Posted by: gdevi | May 31, 2011

“It is only Rock and Roll, Honey”

I never thought I would live to see the day when somebody called Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air on NPR, “honey,” on air. But that has happened, and repeatedly, by Keith Richards, of all the people, by the people and for the people. Terry Gross has done some really useful interviews in her career, but somehow her interview on Monday with Keith Richards ( a rebroadcast by PSU, apparently; I missed the original one)  was just bizarre. Terry Gross has a standard interview style, and it is audience-and subject-centered; Gross will contextualize a particular event, or song, or movie scene, whatever — it is for us listeners at home who have not read or heard or seen what is being talked about — and then ask a follow-up question about it. It is summary plus question–that is the mode. Gross does her homework, sometimes a little too pat–so the interviews are always factual as well. You can quote, and you won’t be wrong. Most of the time Gross picks interesting things to summarize and probe. Some of the time, we wonder, why this? Anyway, the interview with Richards was mostly “why this.” Most folks that Gross interviews are clearly okay with this mode; but you could tell, Richards was not. He wrote the book, didn’t he? Why summarize it back to him?

Gross asked mostly about the things most people are curious about–the drugs, the girls, in-fighting within the band, personality clashes with Mick Jagger ad nauseum. Richards really had fun with these questions, I think; he is funny; we burst out laughing several times during the interview. At one point, for instance, Richards explains his efforts to do particular things on his guitar, and then Gross comes back and paraphrases what Richards said back to him. So Richards says, almost like a school-teacher in a classroom, “That’s it! That’s right, Terry! You got it!” It was incredible.

There are interviewers who assume a sort of “relationship” with their subjects; they know the same things their subjects know etc. Gross is an interviewer like that. But of course there is no such “relationship.”  (This is the fundamental difference between someone like Tim Russert and Terry Gross; Tim Russert was “unaligned” with his subjects–not friends, not enemies.  Russert’s interviews are so memorable and fantastic. What a terrific journalist he was! ) So you always get the sense that Gross and the subject are on one side, trying to make things clear to the listeners on the other side. There were several moments like that on the Richard’s interview: the discussion about some show in California where someone died elicited such questions as “so did you play songs to smooth things over?” It was very bizarre. I cannot for the life of me imagine the Rolling Stones telling amongst themselves, let us play something nice to smooth this troubled spot over. If anything, they would probably say, come on, isn’t there a song exactly like this one? Let’s play that!

Even more bizarre was the moment when Gross told Richards that she felt concerned about the Stones’ “anti-woman” songs. [I don’t know why anyone would look towards Rolling Stones or indeed any Rock band for exemplary views on women; Rocks bands write about women who fall in love after great sex, in that order. It is an old inside joke.] Gross stated that she would sing along with “Under My Thumb” because it was such a “catchy” tune “melodically” and “harmonically” and then catch herself singing the words and tell herself, what am I singing? But Richards’ reply to this was really elegant, vague, but elegant, something along the lines of “there are people like that.” He did not even consider it a woman song — pro or anti– but about certain human relations that have gone really bad. I feel fairly certain that Terry Gross is not singing along to “Bitch” or “Dazed and Confused” (Led Zeppelin’s version I am thinking) either. But you could always sing along to “Sweethearts Together,” if you needed to sing along.

The discussion about the band Rolling Stones and Richard’s relationship with Mick Jagger was similarly to places where Terry Gross simply could not go or come back out meaningfully. She asked the usual questions such as how the conflict affected their performance on-stage etc, and what exactly was it about Mick Jagger that made Richards want to write songs for him? Well, Mick Jagger is a supreme performer, Richards said. You just want to write something for the man to perform, that was it, nothing more.  As for the personality clashes, Richards said again and again, we got over it. “It’s only Rock and Roll, Honey.” We also got a kick out of the discussion about “vowel movements” in Richard’s song-writing–particular vowels in particular combinations in particular places–Richards spoke so beautifully about the need for sounds to fit and to match–this is fundamental to rhythm and rhyme and other metrical considerations of lyrics–the assonance and alliteration of sounds that produce rhythm–all the great Rock bands have this incredible ear for language–there is a reason why you cannot have an “aaah” instead of an “oooh” in a specific place.  I don’t think Gross appreciated this at all. It was a bizarre discussion.

The only other interview where I felt really bad for the interviewer because it was becoming kind of farcical was when Katie Couric interviewed Quentin Tarantino. Couric asked Tarantino something along the lines of, “so what are you trying to do with this new movie?” Tarantino replied, “See I am trying to see if I can best myself.” Now there was a real conversation-stopper, if there ever was one. Richards with Terry Gross was close.

I do feel worried though about the latest Rolling Stones project that I read about in the Guardian; with the Indian composer A. R. Rahman. I cannot believe it at all; why, Rolling Stones, why? It reminds me of everything David Byrne said about world music.  I don’t like Rahman’s music at all. It is bound to be a ghastly thing.

p.s: Since I didn’t know any of these people that Mick Jagger is making an album with–except of course A. R. Rahman whose music makes me cringe — I looked them all up. I have to say this album if it does get done is a mystery to me. It will sound really bad I think. I had to quit listening to Joss Stone half way through; I do not know how to say what I feel about this young woman. Soul music always reminds me of slavery–very distressing really–kicked-out men, monstrous women, parties and sex songs without the irony that Rock bands (or Blues) bring to it — and I don’t think what she is doing is going to make her a black soul singer. My goodness, Mick Jagger, have you lost your mind?


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