My Evening with James Lipton

I had just moved to New York City and I was then a punkish and somewhat obnoxious independent podcaster who did ridiculously comprehensive and quirky interviews with authors. I had, like many other film and book geeks, been a devout watcher of Inside the Actors Studio. You didn’t know whether or not Lipton was serious or playing an absurdist role — especially with the Proust questionnaire. But you did have the sense that you were seeing someone who was orchestrating a somewhat important conversation, even if the dignified atmosphere didn’t always feel entirely earned.

Anyway, I learned that James Lipton had a book called Inside Inside and, purely because I had nothing to lose and my approach has always been to ask other people to be involved with my silly projects and see if they want to have fun (a surprising number of people are game), I sent an interview request to the publisher.

Amazingly, Lipton’s people said that he would be very keen to talk with me and that I’d get one hour with him.

I couldn’t believe it. I called some of my old buddies in California.

“Dude, James Lipton himself is going to be on The Bat Segundo Show!”

“No way!”

“That’s awesome!”

Sure, Lipton wasn’t the hugest name. He was some guy on the Bravo network. But he was known for being thoughtful — perhaps too thoughtful — towards the big names. He even had the decency to appreciate Will Ferrell’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live. And I suppose that free-wheeling, vaguely classy attitude was what made him someone who you couldn’t discount, even if you found him a little too serious at times. Inside the Actors Studio‘s atmosphere was generous with its time and it allowed you — to cite one of many examples — to see Robin Williams’s creative mind at work after taking a scarf from the audience and spending the next few minutes improvising with it. Lipton was often ridiculed for these efforts. But nobody, not even me, knew how much of a gent he was. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

I set up the interview in a restaurant. Lipton arrived, wearing vast swaths of makeup (he had just come off a television interview), and seemed a little uncomfortable with my microphone setup on the table. I started with some of my goofy questions. This was what I usually did to break the ice before I went into the serious stuff. But Lipton looked lost, caught in some internal sea of melancholy. I wondered if I had somehow said something to piss off James Lipton. This has been known to happen. I do have a tendency to shoot off my mouth, largely unknowingly. I ended up stopping the mic and asking, “Hey, man, are you okay?” He said he wasn’t feeling well and that he wanted to reschedule. He told me that I was a thoughtful young man and he offered deep apologies. I was baffled. Then he left the table and seemed to be deeply ashamed.

I sat there, bewildered, packing up my gear. There was little else I could do. Then I received a call from the publicist. The publicist told me — and the two of us both seemed to be worried about Lipton — that Lipton had received a brutal review of his book in a major newspaper that morning and that he felt embarrassed, leaving me like that. Could Lipton make it up to me? Could I meet Lipton that evening at his Upper East Side townhouse? I was stunned. Lipton really wanted to do the interview with me and do me a solid. “Yes,” I said calmly and professionally. I then quickly called my friends and said, “Holy shit! I’m meeting Lipton at his house! Should I dress up?”

I did dress up a little bit. And I arrived on time. I met Lipton’s wife, Kedekai, and I was firmly in Lipton Land. I was offered good scotch, which I politely declined. Kedekai came out with a large dish of snacks. And Lipton — still wearing television makeup — emerged and again offered profuse apologies for not being able to go through with the interview that afternoon. He showed me around his house. There was a room in which every wall was festooned with framed letters and photos of Lipton with his arm around big shot actors. “This collection is a little embarrassing,” said Lipton, who I suspected had said the same thing to everyone. But I actually thought his collection was somewhat endearing. Basically, Lipton was a huge geeky fan of actors. But for a man of Lipton’s generation, this was something you didn’t announce.

What impressed me more than this was how much of a gentleman Lipton had been. I was just some silly online guy who did interviews and here Lipton and his wife were treating me like royalty, lavishing me with such incredibly generous hospitality that I wondered if they had somehow mixed me up with someone else.

