Lunch with a Legendary Rock Band’s Biographer

David Browne & Diane Clehane

I’m back! Oh, how I have missed the gang at Michael’s and my weekly lunches with the fashionable, fascinating and fabulous crowd. Walking through the door at 55th and Fifth today felt like a long-awaited homecoming (Thank you to everyone who let me know I was missed). I was happy to see that the dining room was filled with the usual assortment of famous faces, media mavens and machers. I jumped right into the deep end.

While waiting for my lunch date to arrive, I spotted Kathie Lee Gifford as she sailed by on her way to her table with her friends Eva Mohr and Rikki Klieman, who, it must be said, offered up a scathing analysis last week on “CBS This Morning” on what could happen to the bulldozer parents including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin who allegedly paid big bucks to have their children admitted to top colleges. Yikes. Trust me, you want Rikki on your side. The ladies seemed to be celebrating something and Kathie Lee took some important calls at the table. Big doings, but I can’t tell you what about because they left early before I could go over to say ‘hello.’ Next time.

I did get to talk to former Connecticut governor Dan Malloy who was sitting in the lounge leafing through a copy of Us Weekly waiting for the dining room to open. I introduced myself, telling him I was one of his former constituents. He was very pleasant, offering a handshake and big smile (Mr. Malloy is quite dashing in person). I asked him if he was enjoying not being governor and he replied with a very enthusiastic, ‘Yes!’ Then I asked him what he was doing now. He cast a sideways glance at the notebook and pen I was holding before answering. When I explained I write a column about the goings on at Michael’s on Wednesdays, he said, “Having lunch here!” You can take the politician out of politics, but you can’t take the politics out of the (former) politician. Later, he gave me a jaunty wave on his way back to the Garden Room.

Precisely at the appointed hour, PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky arrived with this week’s interviewee, Rolling Stone’s senior writer and author David Browne. Judy, as you may recall, arranged some of my most memorable lunches including my confab with Princess Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer and my sit-down with HBO’s former president of documentary films-turned-best-selling author Sheila Nevins. Judy is something of a literary fairy godmother in her ability to make authors’ publicity dreams come true. To wit: Page Six had a dishy item this week involving David’s new book, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young the Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup (Hachette) which revealed Graham Nash had dated Barbra Streisand in 1972 while she was in San Francisco making the comedy, What’s Up Doc.

It turns out that while researching the book (due out April 2), David came upon an old gossip column item about the unlikely pairing. Nash confirmed he had several dinner dates with the diva during an interview for the book, but gallantly added they’d never slept together. Now that’s news you can use.

We settled in at my usual perch (Table 27) and got right to it. I was astonished to learn that David was the author of five previous books including the much-heralded Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 in addition to his gig at Rolling Stone. He has been writing for them for decades but turns out he just joined the magazine as a full-time staffer in January of this year having been a contract writer since 2008. That’s right, folks. There are magazines that are actually hiring journalists these days. “Jay Penske had a great idea to invest in writers and hire more staff,” said David between bites of his Cobb salad. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse but I miss my dog.”

David has some serious credentials chronicling the lives of musicians and their music. He started freelancing for Rolling Stone in 1987 and then moved to Entertainment Weekly in 1989. He was promoted to music critic 1993, a position he held until 2006. He’s also penned pieces for The New York Times and New York.

Growing up in Clifton, New Jersey in the seventies, ten-year old David first heard CSNY while sitting in the backseat of his parent’s car. By the time he was 13, he was playing the band’s album, Déjà Vu, on his older sister’s stereo. “They were already these mythical figures by then,” he said. “I loved their music. They had a distinct style and a fascinating dynamic.” Too young to attend Woodstock, he finally saw CSNY live for the first time in 1977 at Madison Square Garden. “They were nosebleed seats,” said David. “But it was still really exciting.”

By the time he was a junior in high school, David had been thinking about “what a cool job it would be” to write about music and had to fill out a questionnaire about potential future careers. Among a long list of professions, there, at the bottom of the page, was ‘journalist.’ “Something about seeing that made it official.” He majored in journalism at NYU and minored in music. David said he “had no idea” if a career covering rock musicians “was plausible,” but he knew if it were, he was going to do it.

