Remembering writer Nicholas Schaffner, 20 years on

Nicholas Schaffner was the quintessential New Yorker.

A respected writer, poet, and musician, he led an artist’s dream life in Greenwich Village. (Though on occasion he stopped by Chicago, usually for the annual Beatlefest fan convention.)

Nick died two decades ago, at the end of August in 1991. His passing at the age of 38 marked the first time I saw the effects of AIDS touch a personal friend.

Here are memories of my upbeat and positive last visit with Nick Schaffner, along with background on his life and writing.

[Thanks to PJ for sharing her photo of Nick Schaffner (left) along with co-author Pete Shotton (right)]

It was April 5, 1990. I was in New York City on a business trip and had the opportunity to attend an optional get together late one evening at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. A tempting lure.

However, I had already calculated that night would be my only opportunity to zip down to Greenwich  Village and visit Nicholas Schaffner.

“I have to see Nick,” I explained as I passed on the party.

PJ, a mutual friend for more than a decade (and a mutual book editor at McGraw-Hill) had given me a friendly warning that Nick was increasingly ill. I did not know when I would next be in New York, so it was now or never.

My timing was perfect for night owl Nick. 11:00 p.m.

Much to my relief, Nick looked OK and was in very good spirits, particularly pleased because he had just completed the manuscript for his new book on Pink Floyd (Saucerful of Secrets: A Pink Floyd Odyssey).

He had the manuscript boxed and ready to ship. (These were the pre-computer file submission days.)

It was a chilly evening so I welcomed a cup of hot tea as I  removed my scarf and coat and settled into a comfortable guest chair for a lengthy bit of conversation.

Nick’s place was a real house in Greenwich Village, newly renovated, and set back in a quiet garden area from the neighborhood streets.  A perfect setting to talk politics, music, art, and more than a dozen years of friendship, during which I had come to regard Nick with respect and affection as a quintessential New Yorker

Oddly, our first contact had been in Atlanta, back in 1978, at a Beatlefest fan convention. That’s where I met both Nick and PJ, his editor from McGraw-Hill. She was in charge of the paperback packaging of Nick’s Beatles Forever book, which had first appeared in hardcover in 1977 from a Pennsylvania publisher.

In that book’s bibliography section, Nick had included a warm recommendation for the Castleman-Podrazik Beatles discography All Together Now.

Nick apparently had no hesitation about pointing to other people’s works because he knew he had something uniquely his own. The Beatles Forever showed a fine sense of detail and an appreciation for research coupled with an artist’s sensibility.

This was a pop culture portrait and analysis of The Beatles by a writer with a talent for imagery, poetic citations, evocative analogies, and honest criticism. Nick quoted Allen Ginsberg alongside John Lennon. His description of the importance of Rubber Soul, for example, cited the moment in the Wizard of Oz film when the black and white world turned to color

The Beatles Forever was really a canvass for Nicholas Schaffner as an artist. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Nick received (and much treasured) a complimentary note from John Lennon about his writing.

In fact, it was easy to see an artist’s bohemian New York charm in Nick’s demeanor: welcoming and inclusive, as well as enigmatic and intensely personal. Yes just by flashing a wry smile and a few engaging observations, Nick was instantly welcomed to a conversation. In his own way, probably very Lennon-like.

Back in 1980, I visited Nick in his previous abode, a tiny New York apartment, where he interviewed me for an article my participation in Capitol’s just released Beatles Rarities album.

I found his living environment a kind of glorious mess, with a micro kitchen (big enough to prepare his ever present cup of coffee) and floor and shelves jammed with all things rock and popular culture.

But I quickly came to appreciate that was a lifestyle by choice, not necessity. Nick came from a privileged upbringing and from a family steeped in writing and literature. He once matter-of-factly referenced a visit by the legendary Ray Bradbury to his family’s home. His father was a literary agent and also his youngest brother, Tim. His grandmother was the poet, H.D.

When Nick settled into his Village house by the end of the 1980s, it was impeccably restored and decorated and was even showcased in a magazine. When he took me on a tour of that house, floor by floor, he pointed out the care behind the designs, such as in the glass inlays on the doors of his storage cabinets for dishes and glasses.

Although the house was beautifully and tastefully decorated, I was struck by the absence of Beatles and rock references through most of the place, until we came to a basement lounge area.

There he had settled on a simple display case for selected Beatles collectables. Most of the rest was stored nearby behind a closet door. As ever, an artist’s eye for effective presentation.

Nick did not want to be typecast as a one-subject Beatles writer, but after The Beatles Forever he did return to the Fab Four a few times: in his British Invasion anthology of British rock essays and in a straightforward biography (The Boys from Liverpool: John, Paul, George, Ringo).

Most significantly, Nick took the role of an informed historian and co-author who could tie together the remembrances of Lennon’s Quarryman mate Pete Shotton. The resulting book John Lennon: In My Life was released in 1983. Shotton confessed during their subsequent promotional appearances that Nick knew the detailed history better than he did.

Nick was also totally immersed in his New York City life. Whenever possible, I’d look him up when visiting the city. He was was consistently welcoming and could be playfully spontaneous.

There was also a touch of the Harry Nilsson party animal in Nick, though I never traveled that road with him. There was smoking, drinking, and other indulgences, as well as regular vacation travel to warmer climes.

Sadly, in the mid-1980s, Nick was diagnosed with AIDS (he was one of the early cases) and had to deal with that reality, up through the time he wrapped up his final book, on Pink Floyd.

When a copy of Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey arrived at my Chicago home in 1991, I could have just sent a congratulatory note to Nick, who by then had grown considerably weaker.

Yet I felt I owed him a close reading. So I sat down and immediately read the book from cover-to-cover. Then when I penned a short letter (pre-email) I could tell him truthfully how much I had enjoyed his words. That was our final exchange.

One of my warmest memories of Nick Schaffner, though, came from a compliment he paid without even realizing it the year before.

After my late night visit to his place that 1990 April evening, I realized that somewhere on the trip to New York City I had left behind my favorite scarf: purple lamb’s wool, made in Italy.

Much to my surprise, a short time later a package from PJ arrived containing the scarf, with an explanation. I had left it at Nick’s that night. He later brought it with him to a lunch date with PJ, though he confessed he had been tempted to keep it. Because he liked it.

Getting the scarf back was a nice surprise. Receiving the artistic stamp of approval from Nick was even better. Still have the scarf. In fact, wore it recently attending an opening night reception at a Chicago theater company, where I specifically received compliments on the scarf.

That Nick Schaffner. He had good taste.

And he is missed.

Copyright 2011 by Walter J. Podrazik

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10 Responses to Remembering writer Nicholas Schaffner, 20 years on

  1. Ken Berry says:

    Sir, I so appreciate you sharing your memories of your friend, Nick. Your touching recollections have helped me (slightly) fill in some of the blanks of an engaging observer of so much of cultural history. I just started reading his Pink Floyd biography, as I’m an immense fan of the group, and can sense his enjoyment in the subject and an admirable eye to scrupulous objective study. I was so saddened to read that he passed away shortly after the book was published. From your entry, he sounds like such a wonderful man with whom to share time and conversation. Again, Mr. Podrazik, thanks for sharing. ~ Ken Berry

  2. Markku Piri says:

    I first met Nick in the summer of ’73 when, at the end of an exchange student year in Florida, I received a scholarship from Parsons School of Design, and spent that summer in NYC. We became friends, often met in London, once in Finland, and when I moved to New York to work as a designer, in 1981, I bunked at Nick’s for the first month, a couple of floors up Bruno’s bakery on La Guardia Place. I did see his house in the West Village when it was being decorated for him,,, the pride and twinkle in his eyes! But I saw less of him as he grew more fragile, and my own design career took me more Europe and Japan… I miss him and often think of him. Your story brought back memories, thanks!

  3. wardo says:

    Like a lot of people of a certain generation, I first learned most of what I know about the Beatles from “The Beatles Forever”. (And “All Together Now”, for that matter.) Amazingly, 35 years later, it’s still remarkably accurate, while countless books published in that period have been debunked.

  4. Nicholas Schaffner was a good friend of mine and, in turn, I was happy to introduce him to my own circle within the community of American T. Rex fans (he wasn’t so preoccupied with The Beatles that he couldn’t also take time to delve into documenting Marc Bolan, God bless them both). I also remember the little apartment on Grove Street, the loft on LaGuardia and finally his beautiful house (no mere townhouse or duplex but a real, free-standing landmark house! — in Manhattan! — what style, indeed). I’ll never forget how amused I was to find myself in the alphabetical index at the back of one of his books — I think it was “The British Invasion” — directly underneath Paul McCartney. I was one of the first people who knew about his health issues. Nicholas told me he’d had his spleen removed, back in the early days when few people knew what the letters HTLV truly meant. I wince now as I recall this, but during the time Nicholas spent researching his final book about Pink Floyd, he actually got on a lot of people’s nerves because he was so intensely driven to get the project done as quickly as possible. Nobody else appeared to understand the underlying urgency or have a clue just how serious his illness would become until the very end. The last time I spoke to Nicholas was when he called me from his hospital bed about two weeks before he passed, just to confirm what I’d already suspected and to say one last goodbye. I remember going back to a gathering at his house after the beautiful “celebration of life” memorial service, where our mutual friend Richard Barone performed a Beatles song (perhaps “In My Life”) up in the choir loft. When I happened to mention that I’d known he hadn’t been in good health for about six years, suddenly the room fell into a stunned, awkward silence like a scene from a movie. But I prefer to remember happier moments, like the afternoon he spent photographing my T. Rex memorabilia collection in his apartment, or the times he’d regale me with his adventures traveling to countries in Central and South America. Nicholas had a lot of Old Hamptons resources at his disposal, and he didn’t hesitate to use them to be kind to friends of mine. I always admired this about him. He even found time to record an album of his own original material in between all his publishing projects. Nicholas suffered a tragic end, but I still feel his presence. Whenever I see a tarot deck or a mug of black coffee on a countertop, a little voice sings in my ear, “Ma-gi-cal King-doms…” Nicholas Schaffner left a magnificent legacy of published work and musical compositions, and for that, he should be remembered fondly and respected always. Rest in peace, my friend…

  5. Doug O'Donnell says:

    I have deeply enjoyed Schaffner’s books and wish I could have had the chance to meet him. Does anyone know if the “album of original material” ever surfaced, or if any of his magazine articles have been collected anywhere online?

  6. Randy Houser says:

    I was in Nick’s class in boarding school. We attended The Choate School in Wallingford Conn, My sophomore year Nick lived down the hall from me. This was 1967. He always had the latest records and turned the whole floor onto many groups before they were household words. He burned incense and had colorful Indian prints hanging all over his room. I was a jock type but loved music, played the bass and found Nick’s room to be the place to go and listen. He had the best stereo on the floor also. The rest of us had those nasty sounding fold down things, Nick’s was all separate and quality components.

    Like most high school kids we all went our own ways. I ended up in Wyoming and while in a book store found Nick’s books. I also read his articles in Rolling Stone. I was later living in South Carolina when I learned of his passing and remembered Nick as a guy who lived for music and managed to make it his short life’s work.

  7. Octavia says:

    Thank you for interesting information.

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