Saturday, 1 March 2014


I've interviewed Bob Dylan twice - this encounter in 1986 and again in 1992. I found the original typed piece the other day and this is pretty much as it was written before being widely circulated in Australia and appearing as a cover story in BAM magazine in America. Dylan apparently disliked two things about the published piece - my comment that he has a weak handshake (he does) and that I mentioned him phoning his children, something I heard he bawled Michael Gudinski out for telling me.

Lincoln Hall, part of the first Australian expedition to climb Mt Everest, wanted to interview Bob Dylan whilst he was in Australia for his third concert tour.

Through Dylan's publicist, Patti Mostyn, Hall sent a copy of the book he'd written about the Everest adventure to Dylan's manager, Elliot Roberts, hoping that its contend might inspire Mr Zimmerman to talk to him.

The answer as a definite no.

"Climbing Mt Everest is easier than getting an interview with Bob Dylan," Roberts replied.

If that is indeed the case then whilst in New Zealand with the Dylan/Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers entourage I achieved the journalistic equivalent of a stroll to the top of the world's highest mountain - and I'm not sure which would be easier.

At 2am in the bar of the Regent Hotel in Auckland I interviewed Bob Dylan, supposedly the only face-to-face interview the singer and songwriter would do whilst in Australasia.

Besides last week's press conference at Brett Whiteley's Surry Hills gallery Dylan had only consented to one other interview, conducted in Los Angeles, with 60 Minutes, the resulting confrontation  being described by reporter George Negus as something akin to having teeth pulled out.

Dylan has rarely been an easy interview subject. For starters he doesn't give many, although in the past year with the release of his current album, Empire Burlesque and the retrospective Biograph, Dylan has entered  into one of the most verbose periods of his career with most major music orientated publications in America being granted lengthy interviews.

But in Australia Dylan's response to questions was closer to the clever, evasive, confident Dylan of the mid-iSxties who had reporters tearing their hair out in their futile attempts to get the cocky young singer to answer a question in terms they understood.

Twenty years later Dylan is not quite so clever or quite so verbally quick/ If anything he appears as someone who's been asked, and answered, every conceivable question and is totally reluctant to respond expansively to any question that doesn't interest him.

Dylan's consent to do interviews,  press conferences and videos (three things he obviously loathes) seem to be totally at the behest of manager Roberts, a Jewish heavyweight in the music industry whose clients also include Tom Petty, Neil Young and The Cars.

The Sydney press conference was a typical encounter:
Q - What is the difference  between the Bob Dylan of the Sixties and the Dylan of today?
A - Not much because I still do most of the same material.

Q - In the Sixties your songs were described as anthems for a generation. Do you still feel a responsibility in that direction?
A - No.

Q - Do you think you've passed the apex of your career?
A - What career. I've never had a career. I'm someone who doesn't work for a living.

Maybe you could put it down to the Australian media's notorious reputation for asking dumb questions, but after my interview I'm of the opinion that no matter how good or bad the questions Bob Dylan talks about what he wants, when he wants - and no-one's going to get him to change that.

My Dylan encounter had a sense of 'event' from the start. No interviews had been the position until after Wednesday night's concert in Wellington when Frontier Touring Company's Michael Gudinski informed me that, yes, Dylan would do one interview, probably after the Auckland concert - but the placement of the interview was to be delayed.

It's rumoured that Frontier had paid Dylan up front for six Sydney concerts and were having trouble selling five so a widely circulated Dylan interview was deemed necessary to sell the remaining seats.

After the Auckland concert I drove back to the Regent Hotel with the entourage and waited in Gudinski's room. Then I was told Dylan wanted to have a bath. Three quarters of an hour later Dylan was clean, relaxed and wanted to call America, supposedly his children. A half hour later I was told that Robert Zimmerman would see him in the downstairs bar.

I'm introduced to a slightly pudgy Dylan who gives a rathe weak handshake, his manager suggesting we retire to a table where he remains the entire interview, assuming an equally intimidatory role, wincing at questions he obviously doesn't find suitable and helping Bob out with responses to others.

I started badly, suggesting that Dylan's association with the classic American rock'n'roll band The Heartbreakers was good for him, bringing out performances the likes of which he hadn't given for a long time.

"Since when," Dylan taunted. "Come on, tell me when I last gave good shows, you tell me when I last gave spirited shows."

More than most performers from the Sixties Dylan has been seen as someone who's politically aware, knows the difference between right and wrong, and writes songs that have been the anthems for any number of organisations and movements expousing a variety of causes - but when I ask about his politics Dylan stares at me from behind his dark sunglasses.

"Well I never had any politics, I'm still searching for some," he said. "Maybe one of these days I'll run into some that make sense to me but at the moment I don't even know what politics are to tell you the truth."

Whilst thinking to myself that this is a load of garbage I suggest that if nothing else Dylan's association with Live Aid and the Farm Aid Benefit are a case of him taking a stance on certain political issues.

"It might be," he smiles. "I don't know what politics it would be other than everybody is affected by the farm crisis so it transcends politics I think.

"You see, I'm not into politics. I'll tell you why I'm not into politics. Because if you're voting for somebody you trust the guy you're voting for, that's why you vote for him.

"You trust the guy. Anything he wants to do, if you trust him it doesn't matter what he does because you're going to agree with what he does anyway.

"But the people who run in politics, they run on issues - what they would just do on certain issues, so you don't ever have a chance to know the man, you know what I mean?

"If you meet someone that you think is OK you'll go all the way with that person, right or wrong you're going to go all the way, but if he's just talking about what he's going to do to keep the bar open till after 2 o'clock or whatever, that's just an issue.

"The guy could be a real dog and say he'll do all these things for you."

Dylan said that the problems currently facing farmers in America are a result of the 'system', where corporations grow the food.

"Farmers have gotten to be businessmen. You see,they've turned farmers into businessmen.

"But when you're talking about food you're not talking about shoes or appliances or automobiles - you're talking about something that people need to survive.

"I don't really know if it's a real criss yet. I know that supermarkets still got their shelves pretty much stocked. It's more a crisis of who's got the money to buy the food."

In a recent interview overseas Dylan was asked who he'd most like to interview and he replied that most of the people are already dead, listing Hank Williams, Apollinaire, Joseph from the Bible, Marilyn Monroe, Joh F. Kennedy, Mohammad, and Paul the Apostle.

Dylan admitted that there was a time in his life when he listened to nothing but records by the greatest ever country singer, Hank Williams, who died in 1953 in the back seat of his car from a combination of drugs and alcohol whilst on the way to a concert.

One of Dylan's most famous songs, Like A Rolling Stone, was directly inspired by Williams' song Lost Highway and I wanted to know if Williams was sitting where I was what Dylan would ask him.

"I'd probably ask him where he gets his drugs," Dylan replied, laughing for the only time in the interview.

"What else would I ask him? I think that would be enough. I always liked his coshes and I probably would have wanted to know where he got those."

Another person who inspired Dylan was Elvis Presley and at the press conference in Sydney Dylan admitted that one of the highlights of his career was when Presley recorded some of his songs.

In 1974 when Dylan toured America one critic suggested that the concerts showed that all Dylan really wanted to be was like Presley - an ageing cabaret-styled performer crooning out predictable versions of his hits to adoring audiences.

"You know what happened to Elvis?" Dylan asked. "He's dead and I don't want to be like that at all. No, I never wanted to be like Elvis.."

When it comes to people recording versions of his songs, besides Presley's Dylan thought that  Diana Ross did a wonderful version of Forever Young, and that a young band from Nashville, Jason And The Scorchers, did a fine version of one of his sings but he couldn't remember which one it was.

And the highest praise was for Jimi Hendrix and his version of All Along The Watchtower.

Dylan was reluctant to talk about his other activities in Australia and wouldn't be drawn on the recording he was to do in Sydney.

Soon after arriving Dylan, Petty, The Heartbreakers, and Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. along with Dylan's four black backup singers, went into Festival Records studios and recorded a new Dylan song, Band Of The Band, the theme song for an unspecified movie.

Dylan has been involved with three movies based around aspects of his career - Don't Look Back, the unreleased Eat The Document and Renaldo and Clara. Some of the Australian shows are being filmed by Gillian Armstrong.

"That'll be for  for national television in the States, and probably other parts of the world," Dylan said.

"I picked Gillian because she was really enthusiastic about the project and she's a competent film maker."

According to Dylan the film may or may not be shot in black and white and it may or may not include footage shot at locations other that the Sydney Entertainment Centre.

In fact for someone who traditional likes to maintain such control over what is released under his name Dylan was remarkably unconcerned about the format of the film.

"We're playing the live shows and we're on tour and it's too much to be traveling around and be involved in making a film," Dylan said.

Otherwise Dylan seemed happiest (but far from expansive) recalling seeing comedian Lenny Bruce perform, his association with Allen Ginsberg, impressions of Jack Kerouac, and explaining that he has no plans to follow up his one novel, Tarantula, "which was just a chapter in my life and there's only one chapter."

I asked Dylan his response to Irish writer Brendan Behan's comment that anyone who hates America hates the human race.

"That's kinda putting it a bit strongly but it's hard not to love America - don't you love America?

"It's the kind of country where if you don't like where you're living or what you're doing then you can always move on someplace else."

With that Dylan's manager muttered something about time being up. I left the table thinking that interviewing Dylan was infinitely more nerve wracking than going to a a dentist - and maybe even as difficult as climbing Mt Everest.


Sunday, 9 February 2014


You're in Los Angeles just before Christmas in 1996. You've had breakfast with Iggy Pop and there's a few hours to kill before you're scheduled to chat with Jeff Buckley. What do you do? Go have lunch with Neil Diamond, that's what.

Neil Diamond's office and studio is situated in a faceless building around the corner from the Beverly Centre in Los Angeles, five minutes drive from Sunset Boulevard. There's no signs on the door to identify its owner. No huge image from Hot August Night in the window. All the blinds are permanently pulled. It's the sort of building you could walk past for twenty years without realising that it housed Diamond's multi-million dollar music business empire and the state-of-the-art recording studio where he's recorded countless albums.

Diamond himself apparently lives somewhere within walking distance so that he can wander into his studio day or night to tinker away on songs. The studio is never hired out to other groups or musicians which is the way Diamond likes it. He never knows when the inspiration to write another Solitary Man, Kentucky Woman, I'm A Believer or Red Red Wine is going to occur. In fact, although I'm never told, I gained the impression that Chateau Diamond may in fact be above the studio/office.

Inside the building it's a veritable hive of activity as publicists, assistants and technical maintenance staff go about their business of keeping the Diamond machine oiled whilst his two dogs meander from office to office. The walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with memorabilia. Gold records, platinum records, the cover of each of his (who's really counting) albums, presentations from Sony Music Australia after his last tour, photos of Diamond with an array of celebrities, baseball caps from places he's toured, and other momentos. They're in the kitchen, the bathroom's, everywhere.

Diamond survey's one of the rooms as he talks about the challenges he still finds in music. "There are definitely challenges, there's no question about it. - this is yesterday," he says as his eyes sweep around the room. "This stuff's nice and it's cheaper than wallpaper because I already have it, but there's still things I want to do."

It's mid afternoon on a hot Los Angeles day and Diamond's answering questions whilst munching on his lunch - some sort of concoction that looks like meatball and noodle soup. We've been talking about the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where during a break in the last tour Diamond and some of his buddies from the band and crew hired Harley Davidson motorbikes and took a trip up as far as Mt Victoria, stopping in at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath.

"It's a very strange place," he says. "It reminded me of the hotel Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining, some ancient relic that had a lot of ghosts in it."

"I don't get to do many road trips but when we get a chance we like to go out and commune with nature and get away from the telephone and reinvestigate and revisit our macho-ness and all that silly stuff." Diamond likes his road trips and is obsessive about Harley Davidson bikes. In a back room of his office there's two of the beasts ("they're a beautiful machine"), aside from dozens of guitars,, one of which was a gift from his band and crew after a past tour.

"The logo on the side was designed by Willie G. Davidson who's the grandson of Harley Davidson and it's an extraordinarily beautiful bike," Diamond enthuses. "I'm afraid to take it out so I take a lot of pictures of it and when I do ride it and I don't take it into any rough terrain." Then, near the bikes, there's a Harley Davidson pinball machine. "You should try it because it's very unusual for a pinball machine because it vibrates like a motorcycle and does all kinds of fun things. It was actually made for Harley Davidson and they had them in their dealerships. I've known the Harley people for a number of years and I fernangled one out of them. You must try this one. This is different from any machine I've tried before. It does things that are different."

Diamond doesn't give many interviews these days. In fact as a precursor to the Australian tour he granted just three - one for 60 Minutes, another for a colour magazine and this one. He's a quietly spoken man. Friendly in a reserved sort of fashion, and not overly prone to merriment. As the creator of albums like the soundtrack to Jonathan Livingston Seagull and many other less than inspiring albums he's frequently held up to ridicule by the cool and elite rock intelligensia and seemingly suspicious of interview requests. The rigmarole surrounding this meeting was a protracted affair, his office requesting a collection of my past interviews and subjecting me to two grilings about my interest in Diamond and the tack I'd be taking in the interview. Even after passing these tests Diamond's publicist sat in on the entire interview. You know, just in case things got oughta hand.   

Regardless of the ridicule the fact remains that Diamond's one of the most successful and popular figures in popular music history. Simple as that. His thirty year career has seen him sell almost one hundred million albums and notch up more than 60 American chart hits. His 1972 double concert set, Hot August Night, was a phenomena in this country, spending 224 weeks on the Australian charts Who could really hope for more?. During his 1976 national tour one of Diamond's concerts was televised to three million people and conducted in the presence of both Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Abba.

And per capita Diamond is probably more popular in Australia than any other country in the world. His new album, the countrified Tennessee Moon, has already qualified for Platinum status here and a representative from Sony Music Australia suggests that the album sales are outstripping those in other countries.

Diamond seems genuinely enthusiastic about Tennessee Moon, which runs for almost 70 minutes and, for the first time in his career, sees him extensively collaborating with other writers, in this case some of Nashville's finest songsmiths.

"This album took a year to make and I got a lot of things off my chest," me says, now puffing on a post-lunch cigar. "I got a chance to work with the top writers in Nashville, and the top musicians. I worked hard as a writer again for the first time in years. 

"Over the past few years I've done a Christmas album and a tribute to the Brill Building writers and another Christmas album, so for four years I didn't have to write anything, so I got in touch with my writing muse again and I liked it even though it was very intense."

With the exception of a re-working of his classic Kentucky Woman, Diamond had a different co-writer for each of Tennessee Moon's eighteen tracks, something that he found both unusual and invigorating.

"I've usually written my songs myself, especially earlier on, probably because no-one would have anything else to do with me - and when they did I didn't want to have anything to do with them. Then I started collaborating with people like Robbie Robertson on a song on Beautiful Noise and I enjoyed the process. 

"It was a neat change, the human contact. There wasn't so much of the solitary profession so I enjoyed working with these people in Nashville. I thought they were top, creative, brilliant people. Some of them are geniuses . . . one or two are like Mozart. They were that good."

Tennessee Moon's opening and title track name drops the country great Hank Williams who Diamond says was a pivotal influence on him as a youngster.

"At the time I heard him I was learning how to play guitar and I was listening to the Everly Bothers and Chet Atkins, and Hank Williams was a well known songwriter and that was what I was aspiring to be at the time, when I was a teenager. For some reason I made a connection with him, and that's why the mention in the song. There was the tragedy of his life, the shortness of his life.

"Hank Williams was simple enough for me to play and understand and sing. I played a lot of other people's stuff as a kid - Woody Guthrie and all of The Weavers' stuff in the '50s when I started playing, and then eventually I got into Ritchie Valens and rock'n'roll and contemporary music."

Diamond was in the studio for all of the extensive sessions to record Tennessee Moon, explaining that the only time he hasn't been completely involved in a session was for his contribution to an album of duets with Frank Sinatra. He was asked if he wanted to contribute to the album, expressed his enthusiasm for doing so, and was told that he'd be sent the tape to add his vocals to those of Sinatra's.

Mention of Sinatra suggests that Diamond still has a slight hangup about being recognised as a musical giant. He's at pains to explain that he's known Sinatra for many years and that he was at his daughter Tina's wedding in Las Vegas. Later he makes a point of noting that he's also known Bob Dylan for a lengthy period. Both observations are subtly  presented in such a way as to remind the listener that Diamond perceives himself as not just a successful artist - but one with artistic credibility as well.

It may also be just a media con job, but Diamond expresses a seemingly genuine concern about his enduring popularity. He first toured Australia in 1976 and didn't return for over a decade, apparently out of insecurity about attracting large audiences.

"I was afraid that I could never top that and live up to the expectations of that tour, but after the last visit when we did the shows and people accepted it we can come back now and be more relaxed about it."

Diamond should have no such fears. All eighteen shows in Australia have sold out and industry observers are suggesting that he'll play to more people in this country than the Rolling Stones did a year ago.

Having played with pretty much the same band for the past two decades, Diamond admits that he's always nervous before the start of a tour and hates the prospect until it gets underway. Given that neither he or his band and entourage are getting any younger he realises the need to make the traipsing around the globe as painless as possible. In every hotel there's a room set aside 24 hours a day for ping pong playing, and another permanently set up with a table for poker playing, one of Diamond's passions.

"The table's in the middle of the room and waits until after the show when somehow, magically people congregate around it and chips are purchased and a poker game starts," he smiles. "It's the longest running poker game in rock'n'roll - it's been going on for twenty years. 

"On tour we've found ways to maintain our sanity and make it comfortable and liveable and still do the job and be enthusiastic about a show and not burn ourselves out."

Towards the end I suggest to Diamond that given his astonishing legacy of songs eventually he's bound to be the subject of one of those horrendous tribute albums where other artists pay tribute by covering well known songs. The idea doesn't seem to appeal to Diamond. Already there's an impressive start for such a project with Diamond's songs having been covered by the likes of the Monkees, Lulu, Deep purple, Bobby Womack, UB40, Chris Isaak and Urge Overkill

"After I'm dead hopefully," he says. "It's not my thing. It's too commercial, and who'd want to pay tribute to me? I don't know . . .I don't have that many friends in the business."

The audience over, Diamond leans forward, squeezes my knee in what I imagine is some sort of bonding gesture and bounds out of the room. Like meeting Mick Jagger many years ago I'm left with a feeling that one of the best known entertainers on the planet is an extremely private and ordinary man. He's an old-fashioned craftsman with intense fan loyalty.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014



Towards the end of 1996 and in Los Angeles I had the most surreal day of my music fan/journalistic life - breakfast with Iggy Pop at the Chateau Marmont, lunch with Neil Diamond at his studio, a phone interview with Jeff Buckley and then in the early evening I was in a taxi to . . . Brian Wilson's house. This is my original account of the experience which appeared in various forms in The Melbourne Age and other publications. And yes, I still have the tape of Brian at the piano and I haven't copied it for anyone.

The strange and sorry saga of Brian Wilson is one of the most intriguing and bizarre stories in the history of popular music. Is Wilson completely crazy - or one of the towering figures of rock and pop music, a figure to rival Bob Dylan, Phil Spector and Lennon & McCartney? Is he both? These are questions that have obsessed both fans and rock critics for the past two decades.

For many years Wilson was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, the American surf music band who rivalled the Beatles in terms of popularity and chart success with songs like Surfin' Safari, Surfin' U.S.A and Surfer Girl.

During the early to mid '60s Wilson composed, wrote, arranged and produced some of the best known and most sublime pop records ever recorded - In My Room, Don't Worry Baby, The Warmth Of The Sun, Fun, Fun, Fun, Help Me, Rhonda, California Girls, Good Vibrations and dozens of others. 

Put simply, the other Beach Boys were little more than a medium for Wilson - something that's obvious when one listens to the turgid records they've made in periods when he has not been working with them. They recorded Kokomo without him. I rest my case.

The Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds album was essentially a Brian Wilson solo project and almost 20 years later was still voted number 1 last year in a poll of the best albums ever made conducted by influential English magazine Mojo. 

By the time of Pet Sounds' release Wilson was starting to go more than just a little crazy. Increasingly estranged from his fellow Beach Boys, who wanted to continue with the surf sound that had made them household names and immeasurably wealthy, Wilson pursued work on a  projected album entitled Smile, a truly adventurous, mind bogglingly complex album that was totally unlike anything the Beach Boys could contemplate recording.

Legend has it that at one point Wilson burnt the tapes of Smile and the album has still not been released in its entirety, although various 'versions' are widely bootlegged. (NB: This was the case at time of writing - SC)

From this point Wilson's life became the stuff of legends. For starters he decided he didn't want to tour with the Beach Boys any more. Increasingly obese there are stories of him buying his own supermarket so he could shop at any time of the day or night. Other stories had him writing and recording with his feet in a sandpit constructed in front of his piano. There were addictions to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, sleeping tablets, heroin and serious intakes of marijuana and LSD. Nervous breakdowns, paranoia, hallucinatory visions . . . basically Brian Wilson was a physical and emotional mess for the best part of the next twenty years and rarely sighted in public except for the occasional disastrous tour with the Beach Boys, preferring to spend most of his time in bed.

Then there was the famed intervention of therapist Dr Eugene Landy, and on-again-off-again relationship with the Beach Boys, and ongoing legal brawls with his brothers and cousins who still functioned as 'the Beach Boys'. 

Eventually, and most people believe it was for the best, Landy was removed from Wilson's life and rumours began circulating that the pop music genius was finally starting to return to some sense of normalcy.

Whether that was true or not was something I was destined to discover for myself early one evening a few days before Christmas as a taxi drove me up into the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles where I'd been granted a rare audience with Wilson. Interviews with Wilson are scarce - let alone an invitation to visit him at home.

Home for the last seven months has been inside an enormous estate full of houses worth at least several million dollars each, entrance through massive gates only being granted after security guards have checked the occupants of each car and cleared admission through the particular house owner.

Wilson, 52, lives in a massive white two story mansion with his new wife, Melinda Ledbetter, a California girl five years his junior. The door is opened by an assistant who points me to a room on the left where Wilson is sitting in a large armchair. Nearby is a giant white grand piano.  He says hello, shakes hands and motions for me to sit on some cushions, literally at his feet. 

Glancing around the opulent surroundings it's impossible to ignore the fact that each visible room has at least one, often two, floor to ceiling Christmas trees.

Initially Wilson appears perfectly ordinary, a big man who looks healthy and acts congenially. But why is he clutching this big pillow over his stomach which he never removes? And why, every six or seven minutes, does he stop mid-sentence and stare at the ceiling for thirty seconds or so before regaining his concentration and asking me to remind him what we were talking about? Is it something to do with the cans of Diet Cherry Cola (yes, you read that right) that he slugs on throughout the conversation. These are little mysteries that are never answered.

Aside from these minor aberrations, couple with a rather tangential response to questions, Wilson seems in good shape - and certainly in one of his most creative periods of recent years. Last year saw the I Wasn't Made For These Times documentary and the astonishing accompanying soundtrack album with Wilson and co-producer Don Was brilliantly re-recording versions of many of Wilson's pop gems. Then there's Orange Crate Art a collaboration with the equally eccentric Van Dyke Parks, which is a  truly strange and beautiful record that seems to come from another time and place.

"He wrote all the songs and he arranged all of it and produced it - and I sang it," says Wilson of Orange Crate Art, the first time he and Parks have worked together since the days of the Smile album some two decades ago.

"He was very happy with my vocals," Wilson continues. "He said, 'you're the greatest singer in the world,' and I went 'WHAT, WHAT . . . the greatest singer in the world . . .no way . . I can't sing for shit.' I have a good voice but I don't sing very well. That's okay - that's something I've lived with for a long time. I'm sure nobody would give a shit anyway."

When we met Wilson had just returned from Chicago where he's been reunited with the other Beach Boys and working on a new project - a Beach Boys country album.

"It's the Beach Boys backing up twelve different and separate country artists," Wilson says whilst I'm wondering what a 'separate country artist' is. 

"We recorded eight background things in Chicago - In My Room with my daughter Wendy singing lead, The Warmth Of The Sun with Willie Nelson singing lead, I Get Around With Travis Tritt. Kenny Rogers is going to do Caroline, No. 

"It's the most fantastic album idea that's come along in a long time. It's a very heavy conceptual album that's kind of like bringing people together. That's the power of music. It's also very frightening for me. I've never done anything like this in my life and I wouldn't know where to start."

This new album is scheduled for release mid-year, but Wilson reckons it might even be finished earlier. Before then there's a few other guest vocalists they want to enlist.

"We're going to try and get Dolly Parton who I adore," Wilson says before articulating exactly what it is that attracts him about Dolly.

"I think Dolly is one of the greatest . . . of course, very big breasts . . . very alluring . . . she's a very alluring girl. And maybe we'll get Julio Iglasius."

What about George Jones, I venture.

"Who . . . maybe . . . is he a country singer?"

Informed that The Possum is in fact probably the greatest living country singer on the planet Wilson goes, "Oh yeah, right, right . . . and what's that guy's name who was Entertainer Of The Year for two years . . . Garth Brooks. We're going to try and get him too. Can you imagine us with all those country people? CAN YOU IMAGINE IT? It's almost impossible to understand. I think it'll be wonderful."

Indeed it might. After the interview, whilst Wilson is in the next room banging away on the piano, his wife takes me into a music room to play me the Willie Nelson contribution which is truly breathtaking. As are a bunch of rough demos of new Wilson songs that she puts in the tape machine before explaining that this year might also see a version of Smile, interpreted by a symphony orchestra, released. She also tells me that in the New Year the Beach Boys are going to Europe to record a version of Fun, Fun, Fun with Status Quo. Go figure.

Wilson seems genuinely excited about working with the Beach Boys again - something that seems all the more remarkable when you consider they're probably the most litigious and, at times, downright nasty family in popular music. Christ, the make the Jackson's seem positively fun lovin'.

"Yeah, yeah, yes, YES, it's very good," gushes Wilson about the reunion. "The guys were all just very good and practised and they knew all the songs because they'd been doing them on the road for 33 years.

"It was basically a test to see if we could still hang together - and we passed the test. We passed with flying colours. I'm cool . . . I'm in one piece. . . I've been around. It was tough for me to be with those guys. We've got a lot of memories, a lot of bad memories of course . . . we never broke up but we might as well have broken up, the way we got along with each other. But that's all in the past. I was happy to go back there and work."

Good golly, Wilson's not even dismissing the possibility that he might perform live again as a Beach Boy. but there's something about his manner that suggests it's a long shot.

"Oh yeah . . .depends how it feels. If it feels lousy I probably won't but if it feels good I'll do it."

Does he miss the onstage experience?

"No," he laughs. "No.  I never did. Mike (Love) always scared me. I've always been afraid of Mike. He's good at it. He scared me. I think I'm better off at my piano than I am onstage because at my piano I can write a song and keep busy and keep my head into something."

I remind Wilson of the last time I saw him in Australia. It was 1978 and I'd gone to the airport in Adelaide to see the band arrive - but really only to get a glimpse of one of my heroes.

"It was very weird," he says softly. "I had a nervous breakdown on the airplane. I felt like I was falling through the plane . . . I was thinking, 'my head is gone here', but I got through it and that was 17 years ago. How old were you then."

Wilson explains that he's writing a few new songs. There's one called Turn On Your Lovelight and he's working on a version of Proud Mary, the Creedence Clearwater classic.

"We're doing a version of it," he says. "The boys haven't put their voices on it yet. It's going to be like . . . I'll show you. Bring your tape recorder over here."

Wilson walks to the piano, plonks my tape recorder on it and starts hammering the keys and singing "rolling, rolling down the river . . ." If there's a heaven I'm at least temporarily there. Finishing the song Wilson gently reminds me that he woudn't like to think that I'd sell that tape. He's as aware as anyone of the amount of money that can be fetched for something like an intimate home recording of his.

Throughout the conversation there are the occasional glimpses that things are still not exactly wired up correctly in Wilson's head. At one point he asks me if I smoke cigarettes. Telling him I do and that I have a packet in my bag if he'd like one he looks furtively around to the other rooms with the panicked look of a 12-year-old caught with their first Playboy. "I'd really like one," he whispers. "But I'd better . . . I'd better not . . . I've given up."

Later, when asked whether he thinks the reason he and the other Beach Boys have had so many problems over the years had something to do with them starting at such a young age and having little protection from the star making machinery, Wilson drops his voice so it's almost inaudible. Demons from his past are obviously flooding back, even after more than four decades, as he recalls he and his brothers being beaten by their father Murry.

"Yeah," he says. "I was a little insecure when I was younger. My  Dad knocked the hell out of me so much. He used to whip me. He would take his belt and we would have to drop our pants down to our shoes and then bend over the bathtub and he would wack the hell out of us. He'd start with me and then he'd go to Dennis and then he'd go to Carl. 

"When it came to Dennis he whacked the hell out of him . . .he whacked me real hard but he killed Dennis, whacked him harder than us. He's barely wack Carl. He hated Dennis the most, and he hated me second, and he hated Carl third. But once in awhile he'd really lay on me strong and he'd take that strap and he'd wack the hell out of my arse and, man, it hurt and I cried and cried. It was like the scenes in our house, they were so terrible and we couldn't do anything about it. We were all getting all beat up and getting knocked around."

After that we keep talking for another half hour and then I bring up the 'great lost' Smile album. Wilson says he doesn't know exactly what's going to be done with it. "They'll fix it up."

So he didn't, as legend has it, burn the tapes? Wilson becomes very quite.

"No . . I wanted to . . . but I didn't."

Then, even more subdued. "I'm going to have to say that this is about as much as I can do . . . I gotta . . . I need to make some calls" he says before getting up and walking from the room. A minute later, having obviously not been on the phone, he reappears, seeming more cheery, and asks if I'd like a drink. An affirmative is greeted with him yelling to someone in the kitchen, "GET THIS GUY A DIET CHERRY COLA."

Later, whilst I'm sitting listening to the new material, Wilson's again banging out Proud Mary on the grand. He walks in at one point and I remark that I've never seen so many Christmas trees in one house. Wilson looks at his wife and smiles. "We've still got one to put up in the bedroom tonight," he says, before strolling out and returning to the piano.

I remark to Melinda that it must be disconcerting trying to listen to music with Wilson playing piano so loudly in the next room.

"Oh, it's okay tonight," she smiles. "Usually he has the jukebox going at the same time."

Welcome to Brian's world. He's trying but obviously wasn't really made for these times.


Thursday, 2 January 2014


The first time I set eyes on Allen Ginsberg was in the basement of the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco in the early 1980s when I was on tour with the Hoodoo Gurus. I thought of saying hello but figured he must get tired of that so in the same way that Jim Carroll used to follow Frank O'Hara around the streets of Manhattan during O'Hara's lunch break, trying to see what the great poet saw, I kept a distance as I trailed Ginsberg around the shop, looking at the books he was looking at. Early in 1997 I finally had the opportunity to interview Ginsberg. As it turns out it was shortly before he died so this is one of the last interviews he did. This is the full, unedited version of the piece which later appeared in various publications.

"He died several years ago, but I had a very interesting dream, a very brief dream," says Allen Ginsberg when asked about his early mentor, Carl Solomon, the man to whom his most famous poem, Howl, was dedicated. Solomon originally wanted to publish the works of Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac before his New York publishers told him he was crazy. Like the young Ginsberg, Solomon was no stranger to the inside of a mental hospital.

Ginsberg was happily chatting at his New York apartment less than a month before his sudden, but not totally unanticipated, death aged 70 on Saturday April 5. He had suffered from chronic hepatitis that eventually led to cirrhosis of the liver.

A diagnosis of terminal liver cancer was made eight days before Ginsberg's death, with initial media reports suggesting that the poet and activist had between four and twelve months to live. Ginsberg slipped into a coma the day of the news. The day prior he had written about a dozen short poems, one of the last being entitled On Fame And Death.

Ginsberg was no stranger to the media circus but had done few interviews with the Australian media over his career and had only visited the country once. In this encounter what had started out as a brief twenty minute interview to coincide with his musical performance The Ballad Of The Skeletons, which had recently been voted number 8 on the Top 100 songs of the moment as voted by listeners to youth radio network Triple J, turned into an hour and a half encounter with Ginsberg ranging over his poetry, the infamous Beat Generation, contemporary poetry, his feelings about Buddhism, Aboriginal musicians, Chinese politics, blues music and his love life.

"I met him in the afterworld and I said, 'well, how is it there?'" Ginsberg continued, speaking about Solomon in a manner which, in hindsight, seems rather prophetic. "And he said, 'it's OK, you get along just like in the mental hospital if you obey the rules' and I said 'what are the rules?'. He said there are two rules: ' First, remember you're dead; second, act like you're dead.'

"And I woke up laughing. He said two days before he died 'I have life insurance but I'm dying'. It was a very courageous death, I must say. He was very much with it, even with his cancer. So we had a memorial service for him.

"The funny thing is that most of us are all together after thirty years. I see Gary Snyder, who has just finished a huge project that he'd begun working on some 30 or 40 years ago, so we had a big banquet together in San Francisco. I saw McClure and Philip Whalen and I see Diana DePalma at Naropa, and Gregory (Corso) here and Kenneth Copeland and I have John Ashbury's job at Brooklyn College. Peter Orlovsky is just around the corner. We have supper every three nights. (John) Giorno is further downtown."

Aside from a vigorous social life, right till the end Ginsberg maintained an astonishing work schedule. A volume of Selected Poems was released earlier this year, as was his The Ballad Of The Skeletons which was recorded with a variety of musicians including Paul McCartney and Philip Glass. This year has also seen a book called Illuminated Poems, Ginsberg's mid-1950's Journals and at the time of the conversation he was working on a book of essays from the '60s through to the '90s and was about to edit a collection of selected interviews. And as if that wasn't enough Ginsberg was planning an MTV 'Unplugged' musical performance to capitalise on the success of The Ballad Of The Skeletons.

"Next year they're bring out The Lion For Real from 1990," Ginsberg continued. "Then I have a book of photographs over the last ten years. There are a whole bunch of photos from India in 1962, the negatives of which were lost for many years and have now been returned to me. There's also a lot of '50s and '60s photographs that have never been seen. There's quite a lot of stuff to do. I'm working with Philip Glass. We had an opera out you know called Hydrogen Juke Box. There's also a new version of Howl coming out with classical music accompaniment."

And it didn't stop there. After the interview Ginsberg was heading out to sign copies of his astonishingly large photo collection. In fact Ginsberg maintained arguably the most comprehensive literary archive of at least the last fifty years with some millions of photos, letters, journals, poetry and paraphernalia sold two years ago to an American university for in excess of $US2 million.

If Ginsberg knew that his days were numbered it wasn't obvious. Certainly he'd had periods of illness over recent years but aside from his myriad of projects he was already committed to returning to Australia early in 1998 for the Adelaide Festival Of Arts.

His last visit to this country had been for that festival in the early '70s when he did a variety of readings and performances including the one he recalled most where he appeared at the Adelaide Town Hall with a group of Aboriginal singers and musicians, something he appeared to remember with absolute clarity some 25 years later.

"I met (Russian poet) Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Adelaide and there were other poets from around the world but they had ignored completely Australian Aborigine's songmen," he said. "Some professors in Australian Aboriginal lore had invited a few Aboriginal song men to the university to sing in their class, to sing to the children and to see if the children would respond to the songs that they sang. But then the Aborigines didn't have enough money to get back home. So I said that I was happy to share my evening session at the Town Hall and they could have my receipts. That was so successful that we did another one at Port Adelaide Town Hall."

Surprisingly these readings were amongst the few things that weren't preserved in Ginsberg's archives, the poet being delighted when I offered to send him copies of the tapes I had of these occasions. There was a genuine delight that, albeit rough, these recordings existed and could be added to his collection.

It's an understatement to suggest that Ginsberg was the most influential American poet of his generation, possibly of the last century, but something that separated him even further from fellow wordsmiths was that, like Burroughs, he was an astonishingly accomplished and powerful reader of his work. That's best heard on the four CD collection Holy Soul Jelly Roll - Poems And Songs 1949 - 1993 which was compiled by Ginsberg and producer Hal Willner and released in 1994.

The collection contains many of Ginsberg's classic readings, but peppers them with lesser known performances, particularly a reading of Howl that, whilst suffering in quality by comparison with the original, completely impassioned version released in the late 1950s on Fantasy Records reinforces that Ginsberg was frequently very, very funny, something that's often not so apparent on the printed page.

"I don't read it that often, maybe one or two times a year when there is a special occasion," Ginsberg explained of his most famous work. "I have developed a certain technique and dynamics for its intonations so it's pretty interesting."

Equally amusing are early readings of such landmark poems as Supermarket In California and America.

"Those are the very first readings of America and Sunflower Sutra," Ginsberg said of the performances on Holy Soul Jelly Roll. "And it's the very first reading of the complete Howl. It's from a Berkeley reading just a few months after the first reading. The first time I read it I only read Part 1. Then we got together the same poets in Berkeley in a little theatre and (Beat Generation historian and Kerouac's first biographer) Anne Charters was Peter Orlovsky's date. While there she met (blues historian) Sam (Charters). They got married after that. So that was a big day in our minds."

So, did Ginsberg perceive the poem's as being humorous?

"I thought America was humorous," Ginsberg continued. "Well, there is a kind of exuberance in poems like Sunflower Sutra. When you say 'the cunts of wheelbarrow's and the milky breasts of cars', I mean, it's funny. It's sort of verbally surrealistic. But it has an exuberance and a kind of joy in it. The whole thing is about joy, about self recognition. . . 'You were never no locomotive, Sunflower you were a sunflower'. The critics of the day dismissed it because they were so busy nit-picking about dirty words. And Howl itself is very funny.  You know, there's this kind of racid impetuousness. Also again that hyperbolic: 'Starving hysterical naked, starving hysterical naked, starving hysterical naked.'"

At the time when Howl was written Ginsberg was, with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, a third of the unholy trio that became known as the Beat Generation. They were intertwined with the likes of Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Hal Chase, Lucien Carr, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McLure and an array of fellow travellers, some of them phenomenally talented, others grabbing on the coat-tails of what was not then but later to be perceived as a significant sub-genre of American poetry and prose of the late 1940's and '50s.

Kerouac died in 1969, Corso's output is increasingly sporadic, Snyder became a committed Buddhist and maintained a low profile whilst the majority of others are notable predominantly for their presence in photos with The Big Three. Now, with Ginsberg gone, only Burroughs remains of the essence of the Beats. Until the end the two maintained an enduring friendship.

"I was with Burroughs a couple of times this year," Ginsberg said." I stayed with him in his house. I cooked breakfast for him. We'd talk over the newspapers. Sometimes I'd take a lot of pictures of him and keep the tape recorder on for a couple of hours at a time. I see him all the time."

Given Ginsberg's candid approach to the conversation I decided to take a chance and ask about whether he thought Burroughs deliberately shot his wife Joan in the head in Tangiers in the mid 1950s. This infamous incident involved Burroughs supposedly displaying his marksmanship at a party, putting an apple on his then-wife's head, William tell style - but ending up shooting her through the head.

"I don't know," Ginsberg hesitated when asked about Burrough's possible pre-meditation in the killing. "It was just the gun shot - but she was very suicidal. I had been with them, with her, maybe ten days before. I spent about ten days with her and she was in a bad way, drinking and driving cars in a way that scared the kids and me in the back because we were all there, so there was already a kind of dread there."

Then there's Corso who I'd spoken to a year before in a belated attempt to get him to tour Australia with poet Anne Waldman. Corso was frightened about the length of the plane trip to Australia and wasn't in possession of a current passport. I'd suggested to him that I'd try and get Ginsberg to accompany him on the trip if it would make him more comfortable but even that wasn't enough to drag him out of his shared lower-East side abode in Manhattan.

"Oh, he's very busy," Ginsberg said. "He's been writing all these years but is neurotically refusing to clean it up and prepare it. I think he's the poet's poet."

In some ways, despite his lack of literary output, the other famous member of the Beats was Neal Cassady, a veracious writer of sub-Kerouacan prose (little of which has been published) and at various times the lover of both Kerouac (who made him, as the character Dean Moriarty, the hero of On The Road) and Ginsberg.

At the time, thinking about Cassady's personality and Ginsberg's ongoing involvement with rock'n'roll (he recorded or performed with Bob Dylan, The Clash, Leonard Cohen, Phil Spector, and obscure punk band The Gluons, to name but a few), I posited that there was possibly some implicit connection between the Beat Generation and the punk and post-punk generation that Ginsberg realised and had tapped into. I suggested that maybe there was a comparison between the restless spirit of Cassady (who died from heart failure alongside railway tracks in Mexico in 1968) and the suicidal Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Ginsberg didn't totally buy the idea.

"I don't think that Cassady was a suicide," he said. "And I don't think he was so pained as Cobain. Cassady was very exuberant and had a good time. The problem was towards the end . . . the L.S.D. didn't do him any harm. He smoked grass very strongly but I think with all his all-night cross country driving with the psychedelic bus - (Ken) Kesey's (Merry) Pranksters - that he took a lot of amphetamine and he went down to Mexico to calm the nerves and went out walking. I think he passed a Mexican wedding where they plied him with some other things and the combination did him in. He was quite vigorous guy but not so neurotic really.

"But Cobain was a marvellous singer. I hadn't heard much of him until towards the end of his life. I heard his unplugged version of that Leadbelly song and it was such a perfect vocal that I was really moved. It's one of my favourite songs but I only knew Leadbelly's version."

Ginsberg went on to reminisce about hanging out with Bob Dylan,  meeting Phil Spector at his home in Los Angeles on a visit with Lenny Bruce and teaching the producer the Hari Krishna song which later evolved into George Harrison's My Sweet Lord and spending time with jazz great Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot club in New York. Throughout Ginsberg was totally unpretentious. His was simply a life lived in the spotlight and these were his friends, acquaintances and inspirations. Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the conversation Ginsberg welcomed the option of continuing talking. We exchanged addresses and he asked how my love life was. I told him it was okay, thanked him for asking, and questioned how his was.

"My love life is OK too," he laughed. "I can hardly get it up but when you're 70 it's hard . . . unless you have somebody being helpful."

So was Ginsberg in that situation?

"I've found some younger chaps or lads quite helpful," he laughed. "There is life after 60."