W.P. Norton

Ode to Guitar George

In W.P. Norton on February 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm
me and N

G.M. Norton; Afro-Cuban demon mask; the artist as a young man.

When I was 15—before Russia, before Obama, before the internet, before Chapman and the Dakota—when I was 15 me and my father, G.M. Norton, lived for a while in an abandoned sauce factory in Madison, Wis.

They’d long since stopped making the sauce there. And it would be a while before the property would be transformed into the condominiums of the Johnson Building that stands there now on East Washington Avenue, next to the car wash with the big Octopus head.



But it was a building with a couple of floors and the kind of elevator with a heavy mesh cage that you fling open or shut with a crash, and we were there for a couple of strange months in the winter of 1979, and so was Uncle George for part of that time. My honorary Uncle George, that is.


Uncle Guitar George

And it came to pass that on certain nd nights, there we’d be at a table in the former break room of the factory under the fluorescent lights, George and me.

There were cases of cold Huber beer, and Camel filters, and a guitar, and warm-hearted hours of instruction in the classics: the warm, curvaceous and supple notes of the beginning of “Norwegian Wood.” The breathless dextrousness of the rapid-fire blues plunked out of the little finger on “I Feel Fine.”

It seems I played in 15 bands after that, and mainly the bass, because there were many better guitarists in the vicinity at the time.

But in that Madison factory on a cold winter’s night, with Huber and Camels and a beat-up old acoustic held together with duct tape, Guitar George sat across the table and taught me how to coax more than notes from a piece of wood and catgut strings.

So thanks Uncle George, and cheers to you for those times you made the factory feel almost like home.

I happened to be in New York City when George Harrison died in 2001. At dusk I gathered amongst the many hundreds at Strawberry Fields, singing along with the throng while two brave buskers strummed every number in the Fab Four catalog on acoustics. I don’t recall a single mic or amp being used: just the two steel-strings. It was a joyful thing, much in contrast to Dec. 8, 1980.


The Pimps of Menlo Park

In facebook, W.P. Norton on April 3, 2018 at 11:15 pm

Facehooker, that’s what Lidia Yuknavitch said at a writer’s conference here in D.C. last year.

It took me a second to get the joke–that we’re the ones selling the most precious bits of ourselves to the pimps of Menlo Park, California.

It’s a bad trade, and after nine years, I’m out. We’ll see if life gets worse, or better, or stays pretty much the same.

I’m looking forward to calling friends again, like people used to do.

Does “30 Rock” Jack Speak for All of Us?

In W.P. Norton on July 3, 2017 at 1:39 pm



Alec Baldwin photo by Gage Skidmore

A manic Tracy Jordan’s holding a loaded gun on the roof of NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Jack Donaghe is trying to talk him down. But Or is he really talking about the might-have-beens and missed chances that nearly destroyed the film career of the great Alec Baldwin?

“Tracy, you wanna destroy the goodwill you have, so you can go back to your easy TV job? Do TV. No one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are. Even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or, worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbor. Stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. But be the biggest thing on the small screen, and you’ll still get laughed out of the Vanity Fair Oscar party by Greg Kinnear.”

The franchise is Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” series, of course — the role hijacked by Harrison Ford, who aged out only to be replaced by — God forgive him — Ben Affleck. The Streep vehicle is the rib-tickling throwaway romcom “It’s Complicated.” Civil rights? “Mississippi Burning.” Who is Baldwin in “Pearl Harbor?” Who remembers anything Anthony Hopkins said or in “The Edge?” And a gold star to anybody who can figure out the Kinnear/Vanity Fair/Oscar Party reference.

Back up on the roof, Baldwin is a modern-day Antonio Salieri — a stand-in and symbol for the mediocrity many of us fear we’ve become. Does that mean “30 Rock” Jack speaks for all of us? If so, the bright side is this: Whatever Baldwin’s Oscar hopes, there’s nobody in comedy funnier at what he does today. For proof, see the two Emmys, two Golden Globes, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards he’s earned.

Conclusion: There are always second acts in American life. Now put the gun down, Tracy. We’re all going to have to come down off this roof someday.

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