Blondie's "Call Me" was the number-one song on the radio when I started writing for Isthmus. Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby that year. Louisville won the NCAA Basketball tourney.
Meanwhile, a young Daily Cardinal writer, your narrator, stood on the first floor of the old Hotel Washington, the original location of Isthmus Publishing.
From the bottom looking up, the ancient stairs leading to the paper's office looked as forbidding as those of a Mayan ruin. The broad wooden stairs growled under my weight - the sound of monsters fighting. It did nothing for my confidence. In my hand, I held a story about drive-in movies I had hammered out over at The Cardinal on pulpy yellow copy paper.
When I placed my essay on the feature editor's desk I thought of Holden Caulfield sliding his composition toward his sick professor, "like it was a turd."
The editor was Joanne Weintraub and, while she didn't know it, she was in the process of adopting an orphan. A young man who was busier dropping in and out of college than he was doing anything else. Still. A young man who knew, as all writers do eventually, that he had to write.
She slashed through the story with her editor's pencil like Freddy Krueger through a coed. It wasn't pretty, and she could tell her pencil strikes were stabbing me where it hurt.
"Don't worry, Andy," Joanne said. "Words aren't precious. There's millions of them." What didn't kill me made me stronger, and sure enough I was on my way.
The drive-in story never made the paper but it got me my first assignment and led me to working with a string of gifted Isthmus editors over the years, including the sardonic Mike Baron. For one of my first gigs, Mike and I decided to do a co-byline review of the Judas Priest concert, complete with a pre-concert interview with the lead singer, the vocally endowed Rob Halford.
We arrived early to the Sheraton across from the Coliseum and plunked down at the bar to plot our strategy over taps. Mike spoke and wrote in naked, go-to-hell terms. I didn't know what he was thinking sitting there in the bar, but I decided we were about to make rock 'n' roll journalism history.
We knocked on Halford's hotel room door. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. No answer. We knocked harder, to the sound of the chain on the other side rattling off its hinge. We didn't make rock 'n' roll history that day, but Halford was clearly in the middle of making some.
The door swung open to the sight of Halford in a pair of tighty-whities. Nothing else. His room looked like he was attending a hoarders convention. He poured us whiskey in dirty glasses. He spoke in deathly whispers. Through the cracks in the armor of his rough rock exterior, slices of warmth shined through, and it was plain to see he was a friendly bloke of the highest order.
I thought about our afternoon with Halford while I watched him that night on stage, a lathered-up metal maniac inciting his audience to all manner of mayhem and intercourse. An important lesson had been learned. Celebrities are no different than anyone else. They just have more interesting jobs.
This has served me well over the years as a journalist who covers politicians in his day job and, for Isthmus, musicians and other stars in his freelance time.
My stories eventually led former Isthmus editor Marc Eisen to offer me the monthly column "Close to Home," where you're parked right now. This column features regular people, not stars, but along the way has made modest, unwitting celebrities of my family members, who are excruciatingly patient with my attempts to make sense of our lives.
For a while Marc edited my copy, which brings me to the opportunity to do a roll call of sorts. My current editor was concerned that my 35th anniversary column would be "too Isthmus-centric." Too bad. I figure I can take a liberty every 30 years or so. Isthmus is a pulse point in a one-of-a-kind community, and the people at the paper, like the people in the city, make it that way.
Thomas Wolfe said a writer is only as good as his editor. Here's a thank you to my editors, mentors all.
Thank you to Joanne Weintraub, who taught me the priceless lesson that words and writing are not holy things. Mike Baron taught me ruthlessness and how to be tough. Liz McBride showed me what precision can do for a story. Judy Davidoff, she of the light touch, sharpened my ability to write humor. Tenaya Darlington showed me the difference between turning a phrase and serving cheese. Marc Eisen, the mighty man of words to this day, taught me that a good vocabulary is a powerful arsenal. Dean Robbins taught me how restraint actually opens the throttle. Kenneth Burns, musician to musician, honed my pacing. My current editor, Linda Falkenstein, shows me column after column why organization makes the reader's ride smooth and sweet.
Through it all, publisher Vince O'Hern, like the bar owner of a house band's dream, simply let me do whatever I wanted.
Joanne Weintraub was so right all those years ago. Words aren't precious. Until they're published. Happy birthday, Isthmus. To the death.