Famed journalist is ready to learn

After writing for magazines and newspapers, Neal Karlen decided it's time to get a master's degree.

Hilary Dickinson

He drove around Minneapolis with Prince and got the notoriously mum singer to talk for a Rolling Stone magazine article. He watched Beavis and Butt-Head with Kurt Cobain while waiting to interview Courtney Love for The New York Times.

Now, journalist Neal Karlen is at the University after he left New York to return to his native Minnesota.

After teaching magazine writing and nonfiction writing here for seven years, Karlen, 48, now is a student himself, working on his master’s thesis in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writing books – the last of which, “The Story of Yiddish,” was published last month.

“I was at Rolling Stone and living the life in New York and people said ‘You’re slitting your throat by moving back here,’ ” Karlen recalled. “But there’s so many great stories here that no one knows.”

Those stories span the topics of the Minneapolis-based grunge rockers, Babes in Toyland; Bill Murray’s minor-league baseball team, The St. Paul Saints; and a rabbi who refused to shave his beard.

“Book editors are fascinated by this fly-over land because they think life starts in New York and ends in L.A.,” he said.

Karlen knows something about Minnesota. He grew up here and worked at the McDonald’s in Uptown; the uniform still hangs in his closet.

“I’m a nice Jewish boy from St. Louis Park – I should have been a doctor or lawyer,” he said. “But I’ve got ants in the pants.”

Those ants led him to the East Coast where he studied Yiddish at Brown University, attended New York’s Inlingua Institute and got his first job at Newsweek magazine when he was 21.

He went on to work for Rolling Stone and write for other publications like The New York Times while getting himself into what he called “weird, wacky situations” and immersing himself in his stories.

While following the Saints baseball team around for a couple years, Karlen not only observed but participated, his friend Dick Mammen said.

“He carried around Darryl Strawberry’s cigarettes since there’s no pockets in baseball uniforms,” he said. “But because of that, he had access no one else had.”

And the article turned into a book, because Karlen refused to write a “hatchet job” making fun of Murray as he was assigned.

“Do I do what my editor wants or do what’s right?” Karlen recalled thinking. “And I don’t mean to sound like Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ” he added.

“He wouldn’t write it because it wasn’t true,” Mammen said. “He’s not a mercenary, but he’s a journalist, and he’ll write what’s true.”

Through his job experiences, Karlen became more careful with words and respectful of people’s lives because news articles can affect people – something he also learned with an article he wrote about Eleanor Mondale called “Wild Child.”

“She lost her job because of the article I wrote, so it’s ironic the one person I became friends with was the one person I did the most damage to,” Karlen said.

After getting mugged and kicked in the head in New York, Karlen returned to Minnesota for medical tests and rediscovered his love for the state.

“My life is very quiet here. I can be a random goofball,” Karlen said. “I always say if you want to be famous, go be a weatherman in Cincinnati.”

He moved to Uptown and became a regular at Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream Cafe. He calls it his office because he wrote five of his seven books there.

One day, the manager told him the staff was naming a coffee drink after him, called “Karlen’s Karma,” based on his personality – including espresso because he describes himself as “really wired.”

“I said, ‘This is the greatest thing to ever happen to me,’ and they were like ‘No you’re the biggest freak that’s ever come in here,’ ” Karlen recalled.

His rapid-fire delivery and amicable jitteriness is well-known among his friends and colleagues.

“He’s maniacal, humorous and serious all at the same time,” said his friend Jim Nelson. “It’s a dizzying experience being around him.”

Karlen himself joked, “If I got Ritalin in kindergarten, I’d be an astronaut or doctor right now.”

All kidding aside, Karlen’s goal is to finish his master’s and become a professor.

Former student Tom Horgen called Karlen’s class one of the most memorable he had at the University because of Karlen’s passion for writing and “wild personality.”

“He was a lot older than us, but he had a lot more energy than us,” Horgen said.

Yet Karlen said he sometimes worries that he made a mistake leaving Newsweek, and that he’s done everything backwards.

“If I have any success, it’s just that I did everything wrong,” he said. “I should have gone to grad school at 28. Instead, I was working at Newsweek at 22, and I should be working at Newsweek now.”

Karlen said he was recently “whining” to his adviser, SJMC director Albert Tims, that he should have done his master’s 25 years ago. But when Tims asked if Karlen would change anything, he realized he wouldn’t.

“If you just hang around and not make a nuisance of yourself, Kurt Cobain will open the door,” Karlen said. “So it’s just amazing who will open the door when you’re expecting someone else.”