• Time to give credit where due to pleasurable interviewees
• Or some of them, at least.
• U2 liked me, K-Mart wanted to strangle me
I got a call from Tom Hanks’ publicist in August of 1985.
(I had interviewed him for ABC Radio News when the film, “Splash” came out a year earlier. He’d been in the gossip pages then about his divorce and new paramour, Rita Wilson. In the middle of the interview in his Mayflower Hotel room, she came back from shopping and knocked on the door. Tom winked conspiratorially and, using the Page Six abbreviation, said, “It’s the g.f.”)
Did I want to interview him about his next project (“The Money Pit,” I think)? Sure, I said.
But the evening he was available, I had tickets to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. “Omigod!” said the publicist, “Tom LOVES Bruce Springsteen! Do you think you could get him tickets?”
I said I thought I could. I had done an earlier feature series on the state of the art of rock concert audio that put Springsteen’s audio engineer, the late Bruce Jackson, at its center. And while I wouldn’t interview The Boss himself until 17 years later, I had a relationship of a sort with his organization.
The tickets secured, Hanks’ publicist provided a limo and we did the interview while the car crawled through the traffic between Manhattan and East Rutherford. (I had to leave my tape recorder in the limo when we arrived because bringing it into the concert would have been, y’know, frowned upon.)
An ABC News publicist who’d been alerted to the arrangement asked if she could come along, and since I hadn’t lined up a date – and I found her, um, interesting – she was on board. Tom’s publicist was his “date.”
Hanks wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, but during intermission we walked across the floor of the stadium to the concession stands and back and I noticed he’d removed the cap and glasses. A few sharp-eyed people up in the stands started yelling, “Hey, Splash guy!” “Hey Tom!” It is startling to realize how relatively un-famous he was in 1985.
There was a meet-and-greet after the show and we’d been given passes for that. But we waited and waited and waited and an announcement was finally made that Bruce wouldn’t be attending, thanks for coming. We were seriously disappointed. I felt I had let Tom Hanks down. The ignominy.
Pulling out of the parking lot and heading back to NYC sometime after 1 AM, Tom said, “Who’s hungry?” I was; our dates just wanted to get home. We had the driver drop us off at the Market Diner, a now-closed greasy spoon on 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. Over bacon and eggs we talked baseball and rock & roll into the wee hours. Why was he wearing an Indians cap, I wondered out loud. He’d grown up mostly in Oakland, but started studying acting in Cleveland. “How do you root for an Oakland A?” he asked. He joked, “What is an “A” anyway; are they letters that run around on the ballfield?”
His love and knowledge of rock & roll was abundant. It did not surprise me when 12 years later, he wrote, directed and starred in “That Thing You Do,” the story of a one-hit wonder garage band set in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania.
I saw Tom a few more times, but most of the time during the period I was covering entertainment news for CNN, my colleagues in the Los Angeles bureau would get to attend his movie press junkets out there. So I’ve never had a chance to reminisce about – or have another — breakfast in the middle of the night with one of the good guys.
The intimidators were two: Elvis Costello and Lou Reed.
For some reason I had clung to the belief that Elvis’ “angry young man” persona was still intact some two decades after his fearsome debut. So, it was with apprehension – and a rabid fan’s anxiety – that I showed up at his hotel in the mid-90s to do a CNN interview. He showed up dripping with sweat. (Aha! I thought. He’s still a coke fiend! I knew it!) He had the flu. His temperature was over 100 degrees.
“Oh, man,” I said. “We don’t have to do this today. We can re-schedule it when you’re better.”
“No problem, mate,” said the artist formerly known as Declan Patrick Mac Manus. “I’ll be okay. Let’s do it.” A delightful interview with a real trouper.
Lou Reed wore black leather and a look on his face that could frighten a radio network newcomer in the early ‘80s just getting adjusted to working in New York City and interviewing icons of rock music. Lou looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but in his publicist’s office where I was setting up my mic stand and recorder.
