Mr. Oksenhorn, Ms. Raitt is on the line … and other stories from the entertainment reporting trenches
This coming week, I have a phone interview scheduled with T. Lavitz, keyboardist for the jazz-fusion Grateful Dead tribute quartet Jazz Is Dead. Even after six years at this job, some interviews – with artists I know little about, with big-name figures – can still cause some anxiety.
But with Lavitz, I can rest easy. From experience, I can say this: Lavitz is a talker. In an interview I had with him last year, Lavitz shared, at length, his thoughts on Jazz Is Dead and the continuing interest in the music of the Dead; his early ’90s tryout for the Dead’s empty keyboard slot; his short-lived stint in the formative days of Widespread Panic; the Dixie Dregs, the fusion band in which he also claims membership; his childhood in the New Jersey shore town of Lakewood. It would be easy to chalk up the ease of the interview to the interests I share with Lavitz – the Dead, jazz, the great state of New Jersey. But after the interview, I spoke with the Jazz Is Dead publicist, who said something along the lines of, “Yeah, T. sure likes to talk.”
Alas, not all interviewees are so loquacious. Recently, I spoke with English blues legend John Mayall, in advance of an appearance with his band, the Bluesbreakers, at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. I had been warned by Erin, my opposite number at the other newspaper, that she had just interviewed Mayall, and getting him to speak was like pulling teeth. But surely, I thought, I could do a better job. So I put in extra time researching Mayall’s history: How he launched the careers of Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John MacVie, Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. I listened repeatedly to Mayall’s latest CD and brushed up on his recent doings so that the conversation wouldn’t be confined to ancient history.
Despite my preparations, Mayall was the ultimate stiff. After 10 minutes of such responses as “I don’t know,” “Well, I wouldn’t be the one to answer that,” and the like, I thanked Mayall for his time and hung up. For one of the very few times I can recollect, I chose not to write a story after having conducted an interview with someone with that intention in mind. What would there be to say? And the shame of it, in Mayall’s case, is that there is undoubtedly so much he has seen and heard and done that would make for great copy. But he’s not giving it up. Maybe he’s saving it for his memoirs. Mayall wasn’t nasty or acting like an ass; his performance showed no signs of a fading talent. He was just utterly indifferent to the fact that he was being interviewed. Which leaves the question: Why did Mayall agree to not just one, but two interviews, in which he had no apparent interest?
For his lack of effort, Mayall quickly made his way into the wrong wing of the informal Hall of Fame of interviewees I keep in the back of my mind. It might comfort Mayall to know that he is not in the elite company of past interviewees I would spit on if only given half a chance. That select group, for the moment, is confined to Brad Roberts, lead singer of the utterly forgettable, possibly well on their way to already being forgotten, group, the Crash Test Dummies, and jazz pianist George Shearing.
The interview with Roberts lasted – at my choosing – all of three minutes, after he took umbrage at my asking him about his baritone voice. The elderly Shearing seemed overwhelmed by the lead-off question, “What has been the biggest change you’ve witnessed over the course of your career?” He never answered the question, and handed the phone off to his publicist or whomever it was in the room with him. It was to my great satisfaction that Shearing was a complete dud in his subsequent Jazz Aspen June Festival performance, and if you’re reading this, know that I gave away both of my CDs of yours.
Also on my bad list, but not quite at the bottom rungs as Roberts and Shearing, are comedienne/actress Janeane Garofalo (uppity attitude), blues guitarist Duke Robillard (he sounded like he had a houseful of kids or something to deal with at interview time, which I can understand, but he should have said something like, “Can we talk some other time?”), and reggae singer Burning Spear (Spear was apparently burning something just before we spoke, which I can definitely sympathize with. But it’s best to stop before the point where communication becomes impossible, especially when you’ve got an interview coming up. I do. Usually.
Burning Spear, like Garofalo and Robillard, I would gladly give another chance. Sometimes you catch an interview subject in a bad mood, at a horrible time, in inconvenient circumstances, and judgment on their character should not be made by a remote interviewer based on one 15-minute exchange. Take my experience with Maceo Parker. I had seen him perform several times; he had already earned a place as one of my favorite musicians of all time. I couldn’t wait to talk to him.
Disaster. He was in a rush, or hadn’t gotten any sleep, or something, and he cut the conversation short after a few curt minutes. Surely this was not an accurate reflection of perhaps the funkiest man alive, one of the great and most generous entertainers of our time.
