Backstage in South Florida: Back in the High Life With Steve Winwood and Five Other Strange Interviews
Steve Winwood (front), joint not pictured
I relish asking my musical heroes all the obscure questions that the fan in me has always wanted to know. These days, by necessity, most of these encounters take place on the phone or via email, negating the possibility of forming a personal bond, albeit briefly. But years ago, I had the pleasure of engaging in numerous meetings of the musical kind, which for various reasons hold special memories even today.
My earliest interviews transpired when I was in college at the University of Miami, reporting on music for the college paper, The Hurricane. In fact, the very first interview I ever scored was backstage at the old Miami Jai Lai when it was a favored venue for live music, hosting the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Steve Martin, David Crosby and Graham Nash and many others.
1. Steve Winwood
I was assigned to cover the band Traffic, led by the great Steve Winwood. Somehow, we obtained backstage passes, which opened up the possibility of a Winwood interview. Situated behind the curtains, I initially approached him as the band was coming offstage. Winwood readily agreed to chat with me -- on the condition that I first wait for the group to do their encore. My patience paid off with a great exchange. Winwood was a most personable individual and he even went so far as to light a joint to help affirm our rapport. Consequently, the details of the conversation remain somewhat hazy, although like Bill Clinton, I'm inclined to deny I actually inhaled.
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Unfortunately, several other early interviews didn't go quite as well and some were actually quite awkward. A Q&A with the Dutch band Focus (whose sole hit "Hocus Pocus" embedded above proved quite a novelty due to its hard-rocking whistling refrain) was stymied by the fact that the group spoke little to no English and their management failed to provide a translator.
3. Dr. John
On another occasion, Dr. John performed on the UM campus in his early guise as the voodoo "Night Tripper," bringing with him a stoner's perspective and an acid-fried ambiance. The good doctor prescribed himself some serious drugs back in the day, and consequently, when we were given the chance to talk with him prior to his performance, my earnest inquiries were met with a blank stare and little more than a mumble in response. Finally, after feeling pressed too hard for anything resembling an audible comment, he looked at me, pointed to his road manager, and suggested, "Uh, why don't you ask that fella over there. He knows everything about me you need to know." At that point I gave up, taking the hint that the interview was over.
4. Manfred Mann
It could be said I was generally an over-eager interviewer who got caught up in the excitement of chatting with an idol. The '60s pop sensation Manfred Mann, who reinvented himself in the '70s as a synth rock pioneer, actually became a pal when he played the UM, hanging out at my house and later inviting me on tour. However, he had to calm me down somewhat when I interviewed him on my British Rock radio show on WVUM and found myself overcome by giddy enthusiasm. "Now Lee, take a breath," Mann advised, more or less reprimanding me on air and in front of my listening audience.
5. Robert Fripp
Robert Fripp, on the other hand, was as dry as they come. Interviewed backstage at the Jai Lai Fronton, King Crimson's architect and musical constant seemed to have a standard script that anticipated every question or query, one that involved reciting the band's tangled history with a scholarly precision accentuated by his upper crust English dsction. "On 23 January, 1968, Misters Fripp, Lake and McDonald convened in Highgate and commenced recording... On 13 March, 1969, Mister Giles departed the band, to be replaced by Mister Ian Wallace... " and so on and so on. He left little for me to do other than jot notes as quickly as I could, while simply trying to keep up.
6. Kim Simmonds
Still, the strangest encounter took place when I was dispatched to the Miami Beach hotel room of Kim Simmonds, erstwhile leader of the British blues band Savoy Brown. Having arrived at my destination at the appointed time, I knocked on the hotel room door and heard a voice beckon me inside. There I found Mr. Simmonds and a lady friend in bed, not the least bit shy about the fact that this young American was intruding on them in this state of repose. I flashed back to the television images I had seen of John Lennon and Yoko Ono holding court during their infamous bed-ins, but in their case, they at least respected decorum enough to wear pajamas. While Simmonds and his bedmate were discreetly positioned under the covers, I got the definite impression that PJs were not part of their protocol. Nevertheless, I tried my best to act nonplussed, proceeding with the interview while Simmonds duly responded as if this was nothing out of the ordinary. When we finished, I got up, headed for the door and wished the happy couple a fond farewell.
"Sorry, I can't get up to let you out," Simmonds said with a grin. "Quite all right," I responded. "I don't think I need be the one to rouse you."
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