Working on this book makes me pine for the first one. No soft nostalgia there, which should tell you what a motherfucker the current one is.
I often wonder how I finished Mr. Mike. Clearly, that was a different person. Scoring the gig won me few friends. Belushi had been burned by Bob Woodward, and mine was the next SNL bio. Skepticism was the kindest gesture I received. Dismissal and hostility were the main, early reactions.
Timothy White was the first to register his complaint. I worked as a copy editor under White at Billboard magazine. He became Billboard's editor in chief after a successful Rolling Stone run writing hip celebrity profiles. One of his pieces was about O'Donoghue, with whom White became close friends. When I got the book deal and quit Billboard to work on it, I asked White for an interview. He was there during O'Donoghue's Mondo Video mess. I was sure he had some stories. Had I shit in White's mouth, I couldn't have gotten a worse reaction.
He flipped out. "IT'S TOO SOON! IT'S TOO SOON!" he kept yelling in my face. "Who are you? What have you done? H.P. Lovecraft didn't get his biography for a century! Your book's gonna be bullshit gossip!"
White had a Jay Lenoish voice that made his rant nearly comic. His dandy costume of white buck shoes, pinstriped shirt and bow tie added to the effect. But he was very angry. Apparently, White assumed that he would be O'Donoghue's biographer. That some nobody copy editing scrub took what was rightfully his sent White round the bend.
Months later, I tried White again. His secretary coolly stated that White would never talk to me, under any circumstances. So that was that. Several years later, White died of a heart attack in a Viacom Building elevator. I have no idea whether or not he read my book.
White was the least of it. Despite having Cheryl Hardwick's blessing, various Lampoon and SNL vets wanted nothing to do with me. Most who did were very cautious and openly suspicious. It was a shock absorbing negative emotion from these comedy influences, but I plowed through it. What choice did I have? My wife and I just moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, five-year-old daughter and newborn son in tow. I'd deposited the first advance check. There was no going back.
After a year of interviews and research (O'Donoghue's massive file system the main source), I began writing the manuscript, which filled me with anxiety. Michael O'Donoghue's life was literally in my hands. People whose work I revered were waiting for the result. That's when the stomach pain began. Sleepless nights. Cigarette smoking. Gin guzzling. I needed distraction. Nan suggested I join a health club on Grand Army Plaza. Swimming, basketball, weights. This appealed to me, so I signed up.
Within weeks I was going to the gym almost daily. I wrote at night, primarily between 11 PM and 6 AM, then would head to the club to shoot hoops. At the beginning I shot alone, mostly working on free throws. It was a quiet meditative space. I worked out various problems with the book at the foul line. Then a smaller compact man began showing up. We chatted, shot around, eventually played one-on-one, breaking really good sweats.
Rob was an ex-addict of some kind trying to get into shape. He spoke cryptically of his life, never giving too much away. I had no idea what he did, but on the court it didn't matter. Rob was as friendly as he was tenacious in a game. Eventually he asked if a friend of his could join in.
Rob's friend was John Turturro, who lived nearby. John was open while knowing people were staring at him, his intensity warmer than some of the lunatics he played on film. The gym's Haitian janitor Otto rounded out our two-on-two games as we regularly switched sides to keep it fresh.
John rarely jumped, having a height advantage on the rest of us. He also played hard defense. Once I drove to the hole looking to score the game's winning point. Turturro slammed me to the floor. No gimmes on game winners. Somehow I got the ball away and didn't know I hit the shot until John pulled me off the paint. "And one," he said, smiling.
Between games, John and I argued sports. A die-hard Knicks fan, John insisted that Patrick Ewing was the NBA's best center. This was 1997. Ewing's prime was past. Alonzo Mourning was the best all-around center if not player in the league, with Shaquille O'Neal right behind him. John flashed that crazy Turturro face from Do The Right Thing. "What -- are you high on LSD?!" I couldn't tell if he was kidding, but confessed that I wasn't hallucinating. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing. It feels that way from this distance.
John left to make a movie. (I asked if it was with the Coens. He smirked. Lebowski?) Rob and I returned to our little battles. As Mr. Mike came together, I spent less time at the gym. I saw Rob now and then, but that phase was over. Nothing intentional; just an NYC thing.
Later I learned that my hoops pal was Robert Longo, an acclaimed artist and director who worked with REM, New Order, and The Replacements. (The above image is from Rob's celebrated Men In Cities series.) He never said a word about his work. Rob was just a guy trying to lose weight. Knowing Turturro should have tipped me off to something, but in the city, relationships are varied, fluid. I gave it no thought.
The gym was a healthy distraction from Mr. Mike, which consumed the rest of my life, strained my young marriage, pushed me to the creative and emotional limit. The pressure of the new book is different, darker in parts with no serious distraction. Just me and the text. Anyone up for some H-O-R-S-E?