I’m trying to break into a career in music journalism, and of course I know your famous line: “Rock stars are not my friends.” But I’m not buying it. You’ve been in that world for decades, surely you’ve hit it off with someone, right? How do you straddle that line if there’s a real connection between you and someone you’re writing about?
Nosy in Newark
It’s not that I don’t like artists.
I do. I got into this line of work because I’m a fan. But when I started covering bands, the goal wasn’t to hang out with rock stars, or have steamy backstage sex with them, or make them my pals. No, I wanted to understand them, to get inside their heads and extract what makes them who they are. Like a forensic pathologist training an imaginary scalpel on a living being.
Why? Because one truism I have learned over the years is: Musicians aren’t like the rest of us. They’re wired differently. They’re more sensitive, suspicious, and tapped into the Great Wide Open, as Tom Petty would say. The other truism is that they don’t want to willingly share what they know—except obliquely, in the lyrics of a song. My goal has always been to persuade them to break that code of how they get their information and create their art. And I’ll do whatever it takes, whether it’s drinking shots of tequila with John Lydon at 10 a.m. at his kitchen table; sitting alone in Lucinda Williams’ living room for 45 minutes while she’s disappeared into a back bedroom at her Toluca Lake house, ostensibly to clean up pink eyeshadow that she spilled; calling Lou Reed “Mr. Reed” for an entire grilling—even interviewing Neil Young in the hallway of his hotel when he insisted he’d been locked out of his room. I have a friend who calls that “embracing the suck.” And it always makes for a better story. It’s the things people don’t think you see that are the most revealing.
An artist consents to an interview when they’re promoting something, or sometimes because they need public opinion on their side when they’ve committed some faux pas. But usually it’s to sell something: a movie, a book, a tour, an album. It’s a necessary evil, and very, very few musicians like to do interviews, except maybe Lars Ulrich. But just because they don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean they aren’t skilled at it. They’re performers, after all, so you have to be careful—otherwise, they’ll seduce you. The result? A story that’s a total dud. The “rock stars are not your friends” part is really a cautionary tale. It’s something my colleagues and I at CREEM used to say to each other like a football chant before we left for an assignment. We were looking for truth and they were looking for good publicity. Rarely do those two things intersect.
But one time it all came together for me. I had never interviewed any of the Ramones before, so when I got the assignment to sit down with Joey Ramone back in December 1994,1 had a lot of catching up to do. We were about the same age, liked the same music, knew the same people, were both obsessed with hair. Lester Bangs sang in Birdland with Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh, and Lester’s therapist was Joey’s stepfather Phil. The only glaring note was that I wasn’t really a Ramones fan. Yet. The slotted hour flew by; the interview was so good it felt like a scripted comedy routine, or a Jean Genet play with a happy ending. The next day the phone rang, and it was Joey Ramone. “Would you interview me again today?” he asked, not explaining why.
But I knew why: Our minds worked so well together.
And I went and broke my own rule. We became friends. For the next three years we did a weekly column together called “Joey Ramone’s Road Reports” for Addicted to Noise, where I worked as the news editor. He told colorful and insightful stories of life on the road with the Ramones as they wound down their career: the food they ate at Cracker Barrel (he loved the fried catfish), his fractured relationship with Johnny Ramone, and how he really felt about Pearl Jam. There wasn’t a day that we didn’t talk. He came out to Berkeley, California, to visit. We walked the streets of the sleepy college town, going in and out of record stores and window-shopping (he loved Kiehl’s products), but we couldn’t make it past one block without someone comever had to ask him, “Are you Joey Ramone?” That was certainly obvious. He was always in character, because he was that character—that’s what made the Ramones so authentic. That night he stayed at the Claremont Hotel in their haunted tower suite. When I came to pick him up in the morning, he had poured a whole salt shaker out at the doorway to prevent spirits from crossing into his room.
Little did I know that five years later, Joey would be haunting me.
I knew his lymphoma had returned, and things weren’t looking good. We still talked, but I couldn’t come to New York to see him. However, on the night of April 14, 2001, it seems I did. I was in a deep, deep sleep and had the sense of someone trying to wake me up. I opened my eyes—or so I thought—and Joey was standing there, shaking me awake. “Do you know what time it is?” I asked him. “Of course I do,” he retorted, “you have to help me move!” “Move? Move where?” I asked sleepily. “I’m going home,” he replied ominously. I was then somehow teleported to his apartment on East 9th Street in New York, where the two of us started moving boxes until we were done. It felt like hours. He didn’t say goodbye, he just picked up his Joey Ramone rag doll and walked down the street, turning once to give me an unsettling wave. I was awakened by the phone at about 6 a.m. California time. Weirdly, my arms hurt. But everything hurt even more when my friend Kenny Laguna, Joan Jett’s manager, told me Joey was gone. Gone home.
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