A Backstage Pass to Intimate Moments in Rock’s Odyssey

Special to The Times

It was the fall of 1969, and Janis Joplin, the biggest female star in rock, seemed invincible on stage -- long, reddish hair swinging wildly as she stretched her vocal cords to alarming limits: “Come on, come on, come on, come on and take it ... take another little piece of my heart now, baby!”

But the 26-year-old native of Port Arthur, Texas, was so self-destructive that no one thought she’d make it to 30: too many drugs, too much booze, too much, well, too much everything.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 26, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
John Lennon: An article in Section A on Saturday about Robert Hilburn’s memories of nearly 40 years as the Times’ pop music critic referred to John Lennon being a child in London during World War II. Lennon grew up in Liverpool.

I was a young writer, new on the job, and I desperately wanted to interview her while she was in town to play the Hollywood Bowl.

I talked my way into her dressing room. What I discovered beneath her hard-boiled image was someone I never dreamed of.


It was the first of many private moments I had with great artists in my nearly 40 years as The Times’ pop critic. Among the encounters: sharing cornflake dinners with John Lennon, having a post-Grammy coffee with Bono and sitting in the kitchen with Johnny and June Carter Cash. Each one gave me not only insight into the creative process but also a deeper understanding of what drives artists -- or destroys them.

Joplin’s Bowl show came near the end of rock’s most explosive decade. Bob Dylan and the Beatles had turned the primitive energy of teen-oriented ‘50s rock into an art form that could express adult themes and emotions. Rock stars were suddenly pop culture gods whose music was embedded in the social and political fabric of a generation.

But many musicians found it difficult to adjust, especially those like Joplin, whose art was driven in part by feverish personal demons and an overpowering lack of self-esteem.

As we saw decades later in the suicide of Kurt Cobain, no generation is immune from the pressures of fame. But the rock star role was particularly difficult in the ‘60s and ‘70s, an era when young people prided themselves on stepping into the unknown.

When I caught up with Joplin at a rehearsal, nothing about her suggested “star.” It was as if all the flashy boas, oversized glasses and Gypsy-hippie attire were her way of compensating for the beauty that nature failed to provide. Minus that camouflage or an audience to energize her, she seemed weary.

Finally, she retreated to her dressing room, collapsed onto a sofa and reached slowly for a pack of cigarettes. She was tired, she said -- tired of fighting with businessmen and musicians and the writers who wanted to know where the pain in her voice came from.

When her road manager closed the door on his way back to the stage, the room felt like a cell. Like the best rock ‘n’ roll, Joplin’s music was mostly about freedom, and yet she seemed trapped. I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want to be just one more guy asking about the pain.

“Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” I asked.

Joplin stared back at me across the room.

“Man,” she finally said, “don’t you even have your own questions?”

For me, the time with Joplin was a crash course in rock ‘n’ roll reality -- an introduction to themes I’d encounter time and again. In the end, she got past my clumsy start and began talking about feeling like an outcast growing up, her music, her lifestyle and the one constant in her world: loneliness.

“Somehow you lose all the old friends,” she said. “When we’re not on stage, we rehearse, lay around in bed, check in and out of motels, watch television. I live for that hour on stage.”

On stage that night, Joplin “the star” emerged. Ultimately, though, the lonely hours proved too much. Less than a year later, Joplin was dead in a hotel room. An accidental heroin overdose, it was said. She was within walking distance of the Bowl.

Making Elton John a Star

After the turbulent ‘60s, you could still hear ringing guitars and loud, rebellious voices on the radio and in college dorms, but the soulful center of the pop experience shifted to folk-based singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Neil Young.

The West Coast citadel of that movement was the Troubadour in West Hollywood. On what proved to be the club’s most historic night, Elton John, a 23-year-old Englishman, made his U.S. debut on Aug. 25, 1970.

Everything about him was fresh. There were moments of rock energy, but the heart of his sound was in tender, intimate numbers. The gentleness of it seemed revolutionary against the roar of the ‘60s.

