Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet
While Arts editor at my college paper at Kingsborough Community College during early ‘70s, named The Scepter, I have had the opportunity to meet and interview some people who were dreams to interview, and others not as much. Admittedly, sometimes it was my own fault, others not. While I am still glad to have had these experiences, I sometimes look back and think, “Oh, crap.”
One example was a 1976 press conference with Ronnie van Zandt and other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd (supposedly named after Leonard Skinner, their high school teacher who hated them, but I secretly harbor the image that it was actually Leonard Skinner, the kid who got ptomaine poisoning after dinner on Alan Sherman’s “Hello Mudda, Hello Faddah”), who were publicizing their new album, Gimme Back My Bullets (I still have my autographed copy).
Being a college newspaper press conference, we walking into the small interview room at the record label, and Skynyrd came in shortly afterwards, and sat at a long table in front. They were being genial and drinking more Jack D. than I had ever seen before. And yet, they remained coherent through the whole jaunty interchange. I have to admit that I was still deep in the learning stage when it came to music – perhaps even way behind. J.J. Cale wrote one of the album’s songs, “I Got the Same Old Blues.” In my ignorance, I asked a question about it, mistakenly referring to “John” Cale. Ronnie rightfully corrected me quite pointedly and I was very embarrassed. After that experience, I started to do my homework on the bands and the people I was interviewing, whether I was a fan or not.
Being knowledgeable and a fan did not always help, though. I’d enjoyed the work of Russell and Ron Mael, the core of the band Sparks, from the time I had seen them on one of the Friday night concert-type series that proliferated the television airwaves in the early to middle 1970s.
Given the opportunity to interview them at the Essex House hotel in New York, (where they were touring to publicize their new Indiscreet album), across the street from Central Park, I showed up both on time and informed, with an assigned Scepter photographer, Mike Cohen. Mike was a jazz hound and did not have much interest in rock. It was a late Friday afternoon and, unknown to us, we were the last interview the Mael brothers were to give before the concert the next night, after an entire week of publicizing and meeting reporters. And they were exhausted.
I walked into their suite with Mike, quite enthusiastic and definitely up, sitting across from two musicians who meant something to me, which was quite the change from most of the bands I had been interviewing. Wanting to start on a high note, I asked a detailed question that was to convey both that I was a fan, and also knowledgeable about their music. The response I received from Ron was, basically, “Uh hunh.”
It didn’t get much deeper than that from then on. Lead singer Russell didn’t talk much at all, trying to save his voice for the concert as he sucked on some tea. Ron did most of the answering, such as it was. But after a week of answering questions by other larger press, they were shot and just did not want to deal anymore. The bottom line was they just wanted us out of there, and I was too zealous to notice.
Not making the situation any easier for anyone, I would occasionally turn to look at Mike in desperation and perspiration, and whenever I caught his eye, he would silently mouth, “He looks like Hitler!” (referring to Ron’s Chaplin-esque mustache). I was crushed.
A week later, when the publicity machine filled me in how we were the last in a long list, I understood, and never held it against the band (besides, I took the opportunity to see them live at Lincoln Center, with the revamped san Ian Hunter – and terrible – Mott). People in the public eye do not realize that while being interviewed is hard, interviewing is also hard. Sparks were tough, but I still managed to get in 40 minutes of questions. Poor boys. But I still have my autographed 8x10.