What I mean is, I love stumbling upon things, whether it’s a $12 Los Angeles Rams T-shirt at TJ Maxx or the best ice cream float on the streets of Austin. It’s cool and fun and serendipitous, and it also offers the opportunity for some darn good braggin’. You know—”Dude, there’s this [FILL IN THE BLANK] I found, and it’s awesome!”
Which leads me to the 222nd Quaz Q&A.
Several months ago, the wife and I were attending a farmer’s market here in Orange County. It was one of those things with a bunch of tents, some food trucks, overpriced iced coffee. Beautiful day, nice family time … and a fantastic musician, sorta hanging in the background. His name was Eric Kufs. He had a guitar, a beard and oodles upon oodles of talent. I’m not sure who to compare him to—I guess, gun to head, I go Paul Simon meets Ted Hawkins meets Dave Matthews meets Sam Cooke. But that’s an odd combination, so I’ll simply say he sounded terrific, and I wanted to scream at every loudmouth attendee, “Stop eating your damn burger and listen to this guy, because he’s fantastic!”
Instead, I tracked Eric down and asked him to do a Quaz.
And here we are.
Eric is based out of Southern California, and has a story to tell. About his band. About his solo career. And the loneliness of musicianship and the joys of musicianship; about trying to catch a break and grab your ear.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Eric, first question: You’ve had this really interesting musical career, with lots of highs and experiences. And yet, I first heard you playing at a farmer’s market in Orange County, with a small amp under a small tent with some people listening and some people not listening on a hot day with a half-filled tip jar of singles. And I wondered, “Why? Why do a gig like that? Money? Fun? And is it hard to stay focused and excited when the crowd is distracted and kids and running left and right? Do you even think, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
ERIC KUFS: Well Jeff, the first reason is that I love to play and I consider any gig an opportunity to improve as a performer. Sure I’ve put in my 10,000 hours and then some, but I like to keep pushing myself.
The truth is that when I first moved from L.A. when I was 20, I spent some time working day jobs. Any time my band booked a tour, I’d have to quit whatever gig I had. As you probably know, clubs don’t pay artists very well and when you factor in the cost of travel, the road leaves you with very little. If you’re lucky, when you get back home, you have enough to barely get by as you search for another day job, usually at a coffee shop or whatever. As fun as the road could be, I began to dread coming home broke.
So in order to quell my anxiety about my finances, and keep focusing on my passion for music , I began to perform out on the streets of Los Angeles. For seven years, when I wasn’t on the road, I was a busker. Some of my fellow musicians and songwriters might have thought a little less of me for it at the time, but in my mind I was doing what I love for a living. To be honest I think most musicians would find it difficult to make the good living I made doing it. There were times it was challenging. Getting people walking past with their face in their phones to stop, listen and buy your CD or at the very least leave a tip is not easy. You have to be unique in your delivery and remain true to yourself in order to find ways to appeal to all types of people. This makes it rewarding, especially when you’re in a club and people are there to see you. You are instantly captivating and even an off night is better than another singer’s best.
So how do I end up playing a farmer’s market? Well, after years of playing on the street I have made enough friends and connections to sustain myself performing private events as well as touring (whether I’m backing up another songwriter or I’m promoting my own music). Occasionally I like to do farmer’s markets or street fairs that pay well enough. They help me keep my chops up and try new material. They’re also good for promotion and often lead to other bookings.
J.P.: I have a disease—“When I see a person performing and not many people listening and/or acknowledging said performer, I feel the need to approach performer and make him/her feel better with either compliments (if they’re sincere) or small talk.” Eric, is this dumb? Like, are most performers in those situations OK, or are they heartbroken and sad? Because I’m sure you’ve been there (hell, I’ve been there. Book signings with three attendees—and it’s awful for me).
E.K.: Most times these performers are sad. There have been many times when I played on the street in the drizzling rain hoping someone would take pity on me and drop a few hundred bucks in my tip jar. I’ve played in theaters for thousands of people completely enthralled with whatever I was doing and I might’ve been more concerned with how they were perceiving me than when I’m forced to close my eyes and focus on singing the song for myself. Sometimes there’s no other option but to use the sadness to create something beautiful even if you’re the only one to hear it. But I’ve played in clubs in Nashville for three, maybe five people, and that’s just depressing … no way around it.
As for your disease, I welcome the interaction of appreciative listeners in those situations but I’d like to speak for all of the professional musicians who have or have had any ambition or aspirations for a more fruitful career when I tell you this: “Do not say anything like, ‘Man what are you doing here?!’”
First of all, it’s a line from “Piano Man” and second of all it only reinforces the sadness of the situation. You can certainly compliment a performer as much as you’d like and even elaborate on how much of a treat it is to see them wherever it is you run across them, but don’t ask incredulously why they are there. (I mean, like why are any of us anywhere anyway dude, bro, man? Like really …) But seriously, it makes them feel like they’ve failed when the truth is that music is a difficult business and there are many different paths to success. The business has changed since when I was a kid and now more than ever it’s on the artists to be their own business manager, publicist, recording engineer, producer, and in some cases their own booking agent.
Jamming on the sax as a boy.
J.P.:Soup to nuts, what’s your writing process? I mean, you’ve written more than 1,000 songs. How? How do you start? Finish? And when do you know when a song is complete and ready?
E.K.: My writing process has changed a lot over time. Back when I was starting out I would write a poem, while sitting in math ignoring the teacher, and then I’d go home and instead of doing my math homework I’d find a melody for the poem on guitar. Now I seem to do more humming over chord patterns, or a few words will come to me that naturally fit and I’ll go from there. Every now and then a song will pour out fully formed but mostly I just sort of recognize interesting ideas or hear melodic hooks in your day to day.
There was a time when I took writing songs very seriously and I forced myself to record a song every day. Sometimes it was just a verse chorus idea or a tone poem kind of thing. This work helped me build up a muscle, so to speak. Now I can write a song quickly if someone needs one. Sometimes I’m hired to write a tune for a film or TV submission. But for my own recordings, I tend to let those songs come to me slowly over time. I begin playing them at shows and I let the performance dictate how the song evolves. Sometimes the melody and lyrics change. The song is done when I settle into a comfortable space with it on stage.
J.P.:While watching you perform I actually turned to the wife and said, “How is a guy like Jonathan Mayer making millions and playing Madison Square Garden and a guy like Eric Kufs playing the farmer’s market?” And, Eric, I don’t mean that as an insult to either of you. You’re both excellent. But have you figured out the music business at all? Like, what it takes to be rich and famous and secure? And is that even your ultimate goal?
E.K.: Jon Mayer wrote a lot of accessible pop songs. Combined with his great guitar playing and boyish look a record company had very little trouble selling him as a product to a wide range of people, young and old.
I never had aspirations to write that kind of music and I’ve always stayed true to my own sensibilities and interests as an artist. This fact and my deficiency in the art of self-promotion have made it difficult to attain that level of financial success. That said, within those parameters I always felt like there was room for success in one way or another. The music business is wide open. It only takes one song to be a hit on YouTube or wherever and this can lead you to something like a career. As in anything there’s always a bit of timing and luck involved.
J.P.: I know you’re from East Meadow, N.Y., I know you live in LA. But what’s your musical path? Like, birth to now, how did you get here? First instrument? First musical love?
E.K.: After playing New York City clubs for a few years in my teens, I came out to Los Angeles with my band from high school, Common Rotation. We lived in a house in LA not far from where I live now and recorded an album with the band They Might Be Giants. We toured for a few years with them promoting that album. The band evolved from a more pop rock type outfit into a folkier indie singer/songwriter group. After a while we began to record with acts like the Indigo Girls and Dan Bern.
When the band wasn’t touring, I started street performing as I mentioned before. This eventually led to me performing more often as a solo act. Common Rotation are my best friends from when I was a kid and we do shows when we can but right now we’re all happily supporting each other’s projects.
Currently I have two records I am recording with different producers. Both should be finished by the end of this year or early 2016. One will be a full-on soul band arrangement of tunes and the other will be a more acoustic Americana tinged album with a collection of short stories.
J.P.:In 2005, you released an album of original songs recorded on the streets of Santa Monica. Um … how does one record songs on the streets on Santa Monica? Like, literally …
E.K.: My old friend Brian Speiser, producer of many Common Rotation records and currently the sound engineer for Tedeschi/Trucks band, rented some microphones and we used a laptop and a portable pre/amp. He followed me around Santa Monica as I played folksy Woody Guthrie type originals.
I have to make that available online someday.
J.P.: I love this shit—you have a 2004 IMDB credit for playing “Guy in Cafeteria” in the TV series, “The Jury.” OK, Eric, do tell what happened, what you remember, how you landed the part. And what was your theatrical motivation behind, “Guy in Cafeteria”?
E.K.: My friend Adam Busch from Common Rotation was an actor on the show and he got me the gig. My motivation was something like … “Don’t fuck this up, don’t drop the lunch tray.”
J.P.:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
E.K.: Years ago I traveled to the upper Yukon in the dead of winter to play for two Eskimo fishing villages. In school gym we led the entire village in a sing-along of “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everly Brothers.
The lowest? Any time I play in Costa Mesa. It all blurs into one bad experience.
J.P.:Eric, random question—I’ve lived in Southern California for a year, and I’m freaking out the state is going to go completely dry. Nobody around me in the OC seems to give a shit. Do I need to chill? And what the hell is wrong with people?
E.K.: No please don’t chill. Keep freaking out. Someone should. I think there’s a denial being fueled by the hopeless reality of this frightening situation. Pray for rain. Pray for rain.
J.P.:So … you’re also a member of Common Rotation, a band you’ve been with for many years. Two questions—how have you guys survived for so long, and what can you tell me about covering a Twisted Sister tune?
E.K.: We don’t live together anymore and we don’t do long tours so that helps us keep working together. Twisted Sister: Classic Long Island band. Strong Island represent, word. “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: It’s a protest song.
• How do you feel about American Idol and The Voice?: I don’t like Karaoke contests. I think music and art competitions are not in anyone’s interest accept for those who profit most from them which are not usually the artists.
• Where’s somewhere cool in LA I need to take my wife for a night out?:Bestia … great food. Orange Creamsicle cake
• I have an ongoing debate with my friend—who has a better voice, Daryl Hall or Johnny Gill?: Daryl Hall was great but I think Johnny Gill’s is holding up better.
• One question you would ask Emmanuel Lewis were he here right now?: What was it like to meet Ronald Reagan?
• Why did you stop blogging? You’re an excellent writer.: I’m in grad school. Takes up a lot of writing time. Also I’ve been writing short stories for new album. People prefer Tweets anyway … but I’m terrible at that type of writing.
Brian Hickey is one of my all-time favorite people.
We’ve been friends since the early 1990s, when we worked together at The Review, the University of Delaware’s student newspaper. In many ways, a young Hickey was everything I wasn’t. He was hardened and tough; he smoked cigarette after cigarette; drank profusely, partied fiercely. I, on the other hand, was relatively straight laced. Rarely imbibed. Smoked pot twice. Just different, and not nearly as fun.
One thing we shared is a true love of reporting; of writing; of digging into a subject and—sometimes serendipitously—uncovering gold. From Delaware to his first gig in South Carolina to multiple jobs in Philly, Hickey has long been a reporter’s reporter. He doesn’t take shit. He demands the truth.
On Nov. 28, 2008, Hickey (I’ve never called him “Brian”) was crossing a street late at night when a car slammed into him, then mercilessly drove off, leaving my friend to die (he wrote an amazing piece about the experience for Philly Magazine). His brain swelled to dangerous levels. Two pieces of his skull had to be extracted. His odds of survival: Not very good.
And here we are.
Hickey has survived. And thrived. He’s a husband. A father. His Twitter bio reads, “Writer. Tougher than a speeding car”—and it’s true. These days, Hickey works as the Northwest Philadelphia editor at Newsworks, and blogs regularly at brianphickey.com. You can also follow him on Twitter here.
Brian Hickey, to hell with speeding cars. You’re the 221st Quaz, punk …
BRIAN HICKEY: Well, I really don’t know. Here’s what I remember: Listening to The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” and then leaving the bar where I’d met up at with some high school friends for a Thanksgiving weekend reunion of sorts.
I crossed the street, heading back to the PATCO Speedline, which is a commuter train between South Jersey and Philly. So, I was heading back to Philly around 10:15 p.m. on Black Friday. Next thing I know, it’s Christmas.
Turns out I’d gotten struck by a car less than five minutes after leaving the Collmont. The car took off, leaving me bloodied and confused in the street. A barking dog from a nearby house alerted someone who lived nearby that something was going on. He came outside and there I was, face down on the street, moaning, bleeding from the ear and back of the head, he said.
The medics came, scooped me up and ferried me off to Cooper Hospital in neighboring Camden, N.J. I’m told I was awake—and ornery at that—by the paramedics who I later met up with (when I was writing a story about it) but I don’t remember any of that.
I passed out a couple hours later in the trauma unit. Lost consciousness; in really bad shape. The police couldn’t track my wife Angie down until the next morning. So, she’s freaking out not knowing what the hell happened to me or where the hell I am. Nobody did, until a high school friend who worked at the hospital pieced it together.
So there I am, unconscious, brain swelling to dangerous levels. They had to cut two pieces of my skull out to prevent my brain bursting, for lack of a better term.
My cousin, a doctor herself, gave me about a 10 percent chance to live. I think nine of those were just to make my family feel better as they were waiting in the hospital, where my mom died three years earlier, almost to the date.
I was in a medically induced coma for about two weeks; though I didn’t really “wake up” for a couple weeks after that. But once I was stabilized enough to clear an ICU bed, I was transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philly. That was a couple days before Christmas.
I gradually came back to the land of the living and recovered at an inexplicably quick pace to the point where I finally got home on Jan. 17.
J.P.:What’s it like, knowing there’s someone out there—eating, sleeping, working, enjoying life, etc—who smashed his car into you and simply drove off? Are you still angry? Livid? At peace?
B.H.: I try not to think about it all that much, but that’s somewhat of an impossibility since I’m still tracking unsolved hit-and-runs across the country on my site. When I do think about it, though, sometimes it’s in anger, on account of someone so clearly devaluing my life in the name of getting away with their crime. I presume that’s something that survivors of all sorts of crime grapple with.
I guess if I’m at peace with it it’s because I’ve been able to talk with other victims, and their families, in the context of what they can expect from their recovery. I mean, every victim’s path is different, but if my recovery can give them some sort of hope, it’s all worth it. That probably sounds a bit cliched, but it holds true.
J.P.:You’ve devoted much of your life to writing about hit-and-run cases. It’s a huge part of your site. Why? I mean, I understand your background. But I could also see wanting to have nothing to do with the subject; with distancing yourself as much as possible.
B.H.: The way I see it is this: Before I got hit, I barely noticed these stories. That goes back to when I was covering police and fire full-time for the Press of Atlantic City. Hit-and-runs didn’t register as much as they should have. And when I recovered, I didn’t see these stories getting much more attention than one-day hits in the papers and on the local TV news. So, I committed myself to bring as much attention to them as possible.