Things started slowly; he wasn’t what you would call “warm.” But he seemed to get more comfortable the more it appeared I knew a little about what I was doing. I was far from the kind of rock scholar that someone like, say, Billboard’s Timothy White was, but as a rule I would at least take the trouble to prep by reading the relevant chapters in his essay collection, “Rock Lives.” And, in that pre-Wikipedia era, with the right reference works one could connect the dots from a mention of poet Delmore Schwartz on my treasured copy of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” to Lou’s Syracuse University days, the campus radio station, hard drugs, free jazz and other formative impulses. In the end, it was a good interview and I wish I had the cassette – or knew where it’s buried in my “archives.”
In 1993, the Velvet Underground reunited for a tour. They granted me an interview for a CNN piece. Lou was very cordial, as were all the surviving Velvets, and I’d like to think he had in some way imparted to them that this interviewer was okay. Or maybe they were just impressed that I had brought along my beat-up original copy of the LP with the Andy Warhol banana intact on the cover (except where I had ripped it when discovering the pink banana under the peeled skin.) At any rate, they all signed it.
It was never hard to get Bono and U2 in front of a CNN camera. By the ‘90s the LPs The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum had propelled them to rock’s stratosphere while CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 similarly catapulted the formerly-mocked “Chicken Noodle Network” to the front ranks of television news worldwide. Bono’s outspokenness and the band’s social activism, viewed as naked ambition by some, had generated a whole genre of Jesus jokes (e.g. “Q. What’s the difference between Jesus Christ and Bono? A. Jesus doesn’t walk around thinking he’s Bono.”). To reach an international audience to promote a cause, or just tout a new album, CNN was practically a one-stop destination.
(Come to think of it, earlier, at ABC Radio News I had gotten pretty good access to U2 and the other artists on the Conspiracy of Hope Tour. That short tour on behalf of Amnesty International, began in the Bay Area in 1986 with a concert at the Cow Palace. The day before, the artists, including Bono and the Edge, Sting, Peter Gabriel and others, met with the media.)
In the summer of 1992, U2 set up shop in Hershey, PA, to rehearse for their Zoo TV Tour, in support of their Achtung Baby recording. I drove out there by myself and met a CNN crew for an interview with the band in the afternoon. Afterward, before their evening show in a football stadium in front of a local audience, their manager Paul McGuiness, now deceased, invited me to his trailer where he had a copious catering spread and – being a noted oenophile – an array of fine wines. He encouraged a tasting, but I had a three-hour drive home ahead of me, so I limited my intake. Should’ve asked for a spit bucket, I suppose. Anyway, McGuiness seemed to be going out of his way to regale me with food and drink when he didn’t have to. I loved the band, its music and concerts. And, of course, CNN and Bono had a bond.
My favorite interaction came when U2 released their 1997 album, Pop. It was quite a departure for them, using multiple producers and incorporating elements of electronica, techno and dance beats. For the launch, the media were invited to a K-Mart store that had just opened in Manhattan. A K-Mart? If it had been a thing then, the initials “WTF?” would have echoed around the music press. As it was, the phrase itself was widely heard.
A small set of portable bleachers for reporters and camera crews was set up near the lingerie department. The band members talked about the new CD and what went into its recording. I waited, but a good soundbite wasn’t forthcoming. So, finally, I stood up and asked, “By holding your news conference in this setting, you don’t mean to suggest that your music is flimsily constructed from cheap materials, is discountable and ultimately disposable, do you?”
Bono’s eyes lit up. “I agree with everything you say! Apart from ‘discountable.’ “ Laughter all around.
I gave the crew the high sign and they started breaking down the gear. We headed to the SoHo Grand Hotel, where we had scheduled one-on-one interviews with the band. When they arrived, their publicist grabbed me and said, “Omigod, Mark! You should have seen it! Right after you asked your question, the K-Mart people ran up to me, asking, “Who was that? Who asked that? CNN? Where are they? Show us the reporter!” They were furious! The publicist was as amused as I was.
And then, under gray February skies on a hotel rooftop, Bono pondered the question of whether U2’s fan base would follow them in their new musical direction: