Every now and then somebody chases me down to talk to their journalism class about writing profiles and since this gives me the opportunity to get to a young reporter before some editor does, draining every ounce of creative juice and originality and delight out of their bodies and leaving them an empty, beaten, health insurance dependent shell, much like myself, I usually say yes.
Kiddies, I say, essential to getting a subject to spill their guts is establishing trust. One does this many ways: showing interest in what interests the subject, feigning sincerity, mastering a range of words and sounds along the lines of “Wow! No! You don’t say! That is so interesting! Oooh! Aaaah!” It may seem daunting, I say, but if you have ever been on a blind date with a person who appears mostly dead but you want to sleep with anyway, faking sincerity is a skill you already possess. You’ve feigned orgasm? You are ready for a career in journalism.
True, I was not always aware of all this as I traipsed gaily out into my journalism career. Nobody told me to save questions involving murder raps or marital tensions for last, which is why you once could have see me sprinting down the halls of the Plaza as the son of a New York politician screamed, “I PISS on The Washington Post” or being frozen out by the crew on a sailing ship in New Zealand where they were doing a remake of Mutiny on The Bounty, because the star had a screaming fit about that bitch from New York. Actually, he was alleged to have used a much uglier word than bitch. No, no, don’t ask who it was I couldn’t possibly tell you. Oh, all right, Mel Gibson. On the plus side, he wasn’t anti-Semitic.
Eventually, however, I got the knack of the interview. If I was talking to the guy who got shot out of the cannon at the circus, I slipped into the cannon to get the feel. (Dumb, dumb, dumb, had the thing fired it could have cut me in two.) If the subject was an animal trainer, I rode the elephant. (Bonus reportorial tip: Always be extra nice to the elephants. A human hates you; the worst you will suffer is a screaming phone call from the publicist. The elephant hates you; you will be a headline in the Daily News.)
So, when I had an assignment some years back to go up to Woodstock to interview Levon Helm, the guitarist and vocalist of The Band who died last year, I was confident I was ready. I had grown up not far from Woodstock in the mid ’60s where The Band’s members had hung out, I knew their music, I knew which Band member had killed himself and which had died of an overdose.
My interest was Helm’s financial problems. Both Helm and the Band’s organist, Garth Hudson, had almost lost their homes because of tax troubles. I had interviewed Hudson a week before I went to talk to Helm and the fact that I still remained in the business was proof of just how desperate I was for health insurance. Hudson didn’t answer questions for several minutes or at all and, when he did, he replied in what I shall generously describe as parables. I am paraphrasing here, but it went something like this.
Me: Garth, you almost lost your house, but at the last minute someone bailed you out. You must be feeling pretty good about this.
A long pause during which life is discovered on Mars; an ice age threatens Woodstock, getting as far as West Shokan, then withdraws; I die and having learned nothing from my previous life am reborn as a feature writer.
Hudson: Well, I’ll tell ya. I play a lot better with my left hand now than I did seven years ago.
Interviewing him was one miserable slog. Happily, I was accompanied by a photographer, Chris Maynard, a man of few words, though not so few as Hudson, and when Hudson left us for a spell, he made one of those corkscrew motions at the side of his head you learn in second grade, then spoke the three little words a reporter cannot hear often enough when an interview has gone south.
“It’s not you,” he said.