In the mid-1960’s, Esquire writer Gay Talese wrote the incredible profile, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold,” in which he crafted a massive cover story about the Chairman of the Board – without ever interviewing or speaking with him. Instead, Talese interviewed members of Sinatra’s entourage, as well as friends and acquaintances. It was considered a groundbreaking article, and even today Esquire considers it the greatest article that ever graced their pages.
It’s a challenge. Trying to interview a subject who doesn’t want to be interviewed. What do you do? You can compile previously written and published materials, you can cite all your sources, and essentially you’ve “written” an article that comprises chunks that were written by others.
I say this because recently, a book about the life and times of electronic music pioneer and Renaissance woman Wendy Carlos was recently published. Carlos, if you’re not completely familiar, crafted the incredible Switched-on Bach, in which she took the nascent Moog synthesizer and blended it with Bach’s sonatas and paritas. Previously, the Moog was an instrument for special effects soundtracks; Wendy turned it into a true musical instrument and showed that the machine could indeed have a soul.
She later scored the soundtracks for two Stanley Kubrick films, The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, as well as crafting the soundtrack for Disney’s TRON movie. She collaborated on an album of children’s music with “Weird Al” Yankovic, she developed new chromatic musical scales; she demonstrated a proficiency for photographing eclipses; and she designed a personal website (http://www.wendycarlos.com) that has everything you ever wanted to know about electronic music, the arts, and the world.
During my time with Goldmine magazine, I was blessed to be able to personally interview Wendy Carlos. What was originally planned as a 15-minute interview turned into an hour-long discussion on everything from the history of the Moog, to how to properly record Edison Diamond Discs on an old Edison player. After that one hour, I felt smarter and more at peace.
In fact, our interview was so successful, I was able to enjoy a second interview with Wendy for MOJO magazine. And I still have an autographed copy of her “Switched-on Bach” CD, nicely framed and hanging on display in my home.
But here’s the thing. Back in approximately 2008 or 2009, Wendy Carlos left public view. And her reasons for doing so are her own reasons, and they’re not for us to speculate or to decipher. All of us, at whatever time we choose, are entitled to our privacy. So it is with Wendy, so it shall be with others.
Which makes the new biography of Wendy Carlos so infuriating.
Let’s start with the main subject. It does show heavily researched material from previously published Wendy Carlos articles and profiles. In fact, I saw my Goldmine article referenced several times.
But that being said, a majority of the book discusses sensitive information that Wendy has chosen to keep private. And the book’s overview continues on and on and on. And the more I read the pages, the more I felt like this was an invasion rather than a biography.
Let me describe it this way. Suppose there was a young girl who worked in a very powerful political position. And her superior essentially coerced her to have sex with him. And eventually, news of that assault became public, the political figure walked away clean, and the woman was left to deal with the scorn and vulgarities and questions about whether she was promiscuous or just a straight-up slut, because how dare she seduce a man of high importance. Over and over and over again. Her privacy is destroyed. Her life is destroyed. And her assaulter is treated with an aw, shucks, he just had a little affair, no big deal, right?
Now imagine if someone offered to write that person’s biography, and wanted to interview her and get as many juicy details as possible. She refuses. Next thing you know, a book comes out, complete with lurid and salacious details culled from whatever gossip rags and tattle sheets the writer could find. It’s as if the assault happened all over again.
And that’s what’s happening here.
There’s an old saying when someone is asked about someone else’s life. “It’s not my story to tell.” And that’s where the author of the Wendy Carlos biography made her biggest mistake. She assumed that if a person is trans, they want to talk about being trans to everybody in the world.
No. It doesn’t work that way. Whoever you are, your life is your own personal life. It’s not someone else’s story to tell of yours, and it’s not for you to presume or assume that someone wants to give the entire blow-by-blow and stitch-by-stitch update of what happened.
If you need to know about Wendy Carlos’ life and history, there’s already a place where you can find more than enough news and information. Go to her website. You can read her site for days and still not get enough.
And that should be the only biography of Wendy Carlos that you need.
You don’t need this book.
And despite that author’s credentials and research …
She’s no Gay Talese.