’s in is actually, well, good? I mean, scenes are usually shot out of sequence, there’ll be 1,001 things cut, inserted, moved around, etc. So how do you know? Or do you? And can you tell if a film is crap?
N.C.: From my perspective, I try to not judge a film as bad or good, per se. The first and most important factor is the script and whether it moves me or not. Certainly, in the case of McFarland, it did. The true story was inspirational, heartwarming and something I wanted to be a part of. It’s completely out of my control what the finished product will be. All that I can do is be at my best and give to that project what it needs from me. Nothing more and nothing else.
J.P.:Your film-and-TV resume is filled with Spanish titles … until Flight and McFarland. Which makes me wonder whether it’s hard to break out of what people expect? For example, I’m known as a sports writer. I’ve only written sports books. If I wanna do, say, an FDR bio, it might be rough. Is it the same for you? Is it hard to get attention in English-language films, even though you’ve spent much/most of your life in the U.S.?
N.C.: I think it absolutely is a difficult transition, however, I do believe wholeheartedly that an actor should be able to play at any level, work with any medium. That being said I don’t think everyone sees it that way. And there is a lot of boxing people into stereotypes being done in this industry. It’s not that it’s hard to get attention from English-speaking films as much as it’s hard making others believe you can play anything and ultimately that’s the job of an actor. To transform. To be a chameleon of some sort.
I’ve always enjoyed a hard challenge, and what attracted me most to making the jump to English-language films was two fold: the fact that it would be such an amazing challenge and also that, right now, America is creating such exciting work—both television and film. Work that is daring and obstacle-laden. To be frank, that is what I am after as an artist. To attack projects that will allow me to explore stories that I would never normally be allowed to journey through. Also, it was very interesting to attempt to root emotion into a second language, which proves to be quite scary at first when that particular tongue is not grounded in you. For me to work on my accent and be able to manipulate it so I could play a wider variety of characters was of utmost importance. People can expect one thing from you or put you in a limited box but it’s up to you to open their minds. And that is my job for now.
J.P.:So I know you were born in Mexico City, know you attended high school in North Carolina, know young grandfather is the actor Francisco Cordova. But how did this happen? Like, when did you know you wanted to act? When did you realize you were good at it?
N.C.: I started dancing when I was 4-years old. I took it very seriously until I was 16. It was dance that led me to acting. I would constantly hear from ballet directors that I was over expressing the part I was dancing. Because classical ballet can be so strict and straight I started to feel restricted in my expression. An acting teacher saw me dance once and came up to me and suggested I take acting classes and so I did. I fell in love with it immediately.
My grandfather was an incredible actor and artist. His story is truly beautiful. He studied to be a chemist and it wasn’t until he was around his mid-30s that he started acting. He achieved great success (artistically) through an enormous amount of passion and hard work. I didn’t get to know him well because he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by the time I was very young. I got to know him through his work. I know he is a big reason why I am who I am. I can constantly feel him vibrating inside me. Every single moment I get to perform or create is dedicated to him. When I was a dancer I would kneel down before entering the stage and say “Abuelo, voy contigo”, which means “Grandpa, I’m on my way to you.” It’s a line from a movie called El niño y la estrella (The boy and the star) in which he plays a loving grandfather. This is the way I chose to built my own relationship with my grandfather.
J.P.:Weird question, but why do you think we’re so enamored by actors and actresses? I mean, a firefighter walks by, or a pilot, and we barely notice. Yet someone whose job is to pretend is often mobbed by autograph hounds and fans. Why do you think that is?
N.C.: Not a weird question at all. The first reason I think would be because actors and actresses work with their faces; we constantly see those faces and get to know them so well that we can recognize anywhere. So I would assume that is largely responsible for why they are so enamored by the public. Secondly, I believe that when people watch films or TV, there is the possibility that they will immediately gain a personal relationship with an individual storyline that perhaps can be a missing puzzle piece for whatever might be going on in their lives at that moment. They empathize with the characters they watch and thereby connect with the performer. When those performers are seen in public, people tend to want to describe and be grateful for being given that gift of emotionality and association. I myself could say the same for many artists. Were I to meet them, my first instinct would be to gush about how their artistry has moved or changed me. I think it’s got to do with connection, which ultimately is, I believe, our most primal and deepest desire in life as emotional beings. To connect with each other on a deeper spiritual level, and that can only be achieved through how we make each other feel. All that said, firefighters, doctors and teachers are terrifically underpaid and should be as admired as artists who have the world’s eye. If we could ever compensate them for what they are truly worth, I would hope, that depending on the quality we give others, we would find ourselves equal on financial scale.
J.P.:In McFarland USA you play the mom of one of the runners. Your husband is abusive, and you’re the woman who sort of has to take it. How do you prepare for such a role? Is there research? Studying? And, when you’re acting, what do you think of? Are you aware you’re acting, or do you throw yourself completely into the moment?
N.C.: Research and studying is something I absolutely treasure as an essential part of being an actor. I’ve always loved learning and investigating. As a child I was incredibly curious. My all-time favorite word was (and in some ways still is) “Why.” I can confidently say I’ve annoyed the living hell out of people with my enormous desire to know every why. I’ve just always loved finding out the reasons behind anything and everything.
So to answer your questions, Yes! No matter how big or small the role, preparing, studying and researching is not only crucial to the creation of the character but something I crave like I crave few things.
As for Señora Valles of McFarland, USA. I read up on the real story as much a possible. I was not able to meet the real Señora Valles, but I felt like I knew her. I personally know women who have crossed over to the U.S. with nothing but their name. Women who have put everything they are and have in danger to find a better life, not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. I also know the strain that that constant uphill puts on a marriage and family. The poverty. The hardships. The loneliness. I have dear friends who have personally fought this fight and I could not admire and respect them more than I do. Being close to these people and hearing their stories definitely helped me not only have a deeper sense of the character but also fuel my desire to tell this story.
I don’t know how to act any other way than to throw myself completely into the moment. After all the research, and the emotional and physical studying is done (if it can ever be done), I try to not think much more and just allow this new being to drive the vehicle. I don’t like to look at takes, or judge how I look or if I did well or not. I prefer to leave that in the hands of the director. I choose not to be aware of the actor behind the character. I love to leave Natalia behind. And that I think is a big reason why I am in love with my craft. It’s a privilege to me, to be able to escape this reality and go live another. It’s an incredibly freeing sensation.
J.P.:In 2013 you played a ballerina in Flight. You list yourself as a dancer, but what goes into actually playing a ballerina?
N.C.: You ask, what goes into playing a ballerina? Well, what goes is the same amount of hard work as it takes to play anything else. I played a modern dancer in my first lead in a feature film Ventanas al mar. It was and indie film so I had to prepare on my own. I lost weight. I went back to dance class for two months. I took long walks and tried to do physical activities as the character. I went every week to a dance company and watched dancers just be. I did everything I could to immerse myself into that world and create something from it.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
N.C.: I don’t have just one. I value immensely every time I get to do what I love to do most. Those are the highs. The moments I get to work on what gives me flight next to people that are as passionate as I am about this endeavor. The lows are the opposite of that. The low moments are when I have to do all that that is required of an actor and has nothing to do with creating or acting. But I am aware that that’s the price we pay for flying.
J.P.:What’s the difference between great acting and so-so acting? Like, what makes someone like Meryl Streep different than 99 percent of folks out there? And do you have that? Do you aspire to have that? Is it attainable?
N.C.: I think the difference between anything being great or not has a lot to do with the eye of the beholder. We all have different tastes. But I do believe very strongly in quality. I think we can sense quality when it’s in front of us. And the majority of the time its because of the way we feel in its presence. I can also tell you that hard work has a lot to do with something achieving its best.
Speaking about Meryl Streep, I remember hearing a story Julia Roberts told in an interview about working with Meryl Streep. She said it was a privilege to watch Meryl work so hard to be great and that that was of great comfort. Look, I am not a believer that we are all created equal in abilities and talents. But I do believe in hard work and the payoff of it. Do I aspire to be Meryl or anyone else for that matter? No. They are unique beings never to be repeated again. Do I aspire to work as hard as her? Yes. And with that hard work accomplish as much as her? I certainly hope so.
I also believe we have to stop defining success in a general manner and start defining our own success on an individual level. What is the definition of your own success? And when you find that answer, make certain to work very hard to accomplish that individual definition of success.
Under the watchful eye (and camera) of cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia during the filming of Ventanas al Mar.
J.P.:What’s the worst auditioning story of your career?
N.C.: Auditioning is an art on its own. Embarrassment is definitely a given when it comes to auditions. I’ve been embarrassed plenty of times. But I have to say that it’s not embarrassment or making a fool of yourself that’s the most painful. That’s just part of playing the game. The worst for me is when I find the other side of the room trying to fit me into a box or stereotype. When I witness a lack of imagination and an abundance of close mindedness or fear of risk.
• You played Olga in the TV series Bienes raices. Three memories from the experience?: 1. Working with director Javier Solar for the second time. I’ve worked with him three times. He gave me my first job (Simuladores) upon arriving in Mexico City after CAL-ARTS; 2. The story between my character and her mother. Personally it was very moving to me; 3. Waiting for hours in a motor home listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Both sides, now”.
• Five greatest actresses of your lifetime?: “Greatest” is a big word. There are soooooo many. I’ll name the first five bad-ass women actors who come to my head: 1. Emma Thompson; 2. Cate Blanchett; 3. Frances McDormand; 4. Naomi Watts; 5. Viola Davis.
• You’re married to Brian Buckley, the musician. How did he propose?: He proposed in the most personal, intimate and magical way a man could ever propose to me. That’s when I knew I was with the man who best knew me.
• What does it feel like to see yourself in a movie for the first time?: It’s a thousand emotions all coming at you at once. It’s a feeling that is nerve-racking, surreal, incredibly weird, lovely, passionate, prideful and above all a feeling of gratitude for being able to do what you feel you are meant to do.
• Why do so many people seem to dislike beets?: Because they taste like dirt or soil and we have grown accustomed to preferring the taste of plastic or cans than that of our earth? I really don’t know. I love beets.
• The world needs to know—what does Kevin Costner smell like?: Didn’t get close enough to really get a good whiff, but if he smells as he looks I am guessing it’s pretty good.
• Do you think Derek Jeter will reconsider his retirement?: I have absolutely no idea. I know nothing about baseball. But I grew up with the biggest NFL fan (my older brother). So next time ask me about football.
• The Cable Guy is my all-time favorite movie. Thoughts?: Too weird for a lot of people. Perfectly fun and odd and delicious for me. Love that film.
• What’s the nicest thing someone has ever said to you?: “I see you!”
It’s true, and no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there’s no denying our inevitable collective fate. Plastic surgery and Botox won’t save you. Two hours a day at Gold’s Gym won’t, either. You can eat 100 carrots, jog 20 miles, try the lifetime juice diet. Whatever. Come day’s end, we all cease to exist.
The question is: How to use the time we’re given?
Kate Granger has asked herself this quite a bit since 2011, when she was first diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare-yet-terminal form of cancer. At the time, she was a 29-year-old elderly medicine registrar at St. James University Hospital in Leeds, and the news—naturally—hit her like a Mike Tyson hook to the ribs. As a doctor, she had certainly been around death. But …. she was dying? How could this be? Why me? Why now?
Shortly after the diagnosis, Granger made the decision to live. She created an amazing bucket list—and is tackling the items one by one. She has written two books—The Other Side and The Bright Side, chronicling her journey (all proceeded benefit the Yorkshire Cancer Centre). She blogs regularly, and kicked off a social media movement (#HelloMyNameIs) to, in her words, “encourage and remind healthcare staff about the importance of introductions in the delivery of care.” She has thought long and hard about life, about death, about legacy, about love. You can follow Kate on Twitter here, learn more about #HelloMyNameIs here and visit her personal website/blog here.
It’s an honor to welcome our 196th Quaz, Kate Granger …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Kate, I’m gonna start this very bluntly. You are dying of cancer. What is it like to be dying of cancer?
KATE GRANGER: Well, I wouldn’t have chosen it if you’d asked me what my life ambitions were in my early 20s. However, in some ways it has allowed me to make sure my friends and family know I love them and to do some amazing activities over the past three years. I think of it as a kind of gremlin we now carry with us every single day, which sometimes sits quietly and allows me to live my life relatively normally, but sometimes chooses to prod me hard to make sure I know it’s still there. My cancer causes lots of pain, particularly at night so my sleep is disturbed and I’m reliant on strong painkillers to be able to function day to day. However to anyone glancing at me in the street they’d probably see a normal, healthy-looking girl. I struggle with that all-too-common comment, “You look really well!”—especially when I’m feeling rubbish. The invisible effects of dying mean that I carry a huge burden of fears, anxieties and uncertainty about my nonexistent future. I can’t plan anything more than a few months in advance and a common response to wedding invitations is, “I’d love to come, if I’m still alive.” The only way to cope with it, I’ve found, is to live by a one-day-at-a-time mantra, embracing humour as a coping mechanism and trying to enjoy every last little piece of life that I’m lucky enough to have.
J.P.:I have long suffered from a horrible, sometimes crippling fear of dying. It’s not the act itself (cancer, plane crash, drowning, etc). No, it’s being dead. Not existing. No consciousness, no awareness. Just being nothing. I tell this to others and they usually blow it off—with either God talk or the ol’ “You’re dead, so you don’t know you’re dead. What’s so awful?” Neither soothes me. As someone who has surely given her mortality quite a bit of thought, I’m fascinated by what you think …
K.G.: I’m scared of the non-existential aspect of dying, too. I’m scared of the process of actually dying more though—the chances are that my dying will involve bowel obstruction, bleeding and pain. And being unable to control those horrible symptoms is a hugely scary prospect. I’ve seen lots of patients die in similar circumstances throughout my career so my professional experience doesn’t really offer any comfort. I think the aspect that causes me most distress though is the pain I’ll cause my husband Chris and my family when I do die; that I won’t be there to comfort them; that I will be the source of their tears. I was brought up in the Christian faith and we were married in church, but illness seems to have pushed any faith I did have away. I can’t remember the last time I went to church and I’m not sure I even believe in God anymore.
Checked off the bucket list.
J.P.:Here’s what I know: You have a husband, Chris. You live and work in Yorkshire. You graduated from Edinburgh University in 2005 and passed your MRCP in 2008. But what’s your journey? Like, why did you become a doctor? When did you decide to become a doctor? What sort of medicine do you focus upon?
K.G.: When I was little my mum used to volunteer at a day centre for older people with mental health problems. She used to cook the lunch once a week and in the school holidays I used to go along and help. I loved sitting and chatting with the older people there, playing Bingo and doing crafts. I think that’s where the foundations of my career to become a geriatrician were laid. I was bright at school and worked hard so with my love of people and science it seemed obvious to go for medicine. I was educated at state school but was a very under-confident teenager. I didn’t get a place at university in the first round of offers, but when I was studying for my final A-level exams I received a phone call from the admissions dean at Edinburgh offering me a place to study there. I was obviously elated at this news and didn’t stop smiling for at least a week. All through university I enjoyed the medical as opposed to the surgical specialties and the specialty I loved above all was elderly medicine. I loved the challenge of diagnosis, the variety, the people. I was fascinated by how very different one 90-year old is from the next. The stories patients have to tell and the context of their illnesses within their lives still excites me today. I have trained for 10 years post graduation and have for the past three months been acting up into a consultant role in medicine for older people. It has been hugely exhausting, challenging and scary but wonderful all the same. Many of my professional ambitions were stolen when I was diagnosed so to have the chance to do the job I’ve spend 15 years of my life training for has been amazing and a huge tick on the bucket list.
J.P.:You were diagnosed in 2011 with a rare and aggressive form of sarcoma. How did you know something was wrong? How long did you wait before seeing a doctor? How was the awful news delivered, and how did you initially respond?
K.G.: I was 29 and working hard as a medical registrar doing long days and night shifts. I’d been studying for my last set of post-graduate exams. So I felt tired. Understandably so, but looking back perhaps that fatigue was the first pointer to something being wrong. I then missed a period. I did a pregnancy test which was negative so I didn’t think much of it. Then Chris and I took a holiday to California. His aunty and uncle live in Santa Cruz in California and we love that part of the world. I had back pain when we stepped off the plane but thought I’d just slept awkwardly. I took some painkillers and got on with our holiday. We were very busy exploring San Francisco, Monterey and spending time with family. My symptoms weren’t going away though, and I started to go off my food. I just couldn’t eat—it was really weird. The pain was becoming unbearable. Eventually Chris found me lying on our bed in agony and put his foot down. His uncle took us to an urgent care centre where the doctor thought I looked unwell and referred us to the local emergency room. Within an hour of being in the hospital it became apparent that I was indeed very sick. My kidneys had failed and an ultrasound scan showed my kidneys were swollen. A CT scan showed the reason for my sudden illness; multiple tumours throughout my abdomen and pelvis, obstructing my ureters and causing the renal failure. I’d worked out I had cancer before they told me; there was no other reasonable explanation for the early test results. The doctor who told me stood near the door of my side room with his arms crossed and his back against the wall. He said, “We think it’s ovarian.” He didn’t finish the sentence with the scary big C word. I remember being calm and collected. I had to protect and shield Chris. I had to take charge of telling my family thousands of miles away. It was not a time for hysterics. I had to concentrate on the immediate hurdle of getting well enough to fly home.
With Chris, the hubby.
J.P.:You’ve started an amazing movement, the #HelloMyNameIs campaign, to “encourage and remind healthcare staff about the importance of introductions in the delivery of care.” Which strikes me as sort of strange, in that, well, why wouldn’t a doctor introduce himself/herself? Why wouldn’t a doctor ooze compassion, humanity, empathy? So, Kate, why was this needed?
K.G.: In the UK healthcare is publicly funded and in the recent times of austerity that funding has been squeezed. This means everybody delivering healthcare in the NHS is under immense pressure. I think when that is the case and you are incredibly busy the first thing that tends to suffer is the compassion staff feel able to deliver. Somewhere we’ve gone wrong and along the way forgotten the basics of care and the person on the receiving end. I started the #HelloMyNameIs movement in 2013 after an experience in hospital where I’d been admitted to a surgical ward with post-operative sepsis following a routine stent exchange. I’m a keen observer of my healthcare and one of my starkest observations on that occasion was that very few staff introduced themselves to me before they started interacting with me. This felt very wrong, as the first thing we are taught in medical school clinical skills sessions is that you start with introducing yourself, your role, asking what the patient would like to be called and explaining what you’re going to do. So I decided, after discovering on Twitter that my experience was not unique, to do something positive about it. Hence #hellomynameis was born. I think it is needed to remind healthcare staff, by using my fairly powerful narrative, that the little things do matter and mean a huge amount to patients, and that delivering truly person-centred care can benefit both patient and staff alike. It is essentially a gentle reminder to inspire and encourage a change in personal behaviour of healthcare staff by harnessing the immense reach and power of social media.
J.P.:In your Nov. 23, 2014 blog entry you wrote this: “Charlie. That was what we planned to call our first born in honour and remembrance of Chris’s paternal Grandfather. But Charlie will always remain in our dreams and never become a reality. I will never have those precious new-born cuddles or experience the wonder of childbirth.” Kate, how have you been able to deal with these things? With the child you’ll never have? The events you miss? Because you seem to possess a profound bravery most people surely lack.
K.G.: Life is what it is. I can’t change what’s happening to Chris and me. We try our absolute hardest to live in the now most of the time. However, I am reflective about my losses and grief in my writing and the space of my blog and books; I guess as a cathartic exercise. I’ve been lucky to have been given much more time than we ever expected. I’ve managed to get to perform those bridesmaid and wedding cake baking duties; I’ve managed to get to know those children I never thought I’d see born. I have to be grateful for those things. I don’t see it as brave because being brave implies making a choice to act in a certain way. I haven’t had any choice about what has happened to us so we just take it each day as it comes. I do shed tears for Charlie, for the life we should have had, for the guilt of not being a complete wife for Chris and causing him pain, for not giving my parents grandchildren. But if I allow myself to dwell on those things I would be overwhelmed by depression and anger so I simply don’t allow myself to. I suppose that is my choice, so that could be viewed as brave.
J.P.:You decided to blog about dying–in v-e-r-y detailed, gripping passages (“Why had you come along to ruin our lives? Abolished dreams of having my own family? Stolen my lifelong ambition to become a Consultant Geriatrician? Chris and I would never grow old together and be able to spoil our Grandchildren”). First, why? And second, do you find it more exhausting or exhilarating? Is it therapy? Painful therapy? You trying to leave a legacy? Both? All? Neither?
K.G.: Writing was not part of my life before illness. During those early days of a six-week hospital admission when I was very sick and the outlook was especially grim my boss at the time suggested to me the idea of writing a diary. It had helped his late sister gather her thoughts and deal with her emotions during her cancer journey. So I did and kept a diary, initially in a notebook, and when the notebook was full on my laptop. It grew into almost an obsession and during long, painful, lonely nights I would take solace in pouring my feelings and observations out onto the page. I wasn’t trying to write a book—not initially anyway. When I read back what I’d written it became clear to me it held a message and that message was to healthcare staff. It had become apparent to me that how the people looking after me behaved, whether that be in a positive or a negative way, had a profound impact on my experience as the patient. Those messages were not ones that I had considered much in my medical training before illness. Sharing my experiences as “one of them” but “one of us” seemed like the right thing to do. One of my passions professionally is medical education and I guess writing is kind of teaching … I enjoy writing and I do find it therapeutic. I like to try and say the “unsaid” to try and stimulate conversation and trigger reflections from others. It is comforting to me that my blog will exist long after I’m gone as a permanent record of my journey. Legacies are important to me. I really don’t want to be remembered as “that poor young doctor who died of a rare cancer before her time,” but rather someone who made a positive improvement to healthcare.
J.P.:Do you feel like people approach you differently since cancer was diagnosed? I mean, are there those who overdo it, those who stay far away? And, going through this, what would you advise people to do, if a friend has cancer? Is there a proper emotional/behavioral response?
K.G.: Inevitably … I want to just be treated as Kate. The Kate that I always was. Just because I have a serious disease doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy the same things in life; have the same values. I hate being treated with kid gloves—independence is so important to me. But cancer is part of me now and does mean things are different. I’ve always been the sort of person who has a small circle of close friends and that hasn’t changed. I’m also quite happy in my own company much of the time. I know those people are there for me no matter what, but they don’t smother us with attention. I’m not sure there is a ‘correct’ response to support a friend on a cancer journey as everyone’s needs are so individual. I think remembering the importance of ongoing support after diagnosis is essential though. People can be quick to send cards and presents in the beginning but putting the effort into being there for the long haul means a lot more to me personally.
J.P.:What do you think people, in day to day life, fail to see? Fail to grasp? Fail to do?
K.G.: I think it is very tough for people who look at me to see someone who is not going to get better, who is dying. I have fairly clear skin, glossy hair and I’m certainly not skinny. Even at my most sick I didn’t outwardly look that unwell. I’m also incredibly open about the fact that my life is going to be cut short prematurely and regularly speak about the ‘D’ word. I’m sure trying to associate those two disparate factors can be difficult for people. Because I’ve defied the odds in terms of my prognosis I think many people think I’m invincible. I hear, “You’re not really going to die though, are you?” I am. I always try to keep the realist view of what’s happening.
I’ve often been faced with people who perhaps haven’t seen me in a while who are in fact rendered completely speechless by the situation. They always seem to have those sad, sympathetic, “But you’re too young” eyes. Everyone wanted to be involved at the beginning—we were overwhelmed with messages and visits. But as time has dragged on we’ve found out who our true friends are; those people who have kept up their support week in and week out; and those who have disappeared from the scene. I keep many of my symptoms to myself and don’t allow most people to see my suffering publicly. Chris is the only one who really sees how unwell I become with chemotherapy; the tears at 2 am because I’m in so much pain I can’t move. We are blessed, though, to be surrounded by some wonderful support and are extremely lucky in that respect.
J.P.: I love your bucket list—especially your accomplished goals of making brioche, riding a horse, skydive, visit Venice and getting a tattoo (which, sort of ironically, is listed right above visiting Anne Frank’s house). So tell me, Kate, what was skydiving like? What’s the tattoo, and where’s it located? What was the horse’s name, how was the brioche? And what did you think of Venice?
K.G.: My bucket list has given everyone in my life such a positive focus to create special memories not associated with illness and has led to some amazing experiences. Skydiving was simply awesome—I’ve never done anything like that before but I loved it and would do it again. It was such a rush. The tattoo is a small, pretty purple butterfly on my left ankle. The horse was called Harvey and was very patient with me after so many years since I’d be in the saddle. The brioche turned out really well. I love to cook and bake, and some of the items on the list are about learning new skills. Michel Roux, Jr. who is a famous French chef in the UK, gave me a lesson in brioche baking at his restaurant. With all his tips I’ve made it at home successfully twice now and it was delicious (if I do say so myself!). Venice was beautiful—we’d always talked about going but never quite got there. I loved the Rialto market, the ice cream and the tiny back streets crammed full of a huge array of different shops. We nearly fell out of a gondola on the Grand Canal when we got a little too close to a large boat! I would say my favourite item on the list though has been renewing our wedding vows. It was an incredibly emotional and special day.
• Three things you can tell me about your husband, Chris: He’s like a human calculator—if you ask him any mental arithmetic he’ll give you the correct answer straight away. He’s amazing at blagging free stuff which has meant my bucket list has been extra special. He’s a keen walker and has done some amazingly long hikes for charity.
• Should there be another A-Team movie? And do you like the idea of Rampage Jackson filling Mr. T’s shoes?: I’m not really that bothered for me, but if the A-Team fans have an appetite for another movie then fine. I wouldn’t be first in the queue at the cinema to see it though.
• I’m starting to have lots of hair growing from my ears. What should I do?: Don’t stress. Life’s too short.
• What are three things that should immediately turn a person off of a new doctor?: As a patient you form a judgement of a doctor extremely quickly. For me it’s when someone fails to introduce themselves, stands over you when you are in bed or has disinterested body body language such as lack of eye contact.
• Tell me the best joke you know: A bit childish but someone told me this one the other day: ‘Doctor, doctor, I’ve got something wrong with my eyes. I keep seeing an insect spinning round my head.’ ‘Don’t worry, that’s just a bug going round.’ I’m rubbish at remembering the punch line to jokes!
• Can you create a poem, right now, that incorporates Starbucks, Cleveland, Muhammad Ali and the number eight?: Been sat in Starbucks since about 8/ They asked me my name, #hellomynameis Kate/ I’m reading an article on Muhammad Ali/ Before meeting my friend from Cleveland called Sally/ Must rush now before I am late! (Thanks to Chris for his help on this!)
• Six words that describe your knees: Pale, fat, scarred (I knelt on a piece of broken glass when playing in long grass as a little girl) and best covered up!
• You have “another visit to California” on your bucket list. I’m officially offering up my house in Southern Cal as a place to stay. You coming?: If you’re offering and I survive round 3 in the chemo boxing ring Chris and I will be there. Thank you! That’s an incredibly generous offer.
Back when I was growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I had an enormous crush on a girl named Teresa McClure.
Was Teresa cute? Sure. Personable? Absolutely. Smart? Yup. But what made me really want to date Teresa was her role as the keyboardest in Illusion, the high school rock band.
Alas, she rejected my offers, and we never hooked up.
Even with that scorn, I’ve never lost my love and respect for musicians. There’s something about the ability to play an instrument that impresses me. And when one plays it at a high level, for tons and tons of people? Well, it’s magical. Just magical.
Josh Kantor, Quaz No. 195, isn’t your typical musical star. He’s neither the lead singer for Rush not Taylor Swift’s guitarist. He doesn’t tour the nation, doesn’t sell millions of albums, doesn’t evoke screams from lustful fans. Nope, he’s just the Fenway Park oragnist.
Which is absolutely, amazingly, supremely … awesome.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Josh, so you’re the organist at Fenway Park. Which leads to a pretty obvious question—How the heck does one become the organist at Fenway Park?
JOSH KANTOR: I went in for two rounds of auditions at the beginning of 2003, having gotten the first audition through a recommendation by a friend who was working for the Red Sox at the time and who knew about my baseball fandom and organ-playing abilities. The auditions primarily tested my knowledge of popular music genres, my ability to generate lots of short musical ideas quickly, and my sense of how those ideas could best be incorporated into baseball games. As a popular music fanatic who’d studied the work of long-time White Sox organist Nancy Faust and who’d done lots of musical accompaniment for improvisational theater, I was fairly well prepared. A high-level Red Sox staffer who was supposed to be listening to the first audition was stuck in a meeting, and his conference room had a window facing the ballpark, so he opened it and had the audio engineer turn on the ballpark speakers so he could listen during his meeting, which made me a little extra nervous to have my audition echoing throughout an empty Fenway Park.
J.P.: I wrote a book about the Showtime-era Lakers. When Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979, one of his early moves was canning the organist and replacing him with lots of piped-in rock music. Why? He considered the organ uncool. In baseball, however, it seems like the organ brings something to life. Matters. How do you explain the long marriage between a somewhat obscure instrument and ballparks?
J.K.: It’s ironic that recorded music taking the place of organ music is commonly said to be “piped-in,” but that doesn’t answer your question. During the organ’s initial era of prominence at sporting events, it wasn’t obscure at all. It was (probably) the most common in-home musical instrument in the U.S. during the decade prior to the explosion in popularity of the electric guitar (which began with the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan). And the organ remained a staple of rock music (albeit in more of a supporting role) throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Since then, it’s gone mostly out of favor in the NBA, remained largely in favor in the NHL (as a companion to an increase in recorded music), and gone alternately in and out of favor around Major League Baseball. Technological advances have allowed stadiums to present recorded music more crisply, and most stadiums have taken advantage of that (some more effectively than others). I can understand why Dr. Buss and others would see “traditional” instrumental organ performance as anachronistic in the context of a team and a sport and a town and an era that were emphasizing a “razzle-dazzle” presentation, though it feels a bit short-sighted to me to dismiss the organ altogether rather than modernize the repertoire. Why do people tend to feel that the organ is more vital in baseball? I’m not entirely sure, but the iconography of the sport is more pastoral, and maybe there’s currently an association with the organ as being part of that. I think that, for the most part, the baseball organ tradition has been able to remain rooted and simultaneously to adapt; my favorite sports organists these days are the ones who include contemporary song selections and who take requests in real time from their teams’ fans via Twitter. At Fenway, a lot of the vibrancy of the organ music comes from a shared ability between our skilled DJ (T.J. Connelly) and me to play off of each other and build a presentation together.
J.P.:I would love to hear the memory of your first game as the Red Sox organist. My guess is you were pooping large organ bricks from nervousness. How did you feel? What were you thinking? Did you make any mistakes?
J.K.: Certain memories from that day are still pretty vivid. Prior to April 11, 2003, I was very accustomed to playing for crowds of 50 to 100 people, and I’d occasionally played for crowds as large as 500 or 600 at the most. As if suddenly jumping to a crowd of well over 30,000 (not to mention a substantial radio and television audience) wasn’t terrifying enough, I hadn’t yet learned the extent to which I would always need to be ready for any number of last-minute changes or surprises. The day before, I’d been told by a boss that I would be eased in gradually over the first few games in order to help me get comfortable; when I arrived on game day, I was instead told that I should play for 90 minutes straight during team warm-ups. That’s the kind of change that wouldn’t even register on the nervous-meter in more recent years, but on that first day, it was a hard assignment to prepare for on short notice. After getting through those 90 minutes, I was hoping for an uneventful remainder of the day. It was at this point during the opening ceremony that my boss said, “OK, Josh, here’s what’s going to happen. Lou Rawls is going to come onto the field and sing the National Anthem. After that, Ray Charles will come out to a grand piano and perform his iconic version of ‘America, The Beautiful.’ Then, I’m going to need you to play something.” My first day on the job, I’m being instructed to follow two legendary performers, both of whom are among my inspirations for pursuing a career in music. My memories of the rest of the day are hazy, and I don’t remember what I ended up playing in that spot. Again, these types of late developments at games no longer faze me, but back then, I didn’t feel entirely ready for it. In the long-run, the good part about that first day (aside from getting a fun story out of it) is that I began to feel like if I could get through that, then I could get through anything, and I’ve very rarely been nervous in any performance situation since then. My other memory from that day is that the game ended up getting rained out.
J.P.:I just read that, on the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s amazing Innervisions, you covered the entire album—on the organ, during a game. Um … how the hell did you pull that off? Did people get it? And … why?
J.K.: How? I figured there were nine songs and nine innings, so the math was easy (I didn’t play the entirety of each song, but I played roughly a minute of each tune during various breaks in the action). Did people get it? As best as I could tell from Twitter feedback, some got it pretty early on, and then some more got it as the game progressed. Why did I do it? Well, why not; I mean, it might be the best album I’ve ever heard … that (along with its strength of melody of recognizability) is a good enough reason for me. As I was on my way to Fenway that day, I saw a tweet from Matthew E. White (a great Richmond-based musician whose songs everyone should listen to) about the 40th anniversary, and I thought, “I know I’ve heard that record 200 times, but I wonder if I know it well enough to cover it.” I did a quick mental run-through of the album and decided I would try to pull it off if it was working within the flow of the ballgame. If memory serves, it was the fifth or sixth time I’d covered an album at a game (though the prior instances were all during batting practice).
J.P.:I know you’re from Chicago, knew you grew up a big White Sox fan. But how did this happen—womb to now? When did you develop your love of music? Learn to play the piano? Know you were good enough to play for thousands of people?
J.K.: The deep love of music has always been there; it’s also evolved over time. Until I was 13, I lived mostly in Athens, Georgia, rooting for Dale Murphy and the (mostly lousy) Atlanta Braves teams of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The proliferation of great Athens-based rock bands at that time (R.E.M., the B-52’s, Pylon, etc.) had somewhat of a role in my interest in music, but I wasn’t old enough to go see them play. I started taking piano lessons at age 5; I liked some aspects of it but not others, and I was good at some aspects of it but not others. My parents had a large (and mostly great) collection of soul/R&B/pop/rock records, which I dove into deeply and frequently as a youngster. I moved to the Chicago area for high school and adopted the White Sox—partly as an act of teen rebellion against my Cubs-loving parents, partly as affinity for my older cousin who took me to games, and partly out of admiration for Nancy Faust (the best stadium organist there’s ever been). Some of my more lasting musical tastes were forming, I was taking some music classes, a lot of musical concepts were starting to coalesce, and I was developing a knack for being able to listen to a recording and then mimic it on piano. I played occasionally at the neighborhood synagogue and had a great musical mentor there. I played in some garage bands and for some theatrical productions. At age 17, I moved to the Boston area for college; my first week in town, I made my inaugural pilgrimage to Fenway and saw Mike Greenwell hit the first Red Sox inside-the-park grand slam in 29 years en route to a 15-1 victory over the Yankees and the ninth win of a 10-game streak, and I’ve been hooked on the Red Sox ever since.
During college, I got involved with more bands and more theater. Near the end of college, I got particularly interested in the organ. For a few years after college, I very rarely performed or recorded, but I played at home every day; I was starting to get good without knowing it. Then I spent a few years playing semi-regularly (mostly with friends) at small clubs and black-box theaters before being hired by the Red Sox. During the first few years of playing at Fenway, I continued sporadically doing club shows. Over the last four years or so, I’ve been more active in pursuing the kinds of shows and recording sessions that I most enjoy being part of; sometimes that yields desirable outcomes and other times it leads to rejection. I’ve always been pretty aware of what my sources of inspiration are; what I’ve tried to focus on more in recent years is being equally aware of what I’m learning (technically, artistically, practically and interpersonally) from each musical experience and encounter. I’ve always tried over the years to be dabbling (mostly in self-taught fashion) with some instrument other than piano and organ (i.e. clarinet, oboe, guitar, banjo, upright bass) … I’m currently on a big accordion kick. When did I know I was good enough to play for thousands of people? I was probably eight or nine years in with the Red Sox before I reached a point of feeling that way more often than not; I’m often my own harshest critic.
J.P.: I say this as a compliment—you strike me as a pretty big baseball geek. You’re in a band, The Baseball Project. You’re in another band, the Split Squad. What is it about the game that you love? Why the devotion?
