Hats off to Michael Hann of The Guardian for uploading his painful Q&A with Ginger Baker at the screening of Beware Of Mr Baker. I’m not sure if I would have been so brave. That said, Michael doesn’t come off badly. Baker’s deliberate obtuseness faced with the simplest of questions is a tactic deployed by countless musicians – musicians too cocooned in their own vainglory to realise that, for their interlocutors, this might be no less a job than it is for them. At one point, Michael Hann refers to the “drum battle” with him and Art Blakey, only to have Baker take exception to the notion of a “battle” – the implication being that Michael is doing the same thing that countless meddling journalists have done before him, leeching off the music and impairing its spirituality with his pesky words. This a favourite device of the bullying musician. Ray Davies tried something similar when I interviewed him last year for Q. He told me he might be writing an opera “in two years time… It’s just finding the time to do it.” I asked him if he had always felt comfortable jumping from one discipline to another. “There is no discipline,” came his response (one of the more cordial responses of the afternoon). What discipline? It’s all music.”
This sort of default uncomprehending contempt also happens to be Lou Reed’s standard interview mode. Usually, it’s possible to get away with it for one of two reasons: (i) the journalist can’t call them up on it because they need the subject to stay on the room for long enough for them to get a feature’s worth of material out of it; (ii) music writers are usually fans and the last thing that fans want to do is incur the disapproval of their idols. As a young writer, it’s all too easy to be intimidated by the person you’re interviewing. Less so in your 40s. When Sylvie Simmons interviewed Lou Reed for Mojo, Reed attempted to steer the interview into more esoteric territory, thinking that his interrogator would find herself hopelessly adrift when talk turned to James Joyce and Chopin. “If you want to understand music, you have to play,” declared Reed, “To find out that the songwriter actually beat his wife, sodomised his dog and is in jail for fucking 99 years doesn’t help you appreciate the song. Doesn’t! That applies to somebody trying to figure out Ulysses.” Sylvie Simmons: “The book you mean?” Lou Reed: “The book. And Finnegans Wake. Almost out of the question. Are you going to tell me you read Finnegan’s Wake?” Sylvie Simmons: “Yes.” Lou Reed: “From beginning to end?” Sylvie Simmons: “Yes.” Lou Reed: “And you understood it?” Sylvie Simmons: “I wouldn’t say that, but I try to, and when I don’t I love the sound of it.” Everything Lou Reed wants you to believe about the elevated spiritual plane inhabited by musicians is actually true of Sylvie Simmons in this passage. Lou sounds petty and devious, using his knowledge as a stick with which to keep his questioner down. He tries it again a little later. Lou Reed: “I just discovered this English classical musician named [Alex] Solomon. His Chopin is a revelation of how to play Chopin.” Sylvie Simmons: “Wow, better than Rubinstein?” Seemingly affronted by the immediacy of her response, Reed had to find something else at which to take umbrage: “Well I’m not a critic. That’s a typical journalist question. ‘Is it better than Rubinstein?’ Immediately grading.”
Of course, what most people would recognise in Simmons’ “better than Rubinstein?” response is the excited reaction of someone who thought they’d never hear Chopin played better than Arthur Rubinstein. If you take discourse away from the enjoyment of music, you take away a lot of the fun. Most music writing is just part of a big conversation, and a lot of the time, you seek it out much as you would a friend who is just as excited about the new record by David Bowie/Daft Punk/Radiohead/[insert any other recent example that has had you making noise about it]. The human urge to talk about something enjoyable has existed for as long as people have been talking and enjoying stuff.
Lou Reed knows this. In the privacy of his own home, I’m sure he and Laurie Anderson speak about their favourite artists by making reference to other artists. If Ginger Baker has any friends, I’m sure he does the same. But what he does in the Michael Hann interview is a disingenuous blend of tyranny and cowardice, gazing complicitly to his fans in order to get them to side with him against Hann. It’s a measure of his obnoxiousness that a mere handful take the bait.
As long as I never have to interview them, the outlook favoured by the likes of Baker and Reed doesn’t impinge on my world beyond the occasional cringe at other people’s interviews. Lou Reed isn’t wrong when he tells Sylvie Simmons that the work of the author shouldn’t be coloured by the knowledge that he beat his wife and sodomised his dog. It’s a point serially proved over the years by Van Morrison, whose worst songs are always, always, always the ones where he makes no attempt to conceal what a mollycoddled old primadonna he is. Over the years, he’s written enough songs about what a soul-sapping grind promotion is (this in spite of the fact that he hardly ever does any) and what a wearying distraction it presents from the rarefied business of making records. On 2003’s Goldfish Bowl, he sings, “Don’t they know I’m just a guy who sings songs?” The album that paid host to those songs, What’s Wrong With This Picture?, also features Too Many Myths and Fame. In both, Morrison surmises that celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Whilst that may be true, any bystanders may have felt compelled to point out that, without a certain level of celebrity, no major label would have touched this sort of generic hotel lobby dreck with a bargepole.
Perhaps the bottom line is that in music as in life, some people are just nicer than others. For every Van Morrison left damaged by success, there’s a Terry Reid who appears to be just as damaged by the lack of it. A few years ago, when Reid announced a series of UK shows, his publicist asked me if I might be able to drum up a few ticket sales by interviewing him for The Times. I love Terry Reid’s music. River, released in 1975, remains one of the great underrated albums of its era. Hotwired to a scorching pop tune, his primal blueswail on 1969‘s Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace is one of my favourite vocal performances of all time. The problem was thatI’d already interviewed Reid for The Times about eight months previously – and, to be honest, I had to persuade them the first time around. Purely out of love for Reid’s music, I arranged to interview him for the newspaper’s podcast slot. Once again, my employers were wholly indifferent to the entire enterprise. He turned up to the studio in Marylebone and, just as we were about to record, he glared at me and laid down an ultimatum. “Listen. I read the piece you wrote about me last time and I wanted to slash my wrists by the end of it. Just the same shit that everyone always turns out. I don’t want any of that Led Zeppelin [before Robert Plant joined Led Zeppelin, the job was apparently offered to Reid] bollocks; none of that shit that everyone always mentions every time they do a fucking interview, ok?”
Of course, the problem is that when you’re writing about Terry Reid for The Times, maybe about five per cent of the people reading have any clue who they’re reading about and why they should be reading about him. There was no new album to promote. Just a bunch of undersold shows and one fan at a newspaper trying to help him out by drumming up some publicity for them.
“It’s just a job, you know,” sings Van Morrison on 1991‘s Why Must I Always Explain. Sometimes it’s a great job; other times less so. But even when it’s at its worse, it’s hardly torture. That applies to both my job and theirs. We’re all just trying to get through the day. In December 2005, I interviewed Julian Casablancas of The Strokes in the Metropolitan Hotel, next to Hyde Park. Perhaps Casablancas had an frantic day. Certainly mine had been – a whirl of childcare and long features with short deadlines. The difference between us was that only one of us was unprofessional enough to show it. A few days before, I’d seen The Strokes play a secret show at ULU. Casablancas had been impassive all the way through it – his emotions partly obscured by the ever-present cop shades. I told him I could see the appeal of the dark glasses in that situation. Nice for focusing on individual audience members without the burden of communicating. It was really just the small talk at the beginning of the interview. But his response suggested that someone had just spooned salt into his tea. In the affronted pause, I attempted to retreat from any unintended analytic slight by suggesting to him that it was purely a cosmetic choice. Which prompted the retort, “Why are you wearing your sweater? I dunno… It’s as cosmetic as your sweater is.” From hereon in, the interview merely deteriorated further.
Interviews can be tedious, of course. But record labels are pretty lenient parents. You can choose not to do them if you don’t mind selling a few less records or play smaller venues. If you do, however, interviews will promote your record or gig by helping sate that need for discourse. And even though some artists would hate to admit it, sometimes that discourse can infer purpose and poetry from the dumbest motives. Early records by The Verve and The Killers aren’t really saying much more than “Everybody look at me!” – but they do so with a conviction and ambiguity that makes the first people to hear them (usually music writers) want to fight their corner and make a case for them. When Brandon Flowers sang, “You know you’ve gotta help me out/Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the backburner,” we were Gregory in Gregory’s Girl wanting to stand near to Dorothy, simply because she was the thing and we wanted to be near it. We could help create the excitement that helped him sell the records he needed to sell so that people could keep looking at him. Most musicians understand this. Even the ones who pretend not to.