It’s official. I’m old. Despite my advancing years I had for a very long time believed that I was young at heart; I knew the names of people in the charts, the hot authors and the latest film stars. On the whole most of this is still true. I still know of – and that is the key word here – a lot of people but now I think about it the last popular album I bought by a band who was not in their heyday in the late seventies was Garbage by Garbage in 1995. I know names like Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg but if you dressed them like normal people I probably couldn’t pick them out in a police line-up.
Thumbing through Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead (and other things I learned from famous people), to give it its full title, I was actually appalled to find out that I knew a lot less that I imagined I did. I thought The Smashing Pumpkins were a reasonably new band and though it seems they’ve actually been around since 1988, I still couldn’t name a single track by them. The same goes for The White Stripes, Jordy, Jane’s Addiction, Psychic Spies, Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T, Hanson, Sparklehorse, Meat Puppets, Justin Timberlake, The Neptunes, Slipknot, Moby and quite a few others that get featured in this book and much of what they said in their interviews didn’t interest me, nor did it seem that important. I was relieved to find, however, that there were snippets of interviews from artists I did recognise and respect like U2, Paul McCartney, Oasis, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Patti Smith as well as a few really old timers like Bo Diddley, Loretta Lynn, Otha Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chet Atkins and Johnny Cash but I’m sorry to say that I was also not altogether impressed by what the old guard had to say, either, or even the very old guard. Some of the actors and comedians were okay but, for me, out of the whole book the only person who really grabbed me was Billy Connolly.
Interviewing has always been a tricky business and even greats like Parkinson have had difficult ones (Meg Ryan jumps to mind) but these days TV ‘interviews’ are short affairs which tend to focus around whatever the guest is currently promoting. There are exceptions like the Sky Arts programme, In Confidence, More4’s Shrink Rap, and BBC4’s Dawn French’s Girls Who Do Comedy and these are nice to see; shows where we get inside the head of the interviewee. Of course interviews have been a staple of magazine and even newspapers for years and Neil Strauss has been having a crack at them for years, with some success, I should add. His work has appeared in Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Esquire, Maxim, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Details, and The Source and the roll call of people he has met over the years, the famous and the infamous, has been impressive but getting them to open up at all has often proved a challenge, let alone say something meaningful. In fact even getting them to talk to him has, on occasion, been difficult.
Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead is a collection of interviews with about 120 celebrities (and a few non-celebrities too, as it happens) only we don’t get the whole interviews; we get the interesting bits. The blurb on the back of the book says:
YOU CAN TELL A LOT ABOUT
SOMEONE IN A MINUTE
IF YOU CHOOSE
THE RIGHT MINUTE
I guess that’s true. All that anyone remembers of the four interviews David Frost conducted in Richard Nixon will probably boil down to about a minute or two.
So this is a book full of bits of interviews; snippets, and we can only trust the author that what we’re getting is not taken out of context. The problem I found with a lot of them is that what we’re getting is old news. For example:
---------- [OASIS: SCENE 1] ----------
You guys are the top British band right now. If you were playing back in the sixties, do you think you could compete with the Beatles?
NOEL GALLAGHER: In the sixties? What year is it now? 1995? If it was 1965, and we’d just put out our second album, we’d be absolutely the pop kings of the world. It would’ve been the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Oasis, and then the Who. No one else. I firmly believe that. If we were out in 1975, it would have been the Sex Pistols and Oasis. And if it were 1985, it would have been the Smiths and Oasis. I feel we could chance it in any decade. I could say to any band member from any era, “Pick your best song. Give me the best song you think you’ve written, and I’ll pick mine.” And I think the best of ours would be above the best of theirs.
That’s it, by the way; that’s the entire first excerpt. We then move onto a three-page interview with the Who before the next snippet from Oasis:
---------- [OASIS: SCENE 2] ----------
I asked your brother this same question: If your band was playing in the sixties, do you think you could compete with the Beatles?
LIAM GALLAGHER: I think we’d be the Beatles.
Then what would the Beatles be?
GALLAGHER: They’d be the Beatles, too. And if the Beatles were here now, they’d be Oasis.
