[percy-l] connected by Walker Percy

JHForest at cs.com JHForest at cs.com
Mon Mar 24 11:47:24 EST 2003

I knew that Bob Coles was a Walker Percy fan, but it's news that 
Bruce Springsteen is as well...

Jim Forest

* * *

New York Times / www.nytimes.com / 20 March 2003

A Rocker and a Revered Author Bond for a Cause

By Jacques Steinberg

Concord, Mass. -- When Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning
author and child psychiatrist, needed to raise enough money to
save his magazine, DoubleTake, from closing last year, his most
urgent call for help was to Bruce Springsteen.

It was not a plea out of the blue.

Dr. Coles, 73, who has been on the Harvard faculty for nearly
three decades, and Mr. Springsteen, 53, who dropped out of
Ocean County Community College in Toms River, N.J., have
quietly been friends for nearly seven years. Since discovering a
shared admiration for the novelist Walker Percy, they have
engaged in extended conversations about other chroniclers of the
American soul, like James Agee, William Carlos Williams,
Flannery O'Connor and Ralph Ellison.

These informal seminars have been conducted around the battered
kitchen table in Dr. Coles's 133-year-old home here and in
morning walks through Harvard Yard, as well as in letters and
phone calls.

Their friendship was private, at least until late February, when Mr.
Springsteen staged two benefit concerts at a small theater, raising
nearly $1 million for DoubleTake, a nonprofit magazine that
resembles The New Yorker but with oversize photographs. Dr.
Coles, who founded it in 1995, is also its editor.

Mr. Springsteen "shows that you don't need one of these fancy,
snooty educations to be a thoughtful, well-read person who looks
at books and takes them to heart," Dr. Coles said. "He just lives
with these books."

Mr. Springsteen, who declined to be interviewed, told the 900
people who attended the first benefit that he had been profoundly
influenced by Dr. Coles's 1999 book, "The Secular Mind." He
described it as an extended meditation on the "moment during
everybody's day when things stop," and "you're connected to other
things, larger things."

Sometimes those moments are prompted automatically, he said in
remarks recorded by Backstreets magazine. "The birth of a child,
death of somebody that you love . . . listening to `Louie Louie.' "
He added, "I guess that that idea is sort of what songs and music
and art are for."

These men often greet each other as "the Boss" and "the Doc," and
Mr. Springsteen has signed at least one note to Dr. Coles as "your
drinkin' buddy."

Now Dr. Coles has written a book about Mr. Springsteen that
Random House is to publish this fall. Titled "Bruce Springsteen's
America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing," it profiles fans
whose lives have been affected by Mr. Springsteen's music.

"His songs give you documentary glimpses of America," Dr.
Coles said, his study here decorated with photos of Freud, Erik
Erickson and Mr. Springsteen. "I connect him to others who have
done this with either a tape recorder or a camera or with their
attentive eyes."

One of those keen observers is Percy, whose nephew Will Percy
interviewed Mr. Springsteen for DoubleTake and then introduced
him to Dr. Coles. After the magazine's finances became so dire
late last year that it could pay neither the engraver (who refused to
release the fall issue to the printer) nor its utility bill, Dr. Coles,
who professes no business acumen, saw no alternative but to call
Mr. Springsteen.

The two share a variety of interests. Dr. Coles is well known for a
Harvard course he taught until two years ago, "General Education
105: The Literature of Social Reflection." A few years ago he took
Mr. Springsteen to a meeting of about two dozen discussion
leaders for the course. Mr. Springsteen had read the same
homework assignment as Dr. Coles's students -- Ellison's
"Invisible Man" -- and participated in the discussion.

Afterward Mr. Springsteen sent Dr. Coles a postcard from
California with a black-and-white photograph of Percy on one
side. On it he had scribbled: "I found this in a clothing store in
San Francisco, right next to one of Lou Reed! `Pop icon' status for

Dr. Coles created DoubleTake as an extension of that Harvard
class. A quarterly, it won a National Magazine Award for general
excellence in 1998 and once had nearly 80,000 subscribers. Dr.
Coles conceded that one reason the publication got into a "pickle,"
as he called it, was that he often paid writers generously -- at
times $5 a word, when the going rate at other magazines was $1 --
because they were "hard-working people."

DoubleTake's money woes were aggravated by a slumping
advertising market -- there were only six and a half pages of
advertisements in the 124-page spring 2002 issue -- and by the
decision to publish an extra edition in 2001 to commemorate the
Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Springsteen's concerts, solo on acoustic guitar, raised enough
money for DoubleTake to publish its belated fall issue (now due
in late spring), pay off its debts (some authors had been waiting
more than a year for their checks) and hire an advertising

"We were going to close our doors," said Hugo Barreca, a 13-year
veteran of Time Inc. and later Time Warner, who was hired last
summer as DoubleTake's publisher. "It is completely accurate to
say that Bruce Springsteen saved this magazine."

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