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The Rock Journalist At a High Point In Music History
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
If only there were a highlight reel. As one of the first pop music journalists in the business — the godfather of rock journalism, he was often called — in the ’60s and ’70s Al Aronowitz knew everyone worth knowing. The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Pete Townshend — he either wrote about them, befriended them or both.
Aronowitz, who died Monday night at the age of 77, was a trove of great yarns. But one stood out. It was Aug. 28, 1964, in a hotel room in New York. That was the evening Aronowitz introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles. It was also the night Aronowitz introduced the Beatles to pot.
A big deal? Well, it was to the man who arranged it all. “Looking back, I still see that evening as one of the greatest moments of my life,” he wrote in an essay. “Actually, I was well aware at the time that I was brokering the most fruitful union in the history of pop music, certainly up until then,” he modestly judged. And he wasn’t referring to the dope.
Arguably, Aronowitz hastened the way the Beatles and Dylan influenced each other. The next year, 1965, you can hear the echoes of Dylan in John Lennon tracks like “Norwegian Wood,” a moody and introspective number that was a long way from “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Dylan, for his part, would put more rock in his folk, performing with an electric guitar for the first time in 1965.
But we don’t need to overstate the impact of this smoke-filled tete-a-tete to realize that it must have been one heck of an evening. Aronowitz might have been the only guy who could arrange it. Born in Bordentown, N.J., a graduate of Rutgers University, Aronowitz made his first splash in journalism in 1959 with a 12-part series for the New York Post about the “beat” movement, getting him close to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
A few years later he met the Beatles in Liverpool, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post. His cover story on the band, he’d later claim, sold more issues of the magazine than had ever before been sold, and he became chums with Lennon. Aronowitz had written for the Post about Dylan as well. Initially, neither of these titans wanted to meet the other — Lennon because he felt that Dylan was already so big a deal that there’d be an imbalance of power if they met too soon. “Yeah, I wanna meet ‘im,” he told Aronowitz. “But on me own terms.” Dylan dismissed the Beatles’ music as “bubble gum.” The idea of an audience of shrieking 12-year-olds horrified him, Aronowitz recalled.
Despite all these misgivings, Aronowitz persisted in trying to bring them together. When the Beatles took their second trip through the United States in ’64, they stayed at the Delmonico Hotel in New York. Aronowitz received a call from Lennon. He was ready. Dylan came down from his retreat in Woodstock.
Aronowitz and Dylan didn’t arrive empty-handed. Weirdly enough, the Beatles had never smoked pot until then, Aronowitz claimed. Like a lot of people at the time, Aronowitz recalled in his essay, the Fab Four didn’t differentiate between marijuana and harder drugs, like heroin. At first, both Aronowitz and Dylan were incredulous. Wasn’t Lennon singing “I get high! I get high!” on “I Want to Hold Your Hand”?
Actually, it was “I can’t hide! I can’t hide!” Lennon would later explain.
The Beatles offered some champagne. Dylan asked for his beverage of choice, cheap wine. Aronowitz suggested lighting up. Dylan rolled the joint, Aronowitz remembers, with some of the pot falling into a fruit bowl on the table. The battalion of cops stationed outside the hotel room door to protect the Beatles from their fans was apparently oblivious.
None of the Beatles, it seems, was eager to inhale, but somehow Ringo went first. (“You try it!” Lennon told him.) Instead of passing it around, he treated it like a cigarette and kept puffing. Soon enough, everyone had a joint of his own and then the whole thing turned into an outtake from a Cheech and Chong movie.
“In no time at all, [Ringo] was laughing hysterically,” Aronowitz wrote. “His laughing looked so funny that the rest of us started laughing hysterically at the way Ringo was laughing hysterically. Soon, Ringo pointed at the way Brian Epstein was laughing, and we all started laughing hysterically at the way Brian was laughing.”
Paul McCartney then instructed a road manager and friend named Mal Evans to follow him around with a notepad and write down everything he said. Not long after, the band began a new creative phase. As authors Peter Brown and Steven Gaines put it in “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles,” the band “started to compose under marijuana’s spell.” In late ’64 the band released “She’s a Woman,” which contained the line “Turn me on when I get lonely,” a winking reference to pot, the Beatles later acknowledged. But the effect of both Dylan and drugs would surface most notably in the group’s gradual evolution away from teeny-bop pop toward more mature and even dark themes like “Baby’s in Black,” a tune about courting a woman in mourning.
Aronowitz had many giggling evenings and many stories ahead of him. He would later become a music columnist for the New York Post, and he wrote for the Village Voice, among other publications. There were personal falling-outs — so many of his tales ended with him explaining why he and one star or another never spoke again. Toward the end of his life, a tinge of bitterness crept into his writing that had something to do with his lack of money. To his chagrin none of his access and connections ever yielded a big payday. He also lacked friends.
But he was never one to understate his own significance — and if you had introduced two of the greatest creative forces in the history of rock, maybe you would feel the same way. “The ’60s,” he once wrote, with no irony, “wouldn’t have been the same without me.”