After the show, I raced to the office, where I wrote a rave: Elton was going to be the biggest star in pop. It has been 36 years, but John still cites that review -- giving me credit for making him a star. The funny thing is, at first I believed him. I really thought I had star-making power.

I soon got over that.

The next year I raved about John Prine, a young Chicago singer-songwriter whose folk-country style employed a literary ambition and soulful insight that was extraordinary. But Prine never became a major seller, though he is widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of his era.

The lesson was that it takes more than raw talent -- and glowing reviews -- to reach the top commercially. More important, it taught me that critics can’t always predict stardom, but they can spot excellence, and that, ultimately, is the most important thing they can do.

Much popular music is hollow professionalism -- musicians and record producers recycling ideas and styles most likely to sell records. The memorable artists redefine the boundaries, either through blinding originality or by looking with unbending honesty at their deepest fears and grandest dreams. In writing about their worlds, I learned that the best were driven, almost obsessed, tough and, at times, brave.

John Lennon’s Inner Child

It’s a rule in criticism: Keep a professional distance from the artists. I violated that with John Lennon.

I was a fan of the Beatles. But I also wanted to know more about the man behind the 1970 album “Plastic Ono Band,” a flat-out masterpiece. It was Lennon’s first solo album and a chilling attempt to move beyond the emotional scars of being abandoned by both parents.

In the opening lines, Lennon sang about loss so painful that his voice seemed tied to a nerve deep inside: “Mother, you had me / But I never had you / I wanted you / But you didn’t want me.”

When I finally met Lennon in 1973, he was temporarily estranged from his wife, Yoko Ono, and living in Los Angeles. Depressed about the separation and the pressure of trying to live up to his fans’ high creative expectations of him, he spent much of his time partying with friends or drinking and taking drugs on his own; sometimes drinking a bottle of vodka or half a bottle or more of brandy a day. Years later, he told me that when he had an important business meeting the next day, he’d spend the evening with me because I didn’t drink.

“I think I was suicidal on some kind of subconscious level,” he said of what he called his “lost weekend.”

“The goal was to obliterate the mind. I didn’t want to see or feel anything.”

One evening at his hotel, Lennon turned on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and ordered up cornflakes and cream. I didn’t think much of it until the same thing happened another night.

“What’s up with the cornflakes?” I finally asked.

He smiled.

As a child in London during World War II, he explained, he could never get milk, so this was special. The lesson of the evening was that there are some childhood losses you can deal with through room service. For Lennon, the harder ones could be exorcised only through his songs.

Heartbreak, Heartfelt

Lennon eventually returned to Ono, and they teamed up in 1980 on the album “Double Fantasy.” I visited them at their New York apartment in the Dakota during the final phases of recording, and Lennon was as happy as I had ever seen him.

As we left the Dakota that evening, though, half a dozen people rushed toward him. They were upon him so fast that I was startled. Without a bodyguard, he was helpless.

When I asked if he wasn’t worried about his safety, he said no. “They don’t mean any harm. Besides, what can you do? You can’t spend all your life hiding from people. You’ve got to get out and live some, don’t you?”

That closeness to Lennon contributed to my most difficult moment at The Times. After learning Lennon had been shot to death outside the Dakota by a deranged fan that December, I flew to New York and asked Elliot Mintz, a friend of the Lennons, to express my sorrow to Ono.

Mintz called back to say Ono wanted to see me. I didn’t know if I was supposed to go as a friend or a journalist. It would be a great scoop to get her first words after Lennon’s death, but I didn’t want to betray the friendship. I left my tape recorder behind.

Ono was in bed, under the covers, when I got to the couple’s seventh-floor apartment, clearly distraught in the semi-darkened room. Hundreds of mourning fans were gathered below, and you could hear their singing from the street.

“The future is still ours to make,” Ono said softly. “The ‘80s will blossom if only people accept peace and love in their heart. It would just add to the tragedy if people turned away from the message in John’s music.”

It sounded like something she wanted to say to her slain husband’s fans, and I asked if I could print it. She nodded yes and I reached for a pen.

Ono’s thoughts were repeated in news broadcasts and newspapers around the world the next day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, I went over the evening again in my mind, wondering if I had acted honorably or if, in some way, I had taken advantage of her.

I realized only Ono could make that judgment. A few weeks later she did, sending me a thank-you card.

Cash’s Peace of Mind

With last year’s hit movie “Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash’s 1968 Folsom prison concert will likely stand for millions as the defining moment in the country music giant’s life. But on that cold, overcast January morning, I was the only music writer with Cash because the singer’s career, after a spectacular start in the ‘50s, was in decline.

The record label bosses had lost faith in Cash, and they didn’t think a live prison album was going to do much to reverse his sales. But I had been a fan since hearing “Folsom Prison Blues” on the radio in the ‘50s, and what could be better than to see him sing it live at Folsom?

Cash wore a black leather coat over his black suit as he stepped past the prison’s gray walls just after sunrise. The mood was tense. Two weeks earlier, inmates had held a guard at knifepoint. Guards with rifles followed Cash’s party everywhere. He seemed nervous, but not for his safety.

What worried Cash was the concert itself. He wanted to capture on tape the electricity he had felt in other prison shows, when the inmates’ response to his tales of sin and salvation, redemption and regret was so intense that he had chills.

Cash was spellbinding on that stage, and “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” turned out to be one of the most acclaimed live albums ever, revitalizing his career. Still, Folsom isn’t my favorite memory of Cash.

That would be the day in the fall of 2002 that I spent with him and his wife, June Carter Cash, at the old Carter family spread at the base of Clinch Mountain in rural Virginia.

I had visited Cash at his glamorous home on Old Hickory Lake near Nashville and knew about his estate in Jamaica, so I was intrigued by the modest, two-story wood-frame house in Maces Springs, population 800, where he spent part of every year.

“It comes down to solitude and peace of mind,” Cash said, sitting in a rocker on his front porch, relaxing in a khaki shirt-jacket and gray slacks. “That’s something we cherish now. The phone rarely rings up here.”

For years, Cash’s artistic integrity and compassionate spirit made him a symbol of the best qualities in the American character -- a man who seemed to have been born with the natural compassion and curiosity of an artist.

At a time when other country music stars showed no more ambition than to keep honky-tonk jukeboxes supplied with hits, Cash concentrated on concept albums. His themes included railroads, the Old West, Native Americans, convicts, the workingman and God.

Offstage, he was a man of extraordinary humility and grace.

So it was hard seeing him so fragile.

It wasn’t just the white hair or even the trembling hands and the fading eyesight -- it was the long, awkward pauses between sentences, sometimes even between words, as he sat there, straining for the energy and breath to continue. Cash was 70, but he seemed like a worn-out 90.

I was also drawn to the Virginia valley because it was the only place the Cashes got on stage anymore -- in an old-fashioned barn dance in a small, makeshift amphitheater, just a mile down the country road. It was a setting so informal that fans sat on old church pews or discarded bus seats.

That night, I followed the Cashes to the barn dance. Some in the audience had driven hundreds of miles -- many of them for a chance to see a piece of history before it was too late.

Dressed once more in his trademark black, Cash opened his short set with “Folsom Prison Blues,” and his deep, rich voice suddenly reclaimed its power. At least I thought it did.

Few around me appeared to notice when he began to miss a word here and there, but June Cash, alert for problems, sensed he was having trouble. After one number, she took the microphone and began singing one of her own songs, allowing him to take a seat and rest. He later returned to center stage for a couple of songs, and his voice again soared.

When I rejoined them later at the house, June Cash was wearing her robe, eating corn bread and milk before retiring. Cash sat opposite her, a tray of cookies and milk in front of him.

