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.
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 NewsJoyce Wadler is a reporter at The New York Times, where she also writes the online humor column, "I Was Misinformed." Follow her on Twitter @joyce_wadler