Michael Wilson

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Who knows for sure if Avo Uvezian’s story about having his song stolen by Frank Sinatra is true, but it’s true to him, and the narratives we believe, myth or fact, shape our lives. The octogenarian claims, with some plausibility, that he had the melody for “Strangers in the Night” pilfered in the 1960s, altering his life, eventually ushering him bitterly from the music industry into the cigar business, where he found great success.

In a wonderful New York Times piece written by Michael Wilson, whose work appeared on Afflictor’s “50 Great 2015 Articles Online for Free” list, a simple story of a few dozen pinched cigars triggers a bildungsroman about a man who knew opportunities missed and made. An excerpt:

By the 1960s, he had written his own music. One melody stood out.

“The song itself is a very simple song,” Mr. Uvezian, 89, said this month by telephone from his home in Orlando, Fla. “You take the thing and you repeat it. ‘Dah-dah-dah-dah-daaaah.’ It’s the same line repeated throughout.”

He had a friend who knew Sinatra. The friend set up a meeting and told Mr. Uvezian to bring along his music. Someone else had put lyrics to the melody, and called it “Broken Guitar.”

Sinatra gave it a listen.

“He said, ‘I love the melody, but change the lyrics,’” Mr. Uvezian recalled. The task was given to studio songwriters, and they came back with new words. Sinatra, legend has it, hated it. “I don’t want to sing this,” he said when he first saw the sheet music, according to James Kaplan’s new book, “Sinatra: The Chairman.” Nonetheless, with his last No. 1 single several years behind him, he was persuaded to record the song in 1966.

The title was new, too. “Broken Guitar” was out. The new name was “Strangers in the Night.”

In Mr. Uvezian’s telling, what should have been a monumental triumph and breakthrough turned out to be a source of great grief.•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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The New York Times taken as a whole is an awesome thing, but it’s also special on a granular scale when you find certain writers there who you recognize are doing especially superlative work. I think about the first time I read the late, great David Carr and the brilliant obituarist Margalit Fox, how cool it was to “find” reporters turning out such copy. 

The crime writer Michael Wilson is another Times journalist operating on that special level. His last column was a fascinating piece about an otherwise bright man taken to the cleaners by psychics, when, of course, he should have known better, but we all should know better about so many things. Wilson follows that up with an amazing posthumous profile of jaw-dropping con man Michael Forman, a Zelig on the make, who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others, while committing crimes, lots of crimes. It’s a beauty.

The opening:

The woman on the telephone had news. Michael Forman was dead. She asked a reporter if there was any known next of kin.

Mr. Forman was a career criminal and con artist who had been in and out of prisons and jails as recently as last year at age 73. The woman, calling this month from the Brooklyn Center care facility, had come across columns about him in this space in her search for relatives, and asked if the reporter had known Mr. Forman very well.

No. But peeling back the layers of his life last week raised another question: Did anyone? Not his ex-wife and two children. Not his fellow admen of the 1960s. Not the promoters of Woodstock, working with him behind the scenes before the concert. Not scores of jailers. Not the woman whose picture he carried in recent years, telling friends and relatives she was his Russian ballerina girlfriend, less than half his age. Not his neighbors, near the end, in the Manhattan flophouse he called home. 

To take a pass at something like a life story of Michael Stephen Forman is to sift through a mix of strange-but-true fact and preposterous fiction, each constantly seeking to upstage the other. His journey from suburban executive to swindler is told by those close to him at one time or another, men and women alternately charmed and repulsed by the born salesman and, in their words, sociopath.•


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Whenever seemingly intelligent people get taken in by what’s so obviously a con, there’s an urge to dismiss them, to laugh at their utter foolishness. But it would be far better to understand what went awry, because in some ways we all get taken, by ideologies or belief systems or lies we want to be true.

Niall Rice, an Internet consultant troubled by anxiety and addiction, got “sucked in” and cleaned out by psychics who promised him something they couldn’t possibly deliver. How could a smart, successful person so completely lack a filter to prevent grifters from exploiting him? Is there something he failed to learn despite learning so many other things? Why did his emotional problems supersede intellect at key moments? Are some people just wired to be more prone to such scams?

The opening of Michael Wilson’s fascinating New York Times article about a man who wanted, too much, to believe:

He sat in a Denny’s restaurant, drinking coffee between cigarette breaks after a long and sleepless night, answering question after question.

He knew none of it made sense: He was a successful and well-traveled professional, with close to seven figures in the bank, and plans for much more. And then he gave it all away, more than $718,000, in chunks at a time, to two Manhattan psychics.

They vowed to reunite him with the woman he loved. Even after it was discovered that she was dead. There was the 80-mile bridge made of gold, the reincarnation portal.

“I just got sucked in,” the man, Niall Rice, said in a telephone interview last week from Los Angeles. “That’s what people don’t understand. ‘How can you fall for it?’”

There was even, between payments to one of the psychics for a time machine to cleanse the past, a brief romance.

“It’s embarrassing now,” he said.•

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Mark Vaccacio portrayed John Lennon in the original run of "Beatlemaniaa" at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Veteran Bronx Beatles impersonator Mark Vaccacio continues performing, and taking his mind off of his illness, as he slowly dies from terminal cancer. From Michael Wilson’s story about Vaccacio in the New York Times:

“For more than three decades, Mr. Vaccacio has switched his accent from Bronx offstage to Liverpool on, starting with the role of John Lennon in Beatlemania on Broadway in the late 1970s. Since the late 1990s, he has played with the tribute band Strawberry Fields at clubs, summer festivals, corporate parties, black-tie weddings, Caribbean bars and, for several years, at noon every Saturday at B. B. King’s.

But without the suit and wig and teeth, he is just another guy from Yonkers by way of Long Island, with two ex-wives, more ex-girlfriends, a daughter far lovelier than he, a father who died young of colon cancer, and a bunch of pals in bands.

A guy who, about a year ago, suddenly had no appetite and went to the doctor. ‘I had a tumor the size of a softball on this side and a tumor the size of a golf ball here,’ Mr. Vaccacio recalled, patting his flat lower belly. He felt no pain then, except to his pride: he should have known better.”

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