By Rex Weiner

Under a Manhattan sky that cannot make up its mind whether to rain or not, camera technicians are adjusting tripods, setting lights and arranging backdrops, ignoring the police helicopters clattering overhead. The President is in town to address the United Nations on the latest world crisis. Assistants tending a table of expensive items—men’s boots, sunglasses, carrying bags, everything branded with the unmistakable monogram and quatrefoil of Louis Vuitton—move with careful deliberation. 

Ferryboats crossing the Hudson River sound a low warning note with their horns, as though signaling that out there, beyond New Jersey’s jagged skyline, lies a troubled land.

Just a stone’s throw from the river, on the rooftop of photographer Mark Seliger’s West Village studio, everything is under control. This is a Vuitton shoot, after all. A Kim Jones shoot, to be specific, and the London-born LVMH designer, a calm intense young man, is on hand to make sure the model shows off his latest creations in the best light—fabrics and colors inspired by a recent visit to the Atacama desert in Peru.

Bryan Ferry emerges from the make-up room to confront a rack of clothing. Jones holds out a long ash-colored coat. Ferry amiably tries it on, its luscious wool fabric falling to a place between knee and shoe. He studies himself in the mirror with eyes accustomed to honest self-appraisals.

“He’s a style icon to all of us,” Jones observes quietly. “He comes from a generation that changed all the rules.”

Ferry sits down and waits for the shoot to begin. He emits a slight cough occasionally. One leg over the other, a foot bobbing gently, he is a man who knows how to come to rest, but only when he must. A throat infection caused him to cancel shows in Washington DC and Boston. Nevertheless, the show went on in New York and Philadelphia. Although reviews said those shows seemed restrained, the King of Romantic Rock’s legendary panache was noted a week before in Toronto where, according to one report, “the crowd finally rushed the stage during Love is the Drug and stayed there for Virginia Plain, Editions of You and the encore songs of Let’s Stick Together and Ferry’s moving version of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy.”
The new studio album he’s promoting—Avonmore—is his 15th solo effort, his 23rd recorded album counting the Roxy Music releases. “Mainly my own songs, eight new ones,” he tells me, adding. “It’s important to show people you’re still writing.”

It’s an odd thing to say for such a prolific lyricist—David Bowie’s favorite songwriter, according to Ferry’s biographer Michael Bracewell. Perhaps it’s something only another writer of a certain age would understand. And anyway, it is not called the Can’t Let Go Tour for nothing. With the US leg of the tour completed, a string of European tour dates lie ahead of him to the end of the year. Another twenty-two date UK tour in January has just been announced. He’ll swing back to the US next summer, playing up and down the West Coast. Ferry is sixty-nine years old.

One of the most striking tracks on Avonmore—which features guests such as Nile Rodgers, Ronnie Spector, Mark Knopfler, Maceo Parker and Flea— is a cover of Robert Palmer’s Johnny and Mary. Thanks to his son Isaac, a dance music enthusiast, the track is a collaboration with the Norwegian synth wizard and DJ Todd Terje. Ferry has been performing the song in his shows, slowed down from Palmer’s peppy beat, the curious words delivered with a breathy melancholy…

Johnny's always running around
Trying to find certainty
He needs all the world to confirm
That he ain't lonely
Mary counts the walls
Knows he tires easily

“Bryan? Ready?”

He rises, pausing before the mirror to fiddle with his hair. It is breezy on the roof now, potted plants swaying , miniature birch and dwarf pine, graceful grasses. About fifteen people, Seliger’s trained crew and others from London, Paris, Milan, and L.A., are assembled to carry out their various roles, everyone performing their appointed task with silent precision.

“Look over to your left,” directs Seliger, lean and agile in tight jeans and white Adidas, a slight twang in his voice betraying his Texas roots. “Don’t smile. Yeah. That’s good. Beautiful. Relax one second…”

Against the white no-seam, hands in pockets, now smiling, now serious, Ferry gives the camera a professional turn. Seliger clicks away rapidly.

“Lean into your right hip with your right hand holding the jacket open… love that. Very John Wayne!”

Ferry smiles. Unlike Mick Jagger and other fellow rockers, he’s never acted in movies, but he moves instinctively, knowing how to take direction.

“Flirt with me! Now give me your tough guy face, your best Robert DeNiro…”

Ferry rotates before the camera, showing all sides, the coat flaring. Vaughn the hairdresser tends to his ruffled locks, flecked with grey.

