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Arts & Drafts

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer
Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad."There seems never to be an end to the brilliant things that people are capable of creating. That's a comforting, encouraging thought," says Aspen Times arts editor Stewart Oksenhorn.
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My mom knew I was going to be a writer. By the time I hit my teens, she had already picked out a pen name for me: Ross West. (Ross is my middle name; West is Stew spelled sideways.) But my writing career 10 years and counting this fall happened so suddenly I forgot to use the pen name. I had quite forgotten about the Ross West thing as I stumbled my way through college (three different fine institutions, including two separate stabs at Tulane) with just one freshman creative writing course and not a single journalism class. Focus was not my strong point during the college years (hard to say what my strong point was, apart from following the Grateful Dead around). So when I was informed by an observant counselor that I was close to fulfilling the requirements for a political science major, my future was decided: undergraduate degree in poli-sci, law school and a career as an attorney.Except, as my law school friends and I joked when we finally emerged (Villanova, class of 89), there was one thing they forgot to teach us in law school: how much the practice of law sucked. It took three years to figure it out on my own. Or more precisely, it took three days to figure it out, and three more years to finally get so sick of practicing law in my case, litigating commercial cases for greedy, sleazy clients that drastic measures had to be taken. After spending a week in Aspen, it took exactly one day of work to realize my law career was at an end. In fact, I showed up early the next day so I could give my notice as soon as possible.*****My first Aspen job was waiting tables at Explore Booksellers. It remains the only job I was fired from, but I like that irony now getting fired from waiting tables at a bookstore, opening up the way for me to become a writer. Before I could become a writer, though, I had to give my brain time to recover from the stench of the law. I found the ideal place at Carls Pharmacy, tucked away in the back, ringing up groceries. By night, I jammed with my band, the Limits, and further obliterated the memories of practicing law with bong hit after bong hit.I remember perfectly when the door to my writing career opened. Behind the register at Carls, I was ringing up Cameron Burns, who worked as a reporter next door at The Aspen Times. Cameron was muttering something about the new editor sending the reporters out at night to cover arts stuff, and how they needed someone to write about the arts. As Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall said, I seen my opportunities and I took em. (That may be the one piece of information I remember from college.) That very day, I marched into The Aspen Times, announced my presence to Editor in Chief Loren Jenkins and Editor in Something Andy Stone, and told them their troubles were over, I would be covering music for the paper. Andy asked if I could write, and, in a response that he still finds great humor in, I shot back: Of course I can write. Im a lawyer.*****When I was ringing up groceries and stocking shelves at Carls, people would often ask if I missed the intellectual stimulation of practicing law. Which to me meant that they knew nothing about the practice of law. It is not an intellectual pursuit, but a grind, a contest of who can be nastier, who can outspend whom, who can bluff and bully and threaten better than the other lawyer. From day one, covering the arts has been a pursuit with limitless opportunities and satisfactions, a challenge to my imagination, intellect and ambition. (It has also been a great challenge to my finances.) And it remains that way. I have never grown tired of the work of researching an artist or musician I knew nothing about, of conducting an interview, of crafting a story, of watching a movie and forming an opinion about it. There is almost always the element of surprise: I never know what will end up on my desk from one week to the next; I never know what an interview subject will reveal in conversation; I never know just how a story will come together on the screen. Coming to work is a pleasure every day. And I find the atmosphere of The Aspen Times, with the changing staff and the encroaching corporatization, as stimulating and enjoyable as the work I do.Of course, there is an abundance of fun to the job. I recall spending most of a day a few years back thinking up clever names for a midvalley strip joint. (El Jeboobs and Raunch on the Roaring Fork were two of the better ones.) Try doing that at a law firm, and figuring out which client to bill it to. Going to the movies, seeing concerts, reading books, surfing the Internet, even watching The Simpsons are part of my job description. I could make a strong argument that getting stoned has at times been in the service of good journalism.Actually sitting at the computer and writing an informative, insightful story, or a persuasive, insightful review is as enjoyable a part of the job as any. And I have had wonderful experiences talking with local artists who have never been interviewed before, young bands out on their first tour. Good stories, I have found, can come from anywhere. But I guess if Im putting my own story down, I have to get into the brushes with greatness, which have been many and memorable.Ive gotten to spend time with my heroes, sometimes in ideal settings. I hung out with Bob Weir, just the two of us, talking and watching Joan Osborne (who would, some years later, become his bandmate in the Dead). I interviewed John Irving while he lifted weights and did calisthenics in the Hotel Jerome workout room. I interviewed Warren Haynes sidestage at the H.O.R.D.E. festival in Denver. Haynes excused himself and said he had to do something; not a minute later, he was onstage, jamming with Blues Traveler on The Mountains Win Again a song about Aspen, and a favorite of mine. I interviewed all of the Headhunters Herbie Hancocks legendary funk-jazz band as they finished rehearsals for their first concert in two decades.Then there was my pursuit of Lyle Lovett. After years of infamous effort, I walked into work one day to find that Lyle had been calling. When we finally got down to a proper interview, my first question was what Lovett made of the glorious tradition of the Texas songwriter that he was a part of. Oh, said Lovett, this is a real interview. I told him that after tracking him down for five years, of course this was going to be a real interview.Ive interviewed George Carlin (easily my most well-spoken subject; he speaks in complete paragraphs); two members of The Simpsons cast (Dan Castellaneta and Harry Shearer; Jason Alexander, William H. Macy, Anjelica Huston, John Waters and Robert Duvall. On the popular-music side, Ive interviewed Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Matthews, David Crosby, Jimmy Cliff, Sheryl Crow, John Denver, Vince Gill and Ben Harper.*****But without question, the best part of this gig has been being able to immerse myself in the arts, in the world of ideas, sounds, stories and visual images. After six years of being inundated with legal concepts and arcane statutes and case law, this has been a blessing of epic proportions. Being able to make music, painting, film and books ones life work it is a privilege, and I treat is as such by taking the work and the opportunity seriously.I arrived at the job with an extensive knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Woody Allen movies, a decent sense of pop-music history, and not knowing a whit about jazz, bluegrass and classical music, visual arts, literature, dance and theater. Worse, I was a snob about it: I remember early on writing a story about how dull jazz was.But I also knew, somehow, that this opportunity came with responsibility. From the beginning, I realized that if I was going to be a decent commentator on the Aspen music scene, I would need to embrace classical music. It didnt take long for my ears to be opened to the joys of jazz (thanks to Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis), classical (Edgar Meyer and the Emerson String Quartet), and bluegrass (Sandy Munro, Bla Fleck). Ive had as much pleasure meeting my old heroes as finding new ones: Del McCoury and his boys, Gil Shaham, Ethan Canin, Mose Allison, Derek Trucks, Russell Chatham, Paul Thomas Anderson. There seems never to be an end to the brilliant things that people are capable of creating. Thats a comforting, encouraging thought.So I give deep thanks to all the artists whose work I have covered and enjoyed. The act of artistic creation does make a difference. Just look at me.


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