Next a couple of interviews with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and a few others including some groupies before we get the third part of the Oasis section, a couple of pages with Liam talking about spirituality in which he says:
I don’t believe in God. There’s no one upstairs. There’s no one downstairs. And if there is someone upstairs and there’s someone downstairs, who’s on the left and who’s on the right?
God’s within yourself. You’re your own god and you’re your own devil. You do your fucking thing, you get in your own little vibe, you settle your own shit, be nice to everyone, and if anyone gives you shit, you don’t ever speak to them ever again.
I believe in soul or spirit, though I don’t know what it is. Maybe you soul and your spirit is yourself. […] And I think you do come back. Reincarnation is cool as fuck, yeah. But I don’t want to come back here, to this shit.
I want to go to heaven, where you won’t get touched by this shit that goes on. And you’ll have to guide someone else who’s living here, who’s like fourteen years of age and has to go through this shit for the first time.
I like Oasis. As a band I think they will be remembered in a hundred years time if only for (What's the Story) Morning Glory? but I can’t say I learned anything I didn’t already know or expect to hear from these brothers. Everyone knows they have a chip on their shoulder and that’s fine but, as I said, it’s old news. And as for Liam’s spiritual philosophy, well…
Maybe it’s an age thing but I find these days I don’t much care about what most pop musicians and film stars think. As long as they can play their instruments or bring a character to life on the silver screen then I’m content. And I think I like to keep it like that because most times they open their mouths they show themselves up. A good example of this is Ringo Starr of whom Strauss had this to say:
In the Los Angeles studio of producer Don Was, Ringo Starr didn’t sit down for an interview; he braced himself for one. Though he was affable and open, he also seemed tense, like dog expecting at any minute to get hit by a stick. That stick is the Beatles. Everywhere Starr had gone that day, people treated him more like a museum piece in a Beatles exhibit than like a person. Modest by nature, he tended to brush off the attention and avoid the word Beatles, referring to the group simply as “we” whenever possible.
Add to this Starr’s desire to be taken as seriously as John Lennon but his inability to articulate and conceptualise as well, and you have an interview that, at every turn, grew increasingly awkward.
And it is an awkward interview. It finishes with Starr being asked about his new song:
Your song ‘Peace Dream’ has a lot of similarities to [John Lennon’s] ‘Imagine.’ Was that something you were thinking consciously?
STARR: Well, I brought John into it, is that what you’re talking about? I brought John into it because, you know, you always try as a songwriter to express a moment, and I can always talk about John, Paul, and George. And just like John Lennon said in Amsterdam from his bed, and that was the first time he did that peace thing, so he was trying to move peace and love along, too. So it was a peace dream, you know. It was a natural thing to do. It would have been awkward if you’d have done it, you know what I’m saying. But it was easier for me because I knew the man and, you know, I did know that moment that he and Yoko were in Amsterdam.
And then you had Paul McCartney play bass on it?
STARR: Well, he was in for the Grammys, and we all hook up if we’re around. Of course I had to play him the track because of the John Lennon line, and he said “fine” and so he played bass on that.
When you say you had to play it for him, why is that?
STARR: Well, because it says “John.” Let’s not be silly.
After a while I found myself skimming interviews I have to say. What Strauss says in his little preambles like the one above were quite interesting, frequently more so than what the stars had to say and if these are the best minutes then I’m glad I didn’t have to wade through the entire interviews. So many of them were so predictable like Roger Waters griping about which of the band was ‘Pink’. Remember the lines from ‘Have a Cigar’:
The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think.
Oh by the way, which one's Pink?
well, apparently Rolling Stone published an article that included a photo of the band with “This one’s Pink” in the caption under Dave Gilmour’s picture and not his.
I was aware that David Bowie was a fan of the Velvet Underground but I didn’t realise he was in such awe of Lou Reed so it was nice in his interview segment, which focuses on this, that he made this admission:
I went to the Electric Circus, and I went backstage afterward and knocked on the door. I met [Velvets bassist, keyboardist, and violinist] John Cale and asked if I could speak to Lou Reed. And Lou Reed came to the door and we talked and talked, and I said how much I admired him.
He laughed and said, “You know something?” And I said, “No.” He said, “Lou Reed left the band. You were speaking to Doug Yule, his replacement” (laughs). He never fessed up that he wasn’t Lou Reed. He just became Lou Reed for the duration of our conversation.
