I saw with great satisfaction that Haruki Murakami is among the literary luminaries to be featured at October’s The New Yorker Festival. My Friend Monica introduced me to the Japanese writer about a decade ago. I’ve since read a half-dozen of his novels, including the weighty The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle twice. Murakami’s style has had a significant impact on my own words: I think of it as “Real Surrealism.”
Drawing far more attention was another guest who was confirmed on Monday as the festival’s headliner. Steve Bannon. But by Tuesday, the howls of protest had led the festival to drop Bannon. The toxic brand of racism practiced by the former Trump adviser was too much for intellectual spirit of The New Yorker Festival.
Censorship? What’s happened here forced me to recall some of my own brushes with the question. With Glenn Beck, when he was the king of Fox News. And the drummer from one of the world’s best-known rock bands, who dropped the n-word on me during an interview.
I had two opportunities to interview Beck. Late in 2005, he was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted to talk with the conservative television host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.
I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”
Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?
“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”
Was I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I worked for, allowing readers to make their own judgment?
No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. That’s the same reason I support The New Yorker’s decision to dump Bannon. Both Beck and Bannon have a well-documented, abstract relationship with the truth.
So I denied Beck access to my forum, minor as it was, just as The New Yorker has backed off on Bannon. Sometimes it’s an easy decision, and both men have their own platforms from which to spill their bile. Yet over the years, I also interviewed Ted Nugent and Kiss’ Gene Simmons. Two unlikable characters. In fact, I interviewed each of them twice. So, I’m not exactly consistent in my thinking.
But what about that interview with the drummer from one of the world’s biggest rock bands?
Butch Trucks played with the Allman Brothers Band from its earliest days, virtually inventing Southern rock at a house in Georgia, mixing in blues and jazz and whatever else a bunch of young guys do when not trapped under adult supervision. Trucks was the rhythmic force behind the sound. When I interviewed him by phone, maybe a decade ago, he was in a New York City hotel room, relaxing before a gig that night. It was an engaging conversation, he was very excited to tell me he’d just bought a DVD of the latest Lord of the Rings film. He was totally into the Tolkien books, he’d read the whole Middle Earth saga maybe a dozen times. Trucks said he loved reading, he was trying to make up for hitting the bars with the band as a young man, rather than going off to college.
We started talking about those early days. And the band’s decision to bring in a second drummer. Jai Johanny Johnson, better known as Jaimoe. Trucks was animated in his storytelling, describing his reaction upon meeting Jaimoe for the first time: “And in walks this big, black…”
And then, the n-word.
There was an awkward pause, maybe two or three seconds. I’m sure he was thinking: Uh, oh, I just uttered a racial slur to a reporter. And I know what I was thinking: What am I gonna do with that?
And, after that pause, he continued the story.
Short answer. I did nothing.
This is how I rationalized it. In his narrative, Trucks was taking us back to the days when he was a young, skinny white Southern boy of the ’60s, no worldly experience, reacting to an unknown, a black man. He was giving me his true thoughts from that moment, a half-century ago. Now he’d grown, the world had changed. Somewhat. There was no reason to believe he still thought that way.
So in the story, I wrote about Trucks’ love of Tolkien, his drive to improve himself intellectually, the early days of the Allman Brothers, his relationship with his bandmates now that they were older, some of them already dead. If I told the story of Trucks uttering the n-word, it would take over the story. Obscure the portrait of the man.
In January of 2017, Trucks himself was dead. Distraught over financial problems, he was in his Florida condo when he put a gun to his head and, in front of his wife, shot himself.
To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision in leaving out the awkward, unguarded moment of Trucks and the n-word. I think, maybe, yes. I’m about 75 percent sure of it. That other 25 percent is, was I protecting Trucks because I liked him, and the interview had been a good one?
My internal hand-wringing over my act of censorship gets even more complicated. I’ve heard the n-word sung, to great effect, by musicians ranging from rappers to Patti Smith. I read it in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I heard black guys saying it on the bus on my ride to work. I recently watched a film, Wise Blood, an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor story, where a white actor says it. And it made me uncomfortable, even in the privacy of my living room.
Artists use the word, and guys telling stories use it, because it has the ugly ring of reality.
Ultimately, what Trucks said wouldn’t have made much of a difference in this most-significant debate in today’s America, race. It would have simply been a gossipy little shocker, quickly forgotten, but perhaps forever damaging to Butch Trucks. From our conversation, my sense was he didn’t deserve that. And without it, in what I confess is an act of censorship, I believe I presented the truer picture of our conversation.
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