I spent five or six years of my youth interviewing rock stars. I interviewed them backstage, after concerts. I interviewed them in their homes, in recording studios and in radio and television stations. I interviewed them in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Monterey, California.
I interviewed Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher and dozens of others.
It was the mid to late 1960’s. It all began because my father wanted me to be a lawyer. He thought that I would be better than Perry Mason, the lawyer played by Raymond Burr, who won his case, on television, every week.
It is very hard to rebel if, like me, you are the child of two people who were imprisoned in Nazi death camps and had almost everyone they loved in the universe murdered. My rebellion was unplanned. It seemed to come out of the blue. I was at a high school for gifted students, and I successfully botched any plans to become a better lawyer than Perry Mason by going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, twice, instead of sitting for my final year school exams.
I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with my life when it became obvious that I had not sat for the exams and therefore failed the year. I think I wasn’t thinking. Psycho didn’t help me to think any more clearly. It just left me terrified—it was a terrifying movie.
Eventually, after months and months of watching me riding my bicycle in circles around my parents’ small back yard in order to lose weight, my mother, much to my horror, said I would have to look for a job.
My father was bitterly disappointed when, through a stroke of massive good fortune and possibly a degree of deception, I, who didn’t know how to load a sheet of paper into a typewriter, got a job as a journalist. He thought journalism wasn’t a real job. And certainly not a profession. He was even more appalled when he realized I was working for a rock music newspaper. Australia’s first rock music newspaper.
I traveled the world at a very young age for this newspaper. I interviewed rock stars in an era when you could talk to them without today’s entourage of minders, assistants, managers and public relations people present. I interviewed Mick Jagger in his apartment, Cher borrowed my false eyelashes and Janis Joplin and I discussed difficult mothers. It was, in so many ways, a much more innocent time.
A lot of people thought I had a glamorous job. Although, let me tell you that travelling with Gene Pitney or the Troggs, whose hit at the time was “Wild Thing,” and staying at boarding houses in the north of England is far removed from anyone’s notion of glamour. My father couldn’t have been less impressed or less interested in my job. For several years he harbored a small hope that I might yet end up a lawyer.
In my new novel, Lola Bensky, Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. Mick Jagger makes her a cup of tea and Jimi Hendrix, possibly, propositions her. Lola spends her days planning diets and interviewing rock stars.
I loved being Lola Bensky. And I liked sharing initials with her. My long-term editor calls me LB. I called Lola Bensky LB in all the notes I made for the novel. It wasn’t at all confusing. I knew exactly which LB I was referring to.
Lola Bensky, which is set in 1967, is a book of fiction. But, I did, in real life, interview every one of the rock stars I wrote about in the novel. I wanted to paint as honest a portrait of the rock stars I interviewed as I could. I wanted to draw an accurate and intimate picture of this remarkable group of musicians.
When my father, who is now ninety-seven, saw the book, he was annoyed all over again. I have written sixteen books. No other book of mine has irritated him like this one. It has brought back all of his dreams of having a daughter who could stride into a courtroom brandishing her law degree, and, week after week, against all the odds, win every case.
One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.