Upbeat as always, she talked about how good the show went. But Cash was quiet. He knew his performance was shaky, and it only added to his worries about the future. He didn’t know if he had the strength to make another album and didn’t know what he would do if not.

Cash picked up one of the cookies and nibbled at it, but he was tired. He put it back on the tray and said it was time for bed. Just as June Cash was saying good night at the door, he returned. Maybe he sensed the sadness in my look. Maybe he just didn’t want me to think he was complaining about how things had turned out.

“Hey, Bob,” he said, “don’t forget that story I told you.”

Earlier that night, Cash had talked about the time in 1970 that he took Michael Nesmith of the Monkees on a tour of the house on Old Hickory Lake.

“We looked at the house and Michael said, ‘I’m glad for you. Shame you can’t keep it,’ ” Cash recalled.

“I asked what he was talking about, and he said, ‘We can’t keep things like that in this business. My bet is you’ll lose this place and this woman because the business is awfully rough and you’re as vulnerable as anybody else.’ ”

Cash paused to let the words settle in.

“I knew what Michael was saying, but I told him I’d take that bet, and you know what? I won.”

Appraising Elvis

Elvis was my first rock hero, and he remains the most charismatic performer I’ve ever seen.

Because Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, kept him from doing interviews to maximize the mystique, I never spent time with Presley. But I did meet him one night in 1971 before one of his Las Vegas shows. Parker came by my seat in the showroom and asked if I’d “like to meet the boy.” It would be a social call, he made clear, not an interview. Elvis wanted to thank me for something I had written about him.

Over the next few years, I watched Elvis slowly decline -- physically and creatively. It was years before we knew the reasons for the weight gain and the careless shows -- the depression and cases of prescription drugs that led to his death in 1977. The sight of him turning into a caricature was so disheartening that in 1974, I wrote one of the most difficult pieces of my career, suggesting it was time for Elvis to retire.

Presley fans were so outraged that I received death threats. Elvis read it, I learned, and was said to be furious. There were no more backstage invitations.

The Boy King

Another major star who seemed even more isolated than Presley was the man-child Michael Jackson, who called himself the King of Pop.

By infusing music videos with the ambition and craft of mini-films, he changed the way we watched pop music. He also made R&B; records so sensual and irresistible that the sound, after its eventual partnering with hip-hop, challenges rock as the nation’s dominant musical form.

I got the rare chance to observe this new pop phenom at close range, before allegations of child molestation and the resulting legal actions began to rule his life. In 1984, during the “Victory” tour, I worked with him on his autobiography for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday.

She wanted a formal autobiography; he wanted a picture book. One evening, I began to see how difficult a book of any sort would be. Jackson had handed me a folder with dozens of family photos. I picked out a shot of an elderly man, who turned out to be his grandfather.

“I love him very much,” Jackson said.

“OK, shall we put that in the book?”

He looked shocked. “Oh, no,” he said, “that’s too personal.”

After nearly an hour of this, he decided it was enough work for the evening. Popcorn was ordered from his personal chef, then he pulled a video from one of the huge trunks he took on tour. Slipping it into the VCR, he settled on a couch and said, “Let’s watch cartoons.” Jackson was 26.

For all his brilliant showbiz instincts, Jackson was ill-equipped to deal with many of life’s most routine matters, as if the years of childhood stardom had left him socially stunted and more than a little frightened. His world was so guarded that admission to his room was strictly by invitation only.

Part of this, most certainly, was security, but Jackson also was not good at dealing with people, especially adults. Adults could be cruel, he said.

The most painful period in his life up to then, he told me during the dozen or so times I met with him, was his late teens, after he had outgrown his Jackson 5 “cuteness.” He hated his photos -- his nose was ugly and the acne horrified him. Adults would come to the house, he said, looking for little Michael and be disappointed when they saw him. It hurt him deeply, which no doubt fueled the obsession with the colorful jackets, the dark glasses, the sequined gloves, the ever-altering physical appearance.

Everything in his life seemed held together by fame. It’s what gave him the power and money to control his world, to keep everyone from seeing how fragile it all really was.

When “Thriller” became the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael felt the “love” of the pop world again and became obsessed with holding on to it. Back at his hotel room one night after a concert in Washington, D.C., he talked about his next album. “It’s going to sell twice as many as ‘Thriller,’ ” he said.

When I looked skeptical, he said, “You’ve got to believe. I can do it. I can do it. I will do it.”

There was both innocence and desperation in his voice. On the flight back to Los Angeles, I wondered if he really could achieve that -- and how he would handle it if he didn’t.

Bono, a Man in Full

In reviewing any act, but especially a new one, a critic is looking for specific qualities: originality, purpose, depth, craft -- and the potential to make memorable music for years to come. U2 had all that when I first saw them at the old Country Club in Reseda early in 1981. The music spoke powerfully of youthful awakening at a time when many were losing faith in rock.

I interviewed Bono a few months later and found a remarkably focused and articulate 20-year-old. He had an innate curiosity about life, and that extended to Los Angeles and its culture. His one request was to go to an old-fashioned drive-in restaurant. And so we went to Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, where he had two servings of the ice cream hot fudge cake.

A few years later, with U2’s popularity soaring, I caught them at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Influenced by Bruce Springsteen’s emotional performances, Bono was looking for his own way of embracing the audience. Riding the energy of the crowd, at one point he raced to the balcony and jumped over the rail and into the arms of fans below. Two fans leaped from the balcony behind him.

That night I wrote in my review: “When you have music as purposeful as U2’s, you don’t need a sideshow, especially a potentially dangerous one.” A few days later, Bono phoned to say the sideshow was going to stop -- that the rest of the band was on his case too.

Over the years, we kept in touch. On the morning after “The Joshua Tree” won a Grammy, we had a late breakfast in a coffee shop just off Central Park in New York. He was excited, not just about the success of “The Joshua Tree” but also about all the things he wanted to do -- screenplays, books, plays.

I loved his enthusiasm but worried that it might mean the end of U2. He had written a few great songs, but nothing that would leave a musical legacy as rich as Cole Porter’s or Hank Williams’. The point was, I told him, he was just beginning.

Bono was quiet. So, I was surprised eight years later to read about him recounting the conversation in Bill Flanagan’s book “U2: At the End of the World.”

“That reprimand rattles around Bono’s head,” Flanagan wrote. “He is still wrestling with it.”

Things had changed when I interviewed Bono last year. It was at the Chateau Marmont a few days after the start of the band’s world tour, and the subject was Bono’s crusade to combat Third World poverty.

As he talked, I thought about how the singer had been ridiculed in the ‘80s for his spiritual and idealistic views. By the end of the ‘90s, when the band’s popularity was secure, Bono began meeting with world leaders, encouraging them to tackle poverty issues. It wasn’t a role he wanted, he told me, but one he felt compelled to follow.

“Look,” he said with a smile, “I’m tired of Bono too, and I’m Bono.”

On the way back to the office, I thought about how much he had grown and how much I admired him. I also realized there was nothing more I could tell him.

The Truth of Ice Cube

Nothing since rock itself has changed the shape of the pop music experience as forcefully as rap -- and, in the late ‘80s, Los Angeles was the birthplace of the music’s most explosive wing: gangsta rap.

Ice Cube, who grew up in Los Angeles, wrote raps, first with NWA and then solo, that were so edgy even some hard-core East Coast rappers felt uneasy about his brutal, X-rated tales of drug dealing, gangbanging and police run-ins. An FBI official warned that the music could provoke violence against police.

Cube’s office itself underscored the sense the young rapper was reporting on life from a battle zone. The two-story building was surrounded by a high protective wall topped by menacing rows of razor wire.

I admired Cube’s work for the insight and social realism in it and for his courage as an artist. I was even more impressed after I met him; he was very aware of his role as a voice of the inner city. He always had an angry snarl for the camera -- “Life can be hard. I know a lot of guys who never smile, you know what I’m saying?” he said in explanation -- but when he would talk to me of his fiancee or his son, there was an easy, disarming smile.

When I wondered why he needed to go so far in describing racial tensions in the city, his response was: “Because it’s true.”

The public perception of Ice Cube and of rap itself changed after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Suddenly, Cube’s warnings about race assumed an eerie ring of prophecy.

Some time after that, Cube told me about a song he’d written -- a wistful one about a day when nothing goes wrong, no one in the ‘hood gets killed, titled “It Was a Good Day.” Hard-core rap fans could have rejected it, thinking he’d gone soft. But “Good Day” is now considered as much a landmark in rap as Cube’s hard-core “F--- tha Police.”

That artistic daring has been echoed through the years by other gifted rappers, who also allowed their tender sides to show -- Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama,” Eminem’s “Stan” and, most recently, Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.”

When I asked West last year why he released “Jesus Walks” despite warnings that radio wouldn’t play anything with such a spiritual theme, West replied, in effect, because it’s true.

Embracing the Horizon

One of the great disappointments in covering pop music all these years is seeing so many older pop fans refuse to give talented young arrivals a chance.

Although it’s hard to say goodbye to massive talents like Cash, Lennon and Joplin, new greats do step forward.

Jack White of the White Stripes is a Detroit rocker with country and blues instincts as solid as Presley’s and integrity reminiscent of Cash. Eminem outraged us all with his riveting debut album, just as Ice Cube did.

Lots of artists have tried to look at the world today with the sense of poetic flair that Dylan had, but Conor Oberst, a 26-year-old from Omaha, does it with such freshness and uncommon grace that I can’t wait until his next record.

Kanye West may be best known as a rapper, but he’s also a musical auteur who is reshaping hip-hop before our eyes -- merging the music’s cutting-edge sounds with the most enriching elements of R&B; and pop. He may just be the Stevie Wonder of our times. And if she keeps pushing herself, Alicia Keys could one day be considered the most gifted female artist in mainstream pop history.

And there are more.

“I think we’re all writing the same song,” Jack White told me when I asked him why he thinks there is anything new to say. “It’s the same song for 1,000 years; it’s just how you tell it.”

Lots of things evolve in music, including the way we listen to it. I’ve seen it go from vinyl albums to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs to iPods. Through it all, there has been one constant: the search for the next great artist. Whether you are a critic or a fan, the important thing is to approach the future with innocence and enthusiasm.

Above all, remember this: Don’t ever think you’ve heard it all.



Critic’s picks

These are Robert Hilburn’s favorite rock albums, arranged by decade:

The ‘50s

Elvis Presley’s “Sunrise.” The tracks Presley cut for Sun Records before his “Heartbreak Hotel” fame largely defined rock ‘n’ roll -- from the instrumentation to the attitude. The moment of celebration and discovery remains magical after half a century.

The ‘60s

Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” With his literary skill and acute social observation, Dylan turned rock from youthful exuberance into a mature art form in a series of brilliant ‘60s albums. This was the moment of supreme breakthrough.

The ‘70s

John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band.” Despite his landmark work with the Beatles, this solo debut ranks for me as Lennon’s finest hour. He looked at his own doubts and fears with an unflinching honesty that set a new standard for rock ‘n’ roll introspection.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” At a time when rock ‘n’ roll had lost much of its heroic lure, Springsteen gave us reason to believe again in the music and ourselves -- a youthful self-affirmation that was absolutely thrilling.

The ‘80s

U2’s “The Joshua Tree.” This great Irish band combined the anthem power of rock with a restless spirituality that once again expanded the horizons and heart of the music.

The ‘90s and beyond

The White Stripes’ “Get Behind Me Satan.” After four albums that established the Stripes as the most essential American rock group since Nirvana, Jack White made music this time that was even richer and more personal than before -- anxious, even desperate, looks at conflicts between innocence and morality on one side and compromise and betrayal on the other.


Source: Robert Hilburn