I’ve never been the type of person who distanced myself from painful memories. I mean, when my mom died of brain cancer in 2005, the first thing I did after crying myself to sleep was wake up and write a column about her. Nothing good ever comes out of hiding from pain. And from my efforts in the hit-and-run awareness realm, I’ve heard from countless people that I’m the reason they pay attention to the cases.
J.P.:How did that experience change you, long term? Are you freaked out crossing streets? How about as a father? Are there lingering trauma flashes? Flashbacks? Etc?
B.H.: Truth be told, having a child had more of a lasting impact on my life than getting hit by the car and almost dying.
Louden was born about a year and a half later. I was pretty much all the way back at that point, from a brain-recovery standpoint. I’ll sometimes get nervous when I hear a car speeding up the street, but it’s more about making sure my son’s safe than myself. I haven’t pulled the “Louden, look at these pics of daddy’s head without skull flaps” scare tactic or anything like that, but we make it patently clear that he is to be careful when about to cross the street. I’m sure most parents are the same way, though. And I’m sure I’d be too, even without having been through what I went through.
J.P.: You and I came up together at the University of Delaware. Student newspaper editors, a love of reporting and writing. So, I wonder, gazing back 20 years—was it worth it? Is a life in media what you thought/hoped it’d be? Would you advise a college kid now to go for it?
B.H.: Oh, it was absolutely worth it. I’d probably answer that a little different if I hadn’t had the foresight to give up my love of print journalism and see that you could do the same thing—and even do it better—online.
While I used to bitch and moan if an editor wanted me to take a picture with a story—saw it as beneath a reporter to have to do both—now I’m beyond happy to take a multimedia approach to all stories I report. Instead of just 12-14 inches of copy, I can report a story, livetweet it with snippets and photos when I’m out there, and put together a full package of coverage.
We never learned how to do that; hell, nobody would have known you’d have to do that when I graduated in 1995, just a year after getting my first email account. But the whole process of relearning a trade has been exhilarating and gotten my stories out to a much wider audience than working at a lone newspaper could.
Now, would I tell someone to get into media now? If that’s what they see their life path as, and for good reasons, sure. But I’m actively planting seeds to make sure Louden follows in his mom’s more lucrative health-and-science path (or to become America’s version of Lionel Messi without needing growth hormones). Either/or would be A-OK with me.
As a cub reporter in South Carolina
J.P.:What’s your life path? I mean, I know you’re an East Coast guy who went to Delaware. But when did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Why? And how’d you get from there to here?
B.H.: I first got steered toward writing by a high school teacher by the name of Paul Steltz. I never had Steltz as a teacher, but he was the Haddon Township High School student newspaper advisor.
I reckon he got word from my teachers that I was a decent writer. And I also reckon he got word that I was a bit of a nuisance in class. So, they figured the way to focus my talents—instead of blurting out one liners in class because I’d already read and understood the assignments, so boredom developed—was to get me into the paper.
By the time I was picking colleges, having a quality journalism department was a non-starter. If the school didn’t have one, I didn’t consider it a viable option. There was really never a moment when I entertained being anything but a writer from my early teens on. This, even though I was markedly better at math.
J.P.: In 2008 you briefly left journalism to work as the campaign manager for John Dougherty, who ran—and lost—in the Democratic primary race for the Pennsylvania First District State Senate campaign. A. Why? B. What was the experience like? C. When did you realize you weren’t going to win? And what does it feel like to fall short in an election?
B.H.: Well, I’d gotten a bit bored at my job at the time. Being the managing editor of an alt-weekly is very cool, but I was five years in and was eager for a change.
I’d known Dougherty from covering politics in Philly for several years, and liked him (though not to the point where it impacted my coverage of him). He mentioned that he was thinking about running for the seat and, at the time, he would have run against a fellow named Vince Fumo, a cocky-as-fuck guy who always trumpeted his Mensa membership to the point where I went and took the genius test explicitly to pass and then use as fodder for my weekly column any time he brought it up.
Well, Fumo has a heart attack amid a corruption scandal. Drops out of the race. Which sucked, because a Fumo/Dougherty race from the inside would have been book- and/or documentary-worthy afterwards. That was the shiny object that convinced me it was OK to take a chance at having to leave journalism forever (or at least for a while).
A lot, lot, lot of hours go into working on a campaign staff. I didn’t fully understand how much went into campaigns, even while covering them as a journalist. The experience has helped me while covering campaigns now that I’m back on the journalism side of things, too.
I didn’t realize John wasn’t going to win until about an hour after polls closed. He’d been polling well and we saw good turnout that day. I blame Hillary Clinton for winning a primary that meant the Pennsylvania primary was contested to the point where quote-unquote progressives would be flocking to the polls in the sections of the city less inclined to vote for a boisterous union boss.
With Angela on their wedding day
J.P.:You started your career in 1995 at the Florence Morning News in Florence, S.C.—a town I’ve visited, and don’t need to visit again. What was the gig like? How’d you land it? And what’s your most memorable experience from those 13 months?
B.H.: Oh, it’s like any other gig when you start at a 35K-circulation paper. You’re working a lot of hours for very little money, always seeking the story that you can use to write your way out to a bigger paper.
I started as the business reporter, oddly enough.
I landed that job after having sent out about 200 resumes and clips packets across the country while at Delaware. Drove down for an interview and found out a couple weeks later that I got the job. So, I went to a weekend of Grateful Dead shows at RFK with college friends, went home, packed up the car and moved to a part of the country where I’d only been once before: That being for the job interview.
I loved the idea of living somewhere new, though. And it helped burst the bubble that all northeasterners have: There are people in other parts of the country, and their stories are no less important because of where they live.
The most memorable experience from those 16 months had to be interviewing Luther Campbell in advance of a show he was putting on at the Florence Civic County Convention Center (or something like that; all I remember is that it was near the Waffle House). It was a phone interview, but he made sure to set aside a couple backstage passes. Me and my co-worker Bailey went. And we were hanging out in the loading dock doing recreational inhaling when Biggie Smalls and crew pulls up. He was the opening act. I had no idea who he was at the time, other than being the type of gentleman who will invite strangers into his recreational-inhaling circle.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
B.H.: I’m not one who puts a lot of stock in journalism awards, but winning Best Weekly Columnist in Pa., and second place for distinguished writing once or twice, was pretty cool.
Also pretty cool was breaking stories in 1996 that tied KKK wannabes to a series of African-American church arsons. Yeah, that was way cooler than winning any awards, as was writing a column about the need to take the Confederate flag down at the South Carolina statehouse. The column drew death threats, but I will misguidedly claim that it helped start the process that saw the flag come down two decades later.
The lowest point was covering a gruesome sexual assault trial where information that I’d unknowingly included in my copy led friends of the victims to figure out who they were. I still live with that. And it really, really sucks.
B.H.: I think I’d have a better answer for that if I went to a shrink.
Part of the reality-TV blogging comes from re-learning how to write after getting hit-and-ran. It was a way to get back into the flow while still essentially confined to home. But, I do love it still; I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the people I write about on these shows often get in touch after the fact to either laugh alone or threaten me with legal action that will never see the light of day.
• Three memories from this video: 1. How happy I was not to be a virgin at that point in my life; 2. How happy I was knowing that this segment would be something the world could collectively lord over you beyond the foreseeable future; 3. How cool it was to make a cameo on a local-news show that people at home (in South Jersey) would see.
• One question you would ask Imelda Marcos were she here right now?: Which pair of shoes did you always want but never got?
• How did you propose to your wife?: At Love Park in Philadelphia, en route to her work’s Christmas party. (She knew it was coming some point in the near future since we’d looked at rings together, but not that it was happening that night.)
Second, why she’s here: Because Mashaw McGuinnis is named Mashaw McGuinnis. Because Mashaw McGuinnis teamed up with Betty White on The New $25,000 Pyramid. Because Mashaw McGuinnis nearly died of Lyme Disease. Because Mashaw McGuinnis has this insanely riveting family background that includes guns and shooting and such.
MASHAW MCGUINNIS: Many years ago, I rescued a mama dog from life on a chain and her seven puppies. After a weeks of awkward/tense interactions with her tweaker owners and lots of stressing out about where I could find a home for them, I connected with a woman who connected me to a local rescue group specifically for abused animals.
During the grueling process, I wrote a story about the experience from the sad dog’s perspective and added photos to show how desperate they were before the rescue. Their situation was horrific. I was able to eventually get them into a shelter, thanks to the impact of those photos and story. The place was already crowded but they made room in a barn stall because they were so moved by the pictures.
The story and pics also helped me and raise money through friends’ donations (to pay a portion towards their spaying/neutering/feeding, etc.). After they went into the shelter I went back to my normal life and thinking, “My work here is done.” And I lost contact.
Seven years later, I was searching for a used card table on Craigslist and called a number. When the woman on the other end of the line heard my name she started crying. “You said your name was MASHAW?! I can’t believe it! You must be the one who rescued my Sadie!”
She told me when she adopted Sadie (the mama dog) the rescue shelter had given her a copy of the story and photos. (They may have given those to the other adopters—I don’t know.)
When I went over to get the card table there was this beautiful, round-bellied dog who had been skin and bones all those years before and living on a chain. She bounced in and out through the open back door with a second dog, their tails were wagging and thumping and they had an enormous dog bed in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded by dog toys. A completely opposite environment of what the mama dog had lived in when I found her.
Sadie’s “mom” unfolded a wrinkled sheet of paper and showed it to me. It was that same story, and I could tell it had been folded and refolded hundreds of times over the years. She said, “I always prayed that I would find the kind person who gave Sadie a second chance at life.” She was crying and I was crying. Makes me tear up even now all these years later as I remember it. I mean, Jeff what are the odds?! I’m working on getting that story published somewhere.
J.P.:You’ve suffered through Lyme Disease—so much so that you call it a “monster.” This fascinates me, because—naivety as my guide—I’ve never thought much about it. So how did you get Lyme Disease? What’s the experience like? And why, “monster”?
M.M.: My husband and I lived near a marsh and our cats were coming and going and brought in ticks with them. Neither one of us found the tick on us, or found evidence of a bite. No bull’s-eye rash, nothing. I had mysterious, horrible symptoms for two years that no doctor could explain.
I got so sick I could hardly walk but I had no idea what was wrong with me. I saw specialist after specialist and no one could tell me what was wrong. I had X-rays, ultrasound, blood tests, nerve conduction tests, etc. It went on for two years until I found a doctor who knew what it was. By then it had progressed and I was on disability. (The Lyme bacteria is called a “spirochete” and is a distant cousin to syphilis. Imagine what that disease could do if you had it and it went undiagnosed for two years!) Many Lyme sufferers are misdiagnosed as having Parkinsons, M.S. and even A.L.S.
I was so weak I couldn’t stand up in the shower long enough to wash my hair. I was in constant pain and didn’t care if I lived any more. I had to go on antibiotics for three years (yes, that’s right, it’s not a typo) plus an IV antibiotic for about four months and now I am finishing up with really strong herbal tinctures. I was a strong, vibrant massage therapist and I can never return to that occupation. After a few years I started writing to try and reinvent myself so I wouldn’t have to stay on disability. There aren’t many occupations you can do from your bed but I thought I could try writing. That led to my Betty White story.
J.P.:So in 1983 you appeared with Betty White on The New $25,000 Pyramid. Which is, truly, awesome and insane. What do you remember? Why’d you do the show? Was it terrifying? Electrifying? Both? Neither?
M.M.: There are a lot more details than what was covered in my story. I needed the money so I could escape from my mother. That is why I did it. It was terrifying and amazing and surreal. Like it all happened in slow motion. I remember it like it was yesterday. All of those details I wrote about in my piece were from memory. The part about the “secret” of the top clue often being a verb was totally true. I discovered that and it turned out to be what helped me in the end. The longer version of the story (which has a much better story arc and a more evocative ending) was published by Shebooks in an anthology titled, Every Mother has a Story. Vol. II.
J.P.:Um, according to your bio you won “five game shows” in the 1980s. I’m riveted. Please explain, and spare no detail, how one lands on five game shows? And what are your most profound memories?
M.M.: I am writing a book-length memoir about that eight-year period of my life right now. I researched all the shows to find out which ones gave away what I wanted (cash) and which ones matched my skills. I have never been good at rote learning (I barely squeaked by in high school subjects except for English) so I chose word games and communication games. That research served me well. I won on The Pyramid, as well as Scrabble, (three-day champ), a show called Fantasy on NBC, and two cable shows: Sweethearts and Straight to the Heart. I reached my limit because the networks have laws about how many you can go on in a decade so after I was forced to “retire” I went to work for Goodson/Toddman, one of the most famous game show companies in the world. Not surprisingly, i wound up working in (of course) the contestant department.
J.P.:You never went to college. So, um, how did this happen for you? What’s your life path to becoming a writer?
M.M.: Ironically, I went to college in my 40s and was working on a B.A. in English and that was when I was struck down with Lyme Disease. I had to drop out about halfway through. I was too weak to walk across the parking lot, let alone sit in class for 90 minutes at a time and do work. The rest of the answer is in the second paragraph under “what was your highest/lowest point” question below.
J.P.:Are game shows bullshit? I guess what I mean is, is it sorta like a really big display of Christmas lights, where behind the glow is just a bunch of bulbs? Is there a magic to them? Or merely from afar?
M.M.: They are for real and the production companies as well as the networks take them very seriously. All of the shows have researchers and writers and the networks have strict guidelines about keeping the contestants in the studio in a secluded space so no one can claim their competitors somehow had access to answers later on and demand a repeat.
That being said, there are not many game shows still on today. Television styles, like everything else, ebbs and flows. After my heyday in the 80s the trend went to daytime talk shows, then it was reality shows and now it seems to be “Dancing with the Stars” and singing competition type shows. I predict game shows will return at some point and be just as popular as before. And when they do I may just try out for one.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
M.M.: The lowest point: Hands down it is getting Lyme Disease. No comparison in my life even comes close.
Highest? I can’t say it is any one thing but the day I got the e-mail from Good Housekeeping (I mean they are a big, major magazine with millions of subscribers) saying they wanted to buy my story, well, I felt like I had taken speed. I couldn’t sleep for days. Imagine being as sick as I described above, then being told your productive years are completely over and you’re only 45. Imagine you have no college degree and no chance of completing the one that was in progress. Imagine you were expected to live on disability for the rest of your life.
Then you try a completely new thing you never tried (writing) and after a few years you suddenly sell a personal story to a major Hearst publication! To go from the depths of disease and face permanent disability to an achievement like that was like being touched by the divine.
I don’t know much about your background, Jeff. I know you’re a sports writer and you have several books. You’ve been published in some really big magazines. But I’m guessing you went to college. You got a degree. Maybe you came from a family where that’s what people did. I came from a tough, blue-collar family and many of my family members have been in and out of jail and on and off welfare. Most didn’t even graduate high school.
