Friday, 17 June 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 102 (Top Five): Notable AAA Interviews

Some musicians love giving interview so often we’ve heard about every single second of their life so far. Others don’t like giving them at all and have barely spoken more than a few grunts to interviewers with a microphone. In between, though, are those erudite artists with something genuine to say and an ability to say it well. This week we’re celebrating the top five revealing interviews, ones that really added to our knowledge of an artist’s inner thoughts and meant we never quite listened to their music in the same way again. Now, we’ve already covered several documentary programmes on our top five’s in the past (such as the Paul Simon Songbook, being repeated this week on BBC6) so see this instead as an additional list of did-they-really-just-say –that moments good and bad featuring five very different AAA legends:

5) Cat Stevens speaking to Mojo Music Magazine October 1995: This interview was unexpected to say the least – in 1995 Cat or Yusuf as he was now known had been away from the public eye for 17 years and his latest work of art, a series of Islam hymns, didn’t exactly put him back in the spotlight either. But some of his comments did. A decade before his comeback into music there he was telling us that according to the Qur’an spending your life listening to music was a waste of time when you could be putting your spiritual life in order and preparing for death. Yusuf seemed to forget that he himself had been doing exactly that, notably with his song ‘Miles From Nowhere’ from ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ and that art-forms are probably the best means of understanding your frailties and difficulties and coming to terms with spiritual blockage. The poor Mojo interviewer is unsurprisingly taken aback, asking Yusuf why he’s saying such things in a magazine dedicated to record collecting, alienating all his fans who might read the article at a stroke. Thankfully Cat’s changed his mind in the 16 years since that interview, returning to the guitar as a means of spreading a message of peace to the post-9/11 world and admitting that the Qur’an is ambiguous, to say the least, about whether true followers can be musicians too, but that doesn’t stop this short four-page interview being one of the stranger and more puzzling AAA interviews around.

4) “The Confessions Of A Coke Addict”: David Crosby talks to ‘People Magazine’ in April 1987 (re-printed in Dave Zimmer’s CSNy book ‘Four Way Street’): Many CSNY fans plump for the two alarming articles about Crosby in the months before his prison sentence for drug and weapon possession in 1985, one for Spin Magazine given the sensational title ‘The Death Of David Crosby’ and the other, ‘Long Time Gone’ for Rolling Stone magazine, given the subtitle ‘Rock’s favourite threat to society’. Neither is strictly true – Crosby, convinced that a direct conversation with a journalist would be the only way he could tell the ‘truth’ about his condition as he saw it, saw his plans backfire drastically as both pieces picture him as a drug-addled mess, un-capable of any future work and a sad shadow of his former self (the first memorably describes him as an ‘overweight pirate suffering from scurvy’). For me, though, the truly remarkable article is Crosby’s follow-up ‘The Confessions Of A Coke Addict’ where, just two years later and barely weeks out of prison Crosby is as eloquent, revealing, honest and downright brave as he ever was. “I thought I was going to die on drugs...and I’m surprised to be alive” he says at one point and unlike so many shallow out-of-rehab musicians you fully believe him. Crosby’s discussions of fellow rock stars, drugs (‘most people who go as far as I did with drug abuse are dead’) and the gradual loss of support among his closest friends speaks volumes, as does Crosby’s determination to turn his life around (which thankfully he did, thanks to CSNY and solo albums plus a revealing book also titled ‘Long Time Gone’). This article also includes one of the most-quoted Crosby philosophy pieces on the subject of hard drugs: ‘There are four ways you can go – you can go crazy, you can go to prison, you can die or you can kick. That’s it.’

3) Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey interviewed for the DVD “The Who: Tommy and Quadrophenia Live” (2003): I was put off getting this set for years as I’d heard so many bad things about it. There’s The Who playing their best known album ‘Tommy’, only instead of 1969 they’re playing it in 1989, with a whole band of extras making up for the loss of Keith Moon and some very 80s arrangements of some typically 60s songs. They also play ‘Quadrophenia’ four years later with Pete barely playing any electric guitar and Roger having a bad hair and a bad throat day. And I haven’t even mentioned the list of lame guest musicians, people like PJ Proby and Billy Idol who really should know better. But oh the extras! If you can bear it, play both the Who and Quadrophenia sets with the option for ‘The Who talking heads’ turned on. Roger is nicely witty, honest and touching, like Roger always is these days, a mixture of humility and confidence rare in rock circles. And Townshend? Well, when has Pete ever been more revealing than here? Tommy and Quadrophenia are both about childhood, his and others of his generation, with 60s flower children brought up on bombsites by parents too afraid to care, growing up with the certainty that they will never let there be such a gray and nasty world around them ever again. Both of these well loved, much discussed albums suddenly take on a whole new meaning, as anecdote after anecdote pass by and Pete seems to grow younger by the second, as his unfulfilled dreams and ideas suddenly blossom forth once again. Since hearing this DVD (you really don’t need to see it!) ‘Tommy’ has gone from being a lauded but actually quite ambiguous and strange rock opera that doesn’t quite come off to sounding like one of the best albums ever made. And ‘Quadrophenia’, already one of the best albums ever made, suddenly sounds like the most perfect concept album there ever was. Just what an interview should do in fact, changing our ideas about something we thought we knew back to front.