Lipton told me that I was someone who was different from the usual media people he talked with. Yes, I had read his 512 page memoir in full before talking with the man. I did this with every guest on my show. But this seemed to astonish Lipton. He clearly wasn’t used to this or anyone doing this kind of intense research. I got the sense that Lipton was a man who was secretly very shy and introverted and who really wanted to be taken seriously by people, but who usually wasn’t. I was apparently that rara avis interview where Lipton would be able to be Liptona at length.

We started rolling tape. You can listen to the interview here. And the two of us had a thoughtful, sometimes very funny, and gently revealing conversation of just how Lipton lived and operated in the way that he did. By simply allowing James Lipton to be himself, and being genuinely interested in him (as I was with all the people I interviewed), I was able to get an incredibly fascinating portrait of the man. Maybe Lipton needed the Lipton approach done with him. I don’t know. But when we finished the conversation, Lipton thanked me profusely and said that it was the best interview he had ever received. He asked for my mailing address. I gave it to him and, for many years, I received a Christmas card annually like clockwork.

I think what people failed to understand about Lipton is that he both liked to please people but he did this because he wanted to be known and loved and respected. But he wasn’t the kind of man who wanted to advertise this need. Because the Inside the Actors Studio persona was one of gravitas and seriousness. Lipton laughed very loud at my jokes in the comfort of his home and when the mic wasn’t on, but he grew very serious when he knew we were recording.

What I do know is that, for about two hours of my life, I was able to give Lipton some unconditional love and respect. Perhaps because I wasn’t a journalistic vulture. I was more of a guy who greatly enjoyed talking with people and accepting them on their own terms. But I had learned some of these moves by watching Inside the Actors Studio.

Jack Welch is Dead: Goodbye and Good Riddance

Jack Welch, a scurrilous American disease who was frequently misidentified as a human being, finally bit the bucket on Sunday. There are many business tycoons who will lionize this unapologetic ratfuck, but I, for one, am very glad that this unpardonable snollygoster, this vile enemy of the American worker, is dead. For Welch was an innovative corporate sociopath who prioritized profits over human life. He was known as “Neutron Jack” for a reason. It wasn’t just that he had the destructive force of a neutron bomb because of the callous way in which he destroyed the livelihoods of hard-working Americans for maximum gain. His very soulless demeanor resembled a weapon of mass destruction. If Fat Man and Little Boy could talk and carry on a board meeting, Jack Welch was the living embodiment of this murderous Faustian bargain. Jack tried to disguise his unrelenting evils with a phony smile and a bullshit avuncularism that was appealing to other white males who hoped to adopt and emulate his ruthless approach for their own ends. But make no mistake: for all of his candor, this scumbag was incapable of compassion and, as such, he deserves no respect.

Welch’s fawning and uncritical acolytes claimed that everything he touched turned to gold. But at what cost? Welch was one of the first CEOs to break the covenant between a profitable company and the American worker. He believed in grouping workers into clusters — the so-called “vitality curve” — and not giving those who didn’t fall within the top 20% a chance, paying little heed or heart to human factors in a worker’s life that might temporarily alter their performance. Under his tenure at GE, he reduced 411,000 employees in 1980 to 299,000 employees in 1985. The GE stock kept shooting up during that time, rising to two and a half times the value. There was more than enough wiggle room to keep workers employed. But not for Jack. He sold off businesses and laid off workers and Forbes named him “Manager of the Century.”

But what was the end result of decimating GE like this? A swift rise followed by a sputtering fall. Because you can’t sustain this kind of growth forever. Under Welch’s handpicked successor, Jeff Immelt, it became very easy for GE Capital to become more cartoonish and thus flounder. And that is because Welch set the template for profit at any cost. It lines your pockets for a number of years, but it never lasts. And if that’s the case, are the many hundred thousand workers truly worth the sacrifice?

Jack Welch never gave a damn about the American worker or preserving job security. He was a dirty slithering hagfish who only existed to pursue mad and Machiavellian ends. In seven years, Welch not only reduced the GE workforce, but he reduced its unionized share. Unionized employees fell from 70% to 35% of the total workforce. This left them without the leverage to negotiate and they became targets under the vicious profit-motivated evil of Jack Welch.

