Father of lies
“Is he really dead?”, Phil Spector is said to have asked upon learning of the passing of Albert Goldman. “Is he really dead? Make sure he’s really dead.” A mordant epitaph for the man who had produced, in 1981’s Elvis and 1988’s The Lives of John Lennon, two works of persistent, near-magical malignancy. Drive a stake through his fat heart. Nail him to the grave. Let there be no possibility of illusion or (worse) revival. Tonight, at last, the village can sleep.
Because Goldman, who died in 1994 with his biography of Jim Morrison unfinished (hallelujah!), really was a kind of nightmare. Ladies and Gentlemen — Lenny Bruce!, his 1971 breakthrough book, gave no hint of the dizzying animus he was preparing to unleash on rock-and-roll. His literary lineage could be traced back a hundred years, to a time when the binges and brothel-crawls of New York–society types were gleefully recorded in scandal sheets like Town Topics and The Weekly Rake. His aesthetic forebear was Kenneth Anger, whose pioneering Hollywood Babylon had ministered candidly to an atavistic public need for sexual/chemical slander and crime-scene photos. His rival in notoriety and bestsellerdom was Kitty Kelley, perfumed author of 1986’s His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (Mob ties, suicide attempts, scrambled eggs inhaled off a hooker’s breasts). Still, Goldman was one of a kind: a professor of English at Columbia — 10-dollar words, quotes from Chaucer and all — whose mind was in the gutter.
The books were huge and tireless. The prose style was multi-valved, gusting from rock-crit hyperbole through debauched Mailer-ese to straight porno (“a group of girls would strip down to their panties and wrestle while Elvis stared out his eyes with a rocklike hard-on pressing up against his underwear”); the dominant tone, however, was a poncey, parodistic voice that seemed to be his own. “Diurnal acid dropping,” he wrote in The Lives of John Lennon, “produces an effect rather like XTC, the ‘love drug.’ Hence, instead of mental pinwheels, the tripper feels himself bound in an affectionate communion with everything he sees, like Titania embracing an ass.”
And how he loathed his subjects. Goldman’s Lennon, in addition to being a textbook case of Multiple Personality Disorder, suffered from “poor coordination; jerky spastic movements” and “inability to perform simple acts like driving or operating domestic appliances.” Surprisingly for a world-famous musician, he couldn’t even play the guitar, hacking out chords with “an iron-fingered rigidity that summons visions of Parkinson’s disease.” Goldman’s Elvis, meanwhile, was a pharmacist’s pincushion, incapacitated and nearly insensate, “propped up like a big fat woman in recovery from some operation on her reproductive organs.” Both men were galvanic sociopaths, perverts, and despots, while simultaneously being as helpless as babes-in-arms. Bit of a paradox, that. Scarcely a fact underwrote these claims, and no one had authorized Goldman to make them: in this new science of character extermination, he had the devil’s own authority.
Goldman, thou shouldst be living at this hour
There is, of course, a contrarian case to be made (and it has been) for Albert Goldman — as iconoclast, as hustler. He was creative, or at least inventive.