Forgive me for another column without a Q&A, but if it helps, I’ve tried to make this one interesting by filling it with several really embarrassing stories about myself.
When it comes to the great moments of making a fool of myself in my journalistic career, I suppose you could say it’s a testament to what I’ve learned over the years that almost all of them took place in the ’80s and ’90s rather than in recent years. For instance, I learned not to go from memory when you’re writing a record review after I wrote a review of the soundtrack to “Athens, GA: Inside/Out” for my high school newspaper and suggested that R.E.M.’s live version of “Swan Swan H” was better than the studio version – which I’d only heard once and didn’t own – because this acoustic version wasn’t overwhelmed by the orchestration on the original. (Interestingly, no-one called me on this. I knew nobody read that thing.) I also learned not to believe everything your interview subject tells you after Sean Kelly, lead singer of the Samples, fed me a bunch of bullshit about what he and his fellow bandmates did when they weren’t touring – gourmet cooking, bird watching, casting mirrors – and me being a naive kid doing his college internship, I saw no reason not to believe him and let it get printed. (This is why I got so pissed off when Jack White mocked journalists who foolishly believed a “joke” the White Stripes had printed in one of their press releases about how none of their studio equipment was made after 1963.)
Really, though, it’s just one lesson that has served me the most: if you sense you’re about to say something stupid, keep your fucking mouth shut.
I can’t begin to tally up the retroactive embarrassment I still feel at my insistence of asking the infamous “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be, and why” question during phone interviews because I thought the artists would remember me when I met them at their shows. I asked this of Gillian Gilbert of New Order, and when I did indeed meet her and remind her that I was “the guy who asked the tree question,” and she replied, “Oh, it’s you,” but it wasn’t in what you’d call a good way. Still, she signed my Low Life poster, anyway. But there are three moments in particular, however, where I never recovered from stupid comments.
3. I interviewed Roddy Frame in connection with the release of Aztec Camera’s Dreamland album, and I casually mentioned how I saw him do a solo acoustic performance in his stint as opener for Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, observing that half the crowd left the venue immediately after he finished. He immediately went into protective-big-brother mode and said – hand on heart, this is the exact phrase – “Don’t diss Edie.” I try to explain that all I meant was that the area’s Aztec Camera fans were so diehard that they were willing to pay to see him in any capacity, even that of opening act. He didn’t really care why I’d made the comment, though, instead simply saying, “That’s fine, but don’t diss Edie.” The interview never truly got back on track after this…which was bad, as it took place in the opening moments of our conversation.
2. I’m backstage at a Little River Band show. Peter Beckett, late of Player (“Baby Come Back”), is touring as a member of the group at this time, and he’s also preparing to drop a solo album, featuring a cover of Stories’ “Brother Louie.” He makes an offhanded comment about how he’s hoping to get loads of airplay. As someone who’s grown sick of repetition on the airwaves, I echo his hopes but, in a well-intentioned manner, also offer to keep my fingers crossed that it doesn’t fall victim to oversaturation. He shoots me a withering look, says, “Frankly, I’ll take too much airplay over not enough. If you’ll excuse me,” and he walks away.
1. The industry standard of embarrassment, as far as I’m concerned. I got backstage to meet Elvis Costello after his performance on the Mighty Like A Rose tour in 1991. At this early point in my career, I’d never been backstage before, so I was a little nervous. He comes out to greet those of us in the backstage area, and someone says, “Hey, Elvis, that was a great show.” He modestly says, “Thanks. Thanks a lot. It was a little bit hot, though. I probably should’ve taken off my jacket.” Having been paying no attention to what he’s just said, I choose this moment to praise him by saying, “You’re a genius.” Within the context, it sounds suspiciously like I’m saying, “Nice work on not taking off your jacket, dumbass.” He chooses to move on to another group of fans. I hang my head in shame.
There’s one other moment of embarrassment from the ’90s that I still remember vividly, but the reason it stays with me is because, despite being arguably the stupidest thing I’ve ever said in an interview, it did not permanently derail the proceedings…and I don’t know why, because based on how prickly I’ve seen this gentleman be in interviews with other journalists, I can’t believe he didn’t either go off on me or hang up outright.
