Talking writing with musician & memoirist Steve Katz

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has sought writing-craft advice from KatzBooknovelists, biographers, short-story writers and more. Until now, though, it has never spoken about writing with a “celebrity” author, despite the piles of titles—by the famous, the infamous, the accomplished and the not-so-much—weighting down tables and shelves at stores that still sell books.

One reader’s “celebrity” may be another’s “who’s he?” But for us seasoned music fans whose most influential listening began in the 1960s and carried on for two decades or so, guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Katz deserves the description. In his memoir—Blood, Sweat and My Rock ’n’ Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?—he is a candid, thoughtful and humorous storyteller, an enlightening tour guide to a memorable period of popular music—and some of its notable personalities. Publishers Weekly’s prepublication review called the book “one of the few rock memoirs worth reading from beginning to end.” And, yes, Katz wrote the book—his first—himself.

Katz was a nice Jewish boy with a dry wit who grew up in Schenectady, Queens and Long Island, New York before selling “something like 29 millions records,” he writes. During the early-60s heyday of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene, while a teenager, he laid down roots as a finger-picking acoustic guitar student of legend Dave Von Ronk and country blues master Reverend Gary Davis before playing with the Even Dozen Jug Band. Moving to electric guitar, he recorded influential albums and played the Monterey Pop Festival with The Blues Project, then became a founding member of the famous rock/jazz ensemble Blood, Sweat & Tears. During Katz’s four-album tenure, that band earned platinum and gold records and Grammy awards, as well as played at Woodstock. Later, Katz recorded for the Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin as part of the group American Flyer, produced two albums by rocker Lou Reed (including a stealth appearance by pop singer John Denver’s live audience), worked as an executive for a record company, did a reunion stint with BS&T, and eventually returned to his acoustic roots as a solo performer/raconteur.

The FWB first saw Katz’s one-man show at our community’s Pequot Library in 2013, during which he mentioned the probability of writing a memoir. After the book’s publication by Lyons Press in summer 2015, he performed in our area again, at the Trumbull Library, with the FWB in attendance.

In October, Katz, now 70, KatzTodaywelcomed the FWB into the home he shares in northwest Connecticut with his wife, ceramic artist Alison Palmer, and a menagerie of friendly dogs and voluble African parrots. Our conversation centered on the decisions he made and the lessons he learned while writing about his life and career, a challenge for any author, not just a first-timer, celebrity or not. Here, then, is Steve Katz on writing a memoir:

Have a reason for writing. “I would tell stories to people, to friends, and they would say, you should write a book. . . .I had gone back with Blood, Sweat & Tears for three years [in the 2000s]. And when I left— I was 68 then—I said, well, what am I going to do now? I think I’ll write a book. I didn’t really think about it before. Then when I started writing, I realized it was interesting. The other reason for writing the book was that it gave me an index. So as I get older and I start forgetting things, I can always just look in my index. Fantastic.

“I never thought of myself as a real storyteller until I started writing. And then I started thinking, well, I wish I had told the stories like this, because when you are writing, you can take your time with them. Put them in better words, [add detail] and stuff like that. So now when people interview me about my career, I just say, why don’t you read the book?”

 You don’t need an MFA to write a memoir. [During his early days in the music business, Katz wrote] “record reviews. For Eye magazine, a spinoff of Cosmopolitan. I was an English major in college and I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always written poetry and lyrics and stuff like that. That’s not to say it came easy for me. Still, when you write a song, when you’re an artist, there’s that blank canvas that you have to fill up. One thing I knew about creative writing was that everything depends on the first sentence of every paragraph. And also you take that context to the next chapter.