Seliger pauses to check the images on a laptop. “The quietness in his eyes…” the photographer observes aloud. Then he moves everybody inside, switching from the tripod-mounted Mamiya to the more intimate hand-held Pentax, with Ferry bathed in warm sunlight beaming down through a skylight.

The shoot goes well, running to the late afternoon. At last, we’re sitting together on the rooftop, staring out across the river as the afternoon fades. Ferry clutches a cup of tea, a scarf wrapped around his ailing throat. He’s not feeling great, he tells me, though you wouldn’t know it from the photos he’s just shot.

“I try to sleep,” he says. He has no special diet. He doesn’t go to the gym or perform workouts. “The show gives me enough exercise,” he says with a chuckle. ”I’m quite lucky.”

Bryan Ferry has been lucky indeed. The son of a Northeast English farmhand, he saved his money from a part-time job in a tailor shop to buy one 78 record each week, listening to American blues and R&B imports. From his days studying fine art at the University of Newcastle, Ferry formed bands that helped lead the second wave of British rock, following the Beatles and Rolling Stones with a style that combined fashion and art theory with fanciful lyrics. Achieving early success with Roxy Music, Ferry’s smoky good looks and romantic liaisons with a string of models and high society babes like Jerry Hall and Amanda Lear established him as rock’s Number One Casanova, the one rocker for whom black tie and tuxedo were trademarks.

He’s single now, having recently divorced his second wife, Amanda Sheppard, after less than two years of marriage. The UK tabloids had fun with the fact that Sheppard, a public relations executive, was 30 years younger than Ferry and had told her friends the marriage fell apart because of her husband’s “unreasonable behavior.” His first marriage, to socialite Lucy Helmore, ended after 21 years together, and stretches of drug abuse for each. Their four sons, Merlin, Isaac, Otis and Tara, are often in the gossip pages, having been tagged the “feral Ferrys.” The Sunday Times Rich List estimates Ferry’s worth at nearly 38M Euros, behind Roger Daltrey but about the same as Sade. When not touring, he retreats to his country estate, a grand home on spacious grounds known as Little Bognor House, near Fittleworth, West Sussex,

None of this seems to be a good topic for discussion as Ferry sips his tea by my side and we watch the sun dipping towards the horizon. The conversation moves easily, however, from one thing to the next. I mention Bowie, as a fan of Ferry’s songwriting. “I never see him!” says Ferry “He was a big supporter of Roxy Music early on. But he lives here in New York and I’m in London.,” he says, adding, “I don’t really have many close friends in the music world. Most are mainly in the art world. Because I work with musicians, and after all day with them in the studio, you know…”

The shoot, fashion, and style: “Style is something you really shouldn’t think about too much,” says the man who has been on countless Best-Dressed lists. “It’s hard to analyze. All aspects of design interest me—architecture, fabric, furniture. When I was a young boy, sixteen, seventeen, I worked in a tailor shop on Saturdays, got my interest in clothing then. I’m very eclectic about clothes. I like to mix things up , old-fashioned Saville row things with something new. Kim is very good, works with very good fabrics. Clothing is about details.”

Music and fashion were intermixed in the UK when he was growing up. The Mods and the Rockers… “I came from Newcastle in the north, a Mod town in the mid-Sixties.”

Ferry should be writing a book, like Keith Richard’s autobiography. “Keith’s book was entertaining to say the least,: says Ferry, “And I would write one someday, but I’ve never been so busy as now I enjoy touring, performing.”

Is this the life he imagined for himself, growing up in Newcastle?

He thinks about this and replies with a memory from 1967. “I once hitchhiked to London,” he recalls, “to the Roundhouse to see the Stax Volt Revue. They were touring England. I saw Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave… and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

I mention the cover of Johnny and Mary. “It’s a beautiful song, haunting lyric,” he says. “I like songs that have a mystery about them.”

Johnny's always running around
Trying to find certainty…

Overhead the helicopters hover nervously, their chop-chop noise forcing a pause in our conversation. They are guarding the president’s limousine as it travels up the West Side. Ferry stares into the distance where the pale October sun is sinking lower across the river to where New Jersey rears its industrial head briefly before giving way to the land beyond. 

Kerouac once said “In October, everyone goes home.” But Ferry is not home, nor is he going home anytime soon—he’s on the road, and the road goes on, like rock n’ roll goes on, whatever the state of the world, to a cool shining Avalon glimpsed once upon a time by a poor man’s son in a fevered dream.
I arrive late at this Italian joint in the West Village, and Lou’s already here. He’s punctual. Black tight jeans and a blue flannel shirt covering a powerful chest, barely showing a dark tangle of curly hair slightly grizzled. We greet each other. He rubs his face, once boyishly handsome and now rough and lined.

