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Backstage: Seven Inspired Interviews From 2010

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: Lee looks back on his most memorable musical conversations. 

One of the best perks about being a music journalist -- aside from all the free music you're privy to -- is when you're given the opportunity to speak with some of your musical heroes. Sometimes, the conversation is face to face, but more often it's on the phone. Either way, it can turn into a memorable encounter.

Even so, there are times when it can be awkward. It's one thing to know a musician from his or her work but quite another to suddenly find yourself in conversation with someone caught up in an emotional rant or a long soliloquy about himself. True, the best interviews are those that reveal a hint of the person himself, but all too often, it can be a bit tricky trying to sidestep some of those idiosyncrasies.

Although it would be difficult to sum up all the noteworthy interviews I've conducted throughout my journalistic career (or even this past year), there are a handful that still stand out for one reason or another.

A year or so ago, I interviewed J.D. Souther, writer of several of the Eagles' biggest hits ("Best of My Love," "Heartbreak Tonight," "Victim of Love"), Linda Rondstadt's former collaborator, a major figure in the Southern California country-rock vanguard, and a solo artist in his own right. The occasion was the release of his latest effort, If the World Was You, an album that represented a major shift in stance from his Americana approach to a more jazz-oriented effort.

I wasn't a big fan of the new disc, but despite my reservations, I found Souther a chatty fellow and quite a personable guy at that. That said, I generally aim to keep my conversations under half an hour because when I'm writing an article, I don't want to scan a lengthy discourse to find the facts I need. What's more, it can literally take hours to transcribe a recording; for every minute of conversation, it can take at least five to capture the comments. I appreciated Souther's anecdotes, but the interview stretched to more than three hours, making my transcription chores all the more daunting. By the time it concluded, it turned into the longest interview ever -- at least for me. Still, I felt like I made a new friend. Sadly, though, that determination proved inconclusive. After I emailed him to thank him for his time, I never heard back. Oh well. 

The same scenario transpired with Donovan. Being a fan of his since the mid-'60s, I was thrilled to share his anecdotes about being with the Beatles, Jimmy Page, producer Mickey Most, and all of his other various contemporaries. Yet he proved to be long-winded as well, especially when he went on and on about his devotion to the Maharishi and transcendental meditation. Clearly, the furthering of the TM mantra was an integral part of his life cause, but as he continued, he began to sound like a cult cleric.

This interview also ranked as one of my lengthiest exchanges, stretching well over two hours. That doesn't include the initial phone message I got from him when he groused that he missed me and then abruptly apologized after realizing he was the one who got the time wrong. 

Artists are rarely cranky when they're speaking to the media, but they do tend to reveal their temperament nevertheless. When I spoke to veteran Americana artist Shelby Lynne earlier this year, she wasn't shy about expressing her opinion of her former label bosses and their restriction of her artistic endeavors. "When Lost Highway said they didn't want my record, I said, 'That's fine, I'll just do my own thing. I'm tired of this shit,'" she recalled. "They don't want to put out records that are good. They want to put out records that will sell. It's time for me to move on from that big machine. I'd rather have a smaller machine and actually get what I'm doing out to the people." That pretty much summed up her attitude... and her determination to start her own record label. 

On the other hand, Peter Himmelman, a noted singer/songwriter and Bob Dylan's son-in-law to boot, made it very clear that he was tired of the indie scene and wouldn't hesitate if a major record label tossed an offer his way. "If somebody offered me a big label deal, I would take it in one second. I'd stop doing all this bullshit I'm doing, all these fishing lines in the water, and concentrate only on doing music. But nobody goes, 'Oh yeah, Peter Himmelman's a great artist; we should turn the world on to him. It doesn't matter how much music he sells. We love him.' Well, it actually matters plenty, because everyone's got a job, and everyone wants to keep their job." 

He was frank about his frustrations when it came to talking about the challenges of carving out a career in the music biz but notably reluctant to discuss anything having to do with his wife's famous father.

"Whatever you think it is, it's not. It's off-limits. I'm very judicious about not riding that thing." Oh well -- no insights into the Bobster then. But you have to respect his discretion. 

Likewise, Raul Malo, ex-member of the South Florida-bred Mavericks and now a successful artist in his own right, didn't hold back when I asked him about the possibility of reconnecting with his former colleagues. "Well, honestly, I don't miss the Mavericks days. I don't dwell on the past or look back on it much. I feel myself, my life, my philosophy is to dwell on the present and the future. That's far more important to me than where I've been. Honestly, the Mavericks are a bittersweet memory for me. There are a lot of great memories, and there are also a lot of shit memories. And things didn't end so happily. It's not like we're all great friends. This ended up in ugly lawsuits that cost me a lot of money and caused a lot of pain and suffering for my family and my kids, and it was all needless, and it was all pointless stuff, and so I'm honestly glad it's over and I'm glad I'm finally on my own, and if I had to do it over, I probably would have done it sooner. But I didn't have the strength or the confidence to realize that 'Hey, I can do this.'" Sometimes you can be just plain sorry you asked.

Not surprisingly, my interview with Robert Plant in anticipation of his upcoming South Florida show and release of his latest album, Band of Joy, proved one of my most thrilling interviews of the past year. For one thing, he's clearly one of rock 'n' roll's most venerable icons, and the opportunity to talk with him would have been a career highlight even if he turned out to be kind of a creep. I actually pondered that possibility, having absorbed more than my share of stories about his wild antics in Led Zeppelin. And yet, despite my apprehension, he was as nice as could be... a true gentleman. When I brought up a new book about his hero, Arthur Lee of the band Love, we bonded immediately, and I believe that helped create a fast and favorable impression. 

Still, I have to say my most memorable encounter of 2010 was when I met Neil Young at the Hard Rock Café in Hollywood. The media briefing focused on his energy-efficient car, and there was little mention of music. Still, the chance to enjoy a one-on-one conversation with a lifelong idol almost made the subject matter irrelevant. It was Neil Young, after all, one of the most prolific and important artists of all time. Don't get me wrong. I didn't deal my man card. But I will admit it: Neil had me at hello.

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Lee Zimmerman

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