One of the coolest things about living in a college town is the opportunity to hear all sorts of scholars and artists speak on campus. A couple of years ago I had the privilege of seeing the great jazz composer/educator/musician/bandleader David Baker (on faculty here at IU) interviewing the incredible Quincy Jones onstage, for example. And tonight, thanks to Jacobs School of Music faculty member Glenn Gass and his eternally-popular (and academically groundbreaking) course on the Beatles, I got to hear a lecture by journalist and music critic Anthony DeCurtis (Rolling Stone contributing editor). DeCurtis is a fellow IU English Dept. alum; he’s just a few years older than I am, and got his doctorate here, so I have no doubt we probably passed one another at a downtown street dance or in the corridors of Ballantine Hall at some point in the late seventies/early eighties – which only makes it cooler to hear him talk about the amazing musicians he has interviewed and written about. The lecture hall (Ballantine 013, a fairly large room) was packed to the gills with both undergrads and middle-aged old farts like me – a standing room only audience.
The lecture was ostensibly about the Beatles, 3/4 of whom DeCurtis has interviewed at length. And he talked quite a bit about the Beatles, their importance, and the very human individuals they were. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the differences between interviewing Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The McCartney interview was all arranged in a fairly standard, businesslike way; DeCurtis was still a little bit green as an interviewer, and he played us a tape of a bit of the interview to prove that fact. McCartney was talking about John Lennon’s death, the press response, and his own grief, and DeCurtis was so eager to talk about it all too that he completely talked over McCartney for a while. He told us about having learned, after that experience, to let his subjects do the talking. He talked about how a jazz critic once described Miles Davis as being a really good listener, which is why he was able to be such a phenomenal bandleader, and said that quality is essential for an interviewer as well. (I have to admit, I love the insight that a bandleader has to be a good listener.)
The George Harrison interview was very different. Harrison was harder to reach, for one thing; he hadn’t put out an album in a little while, and DeCurtis couldn’t track him down via the usual manager/publicist/record label channels. He was persistent, leaving messages everywhere, and finally Olivia Harrison (George’s wife) called him and, in a very low-key (and a very George Harrison-esque) way, the interview was arranged. When DeCurtis arrived, the first thing Harrison asked was, “You talked to Paul? …How is he doing?” –which sort of said a lot about the relationship between the former Beatles at the time, you know? Poignant. DeCurtis talked about having learned something important from this interview as well; he found himself getting starstruck enough to interfere with the interview a bit, and his mantra now is, just do the interview and then let yourself get excited later. He also played us a short snippet from the Harrison interview, also talking about Lennon’s death, and about the spiritual connection between George and John – George said something about how if you can’t have a spiritual connection with a good friend who has passed on, how can you hope to have such a connection with God? It was quite moving, really.
The notion of being starstruck, sitting there talking to George Harrison and realizing that you’re talking to GEORGE HARRISON, led DeCurtis to talk about how a performer transforms when they step onstage and they become that person – he used Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen as excellent examples of this. “That’s why they are who they are,” he said.
And he talked about aging and mortality a bit – only natural, given that the lecture was about a group that’s lost two of its members already, and that he was also talking here and there about having interviewed the Rolling Stones yesterday and they’re no spring chickens either. He did not say this verbatim, but my notes say “There are no miracles in mortality but there are miracles in art.” That sort of sums it up, really.
The Q&A period was fun. As mentioned, he just interviewed the Stones yesterday – in fact he was originally supposed to get to Bloomington yesterday but had to delay a day – it’s pretty cool to listen to someone who can legitimately stand there and say “Well, Mick was saying to me yesterday…” (!!) Someone asked how Keith was doing and if the Stones were really going to be able to perform, and DeCurtis gave an unhesitating, resoundingly positive response. He said that Mick and Keith are getting along very nicely now, and in fact were sitting together for the interview, something he hadn’t seen them do in quite a few years. They seem excited and “as if the band were happy to be the Rolling Stones.” He has no doubt that they will be doing a more extensive tour next year. Good news, Stones fans!
