Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations from Then and Now

Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations from Then and Now

by Frank Conroy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544115200
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/06/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 586,845
File size: 841 KB

About the Author

Frank Conroy is the director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He is also an accomplished jazz pianist.

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Some Observations Now

In 1968 a pal of mine who worked for The New Yorker was sent to cover the Democratic convention in Chicago. During the infamous police riots he was struck two or three times by a cop with a nightstick, and when he managed to get back to his hotel he found himself pissing blood. He eventually recovered, wrote his piece and left out the attack on himself. "Michael," I asked my always elegantly dressed, highly polite friend, "how could you leave it out? You weren't protesting. It shows the scope of the violence. It's important." He respectfully disagreed. "I wasn't sent to write about myself," he said, with a certain amount of hauteur. New Journalism was in the air back then — an approach in which the observer was taken to be as important, or more important, than the stuff observed (Tom Wolfe, for instance, writing about auto shows, well before taking on the more ambitious role of American Balzac). The New Yorker frowned on New Journalism. People took sides. I never did, whether from laziness or a reluctance to box myself in, I don't know. I dealt with each piece I wrote as seemed appropriate at the time.

The closest I came to New Journalism was probably a long piece (endlessly long, in fact) about the late movie star Steve McQueen, written for what was then considered not the best but the hippest magazine around, Esquire. McQueen, whom I had never thought much of as an actor, turned out to be a nice guy. Unassuming, straightforward, easygoing if a touch wired, he was good company. We had fun riding 250 cc dirt bikes in the desert around Palm Springs, drinking beer, eating Mexican food at out-of-the-way joints and swimming in the pool behind his Palm Springs house, his getaway pad (his mansion was in Beverly Hills, of course). It was my first "big" magazine piece. Still in my twenties, I was thrilled by the whole experience. I left something out of my piece, though, something I knew the editors would probably like, and, so too, the readers. On my third visit to his house — "Come over for lunch," he said, "around eleven" — he surprised me.

It was an ordinary suburban neighborhood, and I drove into the circle at precisely eleven A.M., parked the car and rang his front door bell. After a long time the door opened. McQueen, his entirely naked body wet and gleaming, peeked out at the street and then looked at me. "Come on back to the pool."

Was he showing off? His body was flawless, front and back, and quite beautiful. One did not have to be gay (and neither of us was) to be moved by its perfection. Was he saying he had nothing to hide to a writer who would, he knew, be writing about him? Was he asserting his freedom to do whatever he wanted to do — the kid from the orphanage who grew up to be a movie star? Was it an expression of trust? Who knows? Perhaps he just didn't think it was that important.

He lent me a pair of trunks, though, because he didn't know when his wife and kids would be back.

Writing for money. Not very much money, to be sure, but I did it occasionally. (My first book, StopTime, had been a critical success, but brought in next to nothing.) The New Yorker had printed chapters from my book, and Mr. Shawn, who ran the place, suggested I might want to try a "Notes and Comment" now and then. I wrote a dozen or so over the next couple of years, but finally stopped because I overreacted to rejection. Whenever he turned one down, even with good reason, it broke my heart. (In my teaching I emphasize that a writer must learn how to deal with rejection, and must never be weakened or slowed down because of it. I have dealt with it badly myself, so I know what I'm talking about.) I also overreacted to acceptance. Once I wrote a short story in a single go, nine hours of continuous immersion which left me manic and exhausted. Mr. Shawn bought the story and printed it a week later. I wasted a month celebrating.

Magazines had once been an important part of American culture. Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea was first printed in Life, read by millions of people. The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and others published fiction in every issue, thousands of stories a year, lots of nonfiction, and thus supported all kinds of writers. Television ended that era, but when I was young we still read what was left pretty faithfully. The New Yorker was important to us. As my drinking buddy Terry Southern used to say, "It's the top of the quality-lit biz."

One night I walked into a favorite literary hangout and sat down with Willie Morris, the flamboyant editor of Harper's Magazine. Charles Manson had just been arrested and the whole country was agog. "Who's going to do Manson for Harper's?" I asked, genuinely curious. Willie was, of course, drunk. "You are," he said immediately. "You are. You."

I thought it was the booze talking, but he asked the waiter for some paper and wrote out a contract on the spot. We both signed, and two waiters signed as witnesses, and Willie bought a round of drinks. A month later I delivered the article, a "think piece" as they used to call them at The New Yorker, which Willie liked well enough to make the cover story. A terrific editor, who knew when to simply let a writer go.