“[As a reader, I love] anything by Philip Roth. He used to be in town [in northwestern Connecticut] all the time, sitting in the chocolate place reading the newspaper. About 10 years ago he was turning onto a street off Main Street and I was crossing the road. He was in his Volvo station wagon. I started moving back, and he stopped and went like this, [waving] for me to go. I came home and emailed all my friends, ‘I was almost killed by Philip Roth today. I’m so excited.’ ”

Even a rock star has to write query letters: “I went to a website that had a list of literary agents. I just went in alphabetical order. When I got to D, I got a deal [with Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management]. She repped Barack Obama and Dreams from My Father.”

 Seek—and welcome—professional help. “When I sent in my proposal, the first one, to Dystel & Goderich, Jane called me and said, ‘We love the idea, we want to represent you, but you are going to have to rewrite the proposal, and we’re going to set you up with somebody. You’re going to need help with the proposal. It’s got to have more oomph to sell it.’ So they told me about Mike Edison. I went and looked him up. He was editor of High Times magazine for a while. He wrote for Penthouse, and he wrote something like a hundred pornographic novels. I called Jane and said, ‘Wait a second, who are you putting me together with?’ Then I read a book he wrote called Dirty, Dirty, Dirty. It was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I said, ‘This guy is perfect. He gets my sense of humor.’ The proposal he worked on with me is essentially the forward to the book. That was mainly Mike. He added other certain things, too, but I’d say 95 percent of the book is mine. Mike helped me through the process.

“Bruno Ceriotti lives in Italy and is a rock and roll lunatic. He was a fan. I would write a paragraph and send it to him for dates and stuff like that. I would say, ‘The Murray the K Show started at 10 o’clock every morning. . .’ and he would write back and say, ‘No. It was 10:15.’ I don’t know how he got all these things but he was really, really helpful. I never met Bruno.

“Forgetting about Mike, the biggest contributor to my book was [Katz’s editor and now Interim Editorial Director] Keith Wallman of Lyons Press. He didn’t write anything, but he was so helpful in editing. For example, [take] the opening lines of Chapter 3, ‘Mimi.’ I wrote, ‘I came home from the concert late at night’ or something like that. ‘I opened my door and I could see that Mimi was gone.’ Keith would say, ‘Put this in a time context.’ OK. ‘It was November of 1966. Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor of California, and the Beatles had just begun recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I tiptoed into my apartment, not wanting to wake Mimi, but the moment I opened the door, I knew instantly that she was gone.’ It makes total sense. It is such a little simple thing. Keith was incredibly helpful with that. It was a real education for me to see what an editor really does.”

Use your natural voice. “It’s basically my sense of humor. Most rock ’n’ roll memoirs are, ‘My dad used to beat me so I took drugs.’ I never had that. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that my mother spilled chicken soup on me. . . . I look at the book as being funny, and not just a memoir. I think some of the reviews have caught on to that.”

Enjoy the writing process. “I woke up every morning and sat at my computer. I loved it. But it was difficult with the dogs, and helping my wife lift her sculptures and stuff like that. There was always something happening, except for the three months we spend in Mexico in winter. My wife’s a workaholic. It sort of rubbed off on me. I’m not a workaholic, but some of it rubbed off. Especially when she’s at work in the next building.”

Don’t just write. Rewrite. “I’d constantly go back. And that’s why going through the proofreading thing was. . .how many periods and commas and semicolons did I get wrong? But they kept finding things. And they were right.”

Use the music to frame the story. “I was able to do that in the context of the set that The Blues Project played at Antioch College in late 1966. I don’t remember the concert that well. I remember all the [stoned, dancing] kids in the audience. But I was able to tell stories through the songs.”

Use the words to convey the music. (Katz writes of the debut rehearsal of Tim Buckley’s song, “Morning Glory,” with the BS&T horn section: “When the horns entered on the second verse for the first time, I almost couldn’t sing. . . .The sound, the feel of the building verse into the chorus, it was at that moment that I said to myself, So this is why I wanted to be a musician. It was an ethereal moment. . . .That’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life.”) “I put that in later, because I thought about that afternoon we rehearsed it, and how wonderful that feeling was. You sort of keep going back and going back and adding things. Yeah, that was an amazing afternoon.”

