One of the things that comes out in this book are questions of spirituality--for instance with David Bowie, his obsession with atheism vs. belief in God.
Oh yeah, when you have the time [for a lengthy interview], more serious things come up than just what the new album's about. For instance, with Trey [Trey Anastasio, from the jam band Phish], he was talking about how music comes to him. It was very spiritual; he has a musical view of how the universe works.
Do you feel that the art of interviewing is a spiritual practice?
If you believe that anything that connects human beings deeply is spiritual, then interviewing is absolutely a spiritual practice. You have to accept the reality of another human being and be prepared to really meet someone, regardless of what you have read about them or what you might know about them. The best interviews are motivated by genuine curiosity, transcending yourself and paying attention to another person; and there is a spiritual exercise to that.
Have you ever had someone put you in the role of confessor?
Well, certainly the interview with Rufus Wainwright about his struggle with crystal methamphetamines--that was right there. However, I did not sit there thinking, "Gee this poor guy," I was thinking about situations in my own life that I couldn't control. It was scary. At one point, he said in the conversation, "I'm kind of uncomfortable talking about my sobriety because that could end right after this interview." Just saying that now I have chills going up my spine, and I had them when he said it. We are all walking that line. I don't see it as a confession in that I don't consider myself exempt from whatever it is that others are struggling with. A Catholic background helps in this regard. The feeling that you are capable of all sin is readily available. You think, "That could well have been me."
Is that a kind of grace? The fact that you can see yourself in that position and not judge them, just be with them?
With the Rufus Wainwright interview, we knew that we were doing something. I mean that story went in the New York Times. It hit hard, and people are still talking about it. The grace for me was that it was real. Whether it was good or bad, we are taking the reality of his life out there and putting it in the Sunday New York Times--deal with it.
But remember, when you are interviewing someone you are having a very private conversation that is going very public--that doubleness is there and so you are also excited by the story.
Well, why would anyone sit down and write a song? If you have something to say, why don't you just tell it to your sister or write it in a letter? The author Joan Didion once said that her novel "The Book of Common Prayer" was inspired by her seeing a woman in an airport and asking herself the question 'what is she doing there?' So, how we answer those questions--doing nothing, writing an essay or song or movie or novel…. It's a way of engaging the world or trying to discover it.
In your interview with Marilyn Manson, he says that the creative act allows him to be God.
Well, there is that amazing thing. There was nothing, and then there is a song. What fascinates me is the stuff of everyday and how it finds it way into a lyric.
Were there any moments when interviewing any of these people when you felt, "I am in the presence of greatness"?
Well, yeah, meeting Johnny Cash or George Harrison certainly.
George Harrison became very spiritual. Was that part of your experience with him?
George was the youngest of the Beatles and what was happening to the Beatles was very confusing to him. His spiritual exploration--first through LSD; and then his exposure to Ravi Shankar, yoga, and exploration of eastern spirituality brought him some peace and gave him some perspective on things. It's difficult to reconstruct for people who weren't there how important the Beatles were and how people treated them. Everybody thought these records were filled with meaning for everyone.
And Harrison had a difficult time with being treated as if he himself was a guru at a time when he was meeting people he believed were genuine gurus. To him, people saying "a line you wrote in a song changed my whole life" seemed ridiculous. So, he as he put it, "When you're beginning to understand your place in a much, much greater whole, how do remain one of the Fab Four with people are saying that you are among the most important people in the world? You laugh at it."
But at the same time, you yourself were saying: "I'm in the presence of greatness."
Yeah, well, when John made his comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, some people burned their records. But believe me; I didn't bat an eye. It didn't bother me in the least.
Because it was true for you?
Absolutely, I was far more interested in John Lennon. But he wasn't saying it like they were better than Jesus; he was just saying it like ”this is the cultural moment we've arrived at.” Of course, I was 15 and in Catholic school, and to me the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were my paths to self-awareness and freedom, and my Catholic school was a jail.
Has that continued for you? Have these artists been a way of freedom for you instead of an institutional religious path?
I have learned a lot from pop songs. I don't have the slightest embarrassment about saying that there are songs on the radio that have moved me to tears and led me to deep understandings about myself even if they were written in 15 minutes by someone desperate to have a hit. People like Bono or Michael Stipe [from REM]--these are people whose music has meant a great deal to me. But I was an adult when I met them and heard their music. I was pretty fully formed; but I am who I am because of the music of George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards--that's what made me. So, to meet those people is jarring because it is hard to get over the idea that somehow our lives brought us to this room and we just sat down and talked – that simple fact was very hard to absorb and the process of absorbing it became the interviews in the book.