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The go-between (continued)

At first, he manned the Post’s night desk, "rewriting the New York Times for the morning edition." But before long, he was doing feature pieces. One of his first big assignments had him on a plane to San Francisco to profile the Beat poets. Aronowitz says Post editor Paul Sann wanted a hatchet job on this bunch of "dumb-fuck pansies posing as poets." Instead, as he would time and again with other subjects, Aronowitz fell hard for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady, awed by their libertine lifestyle, their burning fervor. His 12-part series that ran in 1960 fell just this side of hagiography.

Aronowitz says it was Kerouac’s On the Road in particular that "changed my life in many ways. It was about real people. I wanna know these people. I had visions of being a journalist so I could get to know them! Which is what I did. I befriended them, and got to know them very well." It was also during his time with the Beats that Aronowitz first smoked dope. Not long after, the Saturday Evening Post enlisted him to write a long profile of a young folkie phenomenon who was drawing fawning crowds to Greenwich Village clubs. The moment he met Bob Dylan, Aronowitz was starstruck. "I felt honored," he writes in Bob Dylan and the Beatles, "to hang out with this mumbling twenty-two-year-old kid, skinny as a scarecrow and wound up as a telephone cord."

"I was supposed to write a piece on Paul Newman, but I lost interest," he recalls. "I never finished the piece because Dylan stole my interest. It got to the point where I was so hung up on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, side A, that I never got around to turning the record over and listening to side B. For months." The two struck up a relationship, and before long were friends. Aronowitz says Dylan penned "Mr. Tambourine Man" after listening to Marvin Gaye’s "Can I Get a Witness" over and over in his kitchen. ("All night long! I wanted to go to sleep!") He hung out in Woodstock with Dylan and his wife, Sara. Aronowitz even claims credit for persuading the folk hero to go electric. "Dylan was a folkie purist," he says with a grumble. "I hate purists. Purists are like fundamentalists. And fundamentalism is what’s wrong with the world. People who refuse to budge an inch, no matter what! These red states. These Muslim maniacs. These Jewish fanatics. I said, ‘Bob! Today’s pop hits are tomorrow’s folk classics!’ That was my argument. And I was right. I know I was right."

If meeting Bob Dylan changed his life, Aronowitz says his role in helping Dylan meet the Beatles changed the course of American popular culture. Aronowitz was there at JFK in February 1964, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, when the Fab Four disembarked from their Pan-Am DC-8 to screaming, teary throngs. He knew right away what a cataclysmic moment it was. "As soon as I met the Beatles, man. The whole press corps were there, ready to shoot them down, with their poison pens pointed. But they got off the plane, and they immediately charmed the shit out of everybody."

The Beatles, of course, were swarmed by press, but Aronowitz had special access, afforded him by the fast friendship he struck up with their road manager, Neil Aspinall. (In one priceless detail in a Saturday Evening Post article full of them, Aronowitz spots Aspinall "expertly and flawlessly" forging the Beatles’ signatures on programs meant for the queen.) So it was that this pop journalist was able to spirit Dylan into the Hotel Delmonico for a high summit meeting of the US’s and the UK’s leading lights.

At first, Aronowitz recalls, the encounter was "very awkward, very demure. Nobody wanted to step on anybody’s ego." So they tried to loosen up. Dylan wanted cheap red wine. The Beatles swilled their whisky and Coke, their pep pills in plastic bags on the nightstand. "They offered us pills, and we offered the Beatnik line," Aronowitz says. " ‘Ah, pills are chemicals, man! You don’t wanna put those in your body! Marijuana comes from the ground! It’s natural!’ " Still, the Liverpudlians were skeptical. Ringo was the guinea pig. Remembers Aronowitz in the book: " ‘You try it,’ John said."

"Soon, Ringo got the giggles," he writes. "In no time at all, he was laughing hysterically. His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing.... We kept laughing at each other’s laughter until every one of us had been laughed at."

In his cluttered apartment, Aronowitz reclines on an unmade bed with mismatched sheets, his wizened, stubbly face bathed eerily in the half-light of a single bulb. "It was all a big laugh," he says wearily, with a weak smile. "John’s code word for getting stoned was ‘Let’s have a larf.’ Then, later he called it ‘Let’s Al Aronowitz!’ " He chuckles. "But reporters like to say it was Dylan who turned ’em on. I was the invisible man."

Still, Aronowitz was always keenly aware of the momentousness of the larf-fest he engineered. "I was just a proud and happy shadchen, a Jewish matchmaker, dancing at the princely wedding I’d arranged," he writes. "I hate to think that putting Bob together with the Beatles is the only thing I’ll ever be remembered for, but I think it certainly was the right thing to do. Hasn’t the whole world benefited? Look at all the beautiful music we have as a result! The Beatles’ magic was in their sound. Bob’s magic was in his words. After they met, the Beatles’ words got grittier, and Bob invented folk-rock."

But regrets? He’s had a few. "If I had one stinking iota of junk-bond swindler Michael Milken in me, I would now be worth millions for all the music mergers I arranged," he writes. "But I guess I wasn’t enough of a hustler and a con man to compete with the sharks, wolves and snakes with which I had to deal. So now, I’m just a poor, broke, forgotten and ignored blacklisted journalist who has to give away all my stories for free on the Internet because I don’t want to wait to be published posthumously. Boo, hoo."

Aronowitz admits that he idolized these megawatt luminaries, Dylan especially. Perhaps too much. "The Cat’s Meow, The End, The Ultimate," he calls him in his book. "I adored Dylan too much to see him through critical eyes. I was too impressed with his hipness and too humbled by his artistry." Dylan could have "charmed the bracelets from the tails of rattlesnakes. I found him to be one of the most beguiling men I’ve ever known.... To be with Bob was always magical. Every word out of his mouth impressed me as a gem.... The universe I’d see in Bob’s eyes never stopped jolting me."

He’s also honest enough to recognize that these starry-eyed musings might as well be the study-hall notebook scribblings of a seventh-grader. But he doesn’t disown them. Dylan might sometimes have been a cold and abusive person, but Aronowitz was willing to subject himself to his barbs just to be in his presence. "I liked being friends, I liked hanging out with Dylan," he tells me. "I mean, my God! I was just crazy enough to think he was the new messiah! We all had that feeling about Dylan. We really revered him."

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Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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