Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Rolling Stone Interviews

The Rolling Stone Interviews
Edited by Jann S. Wenner

Before I get into this, I want to note that I really did like this book. As an entirety, it's a good read and I blasted through its monstrous girth in three days. I don't want the rest of this blog post to sway anyone from reading The Rolling Stone Interviews. It is very, very worth it.

This book made me feel old. Allow me to explain in a slow and convoluted way.

Growing up, I was obssessed with rock n' roll. Not so much with the cult of personality that surrounds the genre, although that was part of it, but rather with the virtually instantaneous legend-generating power it carried over to its performers. I liked the fact that stuff I was listening to went from obscure to relevant, then iconic then legendary, often in the span of a single calandar year. It's a fun process to watch from the sidelines. I always wondered what it would be like for the performers.

And, of course, I really dig music. Still do.

I never really got into the People Magazine side of the equation. Who was screwing who, what band was suing what other band and what sorts of drugs so-and-so was using at the Grammys last night. That stuff didn't concern me nearly as much as the music and the energy it conveyed. Who cares what Kurt Cobain thinks or does? It's all about the guitar riff, It's about the lyrics. It's about the rock. I would like to assume I was too punk-rock for all the other nonsense, though, if I'm honest, I know I wasn't. I was simply nose deep in Michael Creighton novels and Martin Scorsese movies.

So it was interesting to find The Rolling Stone Interviews fall into my lap a couple of weeks back. I'm certainly not insinuating that Rolling Stone Magazine is akin to People Magazine but I never read either growing up. I was blissfully unaware of the personal lives of most of the bands and musicians I enjoyed. I wasn't entirely ignorant, but the details simply didn't interest me at the time. So this book was a revisitation to my music-listening past from a different perspective.

The book itself is an anthology of dozens of interviews ranging back to the beginnings of Rolling Stone Magazine in the mid 1960s and includes interviews with everyone from Jim Morrison in 1969 to George Lucas in 1977 to The Dalai Lama in 2001. It is organized in chronological order so once I got into the interviews conducted after 1980, it was fun to watch my childhood pass as I was reading the chronicles of the stars.

Many of the non-musical interviews proved to be quite interesting. I really enjoyed reading the interviews with Bill Clinton, Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Bill Murray. Other interviews were captivating because Rolling Stone chose an unorthodox interviewer. Andy Warhol with Truman Capote, Robert Palmer with Eric Clapton. But the vast majority of the musician interviews read like laundry lists of petty disputes, drugs and personal problems leaving me wanting to slap the Holden Caufield out of them all.

The fundamental problem with rock and roll interviews is that when you get down to it, rock stars are as humdrum as lawyers, teachers or doctors. Oh, they think they are different (in the case of John Lennon... he knows he's a genius). But when you begin to read these accounts of their lives they all begin to sound oddly consistent.

They have gone from struggling musician (and have you ever talked to one of those? Yeesh!) to ultra-famous and mega-rich, pretty much overnight. And each of them from Pete Townshend to John Lennon to Axl Rose to Eminem answer questions as if they were the first musician in the history of the world to encounter troubles in the trappings of fame. Don't these guys read Rolling Stone Magazine? Didn't they ever listen to The Wall? Or Bob Seger's eponymous hit Turn the Page? It's hard no to notice the droning pattern.

This is a generic sample of the sort of answer you get from (insert name of famous musician here):

"I hooked up with {insert name of mildly famous session musician name here} in (insert the name of American or British city here). We decided to crash at {inesrt hip record company exec name here)'s house for the night. We ended up staying there three weeks tripping on acid and peyote, shooting guns and playing old {insert name of eccentric musical style here} records. It was a wild time, man. We shared something real. The (insert decade here} were a truly magical ride."

Seriously, when did being a rock star become so boring. From Pete Townsend to Eminem and virtually every pop star in between was like reading the same interview over and over. From complaining about singing the same songs night after night to to battling their heroin addictions to dealing with their "personal demons." It's all such a stereotype.

This isn't to say there weren't some really interesting bits. I quite enjoyed reading about David Letterman's friendship with Johnny Carson and Bill Clinton's musings on the evolution of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. Jack Nicholson's philosophies on monogamy were a riot, Truman Capote and Andy Warhol were hilariously pretentious, and Tom Wolfe is fascinating.

Nor is it to say that there aren't any musicians with something interesting to say. Patti Smith, Mick Jagger and Leonard Bernstein deliver eloquent interviews that delve a little deeper into the music and the creative process. Perhaps it has something to do with their ages when they were interviewed. Each of them had been in the industry for over two decades once they sat down with Rolling Stone.

Which gets me back to the thesis of this entire blog post. The book made me feel like an era had passed in my life. These guys (Ozzy Osbourne, Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Jim Morrison etc...) who I idolized so much when I was younger just turned out to be snivelling, whiny kids with too many toys and not enough friends. Who really wants to read an interview with a kid with very little of anything to say other than how many drugs he took last weekend? Perhaps to many this isn't such a momentous realization but for me, someone who didn't read the gossip rag side of the music indusrty until recently, it has really spilled the smack out of the plunger.

Ironically, it is old man Mick Jagger who puts it so succinctly when he says:

"I think it's very important that you have at least some sort of inner thing you don't talk about. That's why I find it distasteful when all these pop stars talk about their habits. But if that's what they need to do to get rid of them, fine. But I always found it boring."

Amen, Mick.

Of course, egoism is not nearly enough to devalue the wonderful music many of them made. I will simply go back to listening to the music and turning a deaf ear to their nonsensical ramblings. It only reenforces my opinion of recluses. The less you speak, the more you say.


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