Backstage: Five Memorable Interviews

Steve Earle had a baby on his mind when Lee spoke to him.
Steve Earle had a baby on his mind when Lee spoke to him.
Photo by Ted Barron

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, advice from his idols.  


I don't expect my interview subjects to be overly eloquent -- these are rock musicians I'm referring to, after all -- but there have been some who have changed my way of thinking and imparted to me some bit of wisdom that's actually lingered long after the interview's ended.

One such instance occurred during an exchange with Paul Kantner -- vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and founding member of both the Jefferson Airplane and its later reincarnation as the Jefferson Starship. I'd always been an admirer of his early efforts, particularly the part he played in ushering in the so-called "Summer of Love" and the mythical ascent of San Francisco during the height of '60s psychedelia. For me, that period represented a real cultural shift, when the possibilities were endless and freedom and flower power were practically inseparable. The Airplane saw it all and lived it all as well. I'd seen Kantner and his crew back in the day, at the tail end of that era, and I'd seen him more recently as well, performing with the band he continued to call Jefferson Starship, even despite the lack of any veterans like himself that might have been coaxed aboard. Naturally it wasn't the same; Kantner looked like an old retiree, dressed in shorts with skinny, sunburned legs that looked like they belonged to one who'd spend ample time on the golf course or strolling through an old age home. 


I had the chance to chat with him on the occasion of a retrospective spoken-word CD he had recently released. We discussed a life I could only dream about, rife with adventure, exploration, and adoration. As the interview came to a close, I asked him what it was like to be able to look back and reflect on this incredible experience. He didn't flinch. "You've got to live your own dream," he admonished. "Nobody else can live your life for you." 

Other musicians have imparted certain indelible impressions as well, and though they generally don't fall into the category of life-changing circumstance, there have been remarks that have stuck with me long enough to put them into a quotable category all their own. For example, a few months ago, I spoke with a wonderful singer/songwriter named Peter Himmelman. In addition to a terrific body of work assembled over the past 25 years or so, he also happens to be the son-in-law of none other than Bob Dylan. His former publicist had told me tales that Peter had told him, how Dylan used to come to their home for the Jewish High Holy Days and played the part of the benign grandfather to his kids, acting as a paternal figure far removed from the enigmatic superstar revered by the world. Yet when I spoke with Peter, his reference to Dylan was much more guarded. "Whatever you think it is, it's not," he remarked, leaving me even more baffled than before. 

Other individuals revealed their humanity in different ways. An interview with Robert Plant was momentarily sidetracked when I brought up a book about one of his musical heroes, Arthur Lee of the band Love, and it became obvious we couldn't continue until I remembered the name of the tome and the author who wrote it. I thought of the information after the fact and relayed it to Plant's publicist, making him promise that he'd give the information to Plant, which he swore he would. I imagined getting some kind of personal thank you note from Plant, but I never did. I console myself by thinking if we ever reconnect some day, we'll immediately have something to chat about. 

One of the most memorable things I took away from my in-person interview with Paul McCartney in 2005 -- held just prior to the launch of a tour that commenced in Miami -- was his answer to a question I asked about how he chose his set list. I was impressed by the fact that he put himself in the position of his fans, a most humanistic stance as far as I was concerned. "I ask myself what I would like to hear if I was part of the audience," Paul replied. "'Let It Be'? Right! 'Yesterday'? Right! 'Hey Jude'? Of course!" Hardly a surprise, then, that Paul's set list is packed with crowd-pleasing hits. 

Finally, I'm drawn back to a sit-down interview I conducted a year ago with alt-country outlaw Steve Earle, conducted on the Cayamo music cruise. To be honest, I was a bit wary about my ability to relate to the man, having heard his reputation for substance abuse, arrogance, and irascibility in general. Sure enough, he spent most of the conversation spewing his views on politics while offering little enlightenment on his music, which in fact I've always admired. I guess I was most impressed when he excused himself during our chat to answer his cell phone. "Excuse me," he volunteered. "My wife Allison is due any day now, and I'm waiting to hear that she's gone into labor." 

Good for him, I thought. How bad can he be if those concerns are first and foremost?

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