David told me he was influenced by the writing of Gay Talese and Joan Didion. “I loved their approach to narrative writing,” he said. “There was something so poetic and lyrical about it.” He became fascinated with biographies early on after picking up a book on Montgomery Clift his mother was reading in the late seventies. David knew nothing about the late actor but was drawn into his life story by the writing. “He sounded like an interesting guy and I wound up reading the whole thing.”

In his own books, David told me he prefers the “you are there” style of storytelling. “I get frustrated by biographies that are more philosophical than vivid.” Fittingly, ‘vivid’ is the perfect word to describe David’s new book, a biography of CSNY that reads like a novel. Timed to coincide with two 50th landmark anniversaries: the release of the band’s classic album, Crosby, Stills & Nash and then, when shortly afterwards Neil Young joined them to play at the historic Woodstock festival in August in 1969, the book chronicles of the lives and careers of the members of one of rock’s “longest-running dysfunctional” bands over the course of five decades.

It’s filled with fresh insights and anecdotes including how the members of the band often shared a revolving door of girlfriends (like Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge) and how during the 1974 “Doom Tour” of stadiums, one staffer’s job was to go through scores of cigarette cartons and replace the tobacco with marijuana.

Amazingly the full history iconic rock band’s “fraught world of reuniting and breaking up” as David described it, had never been tackled in a book. So, in 2016, he decided to delve into their fascinating lives and careers in earnest. Over the course of a little over two years, David interviewed 100 people including Nash and Crosby. (Neil Young never responded to any inquires and Stephen Stills publicist informed David the rocker was writing his own biography.)

All of this made me wonder how David could coalesce the four band members’ stories and recollections as well as those who knew, worked – and slept with them into one compelling narrative. “I was talking to people about things that happened fifty years ago so memories can be spotty, it was my job to create a timeline” (which is how he found the Nash-Streisand item). Part of putting the pieces of the puzzle together involved visiting all their former houses. David showed me photos of some of the locations on his phone including the Los Angeles house Nash lived in with Joni Mitchell which inspired “Our House.” The brown cottage-like structure was, indeed, ‘a very, very, very fine house.’

David shares his New York home with his wife Maggie Murphy, who he met at NYU when both were working on the school’s now-defunct alternative newspaper, the Courier. Murphy is now a VP at Audible overseeing content. “My wife sometimes edits me, which is a good thing,” he said.

If you want to hear more about the glory days of CSNY, David will be on SiriusXM’s morning show, Feedback next Tuesday morning and appearing at Strand Book Store later that night in conversation with Rolling Stone colleague and author Brian Hiatt, who has written a new book on Bruce Springsteen. He’ll also be at the Maplewood Book Festival in New Jersey on June 8.
As we finished up our lunch, I told David that with the incredible success of Bohemian Rhapsody and the upcoming Elton John bio-pic, this new book seemed perfect for the big screen treatment. “Think of all the great parts,” I said. Streisand could even make a cameo appearance as herself.

The scene

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Jimmy Finkelstein holding court on Table One … Jane Hartley on Two … Andy Stein on Three … Showtime’s Matt Blank on Four. Did you catch the recent Billions’ episode featuring a scene at Michael’s with series’ star Paul Giamatti’s character hatching some big deal with Donny Deutsch? (Does Donny ever wear anything but a t-shirt?) And that was proprietor Michael McCarty and GM Steve Millington were standing at the bar … Allen & Company’s Stan Shuman on Five.

Kathie Lee Gifford, Eva Mohr, Rikki Klieman and a well-dressed gent we didn’t recognize on Six … The Paley Center’s Maureen Reidy on Eight … Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew on 14 … Jack Kliger and David Goldman on 18. Jack had some exciting news to share: the long-time publishing vet is now in his fifth week as president & CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. A long-time board member of the museum, Jack was tapped for the top job when the previous CEO resigned. Mazel tov! … Producer Joan Gelman and radio’s grand dame Joan Hamburg on 20 … Yours truly, Judy Twersky and David Browne on 27 … ‘The Bar-ettes’ Kira Semler and Vi Huse having an elegant champagne lunch at the bar.

A final note — While I’m still toiling away on some top-secret projects, Wednesdays at Michael’s will now run twice a month in this space. See you in two weeks!

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Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana.

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