The best-known elements of your story don’t necessarily make the most compelling writing or reading. “It was much more interesting for me to write about The Blues Project or even the jug band and the beginnings there than about Blood Sweat & Tears. I think I make it clear in the book that BS&T was more of a corporate type thing. So I don’t spend that much time on it. If I was a rock star during those days, what I remember is getting up a 5 a.m. to get a plane to a city and hopefully having time for a nap before the sound check. Then after the concert, schmoozing with radio people and stuff like that, and then you’re in bed by midnight and have to get up at 4 o’clock to catch the next 5 a.m. plane. Or you’re taking buses. The arenas and stadiums all looked the same. So it was always hard work. The most fun part was when you were onstage playing music.”

Remember your reader. “My whole career, because of the nature of being a musician who plays publicly, you want to entertain people. If you are writing a book, if you are making a movie, if you are making a record, I always think about entertaining people. I’m certainly not Proust. I’m not that heavy or intelligent. [Laughter.] I wanted the book to be entertaining. I wrote it for people to have a good time reading it.”

Be open about writing about old intimacies. “I love my wife more than anything. But [folksinger] Mimi [Farina] was my first love. And a first love is different. I approached writing about it by first going to my wife and asking her, do you mind if I write about some old girlfriends? This is not an easy thing. She gave me a green light and it made it a lot easier.”

Your story may not agree with the way others remember things. . .“I didn’t really rely on other people’s memories that much. I didn’t get in touch with former band members. If I did, nobody could remember anything anyway. I’d say I only spoke to [drummer] Roy [Blumenfeld] from The Blues Project. It was the only time. I didn’t speak to any of the people in BS&T. I spoke to Roy because I wanted the story about [our lead guitarist] Danny Kalb and his suicide attempt. I wasn’t speaking to Danny at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the correct answer anyway. Roy knew the whole story.”

. . .Especially if the others are people with whom you have had feuds. “There are four of them. With my brother, he was my brother, so I had to mention it. Basically I skipped over it and gave a description about his greed, and then I went on later about how that affected me and Lou Reed [with whom Katz also had issues].

“As far as [Blues Project organist and singer and BS&T co-founder] Al Kooper, he wrote a book where he didn’t say nice things about me, but I loved the book. I actually used Al’s book for research. He enlightened me with some memories. Al’s always been very funny, and even though that book was a pure collaboration with Ben Edmonds, I think his humor comes through. Kooper and I have worked together since then. Everything I write about is true. We don’t get along anymore. But we were a family. We did get along great. We had a background of growing up in Queens, our Jewishness; we had things in common. I think we agree on what happened a lot, but not why they happened. Al’s whole story about why he left BS&T is different from the way I see it. I do respect the fact that he sees it differently. This is my truth, that kind of thing. Even though mine is right.

“Whereas David Clayton-Thomas [the singer who replaced Kooper in BS&T], you know, might as well have been an alien. David wrote a book, and I didn’t even want to read it. Finally somebody said to me, you have to read his book. So I got a yellow highlighter just to mark all the misperceptions and lies. I went through five highlighters by the time I’d finished the book. He makes up these things and he actually believes them. I have to say, though, that when Lew Soloff died in February, the only person who got in touch with me from the band was David. On Facebook. He said let’s put aside our petty differences and pay tribute to Lew. Which I thought was really gentlemanly, especially, you know, because I rip him to shreds in the book. I thought it was very nice of him to do.”

Let your vulnerable moments come through on the page. (Toward the end of the book, Katz recounts his discomfort before a one-night 1993 reunion concert at the Bottom Line in New York featuring many of the early members in BS&T, including the great jazz and session trumpet players Randy Brecker and the late Lew Soloff) “Here I am, a guy who started out playing Travis picking [a variation of finger-picking named after country-western musician Merle Travis] on acoustic guitar . I wind up on stage with these incredible players. These are great players. I hadn’t played for a while, especially electric guitar. And Randy Brecker, who’s just the sweetest guy in the world—when I said at one rehearsal that I was nervous—told me, ‘What you did works. It has more to do with heart.’ And that’s why Randy has always been one of my favorite people. I could hardly read music. It was difficult. That’s why I had to leave BS&T at some point. [Later, jazz tenor saxophone player] Joe Henderson was in the band. Sitting next to Joe, I’m saying, what the hell am I doing here? The guy is a genius, pretty much.

“I’ve sort of been in limbo like that. I come from the folk crowd, who never have accepted me because of Blood, Sweat and Tears. And of course some of the great musicians of the Blood, Sweat & Tears jazz thing don’t accept me because I’m a folk musician.”

Build your story around a theme. “The theme is that I always felt I was always on the outside looking in. As I write in the book, ‘Lorraine Alterman, a writer. . .had done an article about me for a short-lived magazine called Scenes. . . .The subtitle [of the article], which was put on the cover, asked the musical question, “Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?” With descriptions of me taking leftovers from my mom’s house, the answer was inconclusive at best.’ ”

You can make it through the hardest part of the story. “I think it was my first marriage. My wife’s mental illness, which also ties into our house burning down. When I started writing it, I figured, oh boy, this is going to be difficult. But you sort of move aside, you become objective about the whole thing. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. You can add subjectivity later. But first you want to put the facts down. The great thing about writing is it’s like clay, you know. You can mold it anyway you want. Edit. Thicken things. That’s one of things I loved about writing the book.

Relax, it’s OK to feel embarrassed. “When you look back at some of the stupid things you did, and you’re writing it, and then proofreading it on paper, they make you say, I don’t want to think about that. Oh God! There’s a whole paragraph about my sideburns. How one was longer than the other. I was really very self-conscious about the whole thing. It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s true. Now, looking back on it, it’s hilarious. I wanted [the reader to think back to] . . .when you’re a kid, and make it into a funny story. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book.”

What small crises of confidence as a writer? “This is one of the few great things about getting older—there are certain things that get better. And one of them is you have the self-confidence to say, basically, I don’t give a damn what people think. This is my life and I’m going to put it out there. I couldn’t have done it 10 years ago or 20 years ago because I would have been afraid of what people thought. I don’t care anymore. I did the best job I could.”

Look for unique ways to promote your work. “Lyons Press got me to talk at the Jewish Book Council convention. There are all these Jewish centers from across the country. You have to do a two-minute talk. I was sitting next to Joe Klein. Tess Gerritsen was there. I was a nervous wreck because I had to convince these people to bring me in. So I said, ‘I have something to offer you that not many do. There are not that many Jewish ex-rock stars out there. And not only that, but I can give you a [musical] performance. But I have to charge you.’ So I’m getting my fee. Starting in a week and a half, I’m on the road for two months. Kind of like one-nighters, almost, all over the country at Jewish community centers. I get mobbed at the meet-and-greet afterward.”

Appreciate how your written memoir triggers your readers’ memories. “No, I don’t consider myself a celebrity. Some people do; people who are fans do. A celebrity is like [someone in] People magazine. I have to amend what I just said, if you don’t mind. I’ve been working in the craft world a lot [with Alison], and every now and then somebody will say, ‘Oh God, you’re Steve Katz.’ But lately I’ve been feeling like a celebrity. Now, with my concerts and because of the book, because I’m going out and performing, people are thrilled to meet me. Which is, like, really weird. This is why I enjoy playing. People say, ‘Do you get any young people?’ I don’t care about young people coming to my shows. It would be nice if they did. Maybe they’ll enjoy my finger-picking and stuff like that. But the fact is that, for people of my age. . . .all of a sudden, you’re part of a memory that happened years ago, and that remains part of their lives.” —Alex McNab


Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment