November 23, 2007

Book Review: The Rolling Stone Interviews

Rolling Stone may not represent the voice of the counterculture like it once did, but the publication has invariably wielded privileged access to rock and roll’s elite as well as to other important celebrities and social figures. Coinciding with the fortieth anniversary of the magazine, this new compendium correspondingly presents forty of its most notable and indicative discussions in The Rolling Stone Interviews.

Many of these interviews catch subjects at pivotal points in their careers and lives, often knowingly, sometimes quite the opposite. Two of the most prominent examples come courtesy of John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, respectively. A thorough conversation with Jann Wenner in 1970 shows Lennon unleashing a contemptuous and myth-shattering depiction of life as a Beatle and the band’s recent dissolution. The text contained here comprises but a portion of the expanded transcript ultimately released as the book, Lennon Remembers, yet it succinctly conveys Lennon’s embittered state of mind at that time. In contrast, an interview conducted in early 1994 by David Fricke illustrates Cobain offering ominous and unsettling remarks when one considers his suicide a mere three months later. He speaks of his disillusionment with Nirvana’s artistic direction and mass commercial appeal as well as his frustration in coping with his tentative physical health. Both instances portray creative icons at a crossroads, albeit to divergent extents.

While not as emotionally gripping, other interviews still yield moments of telling insight and perspective. In a 1973 conversation with Ben Fong-Torres, Ray Charles explains how his varied taste in music, from classical artists like Sibelius and Chopin to country artists like Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, influenced his inimitable approach to music. In a 1992 chat with James Henke, Bruce Springsteen opens up about why he felt compelled to move from New Jersey to Los Angeles and what that symbolized for him, not only as the local hero of the Garden State, but also as a newly married man with young children. In a 2002 discussion with David Fricke, Keith Richards lets it bleed (figuratively speaking), candidly answering a myriad of questions about his infamous drug use, his much-debated mortality, and his enduring friendship with Mick Jagger. In distinguishing the Glimmer Twins’ paradoxical natures, Richards says, “[Mick] can’t go to sleep without writing out what he’s going to do when he wakes up. I just hope to wake up.”

Without a doubt, the leeway allowed to the subjects makes these interviews, and cumulatively, this book, a particularly engaging read. Even when the questions aren’t all that probing or inventive, they often yield intriguing responses. Case in point, in a 1968 interview with Jann Wenner, Pete Townshend fields a flippant question about him writing songs in his basement by launching into a description of an as-yet-completed “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy. With the proficiency of a politician, Townshend manhandles the moment to explain his scrupulous labor in creating Tommy, from its major and minor themes to a meticulous character analysis. One can almost picture Wenner with his mouth agape, wondering how his intended softball topic swerved radically off track.

The Rolling Stone Interviews offer comparably enlightening snapshots of various other luminaries as well at specific and, frequently, career or life-defining points in time. The responses by each subject seem genuine for the most part, but, moreover, they impart opinions and personalities straight from the source. And the sources in this book are significant.