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.
A week later I drove back up to the country to interview Levon, who was married and living in a barn like house in Woodstock. He’d had a bout of throat cancer a year or two earlier but he was as chatty as Hudson was withdrawn. He talked about losing his money to drugs; about the record companies he felt had cheated him; about his former band-mate Robbie Robertson, the one decent businessman in the group as far as I could see, who was living in LA, scoring movies, who Levon felt had ripped him off, too.
It was a humid August day and at one point Levon suggested I kick off my shoes and take a walk to his lake. Naturally—take an interest in their interests—I did. It was a nice enough lake, but very buggy, so after a little ‘Oooh, aaah, great lake, sweet property, gee whiz, trees and everything?’ I cut it short. It wasn’t until two hours after I had left Levon’s that I realized that I was scratching my legs not because of bugs, but because of poison ivy. Within 48 hours they were covered with great oozing sores. It took a course of oral antibiotics to clear them up, but I was so grateful that Levon had been a great talker I didn’t hold it against him, even when I learned someone else had gotten a wicked case of poison ivy on his land so he had to have known it was there.
About a week later, I was heading up to Woodstock again and since I had a few more questions for Levon, I made an appointment to drop in and see him again. He came out to meet me, wearing only a pair of faded, navy blue underpants. The name on the band was Calvin Klein. You notice things like that when a guy is wearing only his underwear. Also that even in rock ‘n roll time takes a toll.
Levon said nothing about why he was dressed only in underpants and not wishing to be uncool with a guy who had played with Bob Dylan I did not bring it up. It certainly wasn’t a seduction move, there was none of that vibe about it, his wife was in the house, and the ‘60s were over. We sat in his screened in porch, stacked with crates of empty Coca-Cola bottles, and discussed heroin and getting ripped off and I thought about the gorilla in the middle of the room and what a wuss I was being and finally, as casually as I could, I asked Levon what I still feel was one of the most penetrating questions of my career. I still wish 60 Minutes had been there to capture it.
“Levon,” I said, “Why are you doing this interview in your underwear?”
His answer didn’t rise to the same level. It also didn’t make any sense, considering we were sitting in a screened in porch: His doctor had told him it would be good for his health to get some sun, he said.
But giving the matter much thought, later, I decided that as so often is the case, the subject’s words were not as relevant as his actions. The man had felt comfortable enough with me to do an interview in his underwear. I had established trust.
This piece was originally printed in the Silurian News