The Best of The Stacks: Mencken, Mel Brooks, Allman Brothers, and More
Week after week, The Daily Beast features classic stories from the past that prove great writing is timeless. Here are the ones we found most memorable.
It’s been my honor to present The Stacks this past year, our weekly series where we reprint classic stories for you. The majority of these stories are making their first appearance online. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s a privilege and an honor to do all the work that’s required to present them to you—from tracking the pieces down, to getting permission, to transcribing and copy-editing. If there’s one thing that gives me more pleasure than being hipped to the classics myself, it’s sharing them with you.
It’s tough to pick favorites but here are 10 memorable reprints that are worth revisiting. Look for more classics in 2015 and if you’ve got any suggestions please let us know.
1. Fire by H.L Mencken (The Baltimore Sun, 1904)
At midnight or thereabout on Saturday, February 6, 1904, I did my share as city editor to put the Sunday Herald to bed, and then proceeded to Junker’s saloon to join in the exercises of the Stevedores’ Club. Its members, having already got down a good many schooners, were in a frolicsome mood, and I was so pleasantly edified that I stayed until 3:30. Then I caught a night-hawk trolley-car, and by 4 o’clock was snoring on my celibate couch in Hollins Street, with every hope and prospect of continuing there until noon of the next day. But at 11 a.m. there was a telephone call from the Herald office, saying that a big fire had broken out in Hopkins Place, the heart of downtown Baltimore, and 15 minutes later a reporter dashed up to the house behind a sweating hack horse, and rushed in with the news that the fire looked to be a humdinger, and promised swell pickings for a dull winter Sunday. So I hoisted my still malty bones from my couch and got into my clothes, and 10 minutes later I was on my way to the office with the reporter. That was at about 11:30 a.m. of Sunday, February 7. It was not until 4 a.m. of Wednesday, February 10, that my pants and shoes, or even my collar, came off again. And it was not until 11:30 a.m. of Sunday, February 14—precisely a week to the hour since I set off —that I got home for a bath and a change of linen.
2. The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis by Richard Ben Cramer (Rolling Stone, 1984)
Violence and trouble seemed to hang over him like a cloud, like a vaporous aura emitted from within him, a product of the unstable chemistry inside. Sure, it worked for him. He embraced it, like the nickname “Killer,” and he fed the rage with drugs as required: Every audience demanded its dollop. But then, snap, it would rule him…. And Jerry Lee had a liking for firearms. One night, he pumped a slug from a .357 magnum into the chest of his bass player (who lived to sue). On another night, the Killer tried to crash his Lincoln Continental through the gates of Graceland, drunkenly waving a .38 pistol and threatening to blow Elvis away. Death always seemed to lurk nearby. His second son and favorite, Steve Allen Lewis, fell into a swimming pool and drowned at age three. The first son, Jerry Lee Jr., grew to be nineteen, to join the band as apprentice drummer, to check in and out of mental hospitals and drug-addiction wards five times, before he flipped his jeep on a bad Desoto country road, broke his neck and died.
3. The Old Man and the River by Pete Dexter (Esquire, 1981)
For six weeks after Labor Day, Norman Maclean has the west side of the lake to himself. It snows for about ten days in early September, then turns warm. Every morning he writes, from nine or nine-thirty to noon. He sits at a small red table in the middle of his living room—the same table where he’s just eaten breakfast—and squeezes out three or four hundred words from Mann Gulch, in longhand. Words that will be rewritten three or four times.
He will not work on the porch; there is too much out there to watch, and he will not indulge himself that there are mornings he can’t write. He doesn’t have the time.
“When it’s good,” he says, “I see my life coming together in paragraphs.”
4. Three Cheers by Pauline Kael (The New Yorker, 1984)
Stop Making Sense makes wonderful sense. A concert film by the New York new-wave rock band Talking Heads, it was shot during three performances at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in December 1983, and the footage has been put together without interviews and with very few cutaways. The director, Jonathan Demme, offers us a continuous rock experience that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric. This has not been a year when American movies overflowed with happiness; there was some in Splash, and there’s quite a lot in All of Me — especially in its last, dancing minutes. Stop Making Sense is the only current movie that’s a dose of happiness from beginning to end. The lead singer, David Byrne, designed the stage lighting and the elegantly plain performance-art environments (three screens used for back-lit slide projections); there’s no glitter, no sleaze. The musicians aren’t trying to show us how hot they are; the women in the group aren’t there to show us some skin. Seeing the movie is like going to an austere orgy—which turns out to be just what you wanted.