In a footnote Strauss points out that Bowie probably never met Cale either since he’d left the band two years earlier as well. It’s a humorous anecdote but that’s about it.
I expected more from Leonard Cohen although what he did have to say for himself was more thoughtful than most:
I was asking my father the other day if he’s lived through a worse or more scary time that the present, and he said no.
COHEN: I tend to agree with your father.
Have you seen a period like this before?
COHEN: I don’t really know what to say. I find myself writing about it and anything I write seems to be more authentic, though not necessarily more accurate or insightful, than any casual conversation.
In many ways, [your 1992 album] The Future picked up on what was in the air and became almost prophetic.
COHEN: I think that sensibility is nothing you can summon, but it really arises if you keep uncovering the song and trying to get beneath the slogan – either the emotional slogan or the political slogan. So much of the work that I hear, there’s nothing wrong with it, but much of it has the feel of a slogan or an agenda that’s already been written. It’s a perfectly good slogan, and there are interesting variations on it. But if you’re interested in forming yourself through your work, which I think is more interesting, then you have to keep uncovering and discarding those slogans until you get something. When you have those moments where you inform yourself of something that wasn’t immediately apparent, that’s when it becomes interesting.
Do you enjoy the process of writing itself?
COHEN: I feel very distant when I’m doing it. I feel like there’s someone across the room who is very diligently filling in the blanks of a questionnaire. It’s hard…
I mentioned the Billy Connolly interview at the start. In his introduction Strauss says that he spent hours in a cigar shop with him in LA with Billy “pontificating on everything … but only one moment of anything real” and I guess this is it:
Does comedy serve any purpose for you as far as influencing people?
CONNOLLY: I use it to entertain. It has no other use. It’s frippery. It’s small. But by the fact that so few of us have it, it’s just very, very entertaining and cathartic.
So then ultimately it’s a selfish act, just wanting to get laughter as this form of approval?
CONNOLLY: Ultimately, I find everything is a very selfish need. For me, it’s to get nearer to the microphone than everybody else and to be a somebody, to count. Not to live and die and be unnoticed is what I’m kind of driven by.
That’s very honest of you to say.
CONNOLLY: It is, but you know, I have this desire, this painful desire, to be remembered. I remember as a comparatively young man thinking that that’s what heaven was, being remembered well – and hell was being remembered as a bastard.
I’m not saying the book’s worth buying for that quote alone, especially since you’ve had it for free just now, but it is certainly one of the better ones. If you’re looking for “profound” though I would recommend the New Penguin Book of Modern Quotations. Yes, I was impressed that not only did Lady Gaga know who Rilke was but also had some of his poetry tattooed on her body in German. Actually, no, only the first bit impressed me. Springsteen impressed me too:
You can tell a lot about musicians by how they arrive at an interview. Some come with a manager, a publicist, bodyguards, or a retinue of hangers-on. Bruce Springsteen came to this interview alone. He drove himself from his home in Rumson, New Jersey to the Sony Music Studios in Manhattan in his black Explorer – and arrived early.
His interview is also one of the better ones. To illustrate:
What kind of advice would you give the young Bruce Springsteen now?
SPRINGSTEEN: Two things. One, I would tell him to approach his job like, on one hand, it’s the most serious thing in the world and, on the other hand, as if it’s only rock and roll. You have to keep both of those things in your head at the same time. I think I took it very seriously. And while I don’t regret doing so, I think that I would have been a bit easier and less self-punishing on myself at different times if I’d remembered that it was only rock and roll.
Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, was a very different kettle of fish because, as Strauss notes, “gratitude and humility were not among her strong points”, to wit:
I mean there’s layers and layers to this song. The lyrics have a lot of symbolic depth, like the Bible.
I don’t like the title producer. Mozart didn’t have one.
…being an opening act.
Dubious honours. They knew they had to do it, but they – at least the speechmakers – weren’t quite sure what to illuminate in the work.
…all of the above.
You think I got a trap mind or something? I guess I do. Yeah. I’m sensitive (pauses). I’m not a pitiable creature; it’s just that I suffer very eloquently.
