Monday, March 5, 2018

The Art of the Rock Star Interview

During my career as a music journalist, I interviewed a great many ultradeluxe rock and pop stars, losing my cherry to Procol Harum, who were boring and difficult, not that I was much help. I was so frightened as to be barely able to read my (frankly inane) questions. The organist, Matthew Fisher, seemed to take an instant disliking to me, as I, in turn, took to him. He said something derogatory about “Presley”. I thought he might be the only person in the world who didn’t identify the guy as Elvis. 

My most difficult interview ever was with a surly and monosyllabic Iggy Stooge, who hadn’t yet rebranded himself as Iggy Pop, at the infamous Tropicana Motel on the eastern edge of what even then was becoming Boys Town in West Hollywood. I complained to his manager Danny Fields, who apparently phoned him to read him the riot act. When I returned the following morning, our hero was a changed man, welcoming and voluble. 

Pete Townshend and Peter Noone were a journalist’s dream. One said howdy, turned on his tape recorder, sat back, and let them talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. The most common headline on the covers of rock magazines in the 1970s was something like “Part XVI of Our Exclusive Interview With Pete Townshend!” Most of what he said, you see, was indiscardably interesting. Noone, better known as Herman of Herman’s Hermits, was just as garrulous, if unnervingly short. 

David Bowie effectively interviewed himself. He was pretty clear about what he wanted Rolling Stone’s readers to know about him, and didn’t allow me to distract him. I interviewed Mick Jagger, dreadfully. He too interviewed himself — I was too starstruck to speak, especially after he claimed to be aware of my own group — but didn’t do so as well as Bowie had. Years later, the two would appear together in the worst music video in human history, “Dancing in the Street”.

I went through a punk phase, and was horrid to Queen’s drummer, Pat Benatar, and Mike Love. Queen’s drummer had just released a solo album, and I disapproved fervently of the idea of drummers releasing solo albums, so I was intent on annoying Roger Taylor, whom I interrogated in the new home he’d bought himself in Hollywood just up the hill from the notorious Continental Hyatt House, off of which Led Zeppelin were thought to hurl 14-year-old groupies to appease Satan, or something. I thought having bought a house just up the hill from the so-called Riot House betrayed a woeful lack of imagination, but a person’s real estate choices are his or her own, and I didn’t ask Roger about his. I asked instead why Queen’s choral singing sounded so much like that of a junior college men’s glee club. He didn’t know what a glee club was, and wasn’t amused when I told him. I asked if he were ever embarrassed to go on stage with Fred Mercury in a harlequin body stocking, for instance. 

As the interrogation continued, I could sense his sussing that my intention was to rile him, but he wouldn’t give me the satisfaction. He was of course English, and when the English aren’t bitching and moaning (whingeing, spelled that way, in their own parlance) petulantly, which they are a great deal of the time, they pride themselves on their ability to endure hardship or even provocation stoically. When it came time for me to photograph him, though, he seemed to decide he’d had quite enough. After allowing me to snap a single frame of him sticking his tongue out at me, he wondered pointedly if I might wish to vacate his home. 

La Benatar was surrounded, when I interviewed her, by two slobberingly unctuous PR types who called her Patti — they were best friends forever, the three of them! The video for “Love Is a Battlefield”, in which she foils a greasy little villain with a pencil moustache by dancing poorly, was in heavy rotation on MTV. I’d read that she was bright, and dared imagine she might have a sense of humour, so my first question was what she disliked most about being so short (around 4-11, if standing on one of the PR people). She sighed unhappily and said sometimes she was unable to reach things in the kitchen. So much for the sense of humour idea. The two PRs hated me, passionately, and about that, I felt nothing but terrific.

I interviewed some of the Beach Boys, but not Brian. Interviewing Carl was like interviewing a roll of grey wallpaper. I’d heard that Mike Love was a jerk, and a dedicated transcendental meditator. If I’d been obnoxious with Roger Taylor, I was twice as obnoxious with poor Mike, but he was a living advertisement for meditation. I couldn’t get him to wince perceptibly no matter how hard I tried, and as the interview progressed, I tried ever harder. I think his heart must have been beating around 40 times per minute. 

I’ve been on the receiving end many times. A kid called Danny Sugerman, who would later “co-write” the Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, read me a list of inane questions, often cutting me off in mid-answer. He then told everyone who would listen — as he would later tell everyone who would listen about his addiction to heroin — that I’d come on to him. I’m straight, and hadn’t, and was much annoyed, but not nearly as annoyed as when a greasy-haired bodybuilder who called himself Johnny Angel interviewed me for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, took no notes, made no recording, spent our whole conversation sneering at me disdainfully, and then went home and made up a collection of quotes intended to make me look foolish. 

I may have accused Queen of sounding like a junior college men’s glee club, but I never did what Mr. Angel done, and have never hurled a virgin from atop the Continental Hyatt House, though I lived right across the street for three years. 

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