near misses with greatness

As followers of this series (both of you) will be aware, I’ve had the great honour of talking to some famous folk over the years. However, that exclusive club is greatly outnumbered by the famous folk with whom I have never spoken.

People like Marilyn Manson, who kept me in suspense and distracted me from an outdoor Wilco performance, as I waited for a rumoured phone interview that never happened. Or The Pet Shop Boys, with whom I had arranged an interview, only to be told last-minute-like that a change of marketing strategy meant the duo would henceforth only talk to gay publications — our “alternative” paper, however bias-free, did not qualify. (It was still officially ‘alternative’ at the time. That changed in 2001 when the paper was purchased by a big eastern syndicate and converted to an “urban weekly” — whatever that is. Anyway, I don’t believe The Pet Shop Boys talk to urban weeklies either.)

I have also never spoken to a Beatle; though, I once came close. Pete Best was scheduled to play the Rainbow with his band and was doing interviews. (I wonder what I’ll ask Pete Best about. Oh, I know…) Sadly, a death in the family brought the drummer’s Canadian tour to a premature end as he returned home to Liverpool. The good news, though, according to the publicist was that the band had decided to carry on without Pete Best. (Not the first band to do so, I believe.) The show would go on, headlined by a combo now called The Next Best Thing. Ticket-holders would now have the chance to thrill to the sounds of a group of competent players that no longer includes the man The Beatles famously fired. Would I still like an interview with one of the lads? No, thank you. I would not.

Nor did I want an interview with Boy George, once it was made clear that the “boy” due to play DJ for a night at a ByWard Market dance club would talk only on the condition that I not mention the 1980s. I suggested to the publicist that if Mr. O’Dowd is so determined to distance himself from his Culture Club past, perhaps he should stop billing himself as Boy George. The interview offer was immediately rescinded. Dang!Now I’ll never know what Boy George has been up to since the ’80s. ‘Cause, really, I don’t much care.

Jello Biafra and I did exchange a few words; though, it happened at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday after several days of telephone tag. I had returned home from a show, answered the phone and was surprised to hear Mr. Biafra ask if I was in the mood for a chat. It being 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, I declined. So I guess that counts as a brush with greatness, rather than a near miss. Please ignore.

And then there was Ian Hunter, legendary former frontman for Mott The Hoople. See, some years ago I was overcome by the notion that Ian Hunter, who is still rocking at 70 or 80 or whatever he is, embodies the spirit of rock and roll better than any living musician. It may have been something I ate, but it made sense at the time. I fired off an email to Hunter’s website, explaining my belief and requesting an interview. The response came weeks later amid a flurry of comments to the faithful, on the Q&A page of his site. “Allan Wigney,” it read. “Noted.”

OK, I suppose that counts as something of a brush with greatness too. Let me think about this…

Right, then, a few memorable non-encounters come to mind. Please allow me to not introduce myself to the following legends…

First, to the great P.F. Sloan, the man behind a handful of the 1960s’ more enduring pop songs.

I believe it began with a fax. P.F. Sloan, it said, is to release his first album of new material in decades, and is happy to accept interview requests.

The P.F. Sloan? The man who gave the world Secret Agent Man, Where Were You When I Needed You, A Must to Avoid and of course Eve of Destruction? The man who rhymed legislation with coagulatin’? The man who inspired Jimmy Webb to write one of The Association’s coolest songs? H’yeah! Of course I want to talk to P.F. Sloan. So, wasting no time, I called the number in Los Angeles and put in my request for an interview. (Hoping, needless to add, all the available slots were not already filled.) Certainly, the helpful publicist replied. Please allow us to send you the new CD. You’ll love it!

The CD was sent. And received. I did not love it. Indeed, while I wouldn’t want to have to make a list of the worst albums I’ve ever heard, I can safely say P.F. Sloan’s  late-’90s “comeback” record would be on it. Well, it was kind of OK, I guess, if nothing special. Some decent tunes, if you can get past the production. That is, until you get to a regrettable little anthem for our times called (Still On The) Eve of Destruction.

Seriously. That’s the name of the song. The song itself, makes the title seem like a stroke of genius.

Like, yikes! I, uh, really don’t know whether I can talk to this man about his new album. Please make his album go away.

Still, I had agreed to an interview. No, I had requested an interview. That’s worse. What can I tell them now? I can’t do the interview because our publication has changed format overnight to all sports all the time? What if he’s into sports? I mean, I still want to talk to the man behind Eve of Destruction, but not if it means having to talk to the man behind (Still On The) Eve of Destruction.

Must think.

Or I could simply play the waiting game, hoping that Mr. Sloan has been so swamped with interview requests about his hip new disc that he can no longer fit me into his schedule. That could work.

Surprisingly, it did. I never heard from the publicist, or Mr. Sloan, again. Think of it as being (still) on the Dawn of Correction.

So yes, that story has a happy ending. Others, not so much.

Come with me now to that same X Press office desk, as I await a phone call from Ray Charles on a sunny spring afternoon.

I stare at the phone, willing it to ring. (And for it to not be P.F. Sloan.) But I’m not optimistic. I had, after all, been assured weeks earlier that an interview with Ray Charles would not be happening.

Ah, but only a few hours ago, I had received a call from Ray’s people, telling me to expect a call at 3 o’clock this afternoon from the man who married R&B to gospel and called it soul.

Cool! I have no idea what I’ll say to Brother Ray. And I can’t wait to say it.

It had been announced months ago that Ray Charles would be headlining Bluesfest, a major coup for what was at that time a blues festival. Upon learning of this booking, I left a message with Ray’s office, asking them to put my name in for an interview. I did not hear back. I did, however, hear back from Bluesfest. Mr. Charles, I was told, had agreed to give but one interview for the Ottawa market. And since the Citizen is the festival’s major sponsor…

Fair enough. Just thought I’d ask. Bummer, though. I think Ray and I would have had a fine old time.

So this morning, when the call came to tell me the interview is slated for 3 p.m., well, let’s say it was a pleasant surprise. Ray Charles is going to call? A pretty good way to start the day.

Alas, ’tis not to be. Within minutes, a frantic call comes through from that Bluesfest PR person. There has been some confusion on the part of Ray’s publicists, he explains. For some reason (possibly the fact that I asked first) Mr. Charles’s office has put me down for the sole interview for the Ottawa market. Sorry, he says, but this simply cannot happen. Hope you understand.

I understand. I also understand that if the phone rings and Ray Charles is on the other end of the line, I will gladly talk with him. I mean, it’d just be plain rude to tell Ray Charles I can’t talk. It’s not like it’s 3 a.m. on a Tuesday or anything. So hey, let’s see how it plays out, shall we?

So back to me and my phone. A phone that is not ringing. And not ringing.

That’s it. I’m busted.

Which is a shame. But then, perhaps it’s payback for my having left P.F. Sloan asking the musical question, “Where were you when I needed you?” Or, perhaps, “Where were you when I (still) needed you?”

Asked and answered, I suppose.

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