Some editors were insupportable. A young guy at one of thebigger "slicks" asked me to go out to California and do a story on Anouk Aimée, the ethereally beautiful French actress who'd hit it big with a movie called A Man and a Woman. "She's going to see Disneyland, according to her PR guy." I accepted the assignment, spent three or four days with Anouk and her guitar-playing boyfriend, went to Disneyland with them, came back to New York and wrote an article. It was hard work. Anouk was indeed beautiful, but a dim bulb. A soul under water, really. I thought I captured a certain poignancy in her situation, but the editor killed the piece. "I was thinking of the irony of it," he said. "You know, French sophistication against the vulgarity of Disneyland." In other words, he had a piece in mind despite the fact that he'd never met Anouk Aimée and never been to California. A few experiences of this kind taught me to be very careful about assignments. I backed off from magazine work almost entirely, in fact, earning money doctoring movie scripts instead. (Cleaning up dialogue, mostly, for princely sums. It didn't seem to matter whether the producers made the movie or not. But I began to hate the work itself — the movies were stupid — and eventually the well went dry.)

Years later, after my marriage had ended and I left New York to live in the boondocks, broke, jobless and confused, I was to look back with mild alarm at how casual I'd been about money, how spoiled I'd been by a decade of modest income from my trust funds (which ran out) and my wife's (which, thank God, did not), wrapped in a comfortable fog of well-being. The cliché is true: when you don't really need money, it's easy to get, and when you absolutely must have it, it's hard to come by — particularly if you've left town. New Yorkers tend to think of anyone who's left as having died. They simply forget about you. For quite some time I scrabbled around, playing the piano at jazz bars, doing whatever pickup journalism I could get. I was grateful when an acquaintance at the New York Times Magazine called long distance to ask if I wanted to do a piece on the Rolling Stones. "You bet," I said. "Thanks."

I knew nothing about rock, never listened to it except in passing on the car radio and had no interest in it. (The Beatles were another story. I bought all their records and even played a few of their tunes with my trio.) I had to ask my twenty-four-year-old girlfriend, "Who are the Rolling Stones? I mean, I've heard of them, but what's the big deal?"

She looked at me suspiciously, as if I'd started playing some unspecified word game. "You mean you really don't know?"


"Does the name Mick Jagger ring a bell?"

"He's in the group, right? He sings?"

(Let me digress with another note about New York. My male pals understood me well enough to know I couldn't live alone — indeed, I tried it for a year, housesitting in Connecticut and feeling very, very sorry for myself — and many of them argued that I should stay in the city because I'd never find a woman in the boondocks. They were wrong, as New Yorkers are so often wrong about the outside world. The twenty-four-year-old girlfriend who proceeded to tell me all she knew about the Rolling Stones eventually married me, and is still with me thirty years later. We have a fifteen-year-old son who listens to Tony Bennett.)

Once again I was to leave something out of the story. I had no choice, really, given the venue. But I can tell it here. The Rolling Stones were about to begin an American tour, and had rented Andy Warhol's estate at the northern tip of Long Island to go over their repertoire. Flashing my coded telegram at various checkpoints, I arrived at a sprawling one-story house with wings in all directions. I found a door, knocked and, after some time, simply entered. To my left, an enormous kitchen. "Hello? Anybody home?" I moved past the entrance hall and through an arch on my right to what looked like a large, informal living room. "Hello?" Complete silence. It was around four o'clock in the afternoon.

I sat down on a couch, feeling a bit nervous, and flipped through some magazines from a side table. After perhaps three quarters of an hour I got up and walked over to the French windows, stared out at the lawn and came back again. On the other side of the room were amplifiers, mike stands, stacks of speakers, a drum set, cables on the floor and a Steinway baby grand. I sat down at the piano and played some Thelonious Monk. Then some Jaki Byard. I got into it, as they say — concentrating. I played the blues, and suddenly the sound of the drums came from behind my back. Crisp, light ride cymbal, steady high hats and short riffs on the snare, echoing little licks from my right hand. Classic jazz drums, something like Kenny Clark. I just kept on playing when a bass joined in, completing the trio with a swinging four-to-the-bar walking line. It sounded so good to me I couldn't stop, and we must have done fifty choruses. Finally I played the head to "Blues in the Closet," lifted my hands and turned around.

"Hey," said the skinny guy behind the drums. "I've played with you before." This was Charlie Watts, the Stones' drummer, but I had never seen the group and didn't recognize him.

"I — uh, well," I mumbled.

"The Establishment!" he said. "Back in the old days."

Ah, yes. London. A nightclub with a downstairs jazz scene where the house pianist, Dudley Moore, let me sit in now and then. (This was before rock hit England, when Gypsy caravans might be spotted in the countryside.) "Right," I said. "Good Lord."

Charlie introduced me to Bill Wyman, the bassist, and we all reminisced about the nightclub, the swinging Soho scene, Ronnie Scott's jazz club, Lenny Bruce's first gig in London and othermatters of no particular importance. Although Mick Jagger turned out to be a narcissistic egomaniac, Watts and Wyman were open, friendly and masters of a certain kind of fast British working-class humor. I went along to rehearsals at an old air base in Newburgh, New York, and then to a performance in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My acquaintance with Watts, and his generosity with his time, gave me almost completely free access to the whole elaborate process of launching a big tour. I got to know everybody — roadies, the cook, sound people, stage managers and all the rest. Through nothing more than good luck, I had more than enough material for the article. I had fun, too, but that couldn't go in. At least not all of it.

Twenty-five years later, the Stones piece is included in this book, slightly altered in chronology and its mention of jazz. The McQueen piece and dozens of other journalistic pieces have been left out. They seem dated now. A number of essays that were not written for magazines have been included.

A long time ago I wrote a memoir, StopTime, which ended when I was eighteen. A lot of people expected me to continue the story of my life, but I was determined not to write that kind of book again. Stop-Time stands alone, and I'm glad of that. I did not think of the book as the start of a career, I thought of it as a thing unto itself, and was astonished that I'd been able to make it. Decades later I wrote a novel, Body & Soul, as an homage both to music and to the traditional novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which I loved and which had awakened my imagination. But all along I was doing smaller things: stories, articles and essays that now seem — although this was never the intent — to extend the line of the eighteen-year-old boy, however faintly, into the present. But I hope the pieces collected here can be read for pleasure as is. It's the caravan that counts, after all, not the dog.




The truth is I hardly knew him, and have only a few memories of him. He died in 1948, when I was twelve, but he had been long gone by then, spending part of the time in convalescent homes because of his manic depression and heavy drinking, and the rest of the time, where? I don't know. I was never told. For various reasons, my mother (who may also not have known) put forward his illness to my sister and myself as the sole cause of his absence. He couldn't be with us because he was sick, which allowed us to maintain the illusion that he wanted to be with us, and that only his sicknesses, for which he was not responsible, prevented it from happening.

It's hard to know how much to believe of what little I've been told about him. He grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and his mother sent him to school in velvet suits and lace collars, which he deeply resented. His father died when he was a teenager, and the language of the funeral service caused him to walk out of the church, creating a scandal, and to reject Catholicism forever. As a young man he fell in love with a local beauty, asked for her hand in marriage while driving her somewhere in his Cord Roadster, and threatened to crash through the guardrail into the river when she refused. Such are the shreds and bits I have of his early life — not much to build on. But when I was sixteen, coming down from New York on my way to a job as a movie usher in Fort Lauderdale, walking along a sidewalk in downtown Jacksonville, a middle-aged woman rushed out from a bookstore and stopped me. "You must be Phil Conroy's son," she said. It turned out she had gone to school with him. It turned out that for a split second, glancing up through the bookstore window, she had gone back in time and was seeing Phil Conroy at sixteen once more. Something like pain was in her face. I was stunned. I sensed — no, I knew — that she had been in love with him. I stood there in place of my father. For a moment I was my father, and understood that he had once been sixteen, that he had once walked the streets of Jacksonville as I was walking them. I was stunned because I learned that at one time in his short life he had been able to elicit love — that someone, somewhere along the line, this middle-aged woman for instance, had loved him. I doubted that my mother had, and I knew that I hadn't.

My mother came to this country from Denmark at nineteen, apparently determined to escape the petit-bourgeois repressiveness (as she saw it) of her family. Her father sold beer for Tuborg, and her mother kept house, forcing the maid, as she'd once told me in scornful tones, to "comb the fringes of the rugs." She had some training as a nurse, got a job in a fancy rest home, met my father, who was a patient there, married him, bore two children and was then more or less abandoned (except for the money his lawyers sent every month). She never spoke ill of him to me, nor do I think she felt any animosity toward him. Her few remarks in response to my childish queries about him, and most particularly her tone, seemed to suggest that the whole thing had been simply a sad misadventure and not very important, really. He was a "gentleman" who "dressed very well," had "intellectual and artistic interests," and who had come north to escape the influence of his "neurotic mother." When I asked what his work was, I was told that for a short time he had been a literary agent, but that he'd "always wanted to be a writer." Why he had not become a writer was never explained. "He tried" was all she'd say. He hadn't had to worry about money because he and his mother were "rich" and "owned real estate in Jacksonville." What I got from my mother was not that she loved him but that she respected him. She had married above herself, and there was enough of the bourgeois still in her to be impressed. She told me many times that he was a very smart man.


Excerpted from "Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Frank Conroy.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


a note on the title ix Some Observations Now 1 Father 8 Scouts’Honor 16 Running the Table 19 My Generation 28 The Basic Imperative 35 Leaving New York 43 Small-Town America 48 The Mystery of Coincidence 54 A New Father 59 Father Thoughts 66 More Observations Now 73 Think About It 75 My Teacher 83 The Writers’Workshop 98 The House of Representatives and Me 114 Me and Conroy 121 More Observations Now 123 My Harlem 129 Jarrett 139 Marsalis at Twenty-three 154 Marsalis at Thirty-four 168 The Serkin Touch 186 Hip Vaudeville 196 Observations Now 210 Great Scott 212

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