• You can’t always get the story you want
• Clapton, Jackson and Orbison: off-limits
• Once, twice, three times a loser
One of the best rock shows ever filmed was underway and I couldn’t talk my way past the bouncers at the stage door. I had tried, since landing in L.A., to get a media pass. The assignment desk at ABC Radio News in New York had also worked the phones on my behalf, but we came up empty. “No media” was all they would say, which was pretty surprising. Cinemax was shooting a live concert at L.A.’s Coconut Grove club featuring many of music’s biggest stars for a later broadcast and you’d think they’d want the advance attention my audio reports on one of the nation’s biggest networks would create. But no dice.
Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, filmed September 30, 1987, featured guests Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt and k.d. lang, among others. Not only did I want to be inside watching some of my favorite artists performing, I was worried my bosses in NY would think I didn’t try hard enough to get access – or worse – that I hadn’t built up enough of a reputation as the Reporter on the Road for the past five years, the guy who knew all the rock stars and could call in favors.
Thwarted, I filed a couple of voicers from the street outside the club, probably about the extraordinary security measures, and retired to my hotel. The next morning I was awakened by what felt like someone standing beside the bed had nudged it with their knees. Seeing no one in the room, I assumed I’d had a dream. When I woke up again an hour later and turned on the TV, I learned the L.A. area had been hit by a 6.1 earthquake.
In researching this piece I discovered that chandeliers in the Coconut Grove ballroom had crashed down on top of the stacks of film and tape cannisters on the set where shooting had ended only a short time earlier. They survived. That, too, would have made for a good story, but the event’s publicists didn’t seem to care.
If you’re not pushy, at least a little pushy, you’re probably not cut out to be a reporter. And you’ve got to be alert for opportunities that arise unexpectedly. I was en route to California for the Grammy Awards once in the 1980s, and saw an opportunity sitting in First Class on my American Airlines flight. I wasn’t sitting in First (despite being a regular on that NY-LA shuttle with enough miles for last-minute upgrades; one didn’t come through this time) but Joe Jackson was. The British singer-songwriter who advised that you gotta look sharp, especially if she’s really going out with him, lived in New York and was headed for the Grammys, too. My reading material on that flight included the latest issue of Billboard in which Jackson had written a passionate op-ed about some now-forgotten issue involving an aspect of musician’s copyrights or royalties, I believe.
From my seat a few rows into Economy, I ventured up the aisle when the flight attendants weren’t looking – and when I was assured that Jackson wasn’t dozing – and I handed him my business card. I introduced myself, offering him a chance to expose his arguments from the trade magazine to a wider audience on ABC. Said I’d come to wherever he was staying in L.A. or just do a quick interview when we landed.
He cordially invited me to go screw myself. Not really cordially at all, in fact, he said I had some effing nerve approaching him while on an airplane. Threw in a few other colorful British colloquialisms. At his suggestion, I took a hike.
Looking back, I realize he was right about having his privacy invaded. But I was trying to do him a favor, and, with a little initiative, get a story. Joe had a hit song, “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want).” I knew what I wanted, but Joe said no.
Finally, there was Eric Clapton, whom I’d interviewed in London in 1983 in connection with the ARMS Concerts for Multiple Sclerosis at Royal Albert Hall. That’s the photo at the top here. I’d gone to a TV station in Camden Town to meet him, Bill Wyman and Ronnie Lane, the MS patient who’d inspired the benefit concerts.
In December of that year, I flew out to the Bay Area where three ARMS concerts were held at the San Francisco Cow Palace. I attended one of the shows and reported on it, but there was a pretty tight lid on the media coverage. I was able to get a room at the tour hotel, always the smart thing to do to increase access. ABC was good about this despite the fact that the biggest tours booked the most expensive accommodations. In this case, it was the plush Fairmont Hotel and the morning after the show I attended I was having breakfast in the subdued, finely-appointed Laurel Court Restaurant. Across the room I spotted Clapton, solo, enjoying his breakfast. As I got up to leave, I headed across an open space toward his table to see if I could set up a quick, taped interview. As I approached, out of the corner of my eye I could see someone closing in on me from the side. It was one of the several publicists working the tour and she was locked in on me like a heat-seeking missile, on a vector to intercept me moments before reaching Slowhand’s table. “No, no, no, no, Mark,” she whispered. “Not here, not now.” Thwarted again. I don’t think Clapton ever looked up from his coffee.