The wear and tear seems written into every one of his songs, from “Heroin” to “Perfect Day,” and his songs engraved on his face. I guess you could call it harshly beautiful. It could be the face of Hank Williams, who wrote “I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” who failed to survive drug and alcohol to make it to his 30 birthday, unlike Lou Reed who miraculously celebrated his 64th on March 2.

He looks at me from the other side of the table without a smile, eyes cast downward, darting occasionally to the PR girl at his side. I know he dislikes journalists. He’s exhibiting all the symptoms of a restless patient, tied to a dentist's chair, about to be drilled. Which bodes ill for my interview. But it’s too late. I have already ordered two double espressos and I'm ready to rock and roll!

On the other hand, if you're really curious to know what makes Lou Reed tick, in the depths of his soul, and what it really means when he sings of a life "saved by rock &roll," you've only got a handful of options:

\1) You can listen to the music and speculate on its production over fourty years, ranging from the top 40 single of 1964  “(Do) The Ostrich” ("All right, everybody get down on your face – whoo! ") to classics like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” to the more recent Grand Guignol of “The Raven” ("Once upon a midnight dreary... ").

2) You can embark on a tortuous online journey through dozens of archived interviews with a man whose caustic manner has reduced reporters to pitiful piles of stuttering jelly.

3) You can watch “Rock and Roll Heart,” the 1998 Grammy-award winning documentary.

4) You can meet him yourself, try to relax and see what the fuck happens.

So when Lou's assistant informs me that a dentist’s office is exactly the place where Lou will go, scheduled for a root canal, after our brief chat, I relax. "I'm sorry, Lou," I say, but really I’m thinking: Ah! Better him than me!

Lou Reed was born in Brooklyn, grew up in a middle class family in the suburbs, went to college, played in high school bands and used his share of drugs and probably your share and mine. Writing and recording for the Pickwick label, Lou paired up with John Cale, a viola player with a classical education who was a disciple of the avant-garde composer LaMonte Young.

Cale and Reed formed the Velvet Underground (so baptized after of a sordid pulp novel about sexual predators in the suburbs) along with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. Discovered by Andy Warhol while they were playing in a club in Greenwich Village called Café Bizarre, they became the pop rockers residing in the artist's studio, The Factory, as well as the pivot of Warhol’s extravagant performance art circus, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. At that time, the mid-to-late 1960’s Lou and I did not know each other, but we walked the same East Village streets and probably shared the same dealers.

So we chatted about mutual friends long gone such as Mickey Ruskin, the owner of Max's Kansas City, the club on Park Avenue South where Warhol’s superstars the Velvet Underground reigned. Ruskin, who died in 1985, helped support a slew of demi-monde celebrities with free food and a place to hang.

"At Max's Kansas City I had a tab that I finally paid off," says Lou in a generous spirit. He is not known to be nostalgic about "those different times," as he defines it in “Sweet Jane.” But now he recalls the pinched nature of those years. "My earning capacity at the time was equal to zero," he continues. "But Mickey knew, and he was looking out for me and for everyone else. Mickey was the first of the people I whom repaid when I could. When things got a bit 'better I was able to eat at places other than Max's. But it would surprise many people who revere Reed and the Velvet Underground to know that it despite the seminal role of the Velvet Underground in the history of rock, it took a while for things to get better. 

Ultimately, the group generated musical movements such as glam, punk, not to mention the millions of clones of the Velvet, and entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
However, in the Sixties, the Velvet Underground was anything but a commercial success. Their four discs sold a pittance. The black leather sado-masochistic performance style, the obvious abuse of hard drugs, the dark lyrics and sonic dissonance failed to gain many followers in times of Flower Power, and their concerts did not sell many tickets. Self-righteously, Bill Graham, the main music impresario of the Sixties, pulled the plug during a Velvets concert at his Fillmore West. San Francisco hippies were more accustomed to the "peace-and-love" of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane than the psychodrama of the Velvets.

When the Velvet Underground broke up in 1970, Lou's finances were a disaster. "Things were really tough," he reflected ruefully. Things got so bad that one summer, after the group’s last concert at Max's, Lou retired to his parents' home in Freeport, Long Island, and at odds with the rock &roll, he worked as a bookkeeper for his father, a tax advisor.

