Books

'The Accidental Life' Is Both a Time Capsule and a Guide

Like a good editor, Terry McDonell may be invisible, but the insights into writing and editing make up for the author's elusiveness, here.


The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 384 pages
Author: Terry McDonell
Price: 26.85
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-08

Cracking open The Accidental Life, I was expecting something along the lines of a biography mixed with Strunk and White: tips on being a better editor mixed with asides on the editing life.

Instead, The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers is precisely what its title implies: brief chapters (notes) that shift between process and its product. There's a greater resonance within this work, however, than my stripped-down description implies. The Accidental Life offers an insider's view of the magazine industry, from the '70s to the present -- that is, from its apex to the rise of the Internet and online content and decline of print journalism -- by a man who was present to witness these titanic shifts. Indeed, it's more about mapping the terrain of the past and present of publishing, writing, and editing than the editor himself.

McDonell, who started out as a founding editor at Outside magazine, with tenures at Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Men's Journal, and Sports Illustrated (to name a very few), offers stories of some of the luminaries of various stripes from the '70s to the present, including George Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, a cigar-smoking and mostly silent Arnold Schwarznegger, and Margot Kidder. A large portion of the first part of the book is dedicated to the Western (mostly Montana)-based group of writers, such as Tom McGuane, that seemed closest to McDonell's writerly / editorial heart. McDonell, after all, is the man that Art Cooper, the editor at GQ, dubbed "cowboy-hippie-poet weird", a sobriquet that McDonell seems to enjoy.

I say "seems" because, as with many editors, McDonell effaces a large part of himself within The Accidental Life. In one of the earliest chapters, McDonell offers two definitions for editors, one from New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who defined it as "quarreling with writers", and one from Brendan Gill indicating that good editors' work "does not reveal itself directly; it is reflected in the accomplishments of others". The rest of the book is dedicated to both of these central premises: McDonell's interactions (and occasional quarrels) with writers, subjects, friends, and bosses, and the editor's particular invisibility within the process.

On a deeper level, however, McDonell's invisibility allows these writers, subjects, friends, and bosses to shine more brightly. There's no malicious gossip or "gotcha" revelations about people such as Plimpton or Margot Kidder or even Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner -- a man who McDonell acknowledges was more likely that anyone he knew to "bring out as much bad feeling and envy" as is humanly possible -- unless you consider Hunter S. Thompson offering cigarettes to McDonell's children a huge surprise. Rather, like a good editor, he offers nuance and depth to these distant, and in some cases forgotten, individuals. There's an expected elegiac quality to some of these ruminations, less for the time period and more for the individuals lost to cancer, bad habits, or that bane of artists: suicide.

Many of McDonell's recollections are threaded with this sense of loss, even for the labor-intensive processes of print journalism in the days of Kodachrome and light boxes, when a desktop was actually the top of the desk rather than the computer on which you created the layout and design, and snorting coke, having three martinis at lunch, and large expense accounts were part of doing business. Yet, he does so by avoiding the nostalgia often inherent in those who are at ground zero for massive shifts in their chosen profession, offering a joke that indicates his own flexibility:

Q. How many staffers does it take to change a light bulb at Time Inc.?

A. Twenty-five. One to screw in the new bulb, and twenty-four to stand around talking about how great the old bulb used to be.

(Indeed, during his tenure at Sports Illustrated, McDonell was actually responsible for a huge jump in digital revenue, according to Folio Magazine, proving that even old-school veterans -- of both the human and print varieties -- can shift with the times.)

While I would have liked for McDonell to offer the same treatment to his own life, interspersed with these profiles and nuggets of writerly and editorial advice (in the vein, perhaps, of Stephen King’s On Writing), perhaps McDonell believes that’s a job best left to others. In the same vein of the advice I was given once to never be the sole editor of your own work, perhaps a deeper look at McDonell's life, with all the facets and nuances he brings to other authors' works, is best left to an eventual biographer.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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