Musicians and writers are my favorite interviews because they seldom conceal anything. Their songs and novels often spring from the best and worst moments of their lives, and if they can talk about happiness and pain in music or in a book, most don’t mind talking about it in an interview.
Disappointed by a Norman Mailer novel, I summoned the courage to ask him if he hadn’t just fired off a potboiler. I used the word courage because it’s risky asking a provocative question of a man who was once notorious for punching people in the nose and stabbing his wife. Mailer didn’t flinch. “Oh sure,” he said, “I needed to pay some bills.”
Willie Nelson is another honest man, regardless of what the IRS says. Interviewing Willie aboard his tour bus, pungent with the aroma of good weed, I asked him about accidental plagiarism. He said that he had only recently realized that he was among the guilty. An old song popped into his head and he realized the melody was very similar to the one he used for “Crazy,” a big crossover hit he wrote for Patsy Cline back in the fifties. Willie said, “I’ve been singing that song for more than forty years without thinking of the earlier tune.”
Some of the best interviews veered off in interesting directions I hadn’t anticipated. I asked jazz pianist Dave Brubeck about his version of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” in which he plays the signature phrase in different piano styles—rag, bop, stride, even baroque. He