You worked at your occupation for a long time and achieved those things over time, right? And you had not been told by doctors you could possibly be in bed for the rest of your life. Just imagine coming from where I came from and getting deathly ill, giving up hope and then getting an e-mail from Good Housekeeping saying you have achieved professional writer status, you’re being published in a national magazine. It was an enormously pivotal (as well as validating) point for me. That event opened the door of hope and made me believe I could still achieve something worthwhile. Like I was still a human being. And I have something to offer others.
J.P.:What’s your writing process? You have a piece due on [fill in the blank] in [fill in the blank] weeks. Soup to nuts, what’s the process?
M.M.: Depends on how my health is and if I have energy. I am freelance so it’s not like I have a weekly deadline. I am still learning. I go to as many writing workshops as I can afford and I buy as many books on writing as I can. I submit to magazines. I spend most of my time working on the first two chapters of the book about my eight years of game shows while completing my book proposal. The game show stories will be juxtaposed with my family’s incarcerations and scandals during those years similarly to the way my rocky relationship with my mother was juxtaposed with my Pyramid experience. And in case you know of an interested literary agent, here’s my elevator pitch:
”Winner’s Circle: Competing to win a Normal Family” is about a plucky 19-year-old who is short on life experience and poise, but long on grit, with a mouthful of braces to somehow pay for and a scrappy family of delinquents to escape from.
She sets out to pay her bills becoming a serial game show winner, only to discover her method could also erase the stigma of her working class roots. But the journey forces her to come to grips with something she cannot erase: her true feelings about people she loves. It’s “The Glass Castle” meets “Slumdog Millionaire”
Mashaw with her mother.
J.P.:According to something you wrote, your mom was a suicidal drug addict who went to jail after shooting three neighbors. Um … what? Please elaborate about your mother, if you don’t mind.
M.M.: Actually my biological mother was the drug addict. I was legally adopted by her mother (my grandmother) and she was the one who shot three neighbors.
It happened in July of 1969 and it was during a drunken brawl in our front yard. The neighbors across the street were having a loud party with a lot of drinking and came over and started beating up my dad. There were about a dozen men surrounding my dad in the front yard and they were beating him with bicycle tire chains. My mom (grandma) called the police (this was decades before 911) and she came out with a handgun they kept in case of emergencies and shot three of them. No one was killed (thank god!) A lengthy civil suit went on for years and we won, but it broke my parents in court costs and we had to sell the house. They were already into their mid 50s with four kids, so they were never able to buy property again. You’ll have to wait for my book for the full story, haha.
J.P.:You worked as a correctional facility guard and a Disney elf. What are your most profound memories from the gigs?
M.M.: It was a juvenile correctional facility and I remember working graveyard shifts and I’d get so sleepy that to stay awake I would go get the inmates’ files and read through them. They were all so horrible and tragic. Even more so than my family. They were just kids. Some of their parents had prostituted them, forced them to sell drugs, etc. I had nightmares a lot when I worked there and always said someday I would write a book about the experience.
The Disney elf job was my best paying job up until that time. I was an intermittently employed actor when i landed that gig: $175 per day and I only worked for 10 minutes every two hours, five times a day. We did a live musical Christmas extravaganza on stage before the movie screened. Our portion was only 10 minutes and once the film started we could leave the theater and go home or walk around Hollywood for two hours!
The film that played there when I was an elf was “The Three Muskateers.” The theater was called The El Capitan and it was right on Hollywood Blvd. it has been remodeled and I think it’s called something different now. I loved that job and one reason I was cast instead of the hundreds of other actors who wanted the job was was because I am 5-foot-3 and 3/4-inches tall. If I’d been 1/4 inch taller they would never have cast me.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARSHAW MCGUINNES:
• You’re the first Mashaw I know. What’s the story behind your name?: It’s pronounced “mash” like the verb plus “shaw” like rickshaw. It was my family name while growing up. I liked it better than my given first name which was Sue. I legally changed it when I was 25.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Thankfully no, I haven’t flown much in my life so i haven’t had that experience. I’m not crazy about the idea of flying.
• The five greatest writers of your lifetime?: Does my lifetime mean they were alive when I was growing up? I was a huge Stephen King fan and still am, but I just can’t read his books because they give me nightmares. Literally. But he is incredibly talented. Steinbeck is my all time favorite modern lit writer, (though we only shared the planet for five years so I’m not sure he qualifies as my lifetime).
• Best sentence you’ve ever written?: I almost answered, but it is part of a story that has not yet published. It’s a description of the dilapidated fence that surrounded the property where I discovered that undernourished mama dog.
• One question you would ask Manute Bol were he here right now?: I would have to ask, “Who are you?” since I don’t know his/her name. I’m guessing he/she plays sports because you are a sports writer. OK, I just Googled him. He’s tall! I would not ask him something about basketball or his height. Instead I’d ask him what his favorite book is.
• What does Chuck Woolery’s breath smell like?: Ha! You are funny. I cannot recall, since we stood close more than 20 years ago. I do remember though that he drove a Maserati and had a parking spot at NBC with his name on it.
• What’s the easiest giveaway that someone’s an asshole?: If he/she does anything intentionally harmful to an animal or child. No more evidence is needed.
• In exactly 24 words, can you make a case for Madonna being more talented than Albert Einstein?: I don’t care for Madonna’s style but talent is subjective. She probably has some kind which even Einstein lacks, and Einstein would probably agree.
• I think male bodies are gross. Why do so many women seem to like us?: Simply put: Because they are different than the ones we see in the mirror every day.
So this is sorta weird, but when I initially sent Genny Sokoli these questions, I figured she was, oh, 25, 26. Maybe even 30.
She’s eh, 16.
Which again, might sound weird. Like, why is a 43-year-old writer Quazing a 16-year-old kid. But this only means you need to hear her voice, and some of the songs she’s written. Because, age be damned, Genny Sokoli—the latest Quaz musical discovery—can straight up bring it. Hell, take a listen here. And here. And here. Big voice, fantastic poise, potentially huge future. Lord knows when she’s opening for Taylor Swift two years from now she won’t have time to do a Q&A with an old sportswriter. So … why not now?
Plus, there’s the story: Imagine being a parent, having a 16-year-old kid, and letting her move to Nashville to follow her dream—without you. How would you feel? Could you even fathom such a scenario?
Genny Sokoli, congrats on being the youngest Quaz. Remember us when you blow up …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Genny, if you happened to read any of the other Quazes, you’ll know I lean toward the unconventional. So here I go: In your bio, you (or someone) write: “A little girl with a big dream is what they said…today, it is a young woman with a big responsibility. A responsibility? Yeah. Dreams are great and all, but it is our duty to run them to the ends of the universe to be the best we can be.” So … I’m not entirely sure what this means. Millions of kids dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees; of singing a duet with Taylor Swift; of becoming an astronaut—and 99 percent fall short. So does this mean they have failed their duty? What are you trying to say?
GENNY SOKOLI: When I was a little girl all I ever wanted to do was become an artist; I didn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I don’t think that people who fall short in making their dreams a reality are failing; I think that people who do not try are. I am a firm believer that we are obliged to not just give our dreams a shot, but rather truly try to make them a reality. You look at young kids and so many of them have this vision perfectly planned in their heads of what they want to do with their lives. Somewhere along the road, many young people lose that imagination and youthful eagerness.
I never let myself believe that I couldn’t be everything I wanted to be and more. I want to set an example for people, especially my generation, that it is not merely a dream … it is a responsibility to live your talents and passions to your fullest ability. If that kid wants to be a shortstop on the Yankees he better be on that field every single day fighting to be that shortstop. If a young girl or boy wants to be an astronaut, they better study hard to be one. Don’t let society or life get in the way of your heart. I was given an amazing opportunity to pursue my dream at a young age; it would have been very irresponsible had I not taken it. That’s why I listed it as my responsibility.
J.P.:So I’m no singer, which might make this question sound naïve. But I just watched a video of you singing Florida Georgia Line’s “Never Let Her Go,” (beautifully, I must say), and your facial expressions and body/hand gestures suggest you’re truly feeling something as you sing; feeling the emotions of the song. But are you? Is it sort of feeling, sort of acting? Neither? Both? And how—especially if you didn’t write a song—can one feel emotion from another’s lyrics?
G.S.: Thank you very much! That song is absolutely one of my favorites. Being only 16, many people have been curious about how I can relate to a lot of the songs that I write and sing. I always tell them that I feel them. The art is not in the sound or the words; it is in the communication. I am a very, very empathetic person. I write and sing about that. I never had my husband of 20 years leave me out of the blue. I never had someone close to me die. I never had to choose between two men who I loved. I’m 16; I can’t say I went through any of that. What I can say, though, is that I have seen people go through it. I have felt their pain; I stayed up nights crying for them … with them. So yes, it is my emotions that you were seeing, but I had to “become” that person in order to find them.
J.P.: So you recently moved to Nashville to pursue your dreams. Which is what many singers do. So, Genny, how do you go about this from here? Like, you’re one of thousands blessed with a great voice and pretty looks to try and make it in the music world. But how does one do it? What’s your plan?
G.S.: Coming to Nashville was the best decision my family ever let me make. This town is filled with phenomenally talented artists, musicians and writers. I have seen a lot of people get discouraged by knowing that. I am not. I welcome the challenge to better my craft. I can sing, I can write, I can dance, etc. … but none of that means anything unless I constantly better myself for the people who believe in me. That is what I am working on, the art. My main goal right now is to get to my fans, and I don’t mean just physically. I mean really get to them. If my song or my message can help one person cry through a breakup listening to a song on her phone, or get over a dilemma by coming out to a show, than I am the happiest I can be. Right now, I am taking it person by person, song by song and feeling by feeling. The goal is to be able to reach the masses, but you have to start one by one.
J.P.: OK, so I know you were born in New York and raised in Michigan; I know you moved 13 times. But what’s been your life path? Like, when did you first know you wanted to sing? What was your first performance? Your first WOW! moment?
G.S.: My life path has certainly been interesting in these short 16 years. My mother and father always chased opportunities to better our lives, and I truly was blessed even though things got tough sometimes. Moving so many times, within such a short amount of time, was really stressful, but it was a blessing in disguise. Every time I would go to a new town and a new school I had to build a new life. New friends, new culture, new experiences. Doing this has helped me so much in connecting with people. I know how to relate to a whole lot of them! My mom and dad are still out in New York City; my brother is going to college in three weeks, and me and my 21-year-old sister, Ilirjana, are taking on Nashville!
My mom and dad are both artists, so art has been a huge part in our lives. My father was a professional musician so we would always be around music, and the “behind the scenes” stuff that would go on, and my mother always instilled in us this passionate love for music. Music is all I ever wanted to do. My mom jokes around all the time, that I came into this world singing. I have a million home videos being in a “band” with my siblings and cousins, starting when I was as young as two. It’s great! My first performance was when I was eight in front of about 1,200 people whp were at a party my father threw for New Year’s Eve. It was the craziest! My absolute most memorable moment so far was when I sang to two of my favorite artists, Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson (Love and Theft). My sister took me out to their show in New York City and I got the opportunity to sing in front of DJ Du, his family and his team. Then I got up and performed to their fans after the show as they were waiting for a meet and greet. I can’t explain the feeling, but it was crazy hearing everyone quiet down to listen to me, and that wasn’t even the highlight of the night! We ended up meeting the guys, and I sang to them as well. Their reactions were priceless to me. Since moving here, I’ve gotten a chance to talk to them, and they truly are some of the greatest people. My sister tells me that night was the night she decided to move us down to Nashville. It was that special.
J.P.:How, at 16, was the decision made that you’d move with your sister away from home? How do your folks feel? What about high school? Friends? Etc?
G.S.: Moving away at 16 was probably the hardest decision my parents ever had to make, but in a way the decision was pretty simple. I had an amazing opportunity to work with some awesome people in this town. Once we got the ball rolling it was apparent that the only way to really do it was move here. Unfortunately my dad couldn’t leave his job, and my brother was finishing his senior year of high school so no one else could come down with us. My folks are extremely supportive, but I can only imagine the hurt. My sister is probably the most responsible person ever so they really trust her. And my mom is actually visiting for a little bit now.
The biggest challenge moving here was high school. I have such a busy and unconventional schedule that I have to be home schooled. Ilirjana is home schooling me for now! She rocks as a teacher, but, I’m not going to lie, she is a lot tougher than a lot of my other teachers. She doesn’t miss the opportunity to teach me everything and anything. It’s all critical thinking, too. For example, when we were on the lesson of the Constitution, she wouldn’t move on from the lesson until she could give me any modern law and I had to trace it back to the Constitution; explaining its significance in an essay. At school, you had some multiple choice questions and it was done. I love learning, so it truly has been great. Not being able to have a regular high school experience isn’t always easy. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I miss it, but nothing worth having comes easily.
I have a ton of friends here. Most of them are significantly older, but I feel like I learn so much from all of them. Moving here has been a huge sacrifice for everyone in my family, but it’s been such an amazing ride so far and it isn’t even the beginning. I am very blessed.
J.P.:I actually started my career in Nashville, as a Tennessean music writer. The year was 1994, and the goal for all artists was to land a record deal. There was no YouTube, no Twitter, no instant fame via the Internet. It was record deal or bust. You, however, are in the midst of a business now sorta guided by social media. So how can you use all the different web mediums to carve out a career? To make it big? Or are you, like those singers in 1994, itching for the record deal route, too?
G.S.: Ah I love this question so much! I am not at all rushing to get a record deal, or any deal for that matter. Right now I am chasing opportunities to connect to people. Social media is a big part of that. I know that in some ways it has made society less social, but at the same time we are more connected than ever. I love going on Instagram and making someone’s day by saying they are beautiful, or acknowledging them … even if they are 1,000 miles away. I love having a platform that I can share my love, music, and message out to so many people instantaneously. I love being able to connect with peers and you, Jeff! Social media is a great way to get to fans, listen to them and learn from them. They are the reason any artist is who they are; it is a blessing to be able to connect to them more personally at any time.
G.S.: That debate is certainly an eternal one. I have to agree with both you and your wife, Jeff. I don’t think it takes away from an artist if they do not write their own material; writing and performing are different arts. As an artist you have this message you want to give out to your fans, you know what it is and your heart can feel it. How you get that across shouldn’t be judged as wrong or right. If you want to write it, sing it, play it, draw it, sculpt, or paint it. Whether or not an artist is connecting to his/her fans is where the debate should lie. To me, writing my material adds a more personal note to my music. Personally, I want to connect with people using both platforms—writing and performing.
J.P.:Lowest moment of your career thus far? Highest?:
G.S.: Oh boy. Well the lowest point in my career was working with someone who didn’t capture my ideas, and losing quite a bit of money in the process. The height of my career so far has been people and other artists around town taking me seriously. I’m not some 16-year-old kid trying to get an easy break to the top. With the support of our family, my sister and I have worked very hard for every opportunity we have gotten. It’s so nice having your peers respect that.
J.P.:You write that you’re working with Malcolm Springer, who produced bands like Collective Soul, Matchbox 20, Fear Factory, Full Devil Jacket, and Greenwheel. So … how did this happen? How’d you hook up? What’s he like to work with? Is it intimidating? Hard? Cool? And what are you, specifically, working on?
