Anthony DeCurtis and Artists 'In Other Words'
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Anthony DeCurtis has been a music journalist for more than 25 years. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Vibe and Rolling Stone magazine, where he still works as a contributing editor. He frequently composes CD liner notes for big-name artists and won a Grammy award for his contribution to Eric Clapton's "Crossroads" box set. Anthony DeCurtis has recently published a collection of 39 interviews he's conducted with musicians, actors, directors and writers. It's called "In Other Words: Artists Talk About Their Life and Work." And DeCurtis joins us from our New York bureau.
Welcome. Nice to talk to you again.
Mr. ANTHONY DeCURTIS (Music Journalist): It's absolutely a pleasure.
HANSEN: Now who was the first musician you ever interviewed?
Mr. DeCURTIS: The first musician I ever interviewed was Patty Smith. And it was a real stark education in what can actually happen when you walk into the room to interview somebody because I was a big fan. I loved her first album, which was "Horses," which came out in 1975. So I walk in, and, for whatever reasons, you know, she is unable to focus her eyes or complete a sentence. And I'm sitting there, thinking, like, `Wow. This is a harder job than I thought.' And that idea that you never know who is going to walk into that room and what condition they're going to be in--that was a quick lesson that I took to heart certainly.
HANSEN: Who have been some of the people that you've interviewed where you've done the research and all the background, and you walk in, and they're not the person that you expect them to be?
Mr. DeCURTIS: The starkest example of that would be Van Morrison. You know, there's this incredible level of spiritual aspiration in his music. And they guy I met was just kind of crabby and defensive and difficult and problematic. And, you know, I mean, at one point, he just said--he just stopped the interview essentially and just said, you know, `Why would you ask me a question like that?' you know? `Would you ask any of my peers a question like that? Would you ask Bob Dylan that question?' And I was really sitting there, biting my tongue, wanting to say, `Well, setting aside the question of whether or not you're Bob Dylan's peer, yeah, I would ask Bob Dylan that question.' The question was about using your voice as a technique to put across lyrics, and it was a question for anyone who was an interpretive singer. So that was a tough one.
HANSEN: How do you handle that tough kind of interview? I mean, you have an interview with Eminem in here, for example. And he seems to have this amazing block on his shoulder...
Mr. DeCURTIS: Yeah.
HANSEN: ...saying, `I know what you're going to ask. You journalists all ask the same thing.'
Mr. DeCURTIS: Exactly.
HANSEN: How do you handle a hostile interview?
Mr. DeCURTIS: Well, that was a tough one, too. I mean, although I feel like Eminem had a little bit more of a reason to be in a corner in a sense. I mean, it was at a point at which, you know, everybody was asking him about his, quote, unquote, "lyrical content." I was talking to people who were saying, you know, these lyrics are creating a lot of problems for gay people, you know? They're misogynistic. And I had to--I wanted to get him to comment on that. And he just got hip-hop about it. You know, he just would not back down. You know, it was just like, you know, `These people have a problem with my lyrics. That's all right. They don't have to listen.'
HANSEN: How do you get past the fact that there are so many people doing so many interviews with so many soundbites to get really into the person and to find out how they tick?
Mr. DeCURTIS: I try to listen, you know, and pay attention. And, you know, it doesn't surprise me that--you know, if somebody's been working on something for a year or two years or three years or five years, that that's what they want to talk about when they get in the room. And so fine. I'm perfectly happy to do that. But there are other things that I want to talk about. So there's a little bit of a quid pro quo. For the most part, people are willing to do that. I find that if people are treated with some respect, they return that. And so, you know, I think that that's the issue. I kind of rely on just the nature of the situation and a basic human contact. You know, I'm going to treat you fairly. I expect to be treated the same way.
HANSEN: You've interviewed people like Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Johnny Cash. His interview is the very first one in the book. And you said with Johnny Cash, you know, you were in the presence of greatness. How do you deal with your own admiration for an artist and not let that interfere with the job that you're sent there to do?
Mr. DeCURTIS: Well, that is the scary part at times. I mean, when I, you know, met, you know, Keith Richards or George Harrison or Paul McCartney or Johnny Cash, you know, it was hard to just kind of emotionally stay in a place where, you know, I was there to do a job. And during the George Harrison interview, which was just a kind of staggering experience, I made up this little mantra that I use when I'm in a situation I just feel I'm going to lose it. It's `Get excited later,' you know, get excited when it's in the magazine, you know, get excited, you know, afterwards, and then you can have the fun. With George Harrison, I was literally sitting there, looking at him, and I would just be thinking, `Oh, he's not talking right now. You should say something.' You know, it was that kind of having to prod myself, you know, because it was pretty amazing just to be sitting there with him.
HANSEN: Have you ever met somebody and learned something about them that truly surprised you?
Mr. DeCURTIS: Well, the interview I did with Rufus Wainwright for The New York Times had a kind of emotional content along those lines. I mean, I knew Rufus had been in rehab for using crystal meth. And I far as I know, nobody knew this. And, you know, he had an album coming out; he wanted to kind of get this off the table. And that was a kind of scarifying conversation because he was pretty candid about, you know, a certain level of desperation that he felt while he was using. And we were sitting outside, and it was a beautiful day, and he just said, `You know, it scares me a little bit to talk about sobriety because that could end right after this interview.' And I really just sat there, and I got chills. I got chills when I just repeated it right now. You know, there was a sense in which, you know, this is real life. You know, this isn't just a great story or something really interesting. You know, in the book, it's a much longer piece than ever appeared in The Times, and I think in a sense, to that degree, a kind of truer version of what that conversation was like. It was deep, and it was moving, and there was a real connection. But it was also very unsettling and, you know, one of those things that makes you think for a long time afterwards.
HANSEN: You include interviews with other artists that are not musicians--author Don DeLillo, for example, Al Pacino and director Martin Scorsese. In the interview with Martin Scorsese, you tell him that, `Well, I went to Catholic school, I grew up in, you know, New York,' and you start to tell him a little bit about yourself. How much of yourself will you reveal to your subject?
Mr. DeCURTIS: A lot actually. I mean, if I'm sitting there doing an interview with someone, and I'm describing a very personal situation, when I'm editing that interview for a magazine, that all comes out. In the book, I restored a lot of that stuff. And it's particularly there in the Scorsese interview because we come from similar backgrounds. You know, I'm Italian-American; I grew up down in the West Village. In a lot of these instances, I think someone who is interested in seeing what the actual raw exchange really is like, you know--well, with Scorsese, that's what it was like, you know, with Paul Simon in this book, you know, that's what it was like. You know, there are, you know, a few kind of testy moments, there are a few deep moments, there are a few very personal moments. And, you know, I felt able to in a way--it might be overstating it slightly--but there is a kind of memoir quality to this. I mean, there's a lot more of me personally running through these pieces and, especially in the introductions to a lot of them. I felt more comfortable in this context showing more. And often, people will respond to that and show you more. It's a technique, as well as, you know, an effort to be emotionally honest.
HANSEN: So what's it like for you to be answering questions today instead of asking them?
Mr. DeCURTIS: It's a lot easier answering the questions, I have to say. I think--I mean, I'm flattered that anybody would want to talk about this book. And I think, you know, anybody who's made a record and, you know, made a movie, you know, if they're honest with themselves, you know, they should be appreciative of someone who bothers to take the time to read it or look at it, listen to it and show up and try to deal with them. So, you know, I feel pretty good. It's fun.
HANSEN: Anthony DeCurtis' new book is called "In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work." It's published by Hal Leonard. Anthony DeCurtis joined us from our New York bureau.
Mr. DeCURTIS: Thank you so much.
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