That man…was Robin Gibb.
If you’ve never heard the Bee Gees’ 1993 album, Size Isn’t Everything, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The band had managed to make a creative recovery from their disco reputation with their worldwide-except-in-the-U.S. 1987 hit, “You Win Again,” and although the subsequent album, E.S.P., wasn’t necessarily 100% spectacular, they followed it with the top-notch One, a record so good that it even became a hit in the States. Unfortunately, the ball was unquestionably dropped with the way-uneven affair that was 1991’s High Civilization, and the brothers Gibb moved from Warner Brothers back to their longtime home of Polydor in an attempt to rebuild their reputation. The result was, at least creatively, a tremendous success. But commercially…? Not so much.
I’d tried and failed to convince myself that High Civilization was a “grower,” but in the end, I had to concede that one fantastic song (“Secret Love“) does not a great album make, no matter how many times you spin it. When Polydor sent me the advance cassette of Size Isn’t Everything, however, I couldn’t believe how much I loved it right off the bat. The band had decided to produce the record themselves, and they’d toyed around with a lot of different sounds, from the intentionally spooky production on “Haunted House” to the simple guitar-and-harmonies arrangement of “Blue Island,” but the first interesting move was getting back to their dance floor roots by both opening and closing the album with potential floor-fillers: “Paying the Price of Love” and “Fallen Angel.” The latter track was a fantastic (and successful) attempt by the Gibbs to pay tribute to the sound of the Pet Shop Boys. The former was the album’s first single…and it was also what led me to put my foot in my mouth with Robin.
If you haven’t listened to “Paying the Price of Love” yet, do so now. At the 2:14 mark, you will hear Barry enter into what can only be described as falsetto abuse. The man has a trademark vocal sound, and it’s one that I have come to love, but I actually started to laugh the first time I reached this point in the song. I can’t imagine who thought it was a good idea for him to stretch his range like that…but, hey, we all make mistakes once in awhile. For instance, *I* thought it was a good idea to suggest to Robin that his brother might’ve hurt himself during the recording process, possibly to the point of giving himself a hernia.
If I had to guess why he kept his cool, I’d guess it had something to do with the fact that he knew I was nervous. Y’see, I didn’t even know I was going to be talking to him that day. After I got the cassette and fell in love with it, I asked the publicist if there was any chance of getting an interview, and she said she’d see what she could set up. Well, she set something up, all right. But she didn’t tell me about it. I was just out of college and still living at my parents’ house at the time, and I came home from work that day to be greeted by this opening line from my mother: “Robin Gibb called.”
“Robin Gibb called,” she repeated. “Twice, actually. He said you were supposed to be talking to him today…? Anyway, he left you his number and said he’d be there for a little bit longer, if you want to try to catch him!”
Well, obviously, I did catch him, and I apologized profusely, explaining that no-one had told me we were supposed to be talking today, but that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity and forewarned him that I wasn’t really prepared and was going to be a little flustered as we talked. So maybe he was gritting his teeth when I stupidly opened my mouth and let my true feelings be known about his brother’s vocal histrionics, but he let my comment slide, and I thank him for that to this day.
But that’s not why I like Size Isn’t Everything.
I like it because it’s not formulaic – hell, if anything, it’s anti-formulaic – and although it might not have been a huge commercial hit, it’s still one of my favorite Bee Gees albums. The guys clearly just decided to write and record whatever the hell they wanted, not trying to prove anything to anyone but themselves. So we get Maurice’s tribute to one of Charlton Heston’s most memorable roles (“Omega Man“), we get epic ballads like “How To Fall In Love, Pt. 1” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (the latter a tremendous hit, albeit once again just about everywhere but in the States), and, of course, we get the kind of soaring choruses only the brothers Gibb can compose, as best exemplified on “Above and Beyond.” But the key to the overall success of the record, at least for me, is that none of the songs feel like desperate attempts at hits.
They just feel like pop songs.