(Needless to say “all of the above” contains more entries than I have included here.)
So, I don’t know. I probably read about a quarter of this book properly. I scanned another quarter, flicked through the third quarter and never looked at the rest. Depending on who you are I suspect that most people will do much the same. The quarters will be different. Some will care desperately what Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera had to say. I did not. It is a book that I suspect few will read from cover to cover. It’s a book to dive into, read bits her and there, a perfect book to keep in the bathroom. Personally I didn’t much care for the brevity of the snippets – I really wanted to read the entire interviews with Bowie and Connolly as well as a bunch of others like Patti Smith and Scott Walker – and I didn’t like that many of them were broken up into ‘scenes’ although I get why it was done.
The book is broken into ten ‘acts’:
- Act One: The Worst Interview Ever
- Act Two: Flying Saucers, Zombie Slaves and Autopsies on the Third Stage
- Act Three: Mean Guys with Long Hair
- Act Four: Sometime You Just want a Girl who will Sit on a Bottle
- Act Five: The Rock and Roll Cliché can go Fuck Itself
- Act Six: A Hundred million Dollar Paycheck
- Act Seven: Take Your Drug Dealer to Work Day
- Act Eight: Cannibalism is the Answer
- Act Nine: Stabbing Your Mother for a Number One Album
- Act Ten: What Everybody Needs to get to Sleep in these Troubled Times
with an epilogue and a strangely-unhelpful index, some of the entries of which I have to say would do nothing to encourage me to buy the book, for example:
autograph requests while taking a, 206; Beck’s, 455; covering Tommy Lee’s bathroom walls in, 251; feeling like a piece of, 136; lovey-dovey, 130; as a metaphor for songwriting, 211; PJ Harvey accused of being full of, 93-94; rehashed, 266; Rick James taking a, 257; settling your own, 132; sexual pleasure through, 459; see also nerd shit
although I cannot pretend discovering that Marilyn Manson had his own personal Santa Claus didn’t have me flicking through to p.185 just to see. I was disappointed to find that the “Santa Clauses” are supposedly a team that “come at the crowd from the sides and throw out bags of pot and cocaine throughout the entire audience front to back” during his shows, something he denies:
That is ridiculous. If I had a giant bag of drugs, I would not be passing them out, especially for free. I would be backstage doing them, as I have in the past.
This is a hefty book, 517 pages, and there will be something for just about everyone. It all depends what floats your boat. I think Strauss’ intent is a commendable one:
[I]nstead of looking for the pieces that broke news, I searched for the truth or essence behind each person, story, or experience. Often it came from something I’d previously ignored: an uncomfortable silence, a small misunderstanding, or a scattered thought that had been compressed into a soundbite. Other times it came from something more dramatic, like an emotional confession, a run-in with the police, or a drug-induced psychosis.
but I’m not sure how well he succeeds. They say you shouldn't meet your heroes because you can only ever be disappointed. They don’t say that for no reason. There’s a lot of disappointment to be had here. It’s not Strauss’ fault that most of his interviewees aren’t more erudite. (Where’s Stephen Fry when you need him?) The book was a New York Times bestseller, admittedly. I can see why but its scope was too broad for this particular old man. You make up your own mind though.
You can read an interview with the author here.
Let me leave you with the trailer for the book:
Neil Strauss is the six-time New York Times best-selling author of The Dirt with Mötley Crüe, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star with Jenna Jameson, and The Long Hard Road Out of Hell with Marilyn Manson.
His books, The Game and Rules Of The Game, for which he went undercover in a secret society of pickup artists for two years, made him an international celebrity. The Game is currently in production as a feature film with Rawson Thurber directing. His last book Emergency spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list and cemented Strauss’s reputation as, in the words of Maxim magazine, “a George Plimpton for the 21st century.”
In addition to his books, Strauss was a cultural critic and reporter at The New York Times for ten years. He is currently a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Beyond writing, Strauss is a regular on television. He has acted in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rules of the Game, the Beck video Sexx Laws and has appeared on numerous other talk shows.
Strauss is currently based in Los Angeles, where he lives (according to his website) with his goat, Lola, and volunteers as part of a search-and-rescue team that works with the Devonshire police department.