G.S.: Oh Malcolm Springer—he is a musical genius, and a good friend of mine. About two years ago, my sister bought me my first little USB Microphone from the Guitar Center in Paramus, N.J. The guy who sold it to her was an engineer who worked with Mal in the past. He loved my voice, and really believed in me. We got connected through him. Knowing Mal worked with some huge rock bands was kind of intimidating at first, but that feeling went away real quick and got replaced with awe. The first place I ever recorded was at the House of Blues Studios in Nashville, the same studio Elvis, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles sang in. I still get butterflies in my stomach thinking about it. My experience working with Malcolm has been a very educational one. Right now we aren’t working on any project together.
J.P.:Your sister is your manager. I say this with all due respect, but is that the best idea? It seems like the roads are littered with family management interests gone bad. What does your sis know about the business? Why her? Is it hard keeping business divided from personal?
G.S.: I really like this question, too. My sister has always been the brains behind me since day one. I have heard many disaster stories about familial conflicts as well, but our relationship is a bit different. When it comes to business, she is all logic. When it comes to me, she is my big sister and best friend. We are a package deal. We even write songs together. The music industry is like the Wild West—there are no rules. We are building them together, creating our own normal. She teaches me every day about art, love, business, communicating and even modeling for pictures. The way I was raised made the relationships with my siblings so concrete; it’s us against the world. No career, no money, no conflict ever gets between that. Ilirjana was the one who made my dream my responsibility. She was going to school full time, and working full time at an awesome job in finance in Manhattan. She dropped it all for this. It’s our career, not my career. There is no Genny Sokoli without her.
J.P.:When I was your age, and I saw other writers having huge success, I was certainly jealous. I’m not saying I wished them bad, but, well, I probably sorta did. What about you? Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, etc … etc. Do you ever hear singers with a gazillion downloads and think, “Crap, I’m better than her” or “Why is it so easy for her, and harder for me?”
G.S.: I absolutely understand where you are coming from. I don’t think its jealousy. Envy, jealousy and hatred are all very negative words to let into my head about other artists. I do hear other artists sometimes and go, “How in the world did they get there”—but not in a jealous way. I am in awe of it. I use that as fuel; a healthy dose of competitiveness is needed to be successful in anything.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GENNY SOKOLI:
• The world needs to know—what’s so great about the Tin Roof?: The world absolutely needs to know that the Tin Roof on Demonbreun Street is one of the best places in Nashville. I have met so many friends there; they have the best chicken tenders, the best sweet tea and the most awesome staff ever.
• In exactly 16 words, why does/does not Barry Bonds belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame?: He doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame until he clears that he didn’t use steroids.
• One question you would ask Aaron Carter were he here right now?: Aaron, are you really all about me?
• Would you let your kids play tackle football? Why or why not?: If that is what they love, then I absolutely will! I wouldn’t stop my kids from following their passions, or learning some lessons. I would be a stickler for safety precautions, though.
• Why are you named Genny with a G?: My parents thought they would get creative. Just kidding. They thought Jenny was spelled with a G.
• How do you feel country music will respond to openly gay performers?: It honestly could go either way. People could be absolutely fascinated by idea of it, or they will absolutely not agree at all. It would be a game changer either way.
• Three memories from your first date: I actually haven’t been on an official first date! I do remember my first kiss being in the back of my sister’s car after a show. The guy was actually taken, and I didn’t know. Needless to say, he’s the topic of a few songs. Haha.
The Houston resident and Yahoo! Sports Radio host is not only far right, but sooo far right he recently authored a book—”Bias in the Booth”—that explains why (in his opinion) the liberal sports media repeatedly distorts the news against conservatives.
I find many of Gwinn’s views wrongheaded, dumb, ignorant inane, silly … which makes him the ideal man to slide in as Quaz No. 218. First, because anyone who loves Rick Perry and values Tim Tebow has to be interesting. Second, because Gwinn is an intelligent guy. Third, because he’s not afraid to stand up and scream, “THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE—AND I KNOW MANY OF YOU HATE IT. BUT TOUGH SHIT!”
Dylan Gwinn, the secret love child of Ted Cruz and Ronald Reagan, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Dylan, before we get into more broad stuff, I wanted to ask about a specific line from your new book. You write: “We’re fast approaching the point where there’s going to be no real difference between Bob Costas and Rachel Maddow. Except one of them is a man. I think.” And—just being honest—I found this, simply, mean. Not clever, not witty, not important or helpful social commentary. Just a mean-spirited throw-away one-liner at two people who (whether you agree with their political takes or not) have accomplished a fair amount and don’t seem like bad people. I’m presuming you disagree with my assessment. Tell me why I’m wrong …
DYLAN GWINN: Meh. They can take it. Costas and Maddow have indeed accomplished a lot. I find the overwhelming majority of their “accomplishments” in the arena of political/social thought to be incredibly dangerous to the future of this country. But they are accomplished people who didn’t get where they are by being thin-skinned. So, no need to be thin-skinned for them.
I strongly disagree that it wasn’t “clever or witty.” I received dozens of Facebook and Twitter likes about that line, and, as we know Jeff, the Internet does not lie. Was it mean-spirted? Yes. But so was Anderson Cooper referring to conservative activists as “teabaggers.” So was Janeane Garofalo calling Tea Partiers “functionally retarded.” So was Al Gore calling Oliver North’s supporters the “extra chromosome right-wing.” And so was an Al Franken book called “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot.”
Comments that no doubt earned a chuckle or two from Maddow and Costas when they heard them. Were you equally appalled by that? Is what I said worse than that? Hardly.
J.P.: In your book you don’t seem particularly moved by the sagas of Jason Collins and Michael Sam—the first active openly gay players in two of our biggest team sports. For me, both (but especially Collins signing with the Nets) were huge moments, because they seemed to signify acceptance for people who long went unaccepted, and I dig that. You clearly don’t agree. Why?
D.G.: Because we don’t live in Iran. We don’t live in a country where openly or suspected gay people are made to undergo sex change operations. Or chucked off the top of the nearest mosque. Nor do we live in a country that is unaccepting of gays.
Gay marriage had been legalized in multiple states before anyone knew anything about Jason Collins’ or Michael Sam’s personal life. My city, Houston, Texas had an openly lesbian mayor at the time this went down. Barney Frank had been an openly gay U.S. congressman for decades. Anderson Cooper had come out, Ian McKellen was a known gay actor. Plus, dozens and dozens of others.
In other words, gays and lesbians had been living safely and openly in all walks of life in this country—for years—by the time Sam and Collins came out. So how moved should I have been? Were Collins and Sam the first to do it in sports? Yes. But the notion that the sports world was somehow hostile and unaccepting of gays leading up to their decision to come out is not supported. You mention Jason Collins. Jason Collins was out of the league when he decided to make his personal life known.
If the NBA were so unaccepting of gays, then why did they snatch him out of retirement and throw a Nets uniform on him? Especially when the Nets could have gotten the very low production they got from Collins from any D-League player?
Point being, Jason Collins and Michael Sam are no Vivian Malone and James Hood. The man standing in the door when Collins and Sam showed up wasn’t standing there to keep them out. He was standing there to roll out the red carpet to welcome them in. And when the league decided Sam wasn’t good enough, the man in the door picked up the phone and made sure someone found him a place to stay.
If that’s “unaccepting,” you and I have radically different definitions of the word.
Society had already changed the sports world by that point. Not the other way around. The sports world was more than ready for gay players. Collins and Sam just happened to be the first two who showed up.
J.P.: You took me to task in an interview on Breitbart Sports, RE: Sam and Tebow. I’m not upset about this at all; it’s certainly your right, and I understand. But, besides a blog post I wrote on Tebow, what makes you think the liberal sports media roots against Christian athletes? I mean, your direct quote on Breitbart was, “The sports media, by and large, see it as a dangerous rival to their statist, liberal orthodoxy. At worst, they think it should be eradicated, and at best it is simple-minded hocus pocus.” I just don’t see any evidence to support this. Hell, you took that one post (which was inspired by the Tebow family’s wackadoo missionary work, not his personal beliefs), but didn’t mention the, oh, 100 … 150 profiles I’ve written through the years on pro and college athletes of deep faith. Top of my head: J.D. Drew, Colt and Jet McCoy, Sheri Sam, Gary Sheffield (at the time he was marrying a gospel singer and devoting himself to Christ), Pierre Desir, Dylan Favre, Corey Valentine. On my Quaz Q&A series I’ve hosted myriad Christian religious figures. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve never backed away from profiling religious individuals or seen it as a reason to shun/ignore an athlete. And I can’t think of peers who actually behave differently …
D.G.: You’re drawing a distinction without a difference. All those quotes from the Tebow’s website that you use in that piece to prove that their missionary work is “wackadoo” are biblically rooted. They give chapter and verse reference for every claim made, and Christians believe that book is the basis for their religion. So, to say that your criticism of the Tebow’s missionary work—which is rooted in Christian biblical teaching—is somehow different than criticizing them for their “personal beliefs” is not in any way a meaningful distinction.
They are the same thing.
Example: At the end of your piece you say, “I don’t care how nice Tim Tebow is. If he’s in an ad for Focus on the Family; if he believes homosexuality is sinful and women are here to serve their men and Jews and Muslims and agnostics and the rest of us are sinful, well, to hell with him.”
What does any of that have to do with their missionary work? You’re not attacking their soup kitchen in Manila there. You’re attacking what they believe. Nor are the Tebow’s views on homosexuality and abortion their “personal beliefs.” In the sense that they somehow came up with it on their own. They’re beliefs rooted in biblical scripture.
You also list the Tebow’s Super Bowl ad (abortion), and “knowledge of his way of life” (inspired by faith) as reasons to be alarmed by Tebow. Not simply his father’s website and missionary work.
So that blog post—though perhaps intended to only be a criticism of their missionary work—was nothing short of a broadside at what Christians believe, not merely their preaching of what they believe to the “savages.” And your desire for him to “fail” was clearly rooted in what you perceived to be the danger of him spreading what he believes. Not just the danger of the Tebows spreading ham sandwiches and Oregon CFP Championship T-shirts throughout the Pacific Rim.
I applaud you for profiling all those Christian athletes. But that leaves me with a big question: Why?
If what Tim Tebow believes is appalling enough to you that you would want him to fail, then why would you profile, and in a way promote and raise the profile of people who believe the same thing? Tim Tebow’s views on abortion and homosexuality clearly pose a problem for you. How do you know Colt McCoy doesn’t believe the same thing?
I was at the inaugural party for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is pro-life and against gay marriage. Colt McCoy was there and gave a great speech about how important the Governor was going to be for Texas. I don’t know for a fact, but I’ll bet Colt’s views on those issues are a lot closer to the governor’s than they are to yours. Is it because Colt McCoy doesn’t have a soup kitchen in Manila, and he’s not converting “savages” with “damaging craziness”? That’s fine. But as we already established, you’re clearly irked by what Christians believe. Every bit as much, if not more than the proselytizing of it.
Evidence that the media roots against Christian athletes? How about when Dan Steinberg called Tebow “little more than an affable simpleton” and his followers “lunatic-fringe cultists” and “batspit crazy fanatics.” In Steinberg’s defense, I do believe all of those characterizations do accurately portray nearly all Florida Gator fans. Yet, somehow I don’t think those were the people ol’ Dan was referring to there.
Or, when Craig Carton said Tebow was a “fraud” who “clearly thinks he is Jesus.” Was that a statement of support?
Was Jere Longman supporting Lolo Jones when he trashed her in the Times for being “whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim” then snidely remarking that she was a “30-year-old virgin and a Christian. And oh, by the way, a big fan of Tim Tebow.”
How about when Mike Florio literally lost his mind on Pro Football Talk by suggesting that a short video put together by some Christian players about how God had positively influenced their lives might have violated state and federal law?
There are more examples. These writers/hosts may not have stated as explicitly as you did that they wanted the person they were talking about to fail. But they left no mistake about their desire to see what those particular players stood for fail. This intense anti-Christian bias from the media is something that has been noticed by others as well, not just by me. Cris Collinsworth and Randy Cross just to name a couple.
J.P.: So I know you’re from Washington, know you served in the army and the New York Fire Department. But what’s your career path? Womb to now, how did you get into sports radio? And what’s the dream? The goal?
D.G.: Ha! Your brief, but accurate portrayal of where I am, and where I came from leaves me with the feeling that I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen next. My position right now is as improbable as anything, considering where I came from.
What’s the dream? Converting Jeff Pearlman to conservatism. Some other dreams? I would love to continue writing on the liberal bias in the sports media. Maybe do it for some conservative publication? But ultimately I try not to think about the ultimate goal. Because I want to accomplish what God wants me to do. Not what I want to do.
I thought the Army was going to be my career. It wasn’t for me, there was another plan. I thought the FDNY and then maybe the NYPD were going to be my callings. Nope. I was abruptly and rudely snatched out of both. Every time I’ve tried to plan my future and figure it out myself, it has normally never worked out.
Honestly, I try to listen to my wife about what I should do. I think God speaks through her. Most of the time. Lol! She was the one who convinced me to pursue radio. She convinced me to enroll at the University of Houston so that I could get an internship at the NPR affiliate at the school. Yes, I was once at NPR. Pretty sure they started screening prospective interns a lot more closely after that.
And she was the one who took my demos from that internship and sent them to Clear Channel Houston where I eventually got hired as a traffic reporter. Unlike the NYPD, things were happening quickly and easily because it was meant to be.
I originally wanted to get into political talk radio. However, that was really hard. So much syndication and very few local opportunities. But after a few years in traffic I really wanted to get out. So I started focusing on sports. I always loved sports. Never considered myself a sports guy per se. But I always loved it. I would work overnights at traffic listening to hundreds of hours of sports talk over the course of months to prepare myself to give it a go.
Then, one of our local sports hosts left for a competitor station, and our ops manager did something that no career radio guy would ever do, and he decided to have an audition competition to fill that spot. For over a month, people locally and nationally auditioned for the spot. Then my turn came. The ill-fated Rush Limbaugh attempted purchase of the Rams was the hot topic, and an obvious high-hanging curve of a topic for someone with my skill set.
In short, I crushed it. Phone lines blew up. Callers questioned my ancestry and vowed to never listen to the station again. Ten times the reaction that anyone else got. I won the job.
I don’t know where I’m going from here. However, I’m more than happy to trust that He who created the situation that I described above, something I never in a million years could have done in my own power, will create the next situation that will lead to where I’m supposed to go. After all, He’s been far more successful in planning and advancing my career than I have.
J.P.: I can’t think of a good reason the Washington Redskins should keep the name. You’re a fan, and lord knows I’m sure you disagree. I’m all ears, Dylan. Make your case.
D.G.: Well, I can finally agree with you on something Jeff. I agree that we completely disagree about what the Redskins should do about their name.
