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The go-between (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thinks back on a conversation he had with Frank Sinatra in the mid ’60s, when Aronowitz was still with the Post. "I called him. He was at the Sands, getting drunk. He picked up the phone. ‘Al, I got $7 million. I don’t need the New York Post. What do I wanna talk to you for? I don’t need you. I don’t trust the editors.’ Now I understand. I don’t trust editors either. They make me look like an asshole. My whole career! All editors are arrogant. Every editor thinks they can do it better than you wrote it. They’re all full of shit. Dummies. If they could write, they’d be writers."

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

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

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

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

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

The Blacklisted Journalist is at www.bigmagic.com/pages/blackj. Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard[a]phx.com

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Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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