My thoughts drifted back recently to the worst interview I ever did. I’m not talking about job interviews–I’ve had several less-than-stellar results there–but interviews I conducted for my freelance writing work. The car-wreck status of this particular interview was entirely my fault, and the interviewee bore zero percent responsibility for the ways in which the discussion went south. Frankly, I just wasn’t prepared; it was supposed to be color commentary for something I was writing, it was a subject with which I had some familiarity, so I figured we’d wing it, just chat off the cuff. Big mistake. Without background information, without the wealth of reference material I usually gathered at my fingertips to scan during interviews, without any prepared potential questions to ask, the conversation floundered and failed. It was not my finest hour. My interviewee was game and accommodating, but I’m sure after our fruitless session concluded, an under-the-breath muttering of Well, this Carl guy’s an idiot would not have been inappropriate. A simple and stupid miscalculation on my part, but it still bugs me, decades later, even though I’m the only one who remembers it.
Because I was usually better than that. A lot better than that. I won’t say I was ever a terrific interviewer, but I was more than adequate, and occasionally pretty good at it. More than one interview subject–both Joan Jett and Ben Vaughn spring to mind–complimented my preparedness, and most seemed pleased with the experience and the result.
Most of my interviews were conducted on behalf of Goldmine, though I did a few for The Syracuse New Times and one each for DISCoveries and Yeah Yeah Yeah. I can’t remember the identity of my first interview subjects; might have been Tom Prendergast and Glenn Morrow of Bar/None Records, which I profiled for a Goldmine record label spotlight in the early ’90s. Although I began freelancing for Goldmine in 1986, and began writing GM feature articles in ’87 (commencing with a retrospective of The Bay City Rollers), my features were research pieces, compiled from previously-published resources and tied together with my attempts at overview and analysis. This was also true of my subsequent features on KISS, The Monkees, The Ugly Ducklings, Toni Basil, Barry Mann, and–Lord help me–Stars On 45, though I recall interviewing a KISS fan or two to gather background info. I interviewed Cyril Jordan in 1992 for a long history of The Flamin’ Groovies, and he was probably my first musician interview.
So I did a few more: Joan Jett, Ben Vaughn, The Ramones, Ron Dante, Joey Levine, Greg Kihn, Gary Frenay and Paul Armstrong of The Flashcubes (for The Syracuse New Times, for whom I also interviewed a few other local musicians, some local radio movers und shakers, even some preschool educators for an ultimately unfinished report on alternative education), Lou Whitney of The Skeletons, Mark Lindsay, Lenny Kaye, Dick Dodd, Barry Tashian, bubblegum producers Kasenetz and Katz, Ray Paul, bubblegum expert/aficionado Bill Pitzonka, writer Mark Evanier, Greg Spencer of Blue Wave Records, and possibly some others I don’t recall in the moment.
But I grew tired of doing phone interviews; transcribing such things is thankless drudgery, so I decided to discontinue doing them. Most of the interviews for my history of power pop were conducted via email (although those actually predate my Nuggets and bubblegum telephone interviews). Even if I were to ever take on another freelance assignment, I’m unlikely to do any further telephone interviews. It’s just not worth it to me.
Dana and I have done a few interviews on This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, though technical complications at our nearly-Flintstones-level studio basically preclude the viability of phone interviews. Such kerfrazzles swallowed our attempted on-air interview with The Charms‘ lead singer Ellie Vee, who gamely soldiered on through a chat where listeners could hear me but couldn’t pick up anything she said (forcing me to repeat all of her responses for the audience: Ellie says she’s happy to be here on TIRnRR!). It was not a situation designed to inspire confidence in performer or audience.
I really wasn’t a bad interviewer. Other than that one jarring incident of trying to tackle an interview without sufficient prep, I’ve been able to come up with the questions the interview required. In-person interviews are a true rarity, but I’ve done all right when guests have appeared in-studio on TIRnRR. But that one bad interview? It was decades ago, yet I know it’s always going to bother me. I try to hold myself to at least a tiny bit higher standard than that one.
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