Well, the thing about writing a story is that there has to be a story. Dark stories, I found, are among the easiest to “write well,” as the choices you have to make tend toward that famously right direction of “showing, not telling.” A trick I learned from In Cold Blood, and it played out differently with each story, was to delay, downplay, overly foreshadow, or in some other way undercut the big reveal: the crime, tragedy, or whatever made the story dark. It forces the reader to put him or herself into play—his or her imagination, empathy, discernment, whatever.

Ivan Solotaroff

Most of us pass an accident on the highway and we just can’t help but look, but then we keep driving and forget it as soon as we can. Ivan Solotaroff is the kind to linger, then go back and face the cold brutality head-on. Violence and madness do not repel him, they engage him—as does intelligence—which is clear in his riveting magazine portraits of Charles Manson, Bobby Fischer, and the deeply troubled, deeply funny street comedian Charlie Barnett. It’s also on display in “The Dreamer Deceiver,” an unflinching account of the bizarre 1990 trial of heavy metal band Judas Priest, which was accused of putting subliminal lyrics in its music that led to the death of two teenage boys. The whole affair became a media circus, and Solotaroff brings the requisite gonzo edge—as well as a needed dose of sympathy and compassion. Call it what it is—a tour de force of reporting in thirteen thousand words on a two-week deadline.

After the Judas Priest trial story appeared in the Village Voice, Solotaroff was a sought-after writer. Like Mark Jacobson before him, he wrote about Black culture for primarily white publications, including insightful profiles of James Brown, and city basketball legends such as Earl Manigault and Lloyd Daniels—Solotaroff himself played a ton of hoops as a kid on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just a few years after poet Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries described a similar white kid talent.

In the nineties, Solotaroff wrote about the dark underbelly of the civilized world in nuanced, disturbing meditations on cult figures such as David Koresh and Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. He also weighed in on the murder of Tupac Shakur and delivered a bizarre romp for Esquire about the con man to beat all con men in “America’s Greatest Living Criminal Genius Sends His Regards.”

Solotaroff, a child of the New York literary world, could also handle himself adroitly with more standard magazine assignments. “He is a genius of sorts,” Solotaroff writes of Alec Baldwin in a whip-smart 1994 portrait of the actor, “not so much of IQ points as of instinct; he has an ability to assimilate the moment in all its complexity and throw it back at you, times two . . . It’s an actor’s gift, to be sure, but offstage it comes through with equal power. He’s one of those people with whom you feel you are where you should be, regardless of where that is.”

Even in a celebrity profile, Solotaroff’s keen powers of observation and sly intelligence are on display; Baldwin has the deep intelligence and unrelenting fury that haunts many of Solotaroff’s subjects—the darkness visible in American life. Solotaroff, according to writer Luc Sante, is able to get at “the spectacle of American ambition, as it exists today, at its most wistful, ludicrous, and tragic.” All of those qualities are on full display in “The Dreamer Deceiver”—a picture of the garish American catastrophe without tears.

Ivan Solotaroff 'Portrait' by WBYK

Alex Belth: You come from a literary family. Your father, Ted, was a writer and editor and part of the established literary and publishing scene in New York in the sixties and seventies. What was your mother’s connection to that world?

Ivan Solotaroff: My father met Philip Roth in grad school in Chicago, and wrote about him in the Times Literary Supplement. It got Commentary to offer him a job, which brought us to NYC in 1960, and began a literary career of half a century. My mother spent years “merely” translating, but of seven Solotaroff published writers, her translation of a novella by Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, (considered to be one of the masterpieces of his late fiction) is the only one ever to earn royalties. So much so the publisher contacted me and my brother twenty-five years after she passed on and sent us checks for twenty-five thousand or so in unpaid royalties. We still split a thousand or so every year.

AB: Did you always imagine you would be a writer?

IS: My “rebellion” was to not become a writer, which I made good on for ten years as a chess-bum/poet. I began in “self-defense” after falling into crisis at thirty-one, with my first pieces about chess players. I never read magazines and made it up as I went along: When my father told me that he and some colleagues felt an early piece of mine was borderline “New Journalism,” I’d never heard of it. He said, “Y’know, like Gay Talese.” I’d never heard of him.

