Neil Strauss is a happy man. “I was doing a series of behaviour-changing experiments,” he says. “One was to go for thirty days with no gratification. I failed 16 days into that one. I’m not gonna say how, but I couldn’t sit down by the end of it.”
Strauss, author of best-selling men’s dating advice book The Game, has sold out the signing session for his new book, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead. The seats are all taken. People stand at the back of the room, crammed in by the doorway. I got in early near the front, sat with my notebook in hand.
I jot as many notes down as I can at book signings for two reasons: 1) I want as much info as possible to choose from when writing up the event later- which in this case will be a few weeks, due to being busy, and 2) due to short-term memory difficulties. With in a few hours, I would have forgotten all but a few lines of what Strauss says tonight, had I not made notes. It's due to these memory difficulties, I believe, that I've had so many setbacks in my personal life. I've dealt with the issue from birth. Seven psychologists and a plethora of support workers later, I'm still facing challenges in work, friendship circles, relationships and finding my Goddamn car after I've taken it out. Those setbacks- and my plans to overcome them- are what motivates me to learn what I can from Strauss.
With the story of The Game, Strauss has fixed his life by “sarging”- picking up girls- and has allegedly bedded hundreds of women. The slim, shaven-headed regular-looking guy from New York has told people- through his now world-famous book- how he went from and Average Frustrated Chump (AFC) to being rated the world's no.1 Pick-Up Artist (PUA). It’s a popular subject, to say the least- especially with young men in their twenties, who make up 95% of the Waterstones audience. And, presumably for validation of his skills, there’s a random stunning blonde girl leaning on the table behind him. He's come a long way from his less successful days, when- according to Strauss himself- he was so broke he would eat popcorn that had been left in the cinema.
“This month I’m doing thirty days of verbally agreeing with everyone,” Strauss tells us. “It’s amazing how your mentality and outlook improves if you don’t argue with anyone at all. So if I disagree with you on anything, I owe you one pound.”
Strauss is not only a success with the ladies. Before selling millions of books his career started picking up momentum at Rolling Stone magazine, writing celebrity news. His first published story covered Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
A few months later he was snorting Cobain’s ashes with the Nirvana singer’s widow, Courtney Love.
Not long after that, Strauss moved in with her.
Strauss’ writing successes went hand-in-hand with his sarging successes and his celebrity encounters. He tells of getting arrested with rock group The Motley Crue, when the police dragged off singer Vince Neil while still he was still blow-drying his hair. He discusses Paul McCartney’s paranoia around reviews of the former Beatle's music. He describes being shunned by Mariah Carey: she’d read his books, but he hadn’t returned the favour by listening to her album so she pulled out of the planned interview. These incidents, and more, (including being battered by a group of men for no reason, and being held up at gunpoint from his New York bedroom window) are all detailed in his new book.
Every good writer uses their ears. They listen constantly for inspiration, soaking up their environment for future reference. Strauss also notices the things that he doesn't hear people saying, which in itself is quite revealing. Here are a few samples of what he hasn't heard people saying in Manchester:
‘Take the cab, you were here first!’
‘Thank God, the police are here!’
‘Wow. It hasn’t rained all week!’
‘Here’s some cocaine from last week.’
I've lived in Greater Manchester all my life, and I'm 28. I've never heard anyone utter these lines either. From the chuckles in the room, nobody has. He asks the native Mancunian audience if there are any more we could add to this list. Suggestions include:
“The M60’s quiet at six o’clock.” (This is the motorway section encircling the city. Usually snarled at peak times.)
“Dogging? What does that mean?”
People read dating advice because they want to be happier. As someone who made his name selling this advice, he's nailed down the principle of being happy.
“I think the secret to happiness is balance”, Strauss emphasises. “When you look at old celebrities on the whole, you’ll notice all the workers who grafted all their lives- they ended up miserable, and all the partiers ended up dead.” The people who fall between that, he says, survive as happy individuals.
And for a successful career in the limelight? Strauss cites faith. Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, he says, thought God wanted them to achieve fame. They succeeded, where doubters fell back into obscurity.
I think Americans are much more likely to talk openly about their religion- particularly if they’re Christians- whereas in Britain people generally either don’t believe, don’t know or don’t want to be thought of as the same kind of people as the loud-mouthed-geek street-preachers you get on the high street. But Strauss doesn’t take that route in his suggestion.
“It’s not religion,” says Strauss. “Faith is more than that. It’s an inner strength to know what you are doing is right. It’s about esteem. It comes from within. It’s not about culture.”
7-time Mr Olympia champion Arnold Schwarzenegger once told Strauss that he could tell who would make it to the bodybuilding finals. The men that exert themselves in the gym to the stage where they pass out or vomit- they are ones who go on to become the strongest men in the world. That, Strauss believes, is real faith.
During the Q+A, Strauss reveals the meaning behind the new book’s title. The reason everyone loves you when you’re dead is you’re no longer competiton. Makes perfect sense. He also mentions meeting one of the editors of classic war movie Apocalypse Now. The editor had suggested that whatever you wanted to do when you were ten years old, that’s what you should be doing now. (I agree.) Strauss, of course, says it’s also a good pickup line.
An audience member asks, “You’ve become quite a role model for men. Who’s your role model?”
“I don’t agree with role models,” Strauss replies. Then, remembering his challenge, he adds “but I agree with the question being asked. I’ve always thought that if you put a person on a pedestal, they’re going to let you down.”
A career formed around experiences with high-profile celebs has taught Strauss things that the average man doesn’t normally get to learn.
“Let go of the past,” Strauss says. “I’ve interviewed A LOT of celebrities, and they are all hung up. You have to let go and move on. It’s amazing who hasn’t.” He references Chuck Berry, who- forty years ago- was arrested for taking a minor across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Strauss claims this still haunts Berry.
“Fame and wealth,” says Strauss, “won’t make you better. Fame emphasises the flaws in your personality.”
He references Eric Clapton, who once said that after Curt Cobain died, he empathised with the Nirvana singer. “When Clapton was on stage, and all these thousands of people were cheering at him, he thought that if those people really knew him, they would absolutely hate him.”
Strauss offers us all this rhetorically useful advice: fix your problems and your life before you get famous.
Being the pretentious bastard that I am, I’m glad he told me. Short term memory difficulties. Chaotic yet barren love life. Tendency to say too much / too little at crucial moments. Self doubt. Questionable culinary skills. Complete inability to gauge how I’m coming across to people… The tabloids would eat me alive. Popbitch would have a field day.
But I’m working on it. I make a mental note to read The Game as fast as possible.
Ironically the next question comes from a young man with extra challenges. He asks what advice Strauss would give to someone with Aspergers Syndrome, who wants to improve his game with women.
“I would say that whatever it is you can't fix,” Strauss advises, “you make it a feature in your game. It's something that will make you different.”
As someone with memory difficulties, I admire the young man for asking this. I was thinking of raising the disability issue myself, but I think I chickened out. Strauss' answer gives me a sense of optimism. A plethora of psychologists, a social worker and numerous other memory-support related professionals have all tapped into me giving me advice here and there on how to handle memory difficulties. None of them had made that suggestion before, and Strauss' answer starts to feel- for me at least- like a missing piece in a puzzle. Am I ready, I ask myself, to sarge properly now?
“Your new book title...” a man asks, “does it apply to Bin Laden?”
“I knew someone would ask me that eventually,” Strauss says. “You know, it's funny. Geronimo, the Apache warlord, was actually a terrorist. Maybe in a few years from now,” he muses, “the military will be shouting, 'Bin Laden!' When they jump from planes.
“That isn't the real meaning, though. The reason everyone loves you when you’re dead is: you’re no longer competiton.”
During the signing Strauss comes across as a really chilled out, friendly guy. I told him I gave him my blog card and told him of the lit events I've written up. He seemed genuinely interested and asked me if I'd slated anybody. (http://powerisastateofmind.blogspot.com/2010/12/octobers-letter-to-lyrical-legend.html). “To all the writers you trashed,” he says, “may this be the exception!” and hands me the book. Inside, it says...
Indeed, Mr. Strauss. Indeed.