Long Island Tennis Magazine’s Literary Corner: "You Cannot be Serious" by John McEnroe With James Kaplan

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It's a good thing the editors at Long Island Tennis Magazine asked me to review John McEnroe's book, You Cannot be Serious, because I discovered a big, fat lie on page 260. Describing a February 1991 match against his brother, Patrick, John McEnroe says he was serving at match point when a phone rang. The older McEnroe brother looked at his father who was sitting at courtside and said, "Dad, mom's on the phone."

John writes "That was when, for one of the few times in my life, I actually said something funny."

But John McEnroe says funny things all the time. He says them when he's commenting on matches on TV. And one of the things that makes You Cannot be Serious one of the best sports autobiographies ever, is that he says a lot of them in the book.

As New York area tennis fans, we all know a lot about the McEnroes, especially if we can remember wood racquets.

For better or worse, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were nearly bigger than the game when they played. A lot of people, including John in this book, say that his career would have been better if the tennis world had held him to stricter standards while he was playing. But that's water over the dam now.

Among the things you have to admire about John McEnroe is his willingness to try new things, to explore worlds where his tennis skills don't matter. He opened an art gallery, he had TV show and he's always been a music-oriented guy as a fan and as a player. Not only is he honest, and yes, frequently funny about his tennis career in the book, but he has a number of great stories about his missteps hanging out with and playing with musicians.
If there has ever been a meeting of two, volatile Irish artistic geniuses to top one story McEnroe relates, I don't know what it could be. Okay, maybe it was when the young writer James Joyce told the older writer William Butler Yeats, "You're too old. I can't help you."

Anyway, McEnroe tells the story of going backstage after a Bob Dylan concert in London in 1994.

"I go into a room that had five people in it: Dylan, the musician Chrissie Hynde, ex-Beatle George Harrison and his son Dhani, and one guy I didn't recognize. I went up to the guy and said, "I'm John McEnroe, who are you?" He said, "I'm Bozo the freaking clown."

McEnroe found himself out-McEnroe'd by a guy even more prone to pissing off his audiences than he was.

Tennis' bad boy had met another performer for whom smashing glassware at a Davis Cup tie in Sweden would have been just a warm-up.

The fifth person was the incomparable musician, the Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison.

One way to read this book is absorb the tennis stuff along the way, but to key in on the arts stuff because it shows that John McEnroe has talents way beyond the court.

For example, I didn't know that McEnroe's wife, singer Patty Smyth, had been married to one of the godfathers of NY's CBGB punk rock scene in the 1970s, the guy who taught English punk bands to tear their shirts, Richard Hell. What other sports star cannot recognize Van Morrison and be married to someone who probably hung out with Blondie, Television and the other Patti Smith?

And because I know John McEnroe has a sense of humor, I have to mention that the book's cover photo, a reenactment of the famous James Dean photo in Times Square, is marred by the goofy coat they put him in.
But the book isn't perfect because McEnroe mentions meeting Lars Ulrich from Metallica without mentioning that Lars' dad, Torben, was the original tennis pro/jazz musician/hippie who played on the tour in the 50s and 60s.
You Cannot be Serious is a masterpiece that all tennis fans, especially if they're also into music, should read.