2) Janis Joplin interviewed by Dick Cavett: four interviews recorded for the Dick Cavett show in 1970 (although alas only three of them exist) available on the 3 DVD set ‘The Dick Cavett Show: Music Icons (along with other programmes featuring AAA stars Crosby and Stills, Jefferson Airplane, Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and George Harrison – the first of these nearly gets the show taken off air after insulting sponsors Shell and the third ditto for broadcasting the ‘f’ word during one of their songs – in 1969!): There are two factors that make the American Dick Cavett show a must-see for connoisseurs of 1960s music. The first is that you get to see guest combinations that are unthinkable on any other series – Janis alone ends up talking to Raquel Welch, Gloria Swanson and Margaret Kidder (Lois Lane) on her three shows. The second is that Cavett is a rare interviewer, one who openly admits he has little knowledge of his stars and his music and is both brazen enough to laugh at himself and his guests and give them the respect and openness to talk as equals (Janis legendarily loved the Cavett shows because she was treated as a ‘lady’ rather than a ‘freak’, although several of the questions point towards the latter). Of all the artists who appeared on his show between 1969 and 1974 , though, cavett is most linked with Janis, who loved appearing on his show (to the host’s amazement as he admits in an interview) and performs no less than six songs for his audience, four of them then-unreleased (they only came out posthumously on ‘Pearl’, see above). There are many interesting points Janis makes during the three existing shows she appeared on – just a handful are her awkward revelation to Raquel Welch that she didn’t understand her latest film and that she found it ‘choppy’ even if the star herself ‘looked great’ (would any other guest have made such an honest observation without starting a row?), calling Gloria Swanson a ‘silver tongued devil’ and joking with her about ‘giving head’, admitting she’d been asked to play a role but wouldn’t be a virgin because ‘my acting’s not that good!’ (to the shock of the audience and, most movingly, talking in her last show about going back to a high school reunion, an event that took place just weeks before her death and upset her greatly (some biographers think her schoolmates’ disdain for her life and career added to her death after Janis had waited 10 years for ‘revenge’ and grew depressed that they hated her as much as ever, despite her talent and fame). This long lists sounds like Janis is trying to be controversial, though it’s actually her fellow guests who get her into trouble, repeating something she said at a past meeting or in the ‘green room’; Janis herself is fragile but brave, insecure but confident, fearless but afraid. Janis’ image as such these days is that she was always going to die young and she was always the ballsy, uncaring desperado – but these three shows give us the chance to learn so much more. And who can help but sympathise with Cavett’s refusal to believe the news about her death just two months on from this last show because he had ‘never known anyone more alive!’ A fascinating set of documents with guest and interviewer at their best. And why people still watched the awfully staged Johnny Carson show over this one I’ll never know...

1) John Lennon talks to Rolling Stone Magazine in 1970 (published in book form as ‘Lennon Remembers’ in 1981): Jann Wenner knew it was a coup to get some words with John just weeks after the Beatles break-up had finally been announced. What he didn’t account for was that Lennon would be quite so controversial or so intense, with the small artcle planned turning into three lengthy pieces before coming out as a book after the great man’s death. Not that this interview reveals Lennon as such a great man – he talks about his frailties and insecurities (the interview took place during Lennon’s ‘primal scream therapy’ phase – see Review no 43 for more), his childhood (the place where all but the most fanatical followers heard about Aunt Mimi, Uncle George and mother Julia for the first time in-depth) and his fading relationships with the other Beatles (Paul, predictably, gets a bad time of it but so too does George Martin who Lennon sees as staking claim to their own talents). Never has a leading figure ‘dropped his trousers’ (to use Lennon’s phrase) more during the course of a single (lengthy) interview, with no subject off limits whether personal, political or social. We’d been used to flippant comments and some pretty subversive stuff from the Beatles during the 1960s but this was new ground altogether and The Beatles’ story was never quite the same agin following itg’s publication. Of course, typically Lennon, he wrote much of the interview off as him being in a ‘bad mood’ when asked about it years later and much of it we know he knew to be false even then (such as writing ‘70%’ of McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’, for which he contributed a single line). But somehow for all the mistakes and the ragged petty jealousies Lennon comes out of it much stronger and believable, a fragile legend who put his career on the line for the sake of truth and honesty – and largely for good reason.

Well, that’s it for another week. Join us next issue when we’ll be bringing you yet more news, views and music. Till then, happy listening!      

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