5. 1975 Playboy Interview with Mel Brooks (Playboy, February, 1975)
Playboy: An egg cream has healing properties?
Brooks: An egg cream can do anything. An egg cream to a Brooklyn Jew is like water to an Arab. A Jew will kill for an egg cream. It’s the Jewish malmsey.
Playboy: How do you make one?
Brooks: First, you got to get a can of Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate syrup. If you use any other chocolate, the egg cream will be too bitter or too mild. Take a big glass and fill one fifth of it with U-Bet syrup. Then add about half a shot glass of milk. And you gotta have a seltzer spout with two speeds. One son-of-a-bitch bastard that comes out like bullets and scares you; one normal, regular-person speed that comes out nice and soft and foamy. So hit the tough bastard, the bullets of seltzer, first. Smash through the milk into the chocolate and chase the chocolate furiously all around the glass. Then, when the mixture is halfway up the glass, you turn on the gentle stream and you fill the glass with seltzer, all the time mixing with a spoon. Then taste it. But sit down first, because you might swoon with ecstasy.
Playboy: But there’s no egg in an egg cream.
Brooks: That’s the best part. That’s the wonder and the mystery of it. Talmudic sages for generations have pondered this profound question. Why is there no egg in an egg cream? Well, 1,000 years ago there may have been egg in egg creams. Joe Heller is very bright and he thought so. But Georgie Mandel and Speed Vogel are bright, too, and they applauded Julie Green’s reasoning. He said, “Egg creams are called egg creams because the top of a well-made egg cream looks like whipped egg white.” I can’t offer you an egg cream right now, but how about a Raisinet? If you scrape the chocolate off 5,000 of them, you could have an egg cream.
6. More than a Shtick Figure by Joe Morgenstern (New York Times Magazine, 1989)
The greatest pleasure for the performer, the payoff for all the angst and perspiration, comes from making discoveries while the audience is watching. For Williams, it’s like a runner’s high: “That’s why going on stage is so exhilarating for me. When you find that new idea, when you come up with a concept and find that it works, it’s the creation of the moment that’s so incredible.
“And you know, they’ve discovered there actually is a slight endorphin release during creative moments. It’s like, Bing!, this is part of evolution. Eventually the brain figured out”—he assumes a deep, slightly robotized voice—“If you create, we’ll reinforce you. This and sex. You can see why Einstein always looked like”—he finishes the thought as a blissed-out German—“Ah, it was good for me.”
I laugh, of course, and he’s glad to have the laughter, as always. “That means creation is a drug! It is a drug, and it was designed that way, evolution-wise, to make that Bing!” But he’s also profoundly serious about this passion for discovering new ideas, which explains why he still loves to work out, often unannounced, in comedy clubs. It may also explain why he’s been confessing, for more than a decade, that his greatest problem in stand-up is getting off stage.
7. Hitting the High Note with the Allman Brothers Band (Rolling Stone, 1971) by Grover Lewis
Wearing neither, Dicky Betts sits in his room just before the show, strumming his guitar and softly running through the lyrics of “Blue Sky,” a muted country-style air he’s just written in honor of his Canadian Indian lady friend, Sandy Blue Sky. Joe Dan, one of the roadies, sits hunkered on the carpet across the room, sipping a can of beer, and when Dicky has finished singing, Joe Dan nods and murmurs respectfully, “That’s hittin’ the note, brother.” Betts acknowledges the tribute with a sober bob of his head; he has just cut his hair short, and he has the kind of bony, backcountry face that calls to mind the character Robert E. Lee Prewitt in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity.
“Hittin’ the note,” Betts muses, cradling his guitar snug against his bony chest, “it’s kinda hard to explain to anybody outside the band. It’s like gettin’ down past all the bullshit, all the put-on, all the actin’ that goes along with just bein’ human. Gettin’ right down to the roots, the source, the truth of the music. Lettin’ it happen, lettin’ that feelin’ come out…”
8. Mr Bad Taste and Trouble Himself by Robert Ward (Rolling Stone, March 3, 1983)
“Look, I’m not complaining,” he says, over a drink at the Waldorf bar. “I got a great life out of the movies. I’ve been all over the world and met the most fantastic people. I don’t really deserve all that I have gotten. It’s a privileged life, and I know it. I didn’t make what these young guys, the Spielbergs, are making. But I had a hell of a lot of fun. Working with all the great leading ladies of my day. Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Greer. I think she was the most underrated of them all. Working with guys like John Huston and Raoul Walsh.
“Hell, the first time I came on the set with Raoul, we did seventeen pages of dialogue in one day. He used to set up and roll cigarettes with his right hand, the side that had the eye patch. Because he couldn’t see them, all the tobacco fell out, and he would immediately roll another one, take a puff or two and wonder how he’d smoked the damned thing so quickly. When he had us all ready, he used to turn his back to the shot and let the cameraman tell him when it was done. The thing was, he trusted us. He wouldn’t have made the picture at all if he didn’t.”
It’s the element of spontaneity and camaraderie that Mitchum finds missing in today’s shooting.
“I know production values are better, sure, but are the scripts, are the pictures? I was on a set with De Niro, The Last Tycoon, and he takes forty minutes to get ready for a scene in his trailer. Ray Milland was in the movie, and he gets all upset. He asks Gage Kazan how come we didn’t get that much time, and Kazan says, ‘Hey, look, you guys don’t need time like that. Come on, just say your lines, I got enough problems with him.’ The thing is, it’s a hell of a lot more work, and I don’t see overall where the films are any better, really. You tell me.”
9. Slug it, Royko by John Schulian (GQ, March 1985)
Royko started proving he was different as soon as the News turned him loose in 1962 on a once-a-week column from his beat at the County Building. “They were giving a lot of people columns back then,” says Charles Nicodemus, who was the paper’s whiz-kid political reporter, “but Mike’s was the only one that survived.”
There were two reasons: hard work and insecurity. “When I got the column, I used to labor and sweat, just drive myself nuts twelve or fourteen hours a day,” Royko says. “If something only took me four hours to do, I knew it wasn’t any good.” He would write pieces, then tuck them in his desk the way he did his Christmas column about a modem-day Mary and Joseph who get cold-shouldered everywhere they turn. “I started working on that one in ‘63 and I didn’t let go of it until ‘67,” he says, “and the thing became a nickel-and-dime classic.”
“Classic” is a description that gets tossed around regularly about Royko’s work, and not just by the man himself. It is entirely possible that no one has worked the Monday-through-Friday column grind any better than Royko, and certainly no one has worked it any longer. The joke about column writing is that it’s like being married to a nymphomaniac: As soon as you’re finished, you’ve got to start over again. And you can sense the weariness in Royko when he says he would like to walk away from it all and try to write a comic novel. It wouldn’t be easy, though. “He needs to be Mike Royko,” says John Sciackitano, the Sun-Times graphics expert who is also known as Big Shack, “and Mike Royko writes five columns a week.
10. The Cheerleaders by E. Jean Carroll (2001)
In the summer of ’96, many bonfires are built. The girls are practicing their cheerleading routines and the boys are developing great packs of muscles in the football team’s weight room; everybody laughs and everybody roars and the fields around town look like they’ve been trampled by a pride of actual lions. In fact, the Dryden boys display such grit at the Preseason Invitational football game that fans begin to believe as the players do: that the upcoming season will bring them another division championship. This spirit lasts until about 6:30 p.m. on September 10, when Scott Pace, one of the most brilliant players ever to attend the school, the unofficial leader of the team, a popular, handsome, dark-haired senior, rushes out of football practice to meet his parents and is killed in a car crash.
It is strange. It is sad. But sadder still is the fact that Scott’s older brother, Billy, a tall, dazzling Dryden athlete, as loved and admired as Scott, had been killed in a car crash almost exactly one year before. The town is shaken up very badly. But little does anyone dream that Scott Pace’s death will be the beginning of one of the strangest high school tragedies of all time: how, in four years, a stouthearted cheerleader named Tiffany Starr will see three football players, three fellow cheerleaders, and the beloved football coach of her little country school all end up dead.