AB: Did your dad encourage you to write?

IS: On his deathbed my father told me, through gritted teeth, that I was the “best of us.” It was just easier for me. I never wanted it in the first place. I remember my Uncle Bob just dropping his jaw when I launched into some diatribe, saying, “What a torrent of language.” And my father said, “Enter Ivan, at a loss for everything but words.”

AB: What was it like serving cocktails to the NY literati as a kid?

IS: My father had those parties every three months for the new issue of his American Review, a fairly seminal quarterly paperback, and I was the bartender. I’d short-pour the pompous—Roth, Norman Mailer, Harold Brodkey—and extravagantly mull bitters and ice to make Old-Fashioneds for the writers I liked: Murray Kempton, Milton Klonsky, Phillip Lopate. When my father was past his two-drink limit, we’d lock eyes and he’d come by, saying the same thing, four times a year: “Literature is too important to be left to the literati.”

AB: Was there anything you saw, not just in those who were struggling, but those who were great successes as writers, that gave you pause?

IS: Philip Roth’s use of my parents in his novel Letting Go, specifically my mother, was one of my principal concerns of becoming a writer. I grew up with my mother saying, “That may look like a normal head, but those two ears are just the spools of the tape recorder that everything you say is getting picked up on.” I took care not to misrepresent or impugn my subjects.

What really gave me pause was my father’s willingness to forgive anything from a writer if the prose was good. In its “forgive Paul Claudel . . . for writing so well,” that syllogistic simplicity seemed as naive and childlike as it was knowing. I knew that as a child. He was a man of values, and he valued nothing more than control of the English language. I didn’t think it was a big deal, just what that person happened to be good at. For me, it was about what he called the “writer’s permission,” which he spoke of like Nick Carraway about Daisy Buchanan’s beauty, with adoration made unbearable by his own shortfall in that department. If I didn’t have “permission” at any given moment, I’d just fake it until I had words on the page. But my father seemed to feel the words owed him something, and he spent too much time looking upward and outward rather than within, which is the only place you’ll ever find permission.

AB: Both you and your older brother Paul not only became writers but journalists. You just mentioned that you didn’t even know about Gay Talese or the New Journalism, so it doesn’t sound that like was an influence. How did both you and Paul arrive at writing in the same field, and was there any sense of competition between the two of you?

IS: Paul’s a year-and-a-half older than me. When I was nine and he was ten I went to live with my father. Our parents had split up, and Paul stayed with our mother, who was a deeply troubled person. Paul didn’t have it easy; I had all the privileges of living with our father. I came to journalism essentially by accident. My friend Peter Alson, who’s Mailer’s nephew, had written a story about poker in the sports section of the Voice, and I pretty much cribbed the form of my story from his. I had no idea I’d done so well until the praises just kept coming. Paul pretty much just followed in my footsteps once he got the job editing the sports. I don’t know if he knew anything about journalism or read much before then, but it always felt more like his field than mine. Unless assigned a story by an editor, most of my ideas were generated by Paul—he’s always had a sense for the zeitgeist, has a real gift for that.

AB: Did you have a sense of how to do journalism even though you’d never done it before? Or did you have an editor at the Voice who helped you understand the idiom better?

IS: I had no idea how to write a piece. The only feature I can remember reading was Al Alvarez’s poker story for the New Yorker, likely one of the reasons I felt justified in turning in very long pieces—“writing by the yard,” my father sometimes called it. My fascination was sneaking shit into the prose: haikus, fragments of a double-dactyl, paraphrases of famous lines. I’d sometimes fashion a story on what I was reading at the time—I remember a piece on Tupac Shakur’s murder for Esquire, where I followed Garcia-Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which seemed appropriate to the way he lived and died.

AB: When did you start playing chess seriously?

IS: My father taught my brother and me when we were in short pants. In a few months, I was able to beat them both, blindfolded, and games were everything to us. My grandmother gave me a pocket chess set for my tenth birthday, and when my father brought home Larry Evans’s 101 Modern Chess Brilliancies and showed me how to read chess notation, my goose was cooked. The word “text” hadn’t taken on its postmodern heft, but I finally had one to make the game of my life legible by, particularly those of Bobby Fischer. My great badge of honor as a journalist was in war-torn Yugoslavia, when he emerged and restaged his match with Spassky for $5 million. He gave a press conference, and spat on the questions asked, until he came to mine. “These are real good questions. You can tell this Ivan . . . uh . . . Cutchacockoff knows his chess.” And I mean “spat” literally. When the transcript of the interview was published, a square inch was blotted off where he’d hocked his loogie.

In my twenties, I was a chess bum who spent his days in Washington Square Park, so for my next assignment I traveled fifty yards or so to the trick-bike riders. Then someone suggested the fans in Yankee Stadium, and after that I returned to the park for Charlie Barnett, a street comedian addicted to crack. It took six months to report and write, then languished in the well until a new editor in chief came aboard and made it his first cover. In a week or so, I went from legal secretary/chess bum who wrote the occasional story to professional journalist, coming home from work to offers on my answering machine: book deals in the thousands, then tens of thousands, then movies in the hundreds of Ks. Got an agent—for me and Charlie—and reached an agreement with a local producer, to star Charlie and be cowritten by us, a $250 thousand minimum guarantee for each of us. Charlie didn’t show up to a lunch to meet and greet the producer and his millionaire backer.

That was the end of my days as a man of means, but Washington Square Park was where NYU journalism students hung out, and I spent the next quarter-century getting assignments from grads who’d become editors. And I did get a standing O in the park out of it. Charlie was performing at the fountain, a crowd of hundreds, and he stopped when he saw me and asked if anybody had read the story. “I started out trying to be the most famous comic in America. Instead, I became the most famous crackhead, thanks to that guy. Give him a hand.” He died of AIDS a few years later.

AB: You had such reservations about writing because of the impact it could have on people. Did you have mixed feelings when the Barnett piece came out and was a cover story but also one in which you could have been seen as exploiting this talented addict?

IS: Nope. After putting six months into that, I felt whatever I got was earned. And I did as much to protect Charlie while writing that as I could.

AB: Over the course of your career, did you ever regret writing a story?

IS: Never the story I wrote, but sometimes the story that was published. At the end of the day, my great contribution to journalism wasn’t anything I wrote but one analogy I made. Writer friends, some of them much better writers than me, would see me getting read on the subway, buses, in cafes, etc., and, wondering whether they should try journalism, asked what the editors were like. I’d say they’re like dogs, they just lift their leg and make their marks. Unbeknownst, editors a few years later were referring to sections where they had to do the “heavy lifting,” or “just a little lift here . . .” Makes me think of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Richard Lewis wants to get his “the _____ from hell” into Roget’s Thesaurus. This here is as close as I’ll ever get.

AB: Were you especially drawn to “dark” or troubling subjects or did you just take the assignments as they were given without thinking too much about it?

IS: Well, the thing about writing a story is that there has to be a story. Dark stories, I found, are among the easiest to “write well,” as the choices you have to make tend toward that famously right direction of “showing, not telling.” A trick I learned from In Cold Blood, and it played out differently with each story, was to delay, downplay, overly foreshadow, or in some other way undercut the big reveal: the crime, tragedy, or whatever made the story dark. It forces the reader to put him or herself into play—his or her imagination, empathy, discernment, whatever. I’m not comparing myself to Capote, mind you, just saying who I stole from.

AB: Is there something about criminals or criminality that is compelling to you?

IS: Nope. And when I watch Mindhunter and the sequels and prequels to Silence of the Lambs I feel they’re pandering . . . not that it’s to a base, voyeuristic impulse, but that they do it so basely, voyeuristically. Your job as a storyteller, first word to last, is to let the story tell itself, not to tell the audience what the story is about. If you want to tell the audience how to feel, you should die and come back as Spielberg.

AB: Some writers create personas for themselves, either as charismatic raconteurs or quieter, on-the-page personalities. Did you ever embrace, “Yeah, I’m this guy and this is my kind of story?”

IS: Fu-u-u-u-ck no. That was the generation before me, the Capotes, Mailers, Thompsons. I did what I could to vanish into stories and then away from them once done . . . unless there was a resale abroad, a movie option, or the contract for my first book, a collection of them. When I got successful and the next generation would praise me, time and again I found what they really wanted was my job.

AB: Looking back—this is such a stupid question, but I’m curious—what stories of yours, these kinds, magazine or Voice profiles, are your favorites?

IS: I think it’s a great question, and I’d be tempted to quote Dickens that parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but his was David Copperfield. But, as with telling a story, vainglory should be achieved as invisibly as possible. That said, my top fave, at least among the longer features, is my first, about the street-comic Charlie Barnett. Two friends got together at the end of the week it was out, and said, “Phew, safe to go back outside.” I loved hearing that.

Second is the story about the kids who killed themselves after listening to Judas Priest. I came back from Reno to a “vacation” in the country with my wife and six cartons of depositions and source materials from the trial. In ten, eleven days I wrote eighteen thousand words or so. It took me and the editor the entire weekend to edit, and he did a great, great job. That Monday morning, the big guns at the Voice all came to his office, trying to get the cover (one was about Stevie Ray Vaughn’s tragic death), and they had no shot. Two other great memories of that: free meals during the edits (the one time an editor put no restrictions on what we could order) and some people I really admire who reacted to it. Name-dropping should also be done invisibly, but I will mention Tony Hendra, if only because he recently passed, was such a genius, and because it was four months later, at the Voice Christmas party. Elvis Costello wrote that “Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.” That one time, it wasn’t.

AB: The piece is so evocative and it’s not just your observation and analysis of the case but the reporting that’s the bedrock of the story.

IS: That was the first time I was on a breaking story with writers from major magazines competing for sources and access. Because I was able to publish so many words, so quickly, none of the other guys made it into print, at least that I recall, and I was getting offers from those magazines. I was determined never to lose such a battle, and kept it up until I got my ass kicked, hard, on a story about the suicide of a porn star, Savannah. The editor at Esquire found many elements of my story “disgusting” and didn’t publish it. Oh, and some guy named Sager was also on the story and he beat me to it, dead to rights.

The Judas Priest trial was also the story where I first realized my command of the English language wasn’t all I thought it was. One of the mothers of the kids who died objected to me calling her “strident,” and at a lunch in New York—she was doing talk shows—said, “You’re quite a deceitful individual, aren’t you, Ivan?” I thought strident meant “determined,” if not necessarily in the most lauding sense. Early days of the Internet for me, so I didn’t see what Webster’s had to say: “characterized by harsh, insistent, and discordant sound.” It can be argued that shoe actually fit, but I would’ve gone with something more neutral if I’d known what I was actually saying—at least I hope I would’ve.

AB: Did you feel competitive with other reporters to get the story first?

IS: I didn’t think much about the competition; my focus was always on getting to the subjects and source material in my own time. I somehow knew the smallness of the Voice could be worked to my advantage, with the lawyers on both sides, the grieving families and friends left behind, hopefully with the band itself, and most key, with a documentary team hoping to put together enough footage. My competitors treated them with no regard, and it was a fatal error: in their footage was interviews with Jay Vance, the kid who survived the suicide pact for eighteen months. Between that and his depositions, I was able to piece together the moment they shot themselves, without which the story was, basically, hearsay. They put in a good word for me with a local DJ, who put in a good word for me with the band, and my dinner with them was my transition from the trial into the ending, with the judge’s decision, handed down the day my story was due, tacked on for a few paragraphs.

Just to set the record straight, though lead singer Rob Halford felt that This is Spinal Tap was like watching himself inside out, Tap wasn’t “based” on Priest—the scene of them unable to find the stage in Cleveland was actually based on Tom Petty, getting lost backstage in Berlin and winding up on an indoor tennis court. It is true, however, that Ozzy Osbourne originally thought it was a true documentary about a real band.

"The Dreamer Deceiver" by Ivan Solotaroff is on sale now. Click here to purchase a copy or click here to read an extract.

Alex Belth is the editor of Esquire Classic, the magazine’s digital archive, as well as the editor of The Stacks Reader, a website dedicated to preserving great journalism from the Golden Age of magazines. He’s been a contributor to Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, and The Daily Beast, and created Bronx Banter, one of the original New York Yankees blogs, which the Village Voice called a “New York City treasure.” In a previous life, he worked in film post production for the likes of Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers.