You have no idea how many things must go right to produce a great profile—in this case, Texas Monthly‘s August 2021 cover story on Fort Worth–born R&B singer Leon Bridges.
First, the writer has to stay alive. I almost screwed that up.
I’d arrived in Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon, boyfriend at my side, and had immediately taken advantage of the gift of legal drugs. Drug-laced chewy treats, to be exact. I knew my history. But I’d been cooped up all pandemic, you know, so my boy and I drove right to Abbot Kinney, right to MedMen, walked right to the chewy treats, started chomping them en route to dinner—and before I took my first bite of some awful vegan nacho dish, I knew I’d gone too far.
Some years back, in a San Francisco burrito shop, a nurse had rushed over to assure me and my friends, “No one’s ever died from a THC overdose.” I sure felt like dying in Los Angeles. Thought I’d surely die when I realized I couldn’t drive and remembered my boyfriend had just kinda learned to drive himself. So we sat in a CVS parking lot for what seemed like the rest of my life, until he eventually said, “I’ll try,” and sure enough, he somehow succeeded, his first (or nearly) time on the highway, from Culver City all the way to a terrifyingly narrow Hollywood Hill. He helped me up three flights of crumbling Spanish steps and plopped me down in a hard chair at a small dining table, where I continued to regret the things I’d done, head hanging in my hands. I moaned, I think, and looked up from my pitiful hands, and I kid you not: staring back at me from a little shelf was a portrait of Leon Bridges.
This was the first sign of the second thing you desperately need to produce a great profile: a star who will cooperate.
If you’re Gay Talese, you can write “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” without ever talking to Frank Sinatra. Gay also wrote a whole book about a peeping tom, so he seems to have a hell of a lot more interest in surveillance than I do. More importantly, Gay was able to expense $5,000 worth of Beverly Hills loitering, and was paid, I’m almost sure, about four dollars per word, Sinatra chat or not. No writer in America can do that these days. I’ll come back to this.
No star is able to do what Frank did, either—just refuse to show up. It’s much worse, actually. The stars show up and offer so little time, such remarkably empty statements about their lives and work, that it would probably be better for all involved, especially you readers, if the stars refused to show up and the writers refused to show up and everybody just took a nap.
Leon Bridges showed up, and that made all the difference. There were times I wanted to wave my little recorder in his face and scream: “THIS IS ON THE RECORD, BRO.” But to tell the truth, I’m an awful journalist. I don’t have a “gotcha” bone in my body, except with my lovers. Texas Monthly’s John Spong—without whom this story never would have happened—suggested that being a good profile writer is like being a good shrink. In my case, I think it’s closer to being a good gossip. A good gossip knows how to get folks to tell you stuff they probably shouldn’t, knows how to poke at the thing that was left unsaid. Most of all, a good gossip knows how to keep their mouth shut.
The only way to get great stuff on the record is to leave some great stuff off the record. Part of what you’re feeling in this profile is the magical energy that is unleashed when someone is finally free to speak—and also free to stay quiet. Whenever Leon would suddenly go quiet, which happened quite a bit, I thought about a story I’d heard about Miles Davis visiting James Baldwin in the south of France, when they were older. I’d heard that they would often just sit on Baldwin’s porch and not say anything, or not much. They both knew what the other had experienced; both had talked enough. I figured Leon and I could try our hand at silence and see what came of that.
I also had a bigger agenda than prying salacious details from Leon. For years I’ve complained about the lack of care and critical attention we offer Black artists in this country. We get lazy think pieces on their trauma, convoluted press speak about their work, documentaries about their sad and lonely ends. Part of what drove me in this piece was wondering: What if we told the stories of Black artists—of their richly strange and genius creative practices—while they were still alive, in all of their complexity? That was a challenge that felt worthy and meaty and urgent to me.
To do that right, you’ve got to know something. There’s got to be some intellectual rigor behind the delicious language. Take, for example, the narrative that Leon hadn’t been accepted by the Black community. I knew that narrative was false, in part because I have a lot of friends who are smarter than me, like Dr. Matthew D. Morrison at NYU, who taught me damn near everything I know about music. He introduced me to Farah Jasmine Griffith’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery, which is the best, most complex study of Billie Holiday ever. That book taught me so much about the care and craft that it takes to really try to understand and write about artists—even (especially) those we think we know so much about.
I also knew this narrative was false because I’m Black and I come from a Black neighborhood, and therefore I know that to say “the Black community” is to say practically nothing. My mother is one of four sisters, and they hardly agree on anything. So what are we even talking about? A few Black people trashing Leon does not at all say the Black community rejected him. That’s why you need the space this story took up—it was important to complicate the narrative. Sometimes I got lazy myself, as when I seized on this idea that Leon is Leon, in large part, because he’s from Fort Worth, where the West begins. Leon’s friend and former producer, Josh Block, chuckled when I ran this theory by him one morning. “If it’s where the West begins,” he counseled me, “then it’s also where the East begins.”
Josh is an example of the third ingredient that made this profile special: Leon’s friends. It’s not enough for the star to talk. The star’s people have to talk. Those great LBJ books only happen if LBJ’s aides give Bob Caro the goods. One kind of secondary is Terrace Martin, whom I think we’ll look back on in fifty years the way folks look back on Quincy Jones today. Terrace is totally free, truly doesn’t give a damn. He’s rare. Most other people are loyal to the star, and won’t tell you anything unless it’s clear he wants them to. Leon’s people are abnormally loyal. They were shocked that Leon told me about his struggles with mental health. Everybody around him knew how important these struggles had been, knew they were key to the story, but nobody would say anything about it. They took it as a signal that Leon must trust me (enough) if he told me certain things, so then they told me things that wound up being vital to the story.
Take Brandon Marcel’s line: “You [meaning Leon] have the opportunity to make your flaw beautiful, so that the next person, the next generation, can look at you and say, ‘I look up to you.’ Because you didn’t change yourself.” I needed that in order to not feel so creepy for sharing Leon’s private business. I could imagine Leon needed it too, for his own reasons, perhaps so that he’d know he had not come back from hell with empty hands, as they say.
He came back with a gift for us all, one that boils down to a simple human message: You’re not alone. We all have these dark moments in our lives, and it’s so important that we know and have proof from somebody else that, hey, you won’t always feel this sad, this lost, this insecure. No matter how dark it feels now, you can have joy again. That was all very important to me as a person and as a writer. That’s the gift Leon gave us by dropping the PR bullshit and being raw.
If the basic theory of this piece was: a man reached a dark night of the soul but somehow survived it, then The Question became: How? The clearest answer was: His friends. I got the idea to do the scene with Leon’s boys from watching an old Viceland episode with Kendrick Lamar and his friends in Compton. That was a totally different Kendrick than we normally get. It struck me that Leon might be the same way. Still, I never thought that day would be so gold. As you write a story, you know certain things have to be there or else the whole thing falls. And as soon as I talked to Leon’s friends, as soon as I listened to their jam session, as soon as I saw Leon pirouetting down his street, those pieces were locked in.
At first I thought those scenes might be the ending, but that was me being lazy again. Part of my job is to ask myself, How do I want the reader to feel when they finish this piece? I couldn’t end with the dancing because I felt the reader would end in a little giddy moment. It’d be like watching a soap opera or going to McDonald’s; it’s a little too easy. But I felt that if the reader got to that dinner-scene ending, with little Todd talking to Leon—saying to Leon, “I love what you’ve done with the place”—then the reader would think about their own life, about their own younger self. I could feel the sense that the last line makes you wanna gasp. That, to me, is the standard. If you’re gonna ask somebody to stick with you for 10,000 words, you want to take their breath away. And my deal with the reader is: Okay, you get this guy’s whole story. The price of the ticket is that you’ve got to give your breath; you’ve got to look, finally, back at yourself.
I also think often about that Mike Tyson line: “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” Writing is like that. What you need to produce a great profile—any great literary work—is a lot of other great people who never get any credit. One example is my research assistant, Sean Fulsom, who endured my maniacal requests and discovered material like the videos of Leon’s Tarrant County College jam sessions and dance performances.
My biggest shout-out goes to J. K. Nickell, who changed my life and who happens to be one of the absolute best editors in America. Days past my deadline, I desperately sent him a “draft” that was six thousand words over my word limit. He wrote back a few days later with an email pep talk that made me wanna cry, and a road map to whip my putty into shape. He also, like some great lioness, protected me from everything that would have undermined my work, including myself.
Up the masthead, Jeff Salamon proved himself to be that rare brilliant editor who makes you want to commit violence or, at least, never speak to him again—until you read his notes a fifth time and realize he’s right. I’m so thankful to the brilliant Shayan Asgharnia, and Claire Hogan, and all the art directors and copy editors and website folks who hauled ass to get this story out earlier than expected. Perhaps the most important person to thank is Paul Knight, who fact-checked this story. Paul kept us all from being embarrassed or sued, and was unfailingly committed to helping Leon and his team feel comfortable about everything in this story. Not just comfortable, but proud.
Dan Goodgame, as so few American editors do these days, held space for all these big personalities and crazy ambitions to coexist. Per my Gay Talese story, please know that writers and editors are being treated awfully mean these days by the magazine and book business. I’m pretty sure Texas Monthly is the only place that could pull this off—or, at least, the only place willing to try. I should add that none of this came at the expense of human kindness and respect, two things that are in short supply in so many corners of the creative industries. As I tweeted when the profile ran: Texas Monthly made room for 10,000 words by a Black boy from Oak Cliff about a Black boy from Southside Fort Worth, and let us be 100 percent ourselves, and paid well. You could call that literary reparations.
When I was trying to decide whether to take on this assignment, my friend and writing big brother, Anand Giridharadas, told me: “Go for it all the way.” I feel like we did that. It means a lot to me that we all came together and created something that gives other writers and other artists a sense that what we do matters. I lean on so many writers from the past, those great Texan magazine writers like Grover Lewis and Larry L. King who taught me what the profile could be, and I think it’s our responsibility as writers, and a great privilege, to add something to the well of writing that helps someone coming after us see what they can do in their own work. We can have great ambition—not in terms of our egos and our reputations and all that, but artistic ambition. We can show up and really swing for it. We can create things that have enduring value. To publish things of value in magazines, or anywhere, is damn hard work. But what a great gig, to be able to do this as a career. My grandmother cleaned houses for sixty dollars a day to feed us, so to make a living doing this is just one of the most remarkable gifts. Thank you for reading, for making it all possible.