The cool thing about being a writer is that even procrastinating has a payoff if you’re paying attention. So when I should have been blogging the other day about my new book — which is about a guy who wanted to be a star and wasn’t — I read interviews with a couple of guys who are: Ginger Baker and Yo-Yo Ma.
Baker was the brilliant and irascible drummer with Cream, one of the first supergroups of the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll era. Baker was cranky and rude in his prime, and he’s still cranky and rude, and the funny thing about the recent interview is that people keep hoping he’s changed.
I used to be a rock critic and feature writer and interviewed a lot of well-known people, including musicians. Although I knew next to nothing about music, I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t cooperative, pleasant and even engaging. Albert King, B.B. King, the Allman Brothers (Gregg, Dicky Betts and Butch Trucks), Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Vassar Clements, Carlos Montoya, ZZ Top (all three guys) — never a harsh word.
Harry Nilsson talked about gun control after John Lennon’s death. Maria Muldaur told me she went to a holy roller church and spoke in tongues. Herbie Hancock said he used a Buddhist chant to help find parking spots in Manhattan. And backstage after a Jethro Tull concert, I watched a bearded Jesus freak in overalls and T-shirt try to “save” Ian Anderson.
Anderson, haggard and looking 74 rather than 24, shook his head and said, “I wish I could believe you, man.”
I also interviewed a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who performed with orchestras around the country on weekends: Yo-Yo Ma. He seemed like a nice kid then, and judging from the recent interview, he’s still a nice guy.
Ma told the Times something that brought me back to my book about Mike Austin — Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter. Ma said “the thing I’m most interested in is figuring out what makes people tick….”
I’ve always been interested in the person behind the publicity still, what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” In Austin’s case, I wanted to find out why he isn’t famous.
In 1974, the 64-year-old Austin drove a golf ball 515 yards, a world record that still exceeds anything ever hit on the PGA tour by 40 yards.
Everything seemed aligned in Austin’s favor: his students included Howard Hughes, Jack LaLanne and the Quaid brothers. He sang light opera in local productions. He was a fringe character in Hollywood and appeared in the Michael Douglas thriller, “The Star Chamber.” He was a war hero with three doctorates.
And yet despite being the subject of a DVD and a book that celebrated him as “a real-life Indiana Jones,” Austin died an angry man and virtually unknown. And now, oddly enough, he’s probably better known than when he was alive.
I wanted to know why, and I learned that the truth is a lot more interesting than any of the stories he told his pals at the driving range.
Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter will be published later this month. Here’s an excerpt:
The last time he saw Austin, John Anselmo was giving a clinic at the Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It was early 2004. Anselmo was 81; Austin was 89.
“I was doing a little clinic about Tiger Woods,” Anselmo said, “and I look over and there’s Mike with his wife, Tanya, who was a very beautiful woman and a wonderful person. I went over to say hello, and Mike was in a wheelchair. That was a shock.”
Anselmo didn’t remember much about what was said that afternoon. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and their memories were refracted through the astonishment at what time had done to them. An eye injury had ended Anselmo’s dreams of playing professionally when he was young, and his 60-year career as a teaching pro had been interrupted by colon cancer. But when he was interviewed for this book, he was 89, healthy and in Beijing where he and his son, Dan, had opened an Anselmo Golf Academy similar to ones they operated in Huntington Beach and Irvine.
Austin, once powerful and movie-star handsome, had suffered a stroke in 1988 that left the right side of his body paralyzed. A broken hip from a fall in 2003 had so dispirited him that friends feared he would die. Although somewhat recovered, his hands shook and he drooled from the corner of his mouth. But seeing Anselmo warmed his heart.
“John,” he said, “they haven’t given you enough credit for teaching Tiger.”
Copyright: John Christensen 2013. All rights reserved.