• These are a few of my favorite things. . . that happened while interviewing celebs
• Notorious B.I.G. almost ruined an interview with his eyes closed
• The guy from Fountains of Wayne versus the guy from Wayne, N.J.
Brian Wilson was still under the spell of a weird therapist, Eugene Landy, and extremely spaced out when I taped a CNN interview with him in the early ‘90s. The folks in the control room were going crazy as I was trying to make sense of his halting, distracted meandering. I was sad; his music filled my teen years. But the awkward interview was a highlight – or lowlight – of that year’s Christmas party blooper reel.
Consider this blog post sort of a blooper reel, too.
Biggie Smalls – The Notorious B.I.G. – was a pretty good “get” at the time, but his prominence in the rap world was mostly lost on me. It would have been 1995. He was dropping (see, I’m not clueless now) Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s debut album and he and Lil’ Kim sat on a couch at a hotel for me and my CNN crew. During a brief break in the interview, the audio man tapped me on the shoulder and whispered: “When you were talking to Lil’ Kim and the camera was on her, I heard some funny noise in my headphones: Biggie was asleep and snoring!”
I’m pretty sure we didn’t make that part of the piece we produced, but damn – I look back now and say, how could I have not?!
Postscript: After his murder in 1997, his star-studded funeral was held in Manhattan. I was sent with a video crew to Brooklyn where crowds lined the street outside his family’s home. We got a few seconds of his funeral cortege flying by – a hearse and SUV’s with horns honking and friends cheering and waving from the windows.
In Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, the 1996 “That Thing You Do,” the title song was written by the bass player for the rock band Fountains of Wayne, Adam Schlesinger. However, his onetime partner in a group called the Candy Butchers, Mike Viola, claimed the two of them co-wrote it.
The dispute went public. I interviewed Viola, got his side of the story, then asked Fountains of Wayne’s publicist for a Schlesinger interview. She said I could interview him about their new album and then ask about his disagreement with Viola at the end. Agreed. (And I was delighted to do a piece on one of my favorite bands. . . not just because they got their name from a lawn and garden supply store on Route 23 in my New Jersey hometown.) Schlesinger handled the controversial questions breezily, telling his side of the story. Piece ran. Good little story about a songwriting credit dispute.
Fast forward to several months later: I’m at Nassau Coliseum, setting up with a crew in the visitors’ dressing room for an interview with Billy Corgan, lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. Fountains of Wayne is the opening act. Out in the hallway, I see Schlesinger. I say how ya doin? He jumps up in my face: “You, motherfucker – you ambushed me! I saw that story you did! You embarrassed me!” (He’s kind of a little guy; I didn’t feel threatened.)
What are you talking about, I say, you agreed to take questions on this, and you did. I presented your position and Viola’s position equivalently. And I didn’t take a side! He stalks away. For a brief moment I’m afraid he’s going to run to Corgan and tell him not to do an interview with me. But that doesn’t happen and I do one of what would be several interviews with the cordial head Pumpkin.
Now, normally I would speculate that Schlesinger’s publicist did not give him a heads-up about the topic I was to ask him about. . . but she was there in the room and he had shown no surprise and no reluctance to discuss it. What the hell was he pissed off about? No idea. Just another weird blooper.
Then there is the ultimate “One That Got Away” story. In the late ‘90s, Columbia Records’ publicity department called with exciting news: Bob Dylan was going to be available for me to interview on CNN. He had done a lengthy sit-down with Jon Pareles of the NY Times, he was going to talk to someone else, and then I was next. I was immediately paralyzed with anxiety, obsessing over one looming challenge: what is the first question you ask of a living legend? Where on earth do you begin? I had no doubt I could engage him – or at least attempt to — on myriad elements of his life and work. But what’s the ice-breaker? The opener that sets the tone for the conversation to come? Incredibly important, I thought. And intimidating.
Didn’t have to worry, as it turned out. A few days later came the news that Dylan had abruptly changed his mind and was doing no more interviews.
Then there are the Grip and Grin moments. What really happens backstage. Schmooze and pose. Before selfie sticks, we were at the mercy of the photography skills of the passer-by who was asked a favor: could you take a picture of me and [famous person.]. And it showed, sometimes..
The story behind this picture is that there is no story. Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg were just posing with me and my extraordinarily talented talent booker and producer at CNN, Shari Mesulam. It’s at one of the countless awards shows I covered for ABC News and CNN. Little in the way of actual news comes out of the backstage area of these TV specials (Grammys, MTV VMAs, etc.) but many, many grip & grin shots are captured for posterity.
At a quick glance, you might think Mr. Shakur and Mr. Broadus are throwing gang signs at Shari and me, but a closer inspection shows Tupac is just pointing out the pasty-faced ones in the picture and Snoop appears to be modeling some bling on freakishly long ring- and pinky-fingers.
This may have been at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. I’m not sure in what capacity the NBA and pro wrestling star was there. You can tell what a shrinking violet Rodman is. The shy little guy was keeping his sequined outfit from reflecting the strobe flash and ruining the picture. This kind of thoughtfulness was likely a foretelling of his future consideration as Ambassador to North Korea. We just didn’t realize it at the time.
This is probably from the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, where LL Cool J won Best Rap Video for “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Look! We’re actually gripping! Technically, a “grip & grin” photo involves hand-shaking. And sometimes a trophy or giant check.
I should also point out that often, my employer – most notably ABC and CNN – would badger me to get shots like these for publicity purposes. Honest. It wasn’t always all about me, me, me . . and getting my picture taken with celebs. But often it was.
Yep, that’s Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy Playmate of the year-turned anti-vaccine activist. Luckily, I had the right antibodies in me at the time and was immune to her charms. But I sanitized my right shoulder afterward, just in case.
Before there was Instagram there were Instamatic cameras. Here’s some more pictures from back when phones didn’t have lenses:
Some will say I have a big head. Hell, I will say that. At least if we’re talking in terms of physical size. I thought my noggin was large . . until I interviewed the living legend, Little Richard, at the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. The band Big Head Todd and the Monsters could use us.
And speaking of monsters (the art of the segue mastered early on as a DJ), in 1988 I found myself at Alpine Valley, a Wisconsin outdoor music amphitheater, or “shed,” for the opening of something called the Monsters of Rock Tour. Van Halen, fronted then by Sammy Hagar, was the headliner. Their label publicists were deployed to take pictures of all the rock press on hand and I received multiple exposures:
I also interviewed the opening acts, including an up-and-coming heavy metal band that didn’t yet have an army of publicists (so, no pix). I’d heard about this band and its fearsome reputation and was a little apprehensive when I stepped into their backstage trailer. I was sure they’d “out” me as not a terribly enthusiastic metal fan. But James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett of Metallica were friendly and forthcoming interviewees.
Speaking of Van Halen – the late Eddie Van Halen – his then-wife Valerie Bertinelli came by ABC Radio News in the 1980’s for an interview.
Michael J. Fox and I risked matching two-minute minors for elbowing, also in the ’80s – before the fellow hockey lover was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
And a favorite: This shot, taken backstage at Live Aid, made it look like I was lecturing David Letterman’s band leader, Paul Shaffer. He thought so, too, and when asked to sign it, did so appropriately:
Lastly, in the entrance-way to my apartment, I have many, many framed photos of me and the celebrities I’ve interviewed. It’s known as The Hall of Shameless Posing. Guitarist Billy Squier and his wife Nicole live in my neighborhood and attended a cookout I hosted a few years back. As he was standing in the Hall, it occured to me I needed to have a picture of him in the Hall . . . in the Hall.