I can’t think of a single reason why the Redskins should change their name. And that’s because this is a political issue, not a racial/racist issue. When 90 percent of Indians are not offended by the Redskins. Yet, over 90 percent of white and black sports commentators are. What you have is a political movement, not racism.
The left hates Daniel Snyder because he’s a Republican, donates to Republican causes, and frequently hosts Brit Hume and Chris Wallace in his owner’s box. Meanwhile, Ted Turner, who founded the Clinton News Network and gives billion dollar donations to the UN, while owning the Indian-themed Atlanta Braves, skates by with no charges of racism whatsoever.
Now, some will make the case that the Braves is not an obvious racial slur like Redskin, and that’s why the Braves don’t get the same amount of hate. But this is of course disingenuous. Because, as anyone who’s kept track of the anti-Indian mascot movement knows, the goal is not to get rid of the Redskins and then quit. The goal is to get rid of all Indian-themed mascots.
A cat that’s been let out of the bag by Keith Olbermann who said that the movement will target the Cleveland Indians after the Redskins. And also by the NCAA, which has targeted all Indian-themed mascots, including the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. Even though there is nothing offensive about the Fighting Sioux, and the Sioux population of North Dakota largely supported the name.
So clearly, it’s not just about the Redskins. This is a political movement run by activists who clearly have the goal of manufacturing outrage in the hopes of using it—through their willing accomplices in the media—to exercise control over the property rights of billionaires.
There just happens to be a big liberal/UN donor who runs a network that liberals love who happens to be largely exempt. Go figure.
As far as the Redskins name being an obvious pejorative, or, and this is my favorite, synonymous with the N-word … please. There are literally dozens of school-affiliated and junior league sports teams on Indian reservations across the country that use the name Redskins.
How many school-affiliated and junior league sports teams are there that call themselves the n***ers? According to my research staff (Google) that answer is zero. Why? Because it wouldn’t be allowed. Because the word n***er and the word Redskin are not looked at as being anywhere close to the same thing.
Not to mention the fact that we have historical record of Indians referring to themselves as Redskins in treaty negotiations with the white people. Whom they referred to as “White faces.” So, this is quite frankly a load of BS. It’s a political movement, plain and simple, and the Redskins are right to fight it.
D.G.: Well, I didn’t get bad reviews from any conservative sites. So it must be a liberal agenda! Lol! In all honesty, it would be more than a little disingenuous for me to write a book about the presence of liberal bias in the media, and then get offended or upset when charter members of the liberal media establishment like the CJR get offended by it. If anything that review just made my point. So no, I expected that bastion of collectivism at the CJR to react that way. And in fact, I was happy when they did.
You’re going to piss someone off in this business no matter what you do. At least you better. Otherwise, you’re probably not saying anything meaningful or worthwhile. The question becomes, are you pissing the right people off? For me, as a conservative writer, the right people to piss off would be the Columbia Journalism Review.
Not that that’s a stated intention of my writing when I begin. But it confirms that I’ve driven home and made my point when people like that recoil in outrage.
As far as whether or not it stings? Talk radio has toughened me up and prepared me well for this moment. And again, when you believe that you’re doing what God wants you to do, you tend to not concern yourself with the ankle biting of dullards.
J.P.: Your take, which I can understand to a degree, is that sports have changed; that they used to be escapism, but now a certain “political correct hysteria” is ruining things. Dylan, from reading your words, I sorta feel like, were we transported back in time to 1947, you’d be strongly against the integration of Major League Baseball. You’d say sports aren’t a place for social experimentation; that we should just focus on the games; that it’s all a big liberal conspiracy. I can’t imagine you agree with me—but I’m pretty sure I’m right. No?
D.G.: No. You are not right. I’m glad this question was brought up though. Because it cannot be stated enough: MY BOOK IS ABOUT THE SPORTS MEDIA.
NOT about Michael Sam and Jason Collins as people. I do have some issue with the way Sam turned from being “just another football player” to suddenly becoming an overt activist. But of course, even the left was souring on him by that point. But I do not have an issue—on general principle—with gay people playing in the NFL. My issue in the book was in the way Michael Sam and Jason Collins were covered by the sports media.
So, to use the Jackie Robinson analogy; had the sports media blown Jackie Robinson up to be a far better player than he actually was, as they did with Michael Sam, and had the media gushed over Robinson the way they did Sam, fresh off of demonizing another player (Tebow) who was a genuinely good kid, then yeah, I would have been upset.
But again, my anger would have been directed at the media, not Robinson. The same way my anger now is directed at the media, not Sam.
J.P.: I wanna get back to Tebow, because he’s a pretty hot topic in your book. If the media was so hard on Tebow, why was he written about and discussed nonstop? I mean, he was 24/7/365 for a good stretch—and not merely in the “this guy sucks” realm (and, lord knows, he pretty much sucked) and rarely/never in the “Watch out for the fundamentalist.” realm. Mainly, I thought, he was a fascinating figure, and people wanted to hear more and more about him. Just as Michael Sam was fascinating. What am I missing, Dylan?
D.G.: Well wait a minute. Where is it written that just because someone is covered extensively, it means that person is being covered positively? In fact, I would argue there’s almost an inverse relationship between the amount of coverage a person/story gets, and the positive coverage that person gets. What determines who gets covered and what determines how they get covered are two entirely different things.
When LeBron left Cleveland for Miami, he was “written and discussed about nonstop.” Because he was a fascinating story. He was the best player in the world and people couldn’t get enough of it. But, the nonstop coverage he got was overwhelmingly negative, even visceral. Roger Goodell is another clear example of this. There’s no non-athlete, non-coach in the sports world who is covered more than Goodell, and its nearly 100-percent negative.
Just because the media keeps someone’s name in the news doesn’t mean they’re not ripping him. In fact, I would make the case that the people who are discussed and written about most are normally discussed and written about harshly. Or at the very least critically. The media could be keeping his/her name in the news for the sole intent of being hard on him/her. Or, to distract from something else they’d rather you not see.
Which is why George W. Bush gets blamed for ISIS, the fall of Iraq, the economy, and every other malady known to man even six years after he left office.
As far as Tim Tebow sucking. Well, when do we start the timeline? In college? Well, he was arguably the greatest player in the history of college football. In the pro’s? No, he wasn’t Brady or Manning. But, he did take a 1-4 football team to the playoffs, and beat the No. 1 defense in the league while throwing for 310 yards. One can say the defense is what got them there. But, that defense was the same defense that went 1-4. Point being, while not being the “prototypical” quarterback, Tim Tebow played an enormous, maybe the largest role in the complete reversal of a team’s fortune.
Lest anyone think that’s an easy achievement, take note of the fact that in three years since replacing Tebow, Peyton Manning has won exactly one playoff game more than Tebow. Tim Tebow isn’t in the same galaxy as Manning as a quarterback. But, that should put into perspective how big a deal what Tebow did in Denver really was.
J.P.: Here’s something that confuses me. You wrote about me in your book, but never called. You wrote about Selena Roberts—I’m guessing you never called. John Feinstein—same. Bernie Goldberg—same. I’m not killing you on this, because all authors go about the process differently. But if you’re offering a take on the liberal media, why wouldn’t you interview and try to understand the people you’re portraying?
D.G.: Because I do understand the people I’m portraying. I understand liberals intimately.
A little background here. I’m from Washington, DC. The sole conservative in a politically active liberal family. My father was a lifelong Democrat who worked on Capitol Hill for over 30 years. Chris Dodd spoke at my father’s funeral. John Dingell, the longest serving member of the House of Representatives in U.S. history, and a Democrat, convinced the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to alter their schedule so he could attend my father’s funeral. I met Tip O’Neill when I was 8. I lived in New York City for seven years. Believe me, if there’s one thing in the world that I know, its liberals.
So I would strongly disagree with the notion that I’m not familiar with my subject matter. As far as the people that I cover in the book, my job is even made easier. Because those people are telling me exactly who they are and what they believe in plain English.
Selena Roberts is a perfect example of this. She wrote an article literally riddled with inaccuracies and outrageous accusation, accusing the Duke lacrosse players of not coming forward to reveal eyewitness accounts of what happened that night. Even though, three full days beforehand, the players had announced their cooperation and firmly stated that no rape or sexual assault occurred.
This is not the language of someone who viewed that story through the lens of an objective reporter. That is the language of someone who had already mentally convicted the Duke players on grounds that were not on trial: their social status, their gender status, what they represented to her based on where they were born, what color they were, and how much money their mommies and daddies had.
And why? Because Selena Roberts believes that the real crime that took place in Durham was the largesse of white privilege flying in the face of the “little people.” In this case represented by two black strippers. Her political/philosophical make-up is that of someone who believes white privilege is responsible for all the ills of the world. You can agree or disagree with that, but it is clearly what she believes. What she said to The Big Lead could not have been uttered by someone who doesn’t believe that. Especially considering that statement, again, was made after we knew that virtually all of her reporting was complete bullshit.
Honest, objective reporters who have not pre-ordained the guilt of the people they’re covering, and are only concerned with truth, write mea culpa stories after screwing up as royally as Roberts did. Normally on their way out the door.
Instead, Roberts launched her own political indictment of the innocent, while being essentially promoted by her liberal superiors. Because she wrote what they all believe, and they believe it regardless of the facts. That’s the liberal sports media at work.
John Feinstein actually called for the revoking of all 47 scholarships on the lacrosse team. With no evidence of guilt whatsoever! Even though one of the players was black, and could not have possibly fit the description of the attackers. That is batshit crazy. Batshit calls that batshit crazy.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he then, after he knew for a fact they were innocent, went on a tirade about how no one should “martyr” these kids. That they were the children of privilege, and despite the summer-long public smearing led by ill-informed, ideological hacks like himself, that no one should feel bad for them.
Does that sound like someone who hadn’t already mentally convicted based on his own worldview? No, that’s exactly what it sounds like. Because that’s exactly who he is.
Sorry, Feinstein is perhaps the most transparent liberal hack I’ve ever seen. Second only, maybe to Selena Roberts. Nor, did he ever in the whole sordid Duke lacrosse affair ever even approach offering a thought that was worth delving into in the least. To find any kind of deeper meaning. And that’s saying something.
No, their place in a book about the liberal sports media was well-earned.
Did I trash Bernie Goldberg in the book? Don’t recall doing that.
J.P.: How does one separate himself from the masses on sports radio? With 8,000 stations, 8,000 personalities … is it even possible to make a name for oneself? To have a style that’s genuinely unique and different?
D.G.: Of course it’s possible to be unique and different. And it goes back to something we were all told when we were kids, which is to be yourself. As many radio stations as there are out there, and as many different personalities as there are manning them, I can confidently say there is not another Dylan Gwinn among them.
Same way, out of all the thousands of writers out there, there isn’t another Jeff Pearlman. It sounds hokey and “after-school special-ish” but there’s a reason why clichés become clichés and there’s a reason why hoke becomes hokey, and that’s that there’s a salient truth hidden inside.
And, full-disclosure here, I was once guilty of this. Early on I adopted, not so much the takes of people that I admired in this business, but some of their style. Which is arguably worse than adopting the take. I thought that by emanating the style of successful people that it would somehow lead to my own success. That’s why you have so many people who sound the same in talk radio.
Everyone is so determined to succeed and not get fired that the second someone comes up with a style that works, people copy it. Just like “icing the kicker” and the “wildcat” in the NFL. Talk radio is just as big a copycat league as the NFL.
However, that kind of dishonesty made me completely miserable and I stopped doing it entirely. I couldn’t live with it. Whatever becomes of me, it will be me. I can live with that.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DYLAN GWINN:
• Most memorable moment from your career as an EMT for the fire department?: One time we had a call where a guy had been shot diagonally across the head, back to front, execution style. Real messy, blood everywhere. More blood than I thought the human body could even possibly contain. Horror movie stuff. I only found the entrance wound because my finger slid into it as I was feeling around trying to find it.
We got him to Harlem Hospital with a pulse. But figured he was toast.
Three weeks later, while in the ER on another job, one of the cops who was with us the day of the execution came up to me. He was like, “Hey, remember the African (not African-American, he was actually African) dude who got shot in the head while he was on his knees?”
I replied, “Yeah.”
COP: “He’s upstairs answering questions from the detectives. He fucking lived!”
ME: “Dude, that’s not even cool. Why would you joke about something like that?”
COP: “Go see for yourself!”
So he told me where to go, and sure enough, sitting upright in the bed with his hands folded in his lap, was the dude whose sheer volume of blood loss caused me to have to retire a pair of uniform pants and boots.
Had there been an emoji of my face at the time, it would have been spectacular. At some point, he caught me out of the corner of his eye. He looked at me quizzically for a second, probably wondering who this person was, and why his jaw was on the ground?
I just shook my head and walked away. Unbelievable. Unforgettable.
• Your favorite Democrat: Answer: Ronald Reagan. (Remember, he didn’t leave the party. The party left him).
• One question you would ask John Cena were he here right now?: “My wife thinks you’re hot. Think you could dirty yourself up a bit?”
• Biggest screw-up in your radio career?: I once went into an elongated and complex introduction of a MLB guest. Where I wrapped it up by throwing a very in-depth and provocative question at him that required great insight. Only problem? He was an NBA guest. Not a baseball guy.
• What should I get my daughter for her 12th birthday?: Well, after getting her a signed copy of “Bias in the Booth,” and a bedazzled “Ted Cruz” t-shirt, I would suggest a cell phone with a tamper-proof GPS device. It says, “I respect your freedom. Just remember, you still don’t really have any.”
• In exactly 24 words, make the case for or against Bump Wills as a Hall of Famer: Ha! Would not need 24 words to make the case against. So, to paraphrase John Kennedy, the last non-radical Democrat president, I will do the harder thing. Not because it is easy, but indeed because it is hard. “In 1979, Wills had four times as many errors as he had home runs. That’s hard to do. Put Bump Wills in the Hall.”
• Do you wanna come to my son’s Bar Mitzvah?: I’ll bring the Shabbat candles!
• Three memories from your senior prom.: I went to three different proms with three different girls. Drops mic, walks away.
Professional athletes have this weird thing, where they’re here, they’re big, they’re bold, they’re important—and then they sorta vanish.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone. Jordan, Gretzky, Ruth, Bird, Magic, Kareem, Jeter … folks of that ilk reign eternal. But when’s the last time you thought of Tom Browning? Or Kendall Gill? Or Stump Mitchell? Most pros end their careers and quickly disappear from the public realm. You might hear a name pop up every now and then, but—as the years pass—it’s increasingly rare.
Enter: Brian McRae.
Not all that long ago, McRae was one of the more interesting names in Major League Baseball. First, he was the son of Hal McRae, one of the Kansas City Royals’ all-time greats. Second, he was K.C.’s first-round pick in the June 1985 amateur draft. Third, he could flat-out play—McRae possessed a Gold Glove-worthy mitt in the outfield, and his four seasons with more than 160 hits tell the story of a high-caliber contributor. Put simply, Brian McRae was one helluva player.