Another cool bit – he was talking about those extremely well-crafted pop songs that are just difficult to really say much about as a critic, giving the Beatles’ “The Night Before” as an example. (Which made me think of Steve Van Zandt and what he’s said about Bruce Springsteen as a pop songwriter, how nobody appreciates how incredibly hard it is to write those perfect little three-minute gems.) Then DeCurtis mentioned the Rascals, and noted that the first time he went to see them, Jimi Hendrix was the opening act. (!!!!) He then referred to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee meetings at which such bands are discussed, and mentioned how Steve Van Zandt always rants about how no band that has ever worn a uniform can ever manage to get inducted. (And inside my head I was like, wait, that’s exactly who I was thinking of! Heh.) I can just picture these meetings. Makes me smile, thinking about how even though it’s a meeting around a table and it could certainly be accused of being corporate etc., in the end it’s really a bunch of people who love rock & roll enough to argue about it.
Someone asked, of all these top-notch artists you have interviewed, what do they all have in common that enables them to be so successful? Ambition, he said – you have to really want it. You don’t get there by half-assing it. And what keeps them going past the point where they’ve already cemented their legacy, where they certainly don’t need the money? They still love doing it. They love the music, they love to perform. “That’s what they do.” I find that really heartening; I know people have said a lot of things about the ticket prices for the upcoming Stones shows, for example, and one could infer that the band is pretty much just in it to pile money on top of money. But this is someone who’s in a position to know, and he seems to think that Mick and Keith (and certainly Bruce, and others) just really, really love doing what they do. He mentioned Springsteen here and how he’s playing shows that are quite a bit longer than he’s done in a while, and he had this sort of look of wonder on his face as he said that – like he’s as blown away as the rest of us by the quality of what’s happening on the E Street stage these days. Nice.
Then someone (NOT ME! I SWEAR!) asked about the E Street Band – why they hadn’t been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with Bruce, and whether they would be at some point. He had kind of a “yeah, yeah, I know” look on his face as he said something about the “peculiarities” of the nomination process and how it was “an obvious oversight” – he seems to think that some nominating committee members are erring on the side of caution in not wanting the appearance of impropriety, since Steve Van Zandt is on the nominating committee, though he said that SVZ has certainly never said anything about it in the meetings. He alluded to changes in the process, and said that he thinks it will happen eventually, both for the E Street Band and for other bands in a similar situation. (I wanted to shout out, “hurry the hell up before we lose any more of them” – but restrained myself.)
One last fascinating bit. He talked about how cultural commentary comes so immediately now that there’s “a kind of meta quality to everything you encounter.” He traces this back to around the time of Nirvana, and talked about how utterly different this is from the environment the Beatles came up in. It blunts the impact, he said, and people lose interest faster. For example, he noted that the Presidential election feels like it was ages ago and people have moved on from it, even though it was just last week (and even though the campaign felt like it went on for ten years). As someone who treasures a lot of what technology has brought us – reports and videos from a concert before the show is even over, and especially the opportunity to connect with so many people who love the music that I love, and the greater ease with which a regular person like me can contribute to the conversation around that music – this made me sit up and think. I wonder how we can preserve the parts of this “instant cultural commentary” world that are valuable, the connections and the sharing of what we love, without blunting the impact of the art? Because, yeah, I think he does have a point. I remember many, many hours spent alone in my room listening to the same albums over and over – how albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Horses and even Frampton Comes Alive for crying out loud, how those albums worked their way into the grooves of (I’m not going to say my soul, not going to say my soul, not going to say my soul) my soul and became a part of me in a way that I’m not sure they would have if I’d been tweeting with my friends about them, paying attention to what they thought, riffing with one another in ways that were maybe more about our relationship with each other than about our individual one-on-one relationship with the music.
Food for thought, I think.
Anyway, a really fun evening, and I’m grateful to have had a couple of hours to hear Anthony DeCurtis talk about the music that he so obviously still loves deeply after all these years. It was so cool to hear a few of his stories – and to imagine how many more cool stories he has to tell.