There’s simply no way that anyone with a moral conscience can revere this guy. If you hold Jack Welch in any kind of esteem, then I don’t know if I could ever invite you to dinner. Before Jack Welch came along, there was a line in the sand in which it was understood that workers shared the profits and benefits of a company’s success. But Welch changed all that and inspired other lunatics to adopt similarly heartless policies that are now the norm. Welch only innovated in the way that he inflicted barbarism against this covenant with blue-collar Americans. And for that, his demise requires me to pop open a bottle of champagne and pledge a renewed commitment to standing up for the health, security, and wellbeing of the American worker as Jack Welch rots in hell.

David Bowie, Rock and Roll Chameleon Genius

He had crisp blue eyes, both of a slightly different hue after a childhood friend pierced one pupil with a fingernail during a fight, that could seduce any camera or crowd. He strutted all stages with a fierce lean mien under several forms and identities. His deep, cigarette-honed, intoxicating voice crooned during a tune before cracking unexpectedly into an otherworldly wail suggesting pain and playfulness that he kept from the public. He was a rock and roll legend and, like all good icons, he lived a sybaritic existence at times. Yet his musical accomplishments are worthy of our reverence and our accolades. For he worked more genres (glam rock, funk, folk, electronic, ambient, noise pop) in one lifetime than most artists can summon in a few years. And because his hold upon music and culture was so indomitable and without coeval, it seemed like he would live forever.

But David Bowie was mortal like the rest of us. Bowie, born David Robert Jones, died on Sunday, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album Blackstar. And the cultural landscape as we now know it, a cesspool of risk-averse careerism and lassitude and the foppish pursuit of social media likes and followers, now has a hole that is about the size of the 181 mile crater near the lunar south pole: one that will take more creative energy and several distinct unparalleled visions to fill.

One listens to Bowie’s early pre-Ziggy Stardust albums — the cautionary “Quicksand” and the playful “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory, the many explorations of insanity in The Man Who Sold the World — seeing Bowie’s formidable cognizance of the world’s many traps and contradictions (he made several attempts to adapt Orwell’s 1984) and a sui generis talent who quickly surveyed the land and decided very fast to play the game entirely on his own terms. And then there are the later tracks — the gender-bending pre-grunge “Boys Keep Swinging” from Lodger, “Rebel Rebel”‘s incredible guitar lick on Diamond Dogs (his most covered track), the groovy “Stay” from Station to Station (to say nothing of the delightful “TVC15” from that same album) — that showed Bowie’s incredible ability to stay ahead of even his savviest audiences. Career reinvention was very much Bowie’s career. And he understood this well before MTV latched its image-conscious talons into the music world. But this often came close to engulfing him.

Bowie’s post-glam performance as Labyrinth‘s Jared the Goblin King had a tremendous impact on YA authors and will undoubtedly be cited as a shining exemplar of his influence, but this admirable pillar seems woefully insufficient considered against the edgier and more iconoclastic personae that Bowie donned during the 1970s. He took on identities like a man who could never have a large enough wardrobe. Like Miles Davis, Bowie’s commitment to his alter egos was austerely physical and often took a very personal toll, as can been in the above 1974 interview with Dick Cavett, with a sullen, sniffing (all the coke) Bowie poking the carpet with an outsize cane. During the mid-1970s, Bowie lived on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk to sustain his Thin White Duke persona, who was a gelid and joyless man who wasn’t terribly pleasant to be around. The character was starkly Nietschean and often supported fascism, which matched Bowie’s return to Europe during the Station to Station years.

The albums stayed groundbreaking up to 1980’s Scary Monsters, which arrived with an innovative music video for “Ashes to Ashes” (seen above) that caused J.G. Ballard to remark how it was “like an extract from a surrealist movie.” But three years later, Bowie decided to cash in with a $17.5 million contract with EMI. He turned to Nile Rodgers instead of longtime producer Tony Visconti for a new album that signaled a more mainstream direction. Let’s Dance offered a respectable title single, one now relentlessly overplayed and one that cannot possibly sum up David Bowie at all, that gave the radio stations something relatively inoffensive to play (all of the lively work coming before that wasn’t “Changes” or “The Golden Years” seemed to be ignored by most DJs), but Bowie’s move towards lucre caused a severe damage to his long-standing relationship with Visconti (although the two would work together again on 2002’s Heathen).

Yet even Bowie’s shift to the mainstream couldn’t hinder the ever fertile Bowie from trying out experiments like 1997’s wonderful album Earthling (which came after Bowie toured with Trent Reznor) or Tin Machine, an underrated two album period in which Bowie took a more low-key frontman approach and shifted to a noisier sound.

But Bowie was at his best when he was driven by words and noise. Perhaps Bowie needed to sink in the quicksand of his thoughts in order to return as valiantly and as resiliently as he did. Bowie made changing your image look as easy as putting on a new pair of socks. If his life’s work can be likened to taking the complex and personally devastating and making it appear so simple, then David Bowie was an undeniable musical genius whose legacy we are only just starting to understand.

A Few Words on Lou Reed

“But if you think that you get kicks from flirting with danger / Danger, oooohh / just kick her in the head and rearrange her” — Lou Reed, “Wagon Wheel”

“What does Robert Christgau do in bed?” growled Lou Reed during a performance of “Walk on the Wild Side” on Take No Prisoners. “I mean, is he a toefucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer’s Guide to Rock. What a moron! ‘A Study’ by, you know, ‘Robert Christgau.’ Nice little boxes: B+. Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?” Christgau would later review the album, awarding it a C+ and thanking Reed for getting his name right. But Christgau apparently did more than that. He nominated Reed for a MacArthur Foundation grant, which Reed never received. Reed never forgot the early slights. When Christgau was introduced to Reed at a Sire luncheon, Reed sneered at Christgau when the critic offered his hand.

To dismiss Lou Reed as a mere irascible motherfucker, as Christgau did last night in his obituary for Spin, severely discounts the ferocious spirit that Reed took with him to the grave: an unapologetic artistic commitment, alive in all those great records, that is ever more in short supply in our conformist age of crowdsourcing, +1ing, and an unhealthy compunction to always be liked. Reed’s death was not strange in its police blotter statistics. 71 is a remarkable tally for a man who lived as hard as Reed did. But the great gaping cavity that has opened up is unquestionably weird. Some wailing mirror has squealed long and loud into the night, a force demanding new and dangerous innovation on all fronts.

What artist today name-checks Saul Bellow and Yeats on stage? Or calls for a full-scale sexual revolution while masterfully weaving in a tuba line? (That’s “Make Up,” from Reed’s solo album, Transformer.) How many lives did Reed save by singing about subjects that no one else did? And is there any performer today, one so artistically ahead of the curve and never flinching from experimentation, who can inspire a thousand musicians to start new bands with one new track?

Reed’s commitment to sparsity (“One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”) was such that he was able to write two of The Velvet Underground’s finest songs (“Heroin” and the magnificently raucous “Sister Ray”) without a bass guitar, paving the way for The White Stripes.

It’s possible that the chalky apocalyptic atmosphere of the early 1970s, fluctuating in the wake of crushed 1960s idealism, allowed Reed to do what he did. He was unquestionably aided in his early years by Andy Warhol, who spotted The Velvet Underground in the East Village, and Delmore Schwartz, who taught him at Syracuse University. Would Reed have found the courage to write “Heroin” without Schwartz? Would he still be toiling as a tunesmith for Pickwick if Warhol had not stopped by Café Bizarre with filmmaker Barbara Rubin and incorporated Reed’s band into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable? More than four decades later, Reed’s essence remains so indomitable that it’s easy to see him as someone who could have easily mowed down all resistance to his vision. But he needed eccentric and caring benefactors. And maybe that’s one truth we can take away from Reed’s passing in our crowdfunding age. Lou Reed is irreplaceable. But patience for the pugnacious innovators, for the scrappy workhorses toiling assiduously in odd corners, may be what we need to keep tomorrow’s culture as elastic and as indelible as Reed’s contributions.