It’s not very often that I can boast of a warm personal connection to a recently deceased celebrity, so please let me take a moment to vouch for the key role that Sir Frank Kermode played in my development as a writer.
No, I never had the privilege of studying under the lit-crit master. And even if I had, I very much doubt I’d taken much away from the experience—dissecting great works was never my strong suit. (Despite repeated attempts, for example, I’ve never gotten past page three of Finnegan’s Wake.) But back in my college years, I had a notion that I might want to try my hand at non-fiction. On a lark, I pitched one of the campus mags on an idea that, in retrospect, is pretty embarrassing: I wanted to track down and interview Richard Kermode, whose keyboard work on Santana’s Lotus I greatly admired. (His solo on “Incident at Neshubar” is something to behold.) Perhaps in a nod to my future role here on Microkhan, I wanted to reveal a hidden story—the tale of a relatively anonymous musician who, by dint of fortune and talent, had made a big impression on my post-adolescent self.
The mag gave me the green light and I prepared to dig in with gusto. There was just one problem: I didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to start reporting. The Clinton-Era Internet provided little help, and I didn’t yet have the reportorial chops to, say, try and contact Kermode through Santana’s record company. All seemed lost until I noticed that a distinguished British scholar was visiting campus for the semester, and he just happened to share a surname with my favorite keyboardist. Could they be father and son?
Drumming up every ounce of gumption that I could muster, I placed a call to the temporary office of Sir Frank Kermode. When the good professor answered, I stammered my way through my random inquiry—was he, by any chance, related to the musician who had blown my mind on numerous occasions?
There was a long pause—long enough so that I distinctly remember having to ask the professor if he was still there. And then I heard a slight expulsion of breath, followed by a reply I will never forget: “I haven’t any idea who you mean.”
Failure. And yet at the same time, success. When I hung up the phone and exhaled, I somehow realized that I’d started down a promising path—sort of like Luke Skywalker finally learning to beat the training remote aboard the Millennium Falcon. Yes, I’d run into a brick wall. But that’s part of the process. The important thing was that I’d tossed the reportorial dice, and discovered that getting nowhere wasn’t quite as dispiriting as I’d envisioned.
So, many thanks to the late Sir Frank Kermode for inadvertently encouraging my creative and professional maturation. And now it’ll likely be a good long while before I write another post like this. Because the next celebrity who pops to mind as having accidentally egged me along the road to lifelong writing is…Rush Limbaugh. I kid you not.