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The go-between
Al Aronowitz says the ’60s wouldn’t have been the same without him. Now, as he types away alone in his cluttered New Jersey apartment, the ‘Blacklisted Journalist’ looks back.

Of course, now I realize that smoke should never enter the human lung. Not smoke from a cigarette, not smoke from a marijuana joint, not smoke from the exhaust of a car, not smoke from a burning match, not smoke from a smokestack, nothing! Smoke should never enter the human lung! Smoke is anti-life!

AL ARONOWITZ is sitting in a booth at the International House of Pancakes in Elizabeth, New Jersey, reflecting on lessons learned. He’s thinking back on a time in his own life when he smoked an awful lot. Specifically, he’s remembering a night, August 28, 1964, in Manhattan’s Hotel Delmonico on Park Avenue. The night when he introduced his pal Bob Dylan to the Beatles — and introduced the lads from Liverpool to a poorly rolled joint of his own "evil weed." That night, he’d later write, "I was well aware ... that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music."

Once upon a time, Aronowitz knew everybody. As a cub reporter, he interviewed Marilyn Monroe. He could phone Frank Sinatra at the Sands. He traveled to San Francisco to study the burgeoning Beat movement with a sociologist’s rigor and a hedonist’s abandon. The unexpurgated, 10,770-word manuscript of his 1964 article on Beatlemania for the Saturday Evening Post is a masterpiece of long-form reportage, a kaleidoscopic up-close view of a seismic cultural shift. (It sold more copies than any issue since Ben Franklin founded the magazine, in 1728.) In the late ’60s and early ’70s, his "Pop Scene" column in the New York Post had him rubbing shoulders with the Stones and the Band, and had people whispering his name when he walked into clubs.

But Aronowitz did more than just profile his subjects. He became their friends, and they his. Bob Dylan wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man" in Aronowitz’s kitchen. Aronowitz drove Dylan to buy his infamous Triumph motorcycle (the one he crashed in 1966 under still-mysterious circumstances). John Lennon photographed him with and without pants. Miles Davis played him his records over the phone. Johnny Cash once threatened to punch him out. Aronowitz was writing about rock and roll before that vocation became a cliché, but he was less reporter than participant. Art Garfunkel called him "Uncle Al, the man who introduces everybody to everybody."

But things fell apart. In 1972, Aronowitz’s wife died of cancer. He lost his column thanks to conflict-of-interest charges made by his editor. (Aronowitz suspects there was a personal vendetta at work.) He had managed middling, money-hemorrhaging rock acts in the ’60s, and it cost him his house. The mid-’70s country-music concerts he promoted in New York City were bombs. He was freebasing cocaine, dealing drugs, and descending into something approaching madness. "It all made me crazy," he says. "I was crazy. Really crazy." Suddenly, the man who had built his life around others was all but alone. If he wasn’t officially blacklisted from journalism, the effect was the same. No one wanted to know the man who knew everyone. Not New York editors, not Bob Dylan. And to hear him tell it, Aronowitz didn’t want to know himself.

But then, in 1995, his daughter introduced him to a still-new phenomenon: the Internet. If magazine and newspaper editors wouldn’t take his calls, then fuck them; here was a new way to publish. In his dark and druggy days, he’d put out a scattershot Xeroxed ’zine called the Blacklisted Masterpieces of Al Aronowitz. ("YOU’VE GOT TO HAVE FAITH that this book will be recognized as an important literary work and a valuable collector’s item to want to pay $100 for it!" trumpeted the ’zine’s ad in the Village Voice. "MORE THAN SIX COPIES NOW IN PRINT!") But this was something else: a vast, uncharted expanse that a "compulsive writer" could fill with millions of words, a place where Aronowitz could tell his stories. He cleaned up his act, and got down to it. "The Blacklisted Journalist" was born.

Ten years later, sitting in his dark and detritus-filled apartment, Aronowitz, now 76, still writes almost every day, torrents of words preserving his rock-and-roll memories in cyber-amber. Some would argue the last thing the ’60s need is more documentation, more solipsistic, I-was-there-man reminiscences. But his Web site, and his self-published Bob Dylan and the Beatles: Volume One of the Blacklisted Journalist (AuthorHouse), a chunky paperback tome that collects the best of Aronowitz’s writing from then and now, offer riotous and rambling time capsules, comprising detailed vignettes and told in a voice that’s direct, disarming, and self-deprecating. It may or may not be true, as the book’s promo materials proclaim, that FOR AS LONG AS PEOPLE KEEP LISTENING TO BOB DYLAN AND THE BEATLES, PEOPLE WILL WANT THIS BOOK!, but Aronowitz’s anecdotes offer an inimitable inside look at the rock era’s biggest players. (Next up, look for his Bobby Darin Was a Friend of Mine, a new book he says is timed to coincide with — and challenge the authenticity of — Kevin Spacey’s forthcoming Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea.)

Aronowitz is no longer the bombastic bear of a man who can be seen in photographs hobnobbing with Dylan and Lennon. After years of drug abuse and an open-heart surgery, he seems to have shrunk. Enormous glasses enlarge his sleepy eyes. His posture and bearing are stooped and subdued. Bouts of phlebitis have him walking with a cane, and his voice is sometimes barely audible. But make no mistake: Al Aronowitz still has a voice. He’s got stories to tell, and he’s sure as hell not going to wait until he’s dead to have them told. "My writing has gotta speak for itself," he says. "Too many people have judged me, rather than judge my work. I’m not Picasso. Maybe I’m a prick. I dunno. But this is my love of loves, this is my work. These are stories of the times. I think they’re interesting. That’s the job of a journalist. To make sense of the story. And express yourself."

I MEET Aronowitz and his girlfriend, Ida, at his hulking brick apartment building on the north side of hardscrabble Elizabeth, New Jersey. As we make our way slowly downstairs toward the exit, Ida pauses, remembering that she’s left her purse in the apartment. A gentleman, Aronowitz trudges back toward the ancient elevator to retrieve it. When he returns, he deadpans like a Borscht Belt comedian: "I couldn’t find your bag, so I grabbed one off the first lady I saw."

At IHOP, Aronowitz sits across from me in a red Rutgers cap and bright blue cowboy shirt and starts at the beginning. Born in 1928, he grew up the son of an Orthodox butcher in Bordentown and Roosevelt Park, New Jersey. "A lot of anti-Semitism," he says. "I remember when the marshal came to repossess my father’s [delivery] truck. My mother was beating on his chest, screaming, ‘Don’t take the truck away!’ I was two or three years old." He went to Rutgers and majored in journalism. "A total waste of time," he says. "I learned more working on the college paper than I ever did in journalism class." When he got out, in 1950, the Phi Beta Kappa grad landed a job as editor of the Daily Times in Lakewood, New Jersey. Then he moved on to the Newark Evening News, and finally across the river to the New York Post.

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Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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