And it wasn’t. The next time I caught up with Parker, he was relaxing at his home in South Carolina, and had some rare time on his hands. We spoke at length about his days with James Brown, about his own rise to prominence in the ’90s, about his mind-boggling touring schedule. He couldn’t have been more open, enlightening or enjoyable, and it provided me with one of those encounters I may never forget. The icing on the cake came when Parker came to play the Double Diamond a few days later, and Double D booker Karen Smith dragged me backstage, saying that Parker’s road manager, Natascha Richardson, insisted on meeting me. Richardson had read my story, and opined that it was the best on Parker she had seen. Precious words to these ears.
Speaking with the relaxed and patient Parker was a thrill; Lavitz will no doubt turn out to be a fine interview again. Neither, however, takes the prize as my top interview subject. That award is reserved for native Irishman-turned-Los Angeleno Keith Roberts, leader of the Irish-scented rock band, The Young Dubliners. If the Irish had not already earned their gift for gab eons ago, Roberts would have won it for his country all by himself. After several rounds with Roberts, I found that questions were not necessary; all that was required was saying hello, letting Roberts speak his mind, and letting him know when he needed to stop. In addition to his abundance of words, Roberts is also charming, knowledgeable about a variety of topics, and completely unafraid to express an opinion.
Other loose cannons include Taj Mahal, Buddy Miles and the valley’s own Nitty Gritty Dirt Band hand Jimmy Ibbotson, who on more than one occasion has said something that made me ask, “Do you really want to see that in print?”
Southerners tend to be not as loose with their words as the Irish, but make up for it with solid manners and a direct way. Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring (Lavitz’s partner in Jazz Is Dead) and teen-age bandleader Derek Trucks, all sons of the South, are not only good interviews, but the kind of people you’d want to hang out with and get to know.
Bruce Hornsby, one-time part-time member of the Grateful Dead and as fine a musician as there is, gave me a particular thrill when I interviewed him this past summer. After a lengthy talk that needed to be ended for his next appointment, Hornsby thanked me for asking such intelligent questions, and added that it was a pleasure to speak with someone who knew so much about his music.
Comedians are a separate breed from musicians when it comes to interviews. Often times, it seems like they go out of their way not to be funny in an interview. Maybe they don’t want to give anything away for free. Garofalo, as mentioned, was a pain; Bill Maher of “Politically Incorrect” seemed to want to speak about as much as I care to see his show taped live in Aspen again – not at all. On the other hand, comedians tend to be among the most intelligent and eloquent of artists. George Carlin was the most impressive speaker I have every heard in conversation; the man speaks not just in complete sentences, but in whole, organized paragraphs. Robert Schimmel, a huge hit at the last U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, spent an hour on the phone with me, making me laugh and think.
In my time at this job, I have also come to the fairly solid conclusion that most real big-name talents make for good interview subjects. Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about, and people are going to be interested in most anything uttered by Ray Charles or Bonnie Raitt or Robert Duvall. But mostly, it seems like bigger-name artists, who agree to fewer interview requests, take the interviews they do schedule more seriously. Charles was surprisingly open in talking about race and racism; Duvall was equally candid in talking about his distaste for the way of doing things in Hollywood. Raitt was just as fun to talk to as it is to see her perform.
And then there are just the inevitable embarrassments and confusions that are bound to take place when dealing with conversations between strangers, in phone interviews set up by intermediaries.
When Widespread Panic was coming to town, their record company publicist let me know that a member of the band would call me at a date certain; she wasn’t sure which member it would be. At the appointed time, I got a call from someone identifying himself as “Sunny.”
“Sunny?” There’s no one in Widespread named Sunny. We made small talk for a minute or two – “So, how’s it been?” “Where are you?” – while I tore through the stack of Widespread Panic bio notes in front of me. Was “Sunny” a roadie who would be handing off the phone to an actual band member – not an uncommon practice? Was this a joke? Finally, I saw in the notes – percussionist Domingo Ortiz goes by the nickname of Sunny, sparing me the embarrassment of having to ask Sunny if he was, in fact, a member of the band.
When I interviewed Roy Gullane of the Scottish band the Tannahill Weavers recently, I had to ask him, again and again, to repeat himself. He simply wasn’t speaking the same kind of English I speak. And I got in trouble with the late Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan, for putting in print his musings on what the acronym H.O.R.D.E – the name of the tour arranged by Blues Traveler – might stand for besides Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere, its proper name. Some of the alternates Sheehan didn’t care to see in The Aspen Times were Having Our Rectums Detrimentally Expanded and Hippies On Recreational Drugs Everywhere. I hope Sheehan forgave me before passing on.
Now, when I finally do conduct that Lyle Lovett interview, I’ll be sure to let everyone know just how that went.
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