When I first came to work at the Village Voice in 1977 (almost forty years now, to the day) I never wanted to fully acknowledge the illustrious company I suddenly found myself keeping. How cool would that have been, hyperventilating in the elevator at 80 University Place just because I was sharing a masthead with the people I’d come of age reading: Jack Newfield, Alexander Cockburn, Robert Christgau, Richard Goldstein, Andrew Sarris. Andrew Sarris! How would I have known the greatness of Douglas Sirk without Andrew Sarris?
After a while, however, you acclimate. Here you are. In this club. The idea that Jack Newfield, muckraker, asskicker in the mold of Jacob Riis is not only talking to you but actually appears to value what you might have to say. That this is a more or less normal, day-to-day occurrence. Well, you just have to take that in stride. Not plotz every time it happens. But Nat. Nat was a different story.
Nat, as welcoming as he could be, existed on another plane. Was it because he wrote the liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was it because he had those signed pictures of Mingus and Lenny Bruce in his house? Was it because he never quite seemed part of the crowd? (Was that the Boston thing, a bit of mysterioso amid those working-class New Yorkers?) Was it the pipe? The air of distraction, the way you’d see him on the street, rubbing the dog crap off the bottom of his shoe without once looking up from the paper he was reading? Who knew? But if he said Lucky Thompson could really play you knew you better go get five Lucky Thompson records. If Nat asked about it later and you had to admit you weren’t really sure about Lucky Thompson, he wouldn’t argue, just faintly smile, like it takes all kinds.
Once Nat told me that no writer, especially someone whose work appeared on newsprint, should ever get a swelled head. It was all what used to be called piece work. You wrote, you got paid, if you wanted to keep getting paid, you kept writing. If it was a column about the First Amendment, a children’s book, a New Yorker piece, or the back of an Art Farmer record, the same rules applied. But I never quite got it until I noticed that Nat had written the back of the menu at Lundy’s, the massive, now long closed, seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, where once upon a time a bowl of the best clam chowder went for 95 cents.
I can’t exactly remember the story but it had something to do with Bob Thiele, who produced dozens of great records for Impulse, stuff with Coltrane, Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and most every other genius to come down the pike. Nat wrote many of those liner notes. Thiele was from Sheepshead Bay. He knew old man Lundy and told him that a great restaurant needed a menu with some literary class. So Nat wrote that too. It was piece work, glorious piece work.