Almost Famous

A rock 'n' roll writer’s memories of a time when music could actually change your life

As a former rock and roll writer, I never fully subscribed to Frank Zappa’s definition of rock journalism as people who can’t write, writing about people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read. It’s clever and pithy, but also somewhat cruel and only partly accurate (see Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Keith Richards, John Lennon, and, for that matter, Mr. Zappa himself).

But even if Zappa’s description is true, it doesn’t change the fact that rock writing was a very interesting way to make a living. At least it used to be. Herewith, a few fond and not-so-fond journalistic memories of a time when, if you really listened to all the fine, fine music, it could actually change your life.

– Elton John, in New York to promote another album and tour, was plowing through a full day of interviews in his Carlyle Hotel suite. I was about the 10th reporter on the schedule, and knew the only way I was going to get anything good out of a worn and weary singer/songwriter was to go off the grid. The album in question contained a very lengthy and tedious instrumental number. “It sounds a little like Ferrante & Teicher,” I remarked to Elton, referring to a pair of middling pianists who had a moment of fame 20 years earlier. Elton didn’t react at all, but the next day, appearing on a local radio show, he let loose a stream of invective directed at this reporter, who, according to Elton, was a know-nothing clown with the temerity to question his genius. Thirty-six years later, here’s my response: Elton, you’re a truly brilliant musician and a great humanitarian, but that instrumental cut was strictly second-rate.

– Peter Tosh, the late reggae artist, who at the time was enjoying a career renaissance based on a musical association with the Rolling Stones, was rolling a gigantic spliff when I walked into the interview room. To him, the noble weed was a religious sacrament, but to me, it was a major impediment to doing my job. When I refused the big joint, Tosh went off, accusing me of blasphemy and ruining his vibe. I think, just to get some decent quotes, I took one toke, but even that was over the line.

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– When the Blues Brothers movie was in production, I got a phone call in my office from another late, great performer, John Belushi, who was filming on the West Coast. It was late in the afternoon, and Belushi sounded tired, lonely and a little pissed at me because I’d written a piece about the Blues Brothers album that tilted slightly to the negative. Once he had vented his spleen, he settled down and we chatted for a long time. He told me a bunch of funny show biz stories and shared his feelings about some of his Saturday Night Live colleagues and his BFF Dan Aykroyd. The discussion was so warm and friendly that I ended up inviting Belushi and his wife to dine with my wife and I in Queens, an invitation that he accepted. I knew, of course, that he would never actually show up at my front door, but I hung up the phone believing I had made a new friend. And, it was as a friend that I reacted when I got a call a few years later that he had died of a drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel. This time, it was personal.

– One of my greatest regrets as a rock fan was never having seen the Doors play live in concert. I don’t know how I let that happen. But I did get some redemption in an interview with one of my rock idols, the preternaturally gifted guitarist Robbie Krieger, who just happened to have penned a little tune called “Light My Fire.” Krieger was gracious and generous with his thoughts and insights about the most daring and influential rock band of the late '60s. I learned you don’t have be an asshole to be a rock star.

– When Ruben Blades burst upon the American music scene with a wonderful Latin crossover record in the early 1980s, I spent an afternoon and evening drinking with him at his favorite Upper West Side watering hole. He confided to me that when he first arrived in New York in a state of extreme poverty and desperation, he had gone into the mean streets to reclaim a discarded mattress and box spring. You do what you have to do to survive in this world, he said. Ruben was humble, compassionate and wise, and I can’t remember a more enjoyable interview. We talked about Latin American politics and human rights, and how he wanted to be much more than another crossover crooner. He never got to be the president of his native Panama — his dream job — but if he ever decides to run for mayor of New York, he’s got my vote.

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– One night in the '70s, some journalist colleagues and I set out on the town, starting at a party hosted by the finely toasted guitarist, Elvin Bishop. Next stop, as I recall, was a record company soiree heralding the latest new wave band. The night concluded at the legendary rock club, Max’s Kansas City, where a guitarist named Von Lmo was performing (if you can call it that). The next morning, I remembered absolutely everything about the whole evening — the music, the laughter, the dope and the booze, and being poured into a cab by my friends. The only thing I didn’t remember was falling down a flight of stairs at Max’s. How could I fall down a flight of stairs and not remember? It’s simple, really. I was having too much fun to be hurt, which may be as close as I will ever come to the essence of rock and roll.

Long may it live.

Tags: memoirs