J.K.: I am a pretty big baseball geek, and I take your remark as a compliment. The Split Squad actually has nothing to do with baseball; it’s just a name that a friend of ours suggested, and everyone in the band liked it. The Baseball Project, on the other hand, is a band full of baseball geeks who have written roughly 70 songs that are all about baseball; that may seem gimmicky, but I think we execute the concept in a genuine and interesting fashion (though I admit my bias on that opinion). I’ve always loved watching baseball and playing it and reading about it and looking at (the fronts and backs of) baseball cards; I don’t know exactly why. I like that any player can be the hero in any given game; that seems much less true in other sports. I’m interested in baseball’s relationship with civil rights issues. I like that there are different ways in which I can enjoy watching games: whether I watch passively or actively (though I always watch actively when I’m on duty), whether I pay more attention to pitching or to hitting, whether I focus more on statistics or on situations, it’s always stimulating to me. And that’s something that has always been that way, despite the technological and cultural changes that alter how we watch and follow sports over time. There have been times and places in my life where it was considered un-cool as a rock enthusiast to admit to loving baseball; that’s no longer the case, and I actually think (again, with bias) that Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey’s songwriting for the Baseball Project has contributed to that positive shift.
J.P.:What’s the biggest musical screw-up of your career?
J.K.: I’m not certain; whatever it is, it’s probably something that I’m not (and may never be) insightful enough even to have realized. That said, I do wish I’d been confident enough to think of myself as a “real musician” prior to my ninth season (or even my first season) of playing for three million people per year; I feel like that would have helped create some additional opportunities that would have been rewarding and instructive.
J.P.:I’m always fascinated by mental approaches. What’s yours at Fenway? What I mean is, do you think about playing for thousands? Are you, mentally, playing for yourself? Do you consider the tastes of fans? Does that even matter? And, while you’re playing, what runs through your head? Anything besides the song?
J.K.: The tastes of fans matter tremendously … probably more than anything else. They pay good money to be entertained, and even though my contribution is secondary to the game itself as a form of entertainment, I owe it to them to play as well and as thoughtfully as I can. Because I’ve done this job for a long time, I can allow the thoughts about how many people are listening to flutter in and out organically without them being disruptive to my overall focus. What runs through my head while I’m playing? It depends. If I’m playing a song that I don’t know very well, then I’m focusing as much as I can on listening to my playing to make sure I get it right. If it’s a song that I know well, then it’s a lot easier to think about all the other things that help me adjust my “game plan” on the fly, like who’s coming up to bat, how long is this relief pitcher going to take to get ready, is this hitter likely to be intentionally walked, is this pitcher about to be pulled, how long is the videoboard going to show this guy in the stands dancing like a madman, is this game more of a family crowd or more of a boozing crowd, what is this fan who just walked up to me saying, what is this fan on Twitter saying, what is the ballpark’s AV producer saying in my earpiece, when is the ideal moment to hand off to the DJ, does it look like it’s about to start (or stop) raining, what tempo should this song be played at in order to fit the entire chorus into this pitching-mound visit, how conclusive does this replay review appear to be, how long will it take for these 200 Little Leaguers being honored during the pregame ceremony to exit the field before the game starts, is this game nationally televised and thus subject to slightly longer inning breaks (and music breaks), what’s the duration of this trivia segment on the scoreboard, how and when do I best articulate a heads-up about something to the DJ or the producer or the technical director or a camera operator… and the list goes on and on. There’s a lot of multi-tasking as far as everything that I’m looking at and listening to, and that can be both challenging and exhilarating. I’m playing for myself only insofar as I’m trying to apply a relatively simple (and occasionally evolving) set of guidelines that I think will help make my playing enjoyable to the greatest possible number of people. Among those guidelines:
• Don’t repeat: aside from playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch at each game, I try not to play any song more than once during a homestand (including during batting practice, pre-game ceremonies, and the post-game exit), and I try not play any artist more than once per day.
• Related to the above, play songs at each game that represent a diverse array of genres, eras, tempos, and keys: too much of one type within any of these elements will start to bore people (I get a little stubborn about keys; if the song I want to play next is in the same key as the song I just played, I’ll sometimes try to transpose it quickly in my head. It’s kind of like those swordsmen in “The Princess Bride” who are only satisfied by the added degree of difficulty that comes from dueling left-handed).
• Don’t be mean: it’s OK for a song to jab lightly at the on-field exploits of the opposing team; it’s not OK to be cruel about it or to draw attention to any off-field issues.
• Emphasize melodies and hooks: I’m trying to evoke lyrics for listeners without the use of lyrics, so the component of the song that people will be inclined to sing along with (either aloud or in their own heads) has to be in the forefront. The rhythm and bass line and chords matter, but the vocal lines and riffs have to be the things that shine through.
J.P.: You’re a musician. You work in sports. I know many parents who want their kids to one day play at Lincoln Center. I know even more parents who want their kids to start at second base for the Yankees. Which do you consider a more admirable goal? More attainable?
J.K.: My work in music and in sports has always been primarily avocational; my various day jobs in libraries over the years are the thing that enables me to pay the bills. That said, I’m sure that more people have played at Lincoln Center than have started at 2nd base for the Yankees, so that would make the former more attainable. But as far as comparing elite concert musicians with major league athletes more generally, I don’t know which is more attainable or more admirable. Most top musicians can perform at a high level for a greater number of years than most top athletes. As a kid, I dreamed more of being a ballplayer than of being a musician, but neither of those is as admirable as being a great teacher or firefighter or doctor. My wife works in homelessness services, so I’m regularly reminded that the heroism of my favorite athletes and musicians is relative.
J.P.:I would love, love, love for you to play Tupac’s Brenda’s Got a Baby on the organ at a Sox game in 2015. Serious question: What has to happen for that to occur?
J.K.: Serious answer: I appreciate your enthusiasm about this very much, and I love receiving and accommodating requests. My general criteria for requests are:
• Send me your request via Twitter; it’s the easiest way for me to keep track of requests and to reply with a dumb joke. Asking nicely will often get you bumped up in the queue.
* You should be at Fenway when I play your request; what’s the point of me playing your request if you’re not there to hear it?
* The song should fit at the game. If you request “Moon River” during the late innings of an intense, tied game, I’m probably not going to play it. As for “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” I like the song, and it would sound good on an organ, though I feel that a couple of the themes are dark enough to render the song possibly not fitting for a ballgame.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOSH KANTOR:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Shea Hillenbrand, Billy Dee Williams, organic orange juice, Oliver Stone, Third Eye Blind, Luciano Pavarotti, chicken burritos, Pan Am, Atlantic City, Milk Duds, Lauren Bacall: 1. Milk Duds: my favorite candy of late. Not the least bit lost on me is the horrible irony that, on more than one occasion, I’ve used my Rite-Aid Pharmacy “Wellness” card to buy them at a discount; 2. Organic orange juice: a close runner-up on this list and perhaps even a winner if you’d asked me on a different day; 3. Luciano Pavarotti: Points for bringing opera to a wider audience. By many accounts, he wasn’t great at reading music; I identify with that (not saying I’m remotely in his league as a performer, just acknowledging one similarity). Bonus points for his duet with James Brown are offset by points deducted for his duet with Bryan Adams; 4. Billy Dee Williams: At this stage of my life, I could take or leave “Star Wars,” but I love “Lady Sings the Blues” and the “Bingo Long” movie. And without delving into malt liquor advertising controversies, I’ll just say that his Colt 45 spots make me think of Houston’s MLB franchise from ’62-’64; 5. Shea Hillenbrand: Points for hitting a walk-off home run for the Red Sox as a rookie against Detroit in the 18th inning on June 5th, 2001. Bonus points for having a knack for getting hit by pitches; 6. Lauren Bacall: I’m only familiar with her in “The Big Sleep,” but what a movie!; 7. Atlantic City: I’ve never been there, but I give them points for hosting two professional baseball teams: the (African-American) Bacharach Giants from 1916-1929 and the independent Atlantic City Surf (cool name) from 1998-2008. Man, I really hope there’s a Burt Bacharach tribute band called the Bacharach Giants that plays at one of the casinos down there; 8. Pan Am: I assume you mean Pan Am Airlines, in which case I give them points for flying the Beatles to America in ’64, but otherwise, I’m moving this to the bottom of the list if you’re referring to the Pan Am Expo of 1901 where President McKinley was assassinated; 9. Oliver Stone: the only film of his that I’ve seen is “The Doors.” By the way, isn’t it remarkable how kind history was to the Doors for so long and how that seems to have changed dramatically in the last couple years? I still like them OK, but a lot of rock people whose tastes I respect have come to loathe them; 10. Third Eye Blind: I like the way they sing “Doot doot doot.” The rest of it isn’t particularly my cup of tea; 11. Chicken burritos: You had me at “burritos,” but you lost me at “chicken”
• Three memories from your senior prom: 1. I didn’t go. I thought then (and still think now) that skipping it was the right choice; 2. Instead of going to prom, I went to a café that night with my friend Keith, a terrific singer with whom I’m still occasionally in touch, but not as often as I’d like to be; 3. One of my conversations with Keith that night was about recent musical discoveries that we were excited about.
• Who wins in a 12-round thumb fight between you and Archie Manning?: If we go left-handed, I think I’m strong and dexterous and nimble enough to take a slim majority of the rounds. If we go righty, I would expect his mighty thumb to triumph with ease.
• One question you would ask Christine McVie were she here right now?: Since I’ve never met her before and she certainly has no idea who I am, I’d probably ask some polite variation of, “What brings you here?” If, however, we’re in an alternate universe where it’s socially acceptable to ask a probing question of a stranger, then I’d ask the following multi-part question about her self-titled solo album from ’84: “What did you like best and least about how it turned out? Were you satisfied with its level of commercial success? And how much thought did you give at the time to the possibility of doing more solo releases?” Out of curiosity, I posed your question to my friend Patrick Berkery (an awesome Philly-based drummer and writer who’s probably the biggest McVie fan I know), and he replied, “I know EXACTLY what I’d ask her: ‘It’s great to have you back [in Fleetwood Mac], Chris, but how the fuck are you NOT playing “Hold Me” on this tour?’” That’s the kind of passionate answer that your question deserves and that I couldn’t provide without an expert assist.
• Rank the Boston groups: Letters to Cleo, New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Buffalo Tom: It’s a three-way tie for first between New Edition, Letters to Cleo, and Buffalo Tom. I might have given a slight edge to New Edition, except that Kay and Bill have both offered a lot of encouragement for my song selections at Fenway. Either way, New Kids are a distant fourth. Your question led me to think about who would be on my Mt. Rushmore of Boston bands; I’ll need to ponder that some more, but I can say with certainty that the Modern Lovers are on there somewhere.
• In 23 words, tell me why organists get all the hot chicks: I’m re-wording the question so it’s more palatable: why are organists so attractive? Not sure; I haven’t always found that to be true.
• I always found Nomar incredibly rude and unlikeable. Am I wrong?: I’ve only met him once; he was really nice.
• What’s the world’s grossest food?: I’m not especially worldly when it comes to food (or to most things), so I’m sure there’s plenty of gross foods out there that I’ve never heard of. Something like haggis or Spam would be an easy answer, but it’s a cheap one since I don’t think I’ve ever tried those foods. So I’ll go with beets; I’ve never liked those things. There’s also certain kinds of fancy cheeses that seem pretty inedible to me.
• This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Your thoughts?: With Hall & Oates, I confess to knowing pretty much only the hits, so I don’t think I’ve heard this one before. It’s a bit wimpier than all those hits that followed in later years, more in line with the sensitive singer/songwriter vibe of the early ’70s (nothing inherently wrong with that). It’s almost too earnest for me, though, both structurally (the peculiar 3-bar phrases in the verses, the extra beats when he says “locket,” the significant changing of musical gears three separate times in a 162-second song) and lyrically (it feels like a pretty heavy-handed/unsubtle tale). And why would a singer specifically mention the sound of an accordion twice yet not allude to the instrument musically (maybe that’s my own accordionist’s bias asking that question)? “The next thing she knew, she died” is a dreadfully bad lyric on multiple levels, but “peal of a bell” is a pretty terrific lyric. Overall, the writing isn’t great (I’m not saying I could do better, and obviously those guys later went on to become very skilled and accomplished songwriters). The playing and singing on this song are generally very good, and the arranging is pretty strong, too (though all those root parallel octaves in the string part when he says “preacher was a sorry mess” are surprisingly unimaginative by Arif Mardin standards). If I’m missing what it is that makes you love this song as much as you do, feel free to fill me in. And thank you for inviting me to do this interview; I enjoyed it.