It’s been 16 years, however, since his final appearance, and times fades memories. These days, McRae dabbles in sports media while also serving as a coach at Park University. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Brian McRae, dreams come true. You’re the 217th Quaz Q&A …
BRIAN MCRAE: After doing research and talking to a few doctors and strength coaches, I just felt that, long term, it was best for me not to use any PHD. I stayed healthy my whole career until knee surgery after the 1999 season, so it made the choice easier. I may have added two or three years on at the end, but I was happy with my decision.
J.P.:You were, I truly believe, an excellent analyst for ESPN. Then, one day, you sorta vanished, and I never saw you on TV again. I’ve been Googling around, trying to figure out what happened. So, um, what happened? Why did your TV career end?
B.M.: I enjoy radio better than TV because it allows your personality to come out and you can take two-to-three innings to tell a story without all the replays and break a TV games has. I also like taking calls on the post-game shows a lot better than being a studio host. I fell I am better without a script.
After ESPN I worked with mlb.com and the Royals from 2002 until 2008, doing the game broadcast, pre-and-post radio and TV. I still do about 25-to-30 pre-game shows and I worked the 2014 post-season with 120Sports out of Chicago. So I’m still involved.
J.P.: You played in the Kansas City outfield alongside Bo Jackson. I feel like there’s a whole generation of fans who don’t truly understand how unbelievable and weird and uncanny Bo Jackson was. Can you explain, with as much detail as possible?
B.M.: Bo Jackson going on the disabled list in 1990 was the reason I got called-up! Bo could do it all and he was really starting to figure things out at the plate when he injured his hip. He was a freak of nature. I don’t think fans really understand how much work it took for him to make his comeback. That may have been his greatest accomplishment.
J.P.:Your father, Hal McRae, is a legendary Kansas City Royal who had 2,091 hits over 19 seasons. In 1985, you were the team’s first round draft pick. That seems like it could suck—the comparisons, the contrasting, the unrealistic expectations that you, too, become a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner. What was it like? How hard/easy was it? And did expectations impact your career?
B.M.: In high school I liked football better and had more scholarship offers. I didn’t have everyone expecting me to be a good baseball player like my father was, so it was more enjoyable. When I was drafted by the Royals it was odd because they didn’t scout me as much as other teams and I wasn’t tabbed as a first-round pick.
The first two years in the Big Leagues, 1991 and 1992, with my dad as my manger were not much fun, but I also learned a lot. The next two seasons I figured out how to block out most of the negative things that I let bother me. I just focused on my play instead of trying to do too much because I was Hal McRae’s son. But was it easy? No.
J.P.:In 1992 you hit .223. In 1993 you hit .286. That’s an enormous jump, but the sort of thing that happens quite often. This fascinates me—how do you explain guys hitting 60 points higher one season after struggling? Then, in 1997, you hit .242. Up, down, all around. Why are most ballplayers so inconsistent? Why can’t guys hit, roughly, the same every year?
B.M.: Young players struggle and then something clicks. From 1993 through 1998 I had five solid years and I had a chance to make a few All-Star teams and win some Gold Gloves. Baseball is a very mental game and I was in a good frame of mind, having fun playing ball. I think, perhaps, people forget how hard it is to hit a baseball because we make it look so easy at times.
J.P.: In 1999 you hit .195 in 31 games with the Blue Jays—and your career was over. You were 31. What is that like, being a young man who’s done? Did you realize something was wrong? Did you think it was correctable? When did you ultimately say, “Nope, this is it. It’s over?”
B.M.: I had a serious knee injury early in the 1999 season and I probably should have had surgery during the season. Instead I tried to play on it because I thought I had a great chance at making the playoffs for the first time in my career with the Mets. I was traded late in the season and finished four games out with the Blue Jays while the Mets made it to the post-season. That wasn’t so wonderful.
I had surgery that off-season and went to spring training with the Cardinals but I got let go a few week before Opening Day.
It was a tough transition at first, but playing 15 years of pro ball —10 in the Big Leagues—when I was told I’d only be up for two weeks isn’t all bad. I signed at 17, got to the big leagues at 22 and retired at 32. A few more years as a bench player after I had been a starter for a decade wouldn’t have done it for me.
J.P.: You had eighth-straight seasons with at least 15 stolen bases. I’ve never asked anyone this—but with the arm strength of most MLB catchers and the arm strength of most MLB pitchers, how does one ever steal a base? Like, what were the keys? What sort of mentality does it take? And can you imagine a day—ever—when we have Rickey Hendersons and Tim Raineses and Lou Brocks swiping 100 bags?
B.M.: The game has changed and speed guys aren’t around as much as they used to be. Pitchers do a lot better job at holding runners and teams are worried about running into outs. You really have to study a pitcher to find the keys that give it all away when he is throwing toward the plate or trying to pick you off. That takes time. Some guys want to spend that extra time hitting. A base-stealer can’t be afraid to get thrown out or picked-off. Will we have 60-to-70 stolen bases in a year? Yes. But we won’t see 100 again.
J.P.:You’re an assistant coach with the Park University baseball team. I’m always fascinated when former Major Leaguers work with smaller schools. Can you truly understand the plight of the .220 NAIA hitter? Can you put yourself in his shoes? And why coach? Why college?
B.M.: I started coaching high school kids in 2008 and I just finished my third year at Park University. I am also working toward my degree in psychology. I have two years of school left and would like to be a head coach at the college level in three-to-five years if the right situation comes up. I enjoy being close to home with no long toad trips and working with the young kids who enjoy the game but understand what level they’re at. NAIA baseball is a mixture of transfers from bigger schools and kids who just want the chance to compete for a few more years while going to school. I love that.
J.P.: You played against Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Piazza, Palmiero. So what’s your take on the Hall and PED guys? And why?
B.M.: I believe all of those guys will—and should—get into the Hall of Fame. They may not live to see that day but they put up those numbers and dominated during that time period. I don’t feel cheated knowing what we know now. I held my own and played the game the right way.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
B.M.: The greatest was my first day in the Big Leagues I started against Alex Fernandez, who I got my first hit and 100th home run off of.
The lowest would be playing my whole career without a post-season game while coming close four different times. I lost on last day of season twice with chance of advancing. My dad has two rings—one with the Royals, one with the Cardinals—and my brother got two as the Florida Marlins’ video coordinator. I have none.
This is nothing new, and actually has little to do with my career as, eh, an author. Truth is, dating back to my childhood I’ve always been fascinated by books, and the process, and taking enormous loads of information and piecing it all together into 300-or-so pages. It struck me as really hard yet really rewarding; nightmarish but euphoric. I’ve often equated the process to receiving a really awesome back scratch from someone with sharp fingernails. It’s painful as hell, but the sensations leave you soaring.
Molly lives in LA, and you can follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here. She loves her dog, but has little interest in Arthur Fonzarelli.
Molly Knight, welcome to the sports author’s club. You’re Quaz No. 216 …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Molly, I’m gonna be sorta lame and start with this: Why a book about the modern-day Dodgers? I guess what I mean is, they haven’t won anything, they’re somewhat disappointing, some of their best players don’t seem overly demonstrative (of course, others do). So … why? When did you come up with the idea? What was the thinking behind it?
MOLLY KNIGHT: I grew up a Dodger fan in Los Angeles and was living in New York when the McCourts (the Dodgers former owners) began their divorce. I had been working for ESPN for a few years and I told my editors that because the McCourts were insane, the situation had the chance to go nuclear and become front page news. My bosses knew I had grown up a Dodger fan and was always pitching Dodger stories about Matt Kemp, so at first they kind of waved their hand at me like, “Yeah, yeah, another Dodger pitch from Molly.” But as soon as word leaked that the McCourts had hired a Russian physicist to think blue, I convinced my bosses to let me write 800 words on it. And then as it kept spiraling out of control and it became clear how much they had looted the Dodgers piggy bank for their own personal use while they cut spending on player salary, it became like this War of The Roses story and took on this whole other life. and my word allotment for the ESPN The Magazine story got longer and longer. I think it finally ran at like 6,000 words or something—my longest story ever at that point. I was 26 or 27, and just thrilled to have a piece that long run in a national magazine. Then ESPN sent me out to LA to cover the trial for the website. Everyone thought the McCourts would settle their divorce and not actually go to trial, though.
I remember flying out and thinking that I would have to turn around and fly right back. But they hated each other at that point too much to be rational. So the trial started and I was off and running. It was totally exhilarating to file stories every day—sometimes two or three a day—because I was used to spending weeks or months on longer form magazine stories. I think I must have written 100 stories on those two people and done twice as many radio hits. Then when it became clear that McCourt was going to be forced to sell the team, I basically moved in with my sister in West Hollywood and continued reporting. I got tired of paying New York rent when I wasn’t there—and I needed a change of scenery for a variety of personal reasons. So in March, 2011 I basically sent for my stuff and continued covering all the craziness around McCourt. Then when he sold the team for $2 billion to this really interesting guy from Chicago, I became even more intrigued. But it wasn’t until the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, honestly, that I thought about writing a book. And it was because a few Dodger players who knew me texted and said “Shit. We were bankrupt and now we have Greinke and Kershaw and we’re going to win a title. You should write a book.” That’s what happened.
J.P.:The book opens with you in Clayton Kershaw’s home, and a very cool scene of him getting a huge contract. I kinda feel like access like that is rare nowadays; like very few reporters are being invited into the homes of stars. So how did that happen? How did you build that sort of trust with Clayton? And what’s he like as a guy to cover?
M.K.: Clayton is a wonderful person—the kind of man you would want your sister or your daughter to marry. Actually, a player joked with me the other day that he would let Clayton marry his wife. But he is also very guarded and closed off … especially to the media. It helped a little that I was around since when he got called up, so I was a familiar face. But honestly it took years to build his trust, and even then, I think he only really started to trust me after he saw guys he looked up to—guys like Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker and A.J. Ellis and Michael Young—were always chatting with me. Then I think he realized he could tell me things off the record that I would not report. He and I are very similar in a lot of ways—except for the whole best pitcher in the world thing—and I’m wondering if the reader picks up on that. We both had similar upbringings, and we both have dealt with anxiety and control issues. I know how he is wired because I am wired similarly, and sometimes it’s stressful for me to watch him pitch because I know how hard he is on himself.
When you’re writing a book about real people and thinking about them all day long it’s easy to develop emotional attachments to those you feel are kind and fundamentally enhance our planet. I almost threw up last year during Game 1 in the NLDS when he imploded. Partly because I wanted my book to have a championship ending, but also because I wanted so badly for him to put the previous year’s playoff debacle behind him. I felt awful for him; it was like watching someone else’s nightmare unfold in real time.
My being at his house when he signed his contract extension was one of the luckier things that has happened to me in this life, and a total fluke that I explain in the book. We just happened to have our interview set up for that day, and because he’s such a stand-up person he didn’t blow me off even though, literally, his agent called with the news roughly three minutes after I walked in the door. I guess I would call him a friend, in that I have grown to care about him as a person, but I don’t, like, go out for beers with him like I do with some of the other guys. He’s a new dad. I text him or e-mail him when I have a question about something I’m writing, and he is always gracious and tries to help. But it took a long time to build that relationship. He is a fantastic human and I’m honored to know him.
J.P.: Molly, I’m very big into career paths, but for the love of God I can’t really grasp yours. I see this (Molly Knight has written about baseball for ESPN The Magazine for the past eight seasons. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, and Variety. She lives in Los Angeles) everywhere, but I wanna know how this happened for you. Where are you from? When did you get the writing bug? Why baseball?
M.K.: I grew up in the suburbs of LA and went to college in the Bay area. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I earned a degree in biology, then changed my mind and moved to New York to write with no experience whatsoever, $300, and license from the National Bartenders School in Redwood City. To support myself while I sorted it out, I poured drinks and waited tables all over lower Manhattan for years while I wrote for free, sent clips everywhere, took any internship I could, before finally getting a shot to freelance at ESPN. I was very broke for a long time. I remember a month when I was 23 where I had no money in my checking account and my credit card was at its $2,000 limit and I could not really afford food so I just went to like, every PR-sponsored event there was just to eat. I’d get a press release for some violent video game that looked absolutely awful but I would go to the damn party because there would be food and beer. But I was 23 and having the time of my life so I didn’t care. I was fortunate enough to stop freelancing for places that never paid or paid five months after the fact, when ESPN started giving me more and more work. I supplemented that income with with bartending and waitressing, until they put me on contract in 2008. While I didn’t grow up dreaming of working for ESPN it turned out to be a dream job. I have always loved sports, and from the time I was 6 or 7 I would rattle off baseball players’ stats to anyone who would listen. I had a blast for the seven or so years I worked for them.
M.K.: It was, in a word, insane. He basically had the best rookie month of anyone since Joe DiMaggio, which was made even crazier by the fact that he had never heard of Joe DiMaggio. This is a guy who stood in front of a water cooler in spring training in total awe that Gatorade could be blue. He had only ever seen it in yellow. His month would have been bananas by any standard, but he was joining a team that was a) in last place and b) had just sold for $2 billion a year earlier and was supposed to be on the fast track to the World Series. The Dodgers not only had a bad record when he was called up, they were so wrecked by injuries that they were unwatchable. Five of the eight guys who started alongside Puig for his first game are no longer in the Majors. Don Mattingly was about to get fired. It was awful.
And then this kid comes up to the Big Leagues and not only does he hit the snot out of the ball but he plays the game like he’s got bumble bees in his pants. Baseball can be dull, but not with him. He made even routine plays seem exciting. And of course he came with a swagger that pissed everyone off because rookies are not supposed to have personalities. It took him a week to get hit in the face and incite a riot with the Diamondbacks.
The Dodgers went from being unwatchable to the most talked about team in baseball because of Puig. And the new owners whi were so desperate for stars to light up their new television network had a superstar. So they set about building their marketing campaign around a volatile kid who grew up in a country isolated from the rest of the world who overnight became a multimillionaire A-list athlete in Los Angeles who was worshiped and had access to everything. In a way it felt like what happens to Hollywood child stars. Too much, too soon. He wasn’t given rules or boundaries because he saved everyone’s job. And now no one can get him to listen to anything they say because they were bad parents in the beginning.
Molly Knight as a first grader
J.P.:I saw in one bio where you’re identified as a “lifelong Dodgers fan.” Do you still consider yourself a Dodgers fan? And do you feel like it’s OK for sports journalists to having rooting interests? Or a conflict? Or neither/both/all of the above?
M.K.: I grew up a diehard fan, and I don’t think I could have written this book without that context. Like if I went to go write a Yankee book I could read about their history but I wouldn’t have lived it. That being said, it’s not a if I can’t be critical of the team. When Frank McCourt ran the Dodgers into the ground and took the team into bankruptcy it felt like he was spitting on the graves of my ancestors. He had to go, and as it became clear just how recklessly he was looting the franchise it only motivated me to report harder. It actually felt like important work; a group of us journalists covering him published the truth about his business dealings and kept hammering away until he was forced to sell.
I go back and forth. I want them to win but I don’t cheer in the press box. Sometimes, when they’re acting like jerks, I take a break from watching. That being said I’m a fifth generation Angeleno. I would like for my grandmother and my great aunts to see the Dodgers win another title in my lifetime, absolutely. I want some of the players I grew to really care about to win rings. They’re just human.
J.P.:I started covering baseball in the mid-1990s, when women were finally welcomed into the clubhouse, but there were still some dinosaur players who behaved like pigs. I’m wondering what it’s like now, in 2015, for you. Any incidents? Awkwardness? Or are all good?
M.K.: When I started out in locker rooms eight years ago it was very different than it is now. Some players were 10 to 15 years older than me, and it just seemed like there were a lot more red-asses, and guys who would try to embarrass me or put me in my place. When I started out I was just doing some menial, front-of-the-book stuff stuff for ESPN The Magazine, like getting answers for holiday gift guides or asking, “What’s in your wallet?” Most guys were and are respectful, but I would get the guys who would list their favorite sex toys when I asked what was on their holiday shopping list. And I’d write down the names of products I’d never heard of and they would all laugh.
The first baseball player I ever interviewed in a locker room was actually the worst. He wouldn’t even answer any of my questions; he just wanted to know what hotel I was staying in that night. I was worried that they were all going to be like that, but I just happened to run into the worst one.
But now it’s pretty much awesome. My first year in the locker room was the first year of a huge crop of Dodger rookies—Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Russell Martin. And while I’m not friends with all of those guys—and we haven’t always gotten along—none of them have ever been disrespectful, or dismissed me for being a woman, ever. So that was huge.
I don’t date professional athletes. I’m typically attracted to nerdy intellectuals, artists, writers, etc. From my perspective, if you are a female sports reporter who is serious about her career and reputation then you better be damn sure you are going to marry or enter into longterm domestic partnership with an athlete you date, because if you sleep with a guy on a team, literally everyone in the league will know about it within a week. I have seen it happen. Doesn’t matter if it’s the 25th guy on the worst team in the league. Everyone—from players to coaches to clubbies—will know. Baseball players are so bored and they have nothing but time on their hands to gossip about anything and everyone they can.
J.P.: I’ve written a bunch of books, but never one where I’ve embedded myself with a team. So, soup to nuts, what was your process? Like, how’d you handle notes? Interviews? Did you write as you went along or at the end? Did you find it awful, wonderful?
M.K.: Oh gosh. Well, it was awful and wonderful and terrifying and exciting and nerve-wracking all at once. I went to most games, so I took notes in my notebook every day. And then whenever I would freak out that my book was going to suck I would literally write down a list of all the things that I had learned so far that were funny/interesting/sad/ridiculous to reassure myself that even if my writing was awful that i had stuff that Dodger fans would find interesting. I taped a most of my interviews on an app on my iPhone, and there was a hellish moment during one of those iPhone updates where my phone restored itself to factory settings and I thought I had lost everything and I like, crawled to the Apple store and was sitting on the floor in there with no appointment waiting for someone to help me. I don’t really remember much about it except that I was very calm and sort of out-of-body and I explained to the boy genius helping me that if he couldn’t bring my phone back to life it was not his fault but my life would basically be over. The poor guy looked like he also wanted to throw up. But he fixed it and saved the day! After that I bought a back-up drive, and every single day I would save my work to my back-up drive and also e-mail whatever I had just written to myself to be safe.
I’d never written a book before, so I just started with 500 words a day. Then I bumped up to 1,000. The editing process was insane, because I only had eleven months to write and edit the thing. Originally the book was going to come out on Opening Day 2015 but then after the 2014 season ended the Dodgers fired their general manager and traded and ditched a bunch of my main characters. So I had to keep writing. Ultimately I decided to end the book on Opening Day with Matt Kemp facing Clayton Kershaw as a member of the Padres because it felt like everything had come full circle. Also, I was always so struck by how much Kemp and Kershaw had in common—as far as background—but they couldn’t be more different had no real relationship in all the years they were teammates. I had no idea how I would end this book but then when that happened it was like, that’s it. We sort of end on a new beginning. And it’s strange and sad and unknown but also hopeful, I think.
Um … with Harry Styles
J.P.: I’m fascinated by the little things with the book process. You named your book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy”—which is also the title of a 1978 bio of the New York Yankees. There also, “The Worst Team Money Can Buy,” about the mid-90s Mets. I’m not criticizing you. Hell, my Showtime Laker book is called, eh, “Showtime.” But how did you decide on the title? Do you have any say? Do you like it?
M.K.: That’s a great question. When I pitched this book, the working title was “The Best Team Money Could Buy,” with the idea that it was a placeholder until I would come up with something better. But the problem with coming up with the title of a baseball book is everything is so overdone and cliched. Try it. Anything dramatic with the word “Field” or “Game” or “Ball” is done in headlines every day. As time went on, I never did figure out anything better—and I actually started to like the title because it’s hopeful and also sort of smart-ass’y, which is maybe how I would describe myself. The real bitch was the subtitle, let me tell you. I think naming my children will be easier. I wanted a verb that described up-and-down seasons, but I did not want to use the word “rollercoaster” because it’s cliche. It had like eight different subtitles. For a while it was “the strange saga of the LA Dodgers” which I hated because it was vague and also sounded too negative—which I don’t think the book is, even though there are parts that are dramatic. My editor and I debated verbs for months, before deciding on “wild” at the last minute. I like that word and use it a lot in my everyday life, and it was important for the title to use language I use. “Struggle” balanced it out. I have a lot of friends in the Bay Area who thought that my title was literal, and were like “Well why are you calling the Dodgers the best team? Didn’t the Giants just win?” So “Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” helps them realize it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.
J.P.:What’s the greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
M.K.: Greatest: the day I got my finished book in the mail. Lowest: working for a men’s magazine and having to cull through the photos women would send in of themselves in various states of undress hoping to be selected for a “hot date” front of the book section. I was to call these women, many of them who were clearly damaged, and ask them to tell me things like, say, their wildest sex stories. I would literally go into a storage closet where there was a phone and act like I was calling them but put my hand on the dial tone lever. I was not good at that job and I did not last long. But being good at that job would have made me a person with no conscience so it evens out.
Authorship means perks like meeting Freddie Prinze, Jr.
J.P.:We both wrote books involving Magic Johnson. Big difference—he never talked to me for mine. What’s your take on Magic Johnson, baseball team owner? Because I don’t 100 percent buy it. I think he’s smart, charismatic, popular. But do I believe he has much say in running the franchise? No. Am I off?
M.K.: He is smart and charismatic but he knows nothing about baseball. The good thing about Magic, though, is he seems smart enough to know there’s a lot he doesn’t know. He leaves the baseball stuff to the baseball people. He’s not one of those guys who will weigh in on everything regardless of his grasp on the subject, which I really respect. I didn’t get a sit-down interview with him for my book, but I also didn’t ask for one because he really isn’t that involved in the day-to-day running of the franchise. That being said he’s a freakishly competitive person who really wants to win everything he puts his name on. Some people don’t think he has much skin in the game here, but he put in, like $50 million of his own money into the team. By comparison, I think I read that Jay-Z only put $1 million into the Brooklyn Nets. So, yes, he wants the Dodgers to do well.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MOLLY KNIGHT:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Roxette, Justin Wayne, Mark Ellis, Babyface, Einstein Bros Bagels, Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Times, Roger Angell, Marla Maples, Halle Berry, The Fonz, “Say Anything”: This is really hard–but here goes: Mark Ellis, Los Angeles Times, Roger Angell, Roxette, Halle Berry, Babyface, Einstein Bros Bagels, Josh Beckett, Say Anything— not my jam, The Fonz—Travolta was the hotter version of this in Grease, I don’t know who Marla Maples or Justin Wayne are.
• What’s the worst sentence you’ve ever written?: Oh, God. So many. Um. My editor would probably say the sentence I wrote where I compared Puig to a peacock and said that the dandruff from his feathers seemed to be rubbing off on the rest of the team. My editor is a very understated, even-keeled guy but I think he actually shrieked when he read it and he definitely crossed it out with exclamation points. It did not make the book. We never spoke of it again.
• We both live in California. I’m despondent about the drought. What the hell are we gonna do?: I don’t know. I see all these jerks in my neighborhood who run their sprinklers all day and I want to scream. The grass in front of our apartment building is dead and it looks so sad and depressing and I was going to bitch to my landlord about it because it’s the only dead grass on our block but given the drought we’re in I’m sort of going to treat it as a badge of honor. But more practically? The only way we are going to get people to start making better decisions to help save our planet is to hit them in their wallets. It would be great if those parking enforcement people who patrol the streets of West Hollywood every day also ticketed people who let their sprinklers run in to the gutter. We need to fine households that use the most water. We should also say that like, cities that start with the letters A-L can only water on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and M-Z can only water on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. No one can water Sunday (or whatever day makes sense). And then we ticket the hell out of everyone who breaks these rules.
• How’d you land the name Molly?: I think my parents just liked it. But they thought I was a boy until I was born and were going to name me Michael.
• Three memories from your senior prom?: 1. We had our senior prom at the Disneyland hotel and 50 of us stayed in this suite that was the entire top floor of the hotel. It had a sauna and a gazebo and was so fun and we had a blast. My date was fantastic and there was no drama whatsoever; 2. Being on prom court with a bunch of other dorks, and being really glad my friend Kristi won prom queen because doing one of those wedding spotlight dances would have caused me to have a panic attack. I was not exactly the most confident teenager; 3. Not getting in trouble. After my junior prom I did not come home until 11 am the next day and got grounded for, like, six months. But it was totally not my fault.
• Five reasons one should attend Stanford over Harvard: 1. Weather; 2. Weather; 3. Weather; 4. Football; 5. Weather
Now just because she’s a lovely human, a beautiful singer, an outstanding Quaz.
Nope, my soft spot comes from a moment that took place on the second date I ever had with my wife, Catherine. We were walking through Manhattan, and the topic of “We Are The World” came up. I know that song as well as I know Dave Fleming’s Seattle Mariner statistics (very well), and I told her this. She insisted that she, too, had the song down. So I started going line by line, naming the accompanying singers. When I reached “When weeeeee, stand together as one …” I said, “OK, who is it?”
Nary a pause: Kim Carnes.
I knew I found my match.
Carnes, of course, is much more than a trivia answer. She’s a Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter whose biggest smash, “Bette Davis Eyes,” was the biggest song of 1981. Carnes has written three No. 1 country tunes, and famously wrote and sang “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” alongside the great Kenny Rogers. She still performs regularly across the globe, and can be found on the web here.
Kim Carnes, you are the 215th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Kim, these interviews tend to veer toward quirky, so I’m gonna veer toward quirky. For some reason I’ve been in a “We Are The World” phase the past few days. Played it a bunch of times, showed it to my kids. And I believe—truly—that the highest moment of the song comes when you, Huey Lewis and Cindy Lauper sing together. I wound up finding this, which gave some behind-the-moment access. I’m wondering—what do you remember from the “We Are The World” experience? Was it fun? Awful? Did you mind only having two words (“When we …”) to yourself? Did you like the song?
KIM CARNES: We arrived at A&M studios to a sign that read, “Leave your ego at the door.” I think the song was perfect. From standing next to Michael Jackson to meeting Bob Dylan for the first time … it was all just too cool. I wasn’t counting solo lines. Heck, I was just glad to be a part of this magical event. The best part was everyone signing one another’s sheet music.
J.P.:You’ve had an amazing career. Absolutely amazing. Hit songs. Grammy Awards. I wonder, as you approach 70, what matters to you, and what doesn’t? Like, do you care more about a hit record, or a song that goes ignored but kicks ass? Do the awards matter? Can you play for a crowd of 20 and be satisfied? Do you need a huge audience? Do you care if people recognize you? Does signing an autograph give you a lift?
K.C.: I don’t do numbers. I just jumped after reading your question. In my head I am a 17-year-old surfer, now and forever!
I am most proud of my last album, “Chasin Wild Trains.” I produced it and wrote or co-wrote with my incredibly talented pals. There was no one to say “no” and no compromises. Not thinking about radio was so freeing. It made the project a true labor of love. As a result, that album charted in several countries on the Americana charts and I did an amazing European tour in support of the CD.
I have the awards. I just want my peers to get what I do and to be moved. I play festivals for 15,000 people, benefit house concerts for a smaller group, and “in-the-round” songwriter shows at the Bluebird Café here in Nashville for 150 people. I love it all. I am blown away that I get to do what I do.
J.P.:You’ve been married to your husband, David Ellingson, since 1967. Let me write that again: Since 1967. I feel like 98 percent of celebrities get married and divorced within a span of three years. How has your marriage lasted? And, since we’re on the subject, how did you meet?
K.C.: Dave and I met on the road. Marriage ain’t easy, but we’re both in the music business, which is a good thing. He understands how crazy it all is. Dave runs our publishing companies, plays percussion and sings background vocals in our shows. All our best friends are in the entertainment business and so we consider them family. Plus, we are crazy about our kids. Our motto has always been “Laugh a lot.”
J.P.:How do you write a song? Soup to nuts—what’s the process? How long does it take? Do you ever think it’s amazing, then realize it’s bad. Do you even think it’s bad, and everyone loves it? Do you have a space for writing?
K.C.: Writing by myself I write on keyboards and write the music and lyrics at the same time. I have a restored 1930 Boston made “Mason & Hamlin” Baby grand piano. I have played the same piano for 35 years. I still love the sonics of a real acoustic piano. It can take an hour or in some cases a year to finish a song. Co-writing is usually done in a shorter amount of time. I have a small, handful of writers that I love to work with. The best co-writes are the songs that feel like they were written by one person.
J.P.:You turned “Bette Davis Eyes” into the biggest hit of 1981. I mean, it was enormous huge gigantic … and it’s one of the few songs you didn’t actually write. Two questions—A. Some 33 years later, do you ever get sick of singing the song (I’m assuming it’s a requisite part of the set list)?; B. Did it take away any feeling of accomplishment having not written it? Or does that not even matter?
K.C.: As a songwriter, I know a great song when I hear it. The original demo was very different. My band, along with the producer (Val Garay) and I rehearsed “Bette Davis Eyes” for three days. The demo was light and bouncy, and we changed it to a dark and minor key. That lyric—“nailed me”—was absolute brilliance from Donna and Jackie. Yes, I sing it in every show. That record opened up the rest of the world for me.
J.P.:I write mainly about athletes, and the line goes, “An athlete dies two deaths—when he retires, then when he dies.” What about singers? Is there an adjustment one has to make, as she/he ages, when she/he needs to accept, “OK, pop radio is done with me as a singer?” or, “I spent X years in arenas, and now it’s gonna be concert halls”? Does one have to adjust ego expectations?
K.C.: I just keep writing songs and doing shows and I really think that I am better at it now. I never look back, always look forward to the next song, next show. One of my favorite lines is, “there is no future in the past.”
J.P.:Your dad was an attorney, your mom a hospital administrator. Music wasn’t a big part of their world. But here you are. So … Kim. How did this happen? When did you absolutely know you wanted to sing for your life? And what was the key moment (or moments) that made it a reality?
K.C.: I’ve gotta say that I knew from the age of 4 that I was going to write songs and sing them for people—much to my parents’ disapproval. Every day I came home from school and went straight to the piano to write and sing. I guess a key moment was when I signed my first publishing deal and actually got paid to write songs. Producer Jimmy Bowen had a small company. His other writers were Glen Frey, Don Henley and J.D. Souther (pre-Eagles). Hanging out and sharing demo time with them just blew me away because they were so incredibly great.
J.P.: I just watched a clip of you on American Bandstand, and I have a question I’ve always wanted to ask: Does lip-synching your own songs suck as much as I imagine it sucks? It looks really uncomfortable and sorta nerve-wracking? And, in the 1980s, when those types of shows reigned, do you feel like it was known by viewers? Did it even matter?
K.C.: It’s much better to sing live. I don’t think it mattered to viewers back then, and it was not nerve-wracking. I so loved Dick Clark.
Arm in arm with Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross while singing “We Are The World.”
J.P.:I’ll have moments when people say, “Yeah, so, eh, I really didn’t like your last book.” Or, “So … that article wasn’t as good as I expect from you.” I think they think they’re doing me a favor, but it infuriates me. Do you have that as a musician? And how do you take criticism? Not from writers or singers, but dudes on the street?
K.C.: Ya’ gotta have a thick skin. Right? Writers and musicians know better.
J.P.:What do you think of the music scene: 2014? What I mean is—albums don’t really exist, downloads are becoming obsolete, nobody sells millions of copies of anything—but Miley Cyrus will get 100,000,000 views on YouTube. Where are we going here?
K.C.: I miss the album. As an artist I agonize over the sequence. It matters to somebody. You have to dig to hear the good shit—but it’s out there.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KIM CARNES:
• I’ve often argued that Daryl Hall is the best male vocalist of the last 30 years. People say I’m ludicrous. Is it a battle I can even possibly win?: Music is so subjective. Daryl Hall is a great singer, but there is no battle here, because it is about personal taste. Right now, I wanna be Pharrell Williams and Sam Smith’s baby. Can you imagine the voice?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Only when the toilets backed up on an over-night flight to Amsterdam.
• Five keys for a singer to keep her voice sharp?: Drink Drambuie (it coats the throat and adds a great show buzz. Have five shots).
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Connecticut, tater tots, Smokey Robinson, vodka, Rodney Peete, Robert’s Western World, challah, Taylor Swift, meatballs, Arnold Palmer, plastic containers, your bathroom: 1. Smokey Robinson, 2. Rodney Peete, 3. Vodka, 4. My bathroom, 5.—I just can’t finish this one. Too hard.
• How did your husband propose?: Quote: “This is not a proposal, but I do plan to marry you” Hmmmmmmmmm . . . . . . . . .
• What’s your all-time favorite item of clothing?: A pair of super-faded old red Converse high-tops! (chlorine and salt-water)
Back when I was a young sports writer coming up through the ranks, my dream was to follow the paths of people like William Nack and Tom Verducci and Mike Freeman and Dave Anderson. I wanted to be a guy who scored plumb assignments; whose byline could be found in some of America’s greatest newspapers and magazines.
I’ve never been at the level of those men, but I did sorta reach the goal. I spent a half decade writing for Sports Illustrated. Dream accomplished, cool beans and confetti galore.
When, in the early 2000s, I transitioned toward biography, I didn’t have the same ambitions. I knew very little about the book world, so—truly—the idea was to survive and, hopefully, carve out a career. A decade later, I’ve done that. But am I elite? Am I one of the greats of the genre? Um, no.
A three-time Pulitzer finalist (and 1996 winner) for his work as a reporter at the Washington Post, David is the author of six New York Times best sellers, including biographies on Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi (I consider When Pride Still Mattered one of the three or four greatest sports books of all time). His new offering, Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, comes out this September. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There are many excellent biographers out there.
There’s only one good enough to be the 214th Quaz Q&A …
JEFF PEARLMAN:David, we both write books—only yours are extraordinarily good. When I write mine, and I’m really deep into the reporting, I find myself turning into an insane person. I crave little details, I lose sleep over the stuff, all I want is more, more, more, more … almost like a literary crack addict. Do you get this way, too? Because you seem much too dignified to be chasing hits in such a manner?
DAVID MARANISS: One of the first requirements for me when I’m choosing a subject for my next book is that it has to be something I’m obsessed with. Not long into the process the book insinuates itself into my life and in a sense takes over. I resolve structural problems in my sleep. When we’re driving somewhere, my wife will turn and ask me, “What chapter are you on in your head?” I love details. They serve as more than dressing, but as the foundation of my narrative, and I’m always looking for more, but they have to add up to something more. Not detail for detail’s sake, but in the service of illumination.
J.P.:When asked why you wrote a biography of Barack Obama, you cited your “dismay over the modern American political culture.” What exactly do you mean by this?
D.M.: If you study American history, or world history, you see that politics is and always has been a blood sport, but I can only speak to my reaction to what I’ve experienced in my 40 years writing about politics. First I should say that I am not a political junkie, despite the fact that I have been a political journalist. The daily trivia of politics does not interest me, in fact bores me. What I am interested in is human nature and social history—why people do what they do and the forces that shape them. I am also—always—interested in the pursuit of truth, wherever that takes me. And the truth is almost never black and white, it has shades and nuances and contradictions, as do all of our lives. Think about what goes on your own head every day. Each of us knows that the thoughts we don’t share with others are often uneven, uncertain, confused, constantly changing, that we know there are seeds of refutation in almost every thought we have. That is human nature, that struggle. Yet our modern political culture completely negates that humanity. It encourages people to posture and lie and pretend they know it all. It makes it easy for them to only reinforce their views. This is particularly true on the right wing, which has gone over the cliff—rejecting science, demonizing opponents, saying green is yellow and two and two equals five. To call Barack Obama a socialist is to completely ignore who he really is and what he has done. Then there is the damage that huge sums of money have done to our democracy, shrouded in the false cloth of free speech. Money talks more than ever. I could go on for hours about this subject, but you get my point, I hope.
J.P.:For my money, you wrote one of the two or three greatest sports biographies of all time—When Pride Still Mattered. This might be a little too inside baseball for readers here but, eh, fuck it. How did you go about the project? Like, you decide you’re going to write about Lombardi … then what? What is your process? Do you report, then write? Do both simultaneously? And when do you know enough is enough?
D.M.: This is how Lombardi happened: I was on C-Span’s Book Notes with Brian Lamb talking about my first book, First in His Class, the biography of Bill Clinton. Late in the interview, Lamb asked me what my next book would be. I hadn’t decided. Somewhere in the back of my brain a signal came to me and I blurted out Vince Lombardi. Had not thought of it before, it just came out. The next week a letter arrived from a woman in New Hampshire, an old woman who said that her brother was Red Reeder, a hero of D-Day, who had been an assistant athletic director at West Point when Lombardi was an assistant coach there, that their families lived next to each other at West Point, and that Red was a great storyteller with a ton of Lombardi stories and that he was 88-years old and living in a retirement home near Fort Belvoir, Virginia. That was enough to get me going. I had to talk to Red while he was still around—and went out to visit him the next day.
But why Lombardi? It wasn’t enough that I grew up in Wisconsin while his Packers were winning those five championships in Green Bay. That was certainly part of why I would think of him, but not enough reason to do a book. I would never write a book about any other coach, or about Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers or any other Packer. I look for a combination of two things when pursuing a book. One is the arc of a dramatic story and the other is a chance to explore through that person’s life larger sociological and cultural themes that interest me. Lombardi had the dramatic arc. He struggled in the football vineyards for two decades before getting his shot. He was about to give up and become a banker when Green Bay happened, and he turned the American myth on its end, not the small town boy making good in the big city but the big city New York kid going out to godforsaken Green Bay and becoming an American icon. Which is the second part of it, the larger meaning of Lombardi. He became symbol for competition and success in American life, what it takes and what it costs. The combination of all that is what drew me to him.
Once I start a book, my motto is “Go There”—wherever there is. That meant turning to my wife and uttering the immoral loving words, “How would you like to move to Green Bay for the winter?” She said, “Brrr,” but agreed, and we went. It happened to be great timing—the winter of 1996-97 when the Packers won the Super Bowl. I had to live there, not only to do interviews with a lot of old-timers who knew Lombardi and his era, but also to endure a Green Bay winter since I knew the football climax of the book would be the Ice Bowl. We also spent two summers in New York, since the vast majority of Lombardi’s life was spent in the New York metropolitan area, from Sheepshead Bay to Fordham to Englewood, N.J. to West Point to Fair Haven, N.J.
My books tend to take three years or three and a half years. That’s my rhythm, not sure why but it is. I usually spend the first year or year and a half just reporting, then start to write. I know it when I feel it, but can’t explain or predict when that will be, except to say it will be somewhere near the midpoint. But I will keep reporting in various ways while writing for that final year and a half. So much of what you need becomes clearer when you start writing. I don’t differentiate much between the two. I love the research and I love the writing and think of them as one interwoven process.
J.P.: I know you’re from Madison, Wisconsin, I know you’ve worked for the Washington Post for more than 30 years, I know your books. But, well, what’s the journey? How did you know you wanted to be a journalist? When did the bug first bite? And when did you realize you could make something big of yourself in the field?
D.M.: I am third generation. My grandfather was a printer in Coney Island, Brooklyn. My dad was a newspaperman. My mother and siblings are all scholars. I was the dumb kid in the family who followed my dad into newspapers. Very lucky at that—it is the only thing I can do. I can’t change a light bulb. Once the dream of playing shortstop for the Milwaukee Braves ended at about age 10 I had nothing to turn to except writing. It has always come easily to me, and has allowed me to think of life as a constant graduate school. If you do it right, you are always learning something new. I started writing in college, covering high school sports and student riots (at the UW) for the local paper. Then I spent two years at Radio Free Madison, WIBA, writing and presenting my own 15-minute newscasts, which was a great experience, helping me refine my writing so that it could be read aloud and understood. Then my wife and I realized we had to get out of Madison, it was too idyllic and we would be stuck there forever if we didn’t leave. I applied for jobs up and down the east coast and got hired by the Trenton Times. Stroke of luck. This was 1975 and it had just been bought by the Washington Post and for a brief period served as the Post’s farm club of sorts. A tough and great Post editor named Dick Harwood was sent up to Trenton. During my job search on the east coast, I stopped off at my aunt’s house on Coney Island and left my clips at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog stand. When I got to Trenton, I told Harwood that I left my clips at Nathan’s but that if he hired me I would be his best reporter in six months. He hired me. Two years later I was at the Washington Post.
J.P.:I can’t tell if covering a presidential election is awful or amazing. I mean, it seems like—if you’re cynical—it can be, at times, mind-numbingly painful. But also riveting. I’ve never had the beat. So tell me, David, what’s it like? At its best? At its worst?
D.M.: At its best it allows you to see America in ways you would never see otherwise. Even for all the repetition and grind and shallowness of the daily experience, it is a great way to see the country. At its worst it is meaningless and has very little to do with anything remotely related to reality. I would travel on the campaigns mostly just for a week or so at a time, observing the candidate and trying to land an interview. There is a danger of Stockholm Syndrome along with all else, where the reporters start rooting for the candidate they are covering. That, or grow cynical and sarcastic. Either way, it can be a dangerous thing, and boring.
J.P.: Has Barack Obama been a great president, an average one, a disappointing one? Is he what you thought he’d be?
D.M.: Barack Obama has been the president I thought he would be. Cautious, rational, marching to his own tune at his own rhythm, sometimes seeming behind the curve, sometimes ahead of the curve, rarely right at the curve. He has been completely misunderstood by the conservatives who hate him and the left liberals who have felt disappointed by him. I certainly don’t agree with everything he has done, but I understand why he has acted the way he has. Again, that is a subject I could go on for for hours. He got defined by the Hope and Change theme, but that was contrived. He is just a smart, rational, cautious, sometimes frustrating, well intentioned, passive-aggressive, coolly reserved, self-contained politician.
J.P.: Your 2006 Roberto Clemente biography is considered the definitive work on the man. How did you, specifically, go about writing and reporting his death? Did you expect to uncover new things? Are there places to look that other writers perhaps ignored? And, even though it happened some 30 years ago, do you still feel the sadness in the midst of reporting?
D.M.: This was one book where I knew the climax before I started. I was a young radio reporter working New Year’s Eve in 1972 on the night Clemente died. I devoted an entire five-minute broadcast. But I did not know the real details beyond that he died in a plane crash delivering humanitarian goods to Nicaragua after the earthquake. In reporting the book I knew that most plane crashes resulted in some sort of lawsuit. True this time too. But where were the documents? They were missing from the federal court in San Juan where they might have been. The federal appeals court in Boston only had technical appeal records. I put together a list of lawyers in the case and interviewed those still alive. Finally after a three-hour interview with the lawyer who represented the FAA in the case he said, “Okay you’re the one.” And he got up from his desk and walked over to a closet and came out with three boxes labeled CLEMENTE. And there were all the documents … the whole sad story in airport records, depositions, charts, maps, memos … a gold mine that allowed me to tell the story as it had never been told before. As I put it all together my sadness merged with anger at the misfeasance and incompetence that led to the crash and death of the unwitting and determined Clemente.
J.P.: You probably get asked to write book jacket blurbs for tons of books—because I do, and I’m nowhere near your league. Do you do them all? Some? Do you read the entire manuscript? A chapter or two? And what do you do if the book sorta sucks?
D.M.: I have only one requirement. Did the author really do the work? As another author, you know exactly what I mean. Reviewers don’t get it, readers often don’t get it, but anyone who has plied the fields of non-fiction knows, almost immediately, whether someone is faking it or has really done the work. If they have, I know how hard it is to do, and feel an obligation to support my brothers and sisters to that end, for whatever it’s worth.
J.P.:Are you accepting of the inevitable death of print? Is it inevitable? And how have you adjusted to the digital age of journalism?
D.M.: I am one step past being an old fogey. I do Twitter and Facebook. I live newspapers and books but accept the reality that they will transform and transmute in ever changing ways. Formats change but two things remain eternal, or so I hope—the human need to understand ourselves through story and the essential need to search for truth and separate fact from misinformation.
J.P.: You co-authored The Prince of Tennessee: Al Gore Meets His Fate. So I’ll ask two things: 1. Do you think Gore would have been a good president? 2. Gore has become the right’s favorite target, RE: climate change. Do you think he’s hurt the movement or helped the movement?
D.M.: He’s a competent, smart person with odd tic to his personality. Probably would have been a better president than presidential loser. Now very good at making tons of money.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID MARANISS:
• Celine Dion offers you $12 million to ghost write her autobiography, Celine: I’ll Fuck You Up. Downside: You have to work 363 days over the next year, move to Las Vegas, mow her 17-acre lawn once per week and only eat canned corn and tuna fish for the duration. You in?: NEVER. NOT A CHANCE. NOT EVEN with or WITHOUT THE MONEY. I don’t ghost write or do other’s bidding, ever. Though I actually like tuna fish.