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Island profile: David Browne, choosing a profession between jockey and judge

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO David Browne of New York and Shelter Island.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO
David Browne of New York and Shelter Island.

When David Browne panned Rod Stewart’s 1975 album, “Footloose and Fancy Free,” saving special derision for the first song, “Hot Legs,” he was a student at a New Jersey high school. It was his first record review.

“People noticed,” David said. “They were either angry at me or agreed with me. That was one of my first indications of the power of the written word.”

In the decades since, David used that power as a music critic for The Daily News, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, and author of four books about music and music culture, including in 2015 “So Many Roads,”  a history of The Grateful Dead.

David’s father was a night janitor in a factory and his mother was a bank teller. He grew up in New Jersey with two sisters, who were 10 and 13 years older. When he was in high school, his sister, L. Virginia Browne, a school principal, wrote a novel and embarked on a new career.

David remembers how excited he and his parents were when they spotted his sister’s novel in an airport bookstore.

David loved reading Rolling Stone, thinking it was different kind of magazine that took music and pop culture seriously. He wanted to do that kind of writing but had no idea if it was possible to make a living at it. With his sister’s success and the help of a high school career-planning test that listed possible professions (journalist was listed between jockey and judge), “I realized that it is an actual job,” he said.

Determined to become a professional writer, David went to NYU and majored in journalism. Working on an alternative weekly paper in the spring of 1982, he was standing outside the office when a friend introduced him to another member of the paper’s staff, Maggie Murphy. Campbell said, “Here’s Dave, he’s a really funny guy.” Maggie later admitted her first thought was, “That guy is funny?” They got engaged a year later and married in 1984.

Although David didn’t discover Shelter Island until 1990, portents of this place appeared as his career developed. His first job after college was at Testa Communications, a small magazine company that published several titles including Music & Sound Output, based in Carle Place, up-Island. Years later, David would discover that the publisher, Vincent Testa, is a long-time resident of Shelter Island. In 1987, David’s high school dream came true when his first piece in Rolling Stone was published, a review of an album by Loudon Wainright III, also a Shelter Island resident.

By the spring of 1988, David was a staff writer at The Daily News, going to concerts and interviewing — regardless of his own musical tastes — a broad sampling of stars from Phil Collins to Tony Orlando.

“Sometimes it helps to not be a huge fan of the person you are writing about,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about offending the person whose music you like.”

David moved to Entertainment Weekly and threw himself into his assignments. He decided to embed as a roadie with the 1996 Kiss Reunion Tour. Every night he had a different job, starting with wiping up copious amounts of fake blood (red dye, yogurt and eggs) after the concert.

He shadowed the security guys whose job was to survey the crowd and pick out hot girls for ticket swap; five or six tickets for seats up front, offered to attractive, unaccompanied women because the band liked to look at pretty girls in the front row.

His judgment was questioned. “There was one girl I pointed out and they said, ‘nah,’” he remembered.

In his last night with the tour, David worked the dry ice machine underneath the stage, blinded by thick smoke and pushing vats of frozen carbon dioxide into place. “I lost a fingernail,” he said. “I got home and Maggie said, ‘You look gray.’”

David’s story was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

In 1992, Rolling Stone assigned him to interview Leonard Cohen, the legendary writer, singer and songwriter who died last month. As David tells it, the interview was particularly memorable. It took place at Cohen’s home in Montreal at 9 a.m., an hour unheard of for rock stars. The first question came from Cohen to David, “Have you ever had a Canadian bagel?” David had not.

He was particularly impressed by the collection of reading material in the Leonard Cohen bathroom.

“Very esoteric, high minded literary reading,” he said. “Luckily, I had my pad with me to take notes after I washed up.”

At the time Cohen was 58 but seemed older. When David left, Cohen insisted he take his scarf because it was snowing.

David and Maggie discovered Shelter Island in 1990 when a friend invited them to take a share in a ramshackle summer cottage near North Ferry, that came to be known as the “Sleeping With the Enemy” house because the eight mostly-unrelated people renting the rooms were young professionals working for competing publications in the world of New York publishing.

“We loved it right away, coming over by ferry,” David said. Every weekend they arrived without a car, getting groceries and visiting the Recycling Center by bicycle and on foot.

Eventually David and Maggie bought their own house, and a few years later, daughter Maeve came along. Now 14, Maeve goes to school in New York where the family lives with a large, fluffy dog named Ellie when they are not at their Burro Hall Lane home.

The Island proved to be a productive place for David to write. In addition to his book about the Grateful Dead, he’s written books about James Taylor, Sonic Youth and is working on a biography of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be published in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the band and the anniversary of Woodstock.

In the 26 years David has been coming to the Island, he said the important things have not changed.

Even if there are a lot more houses, there are still kids selling lemonade in front of them.

“So much of the world is changing and Shelter Island isn’t,” David said. “Even though we like to think of ourselves as progressive people, we’re fine with Shelter Island staying the same.”

LIGHTNING ROUND

What do you always have with you?  A picture of my daughter Maeve from several years ago: in it she looks like a TV newscaster with a million dollar smile.

A favorite place on Shelter Island?  The stretch of Ram Island Road with that steep downhill to the Ram Island Drive and the causeway. It’s thrilling to go down that road on a bicycle.

Last time you were elated?  I took my daughter with me to vote.  She filled out the ballot for me, she was so excited that a woman was running for president.  We did it together. Even though the result didn’t go the way we planned, it felt really special.

Last time you were afraid?  The Wednesday after the election, I was hearing about some of the people who might be in the incoming cabinet and administration.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  We love the day of the fireworks, whatever day it is.

Favorite book or movie?  A Gay Talese collection, ‘Fame and Obscurity.’

Favorite food?  I like Greek food, anything on the menu at the Hellenic Snack Bar.

Most respected elected official?  Obama. He’s been a remarkable leader. No matter whether you agree with him or not he is a thoughtful and intelligent guy.

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