I wonder if Lou learned anything about accounting from his father, but I hold back on the question. Personal questions make Lou fall silent, and any attempt to get him to talk about his sources of inspiration provoke general statements about how and why music was the complete and utter center of his life. Going forward, he declares his dedication to the capricious and irritable twin deities of Sound and Tone. Many interviewers who have been granted far more time and access are still in their offices dissecting hours of taped interviews in which Lou Reed grumbles endlessly about the most minute details and mysteries of magnets and speakers, vintage tube amplifiers, the cones of amplifiers, which kind of cones, and then he goes on to guitars, what makes a good guitar. And not much else from Lou about Lou Reed, the human being.

And now, somehow, he’s on the subject again. "All my stuff is made just for me,” says Lou. “Each guitar that I like is made for me." I imagine that he could finally afford his customized equipment sometime after her second album, “Transformer,” released at the end of 1972. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, it contains Lou’s only hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Today, after eighteen discs, manufacturers of guitars for Lou include also the legendary luthier Rick Kelly of Carmine Street Guitars just down the street in Greenwich Village, and the great Carl Johnson, who made the seven-string models that Lou Reed played in his 2005 tour. Lou has a large collection of Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, as well as amplifiers, both vintage and custom-made. The guitars made especially for him give Lou the sound he likes, which is ...?  Well, I’m sorry I asked. He launches into a very detailed list of the greatest musicians of all time: "There's Joe Mapes, Link Wray, Carl Perkins, Elvis’ guy... you know, what's his name?"

We scratch our heads and none of us can remember the name of Scotty Moore, probably because we're a couple of guys with brain cells equally diminished by drug use. With only twenty more minutes left (the PR girl warns me), I want to keep the conversation on track, and it is not a simple thing. There are other things that Lou Reed does, in addition to music. He’s a photographer and has exhibitions opening at the same time at the prestigious Steven Kasher Gallery in New York and at Hermés' Gallery, writes theater pieces for renowned opera director Robert Wilson and collections of his photographs are being published by fine art book publisher Gerhardt Steidl.

But when you go to the core, there is only one thing that makes Lou Reed tick: playing the guitar. The intro to the live version of Sweet Jane on “Rock and Roll Animal” says it all. The pace of the guitar, the way in which the licks whirl and, after a dizzying fret board stunts, burst of color seemingly from Mars, hurled back to Earth and landing precisely on the classic three-chord riff of the piece.

He's not kidding when he says—and he says it often enough—that he has spent most of his life trying to learn how to play properly. Lou told Kung Fu Magazine in a recent interview: "It was a very important thing for me, to discover the exact way to achieve that tone, so that now I can do more with the sound. It took tons of time, and sometimes seems to me that it has taken a lifetime. When you think of someone who experiences an absurd number of years playing with different woods and pickups, you'd say, 'Well, this person is a fool'. But it's actually what I do. "

If you wonder why Lou Reed grants an interview to Kung Fu Magazine, it is because Lou is also a big fan of martial arts. For over twenty years, since he stopped drinking and taking drugs, Lou has studied Tai Chi Chuan, starting with a dark form of discipline called Eagle Claw. He discovered later the Chen style of Master Ren Guang-Yi, who has also been heavyweight champion of Chinese boxing in 1998. Lou has likened the style of Master Ren to ballet star Rudolf Nureyev. He brought Ren with him on stage during several past tours. To an interviewer who protested that he was puzzled by the combination of Lou’s bleak music and the Tai Chi master wielding a sword, Lou said: "Think of this as a choreography by George Balanchine."

Lou hopes to bring his teacher on the current tour which begins with opening the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. Lou’s companion, performance artist Laurie Anderson, may also appear for a couple of concerts, and Lou can’t wait to be in Italy. "What can you not love about Italy? It is one of the places Laurie and I talk about when we think about leaving New York at all. We love Italy very much."

At the invitation of Luciano Pavarotti, Lou has performed at the maestro’s annual benefit concert in Modena. It’s an area they like. "Modena, Bologna ... those parts would be completely happy for us just for the food."

It is difficult to imagine Lou Reed, living embodiment of the heart and soul of New York, leaving Gotham. Omnipresent at benefits and social events, uptown and downtown, he even showed up by surprise at the annual Tai Chi Day in Central Park and, along with Laurie Anderson. He attended the opening of a new park on the banks of the Hudson, at the end of Canal Street. He admits that the city has changed; it’s no longer the “Dirty Boulevard” of “Street Hassle.” On the other hand, Lou’s changed a lot, too.

"Now I have different interests," he says. "It is no longer what it once was. I am a different person. I'm not interested in what interested me once. As we age, my field of vision has expanded, encompassing many other things that New York offers. It is a city for everyone. I am most interested—always have been—in what concerns New York that you cannot find in a small town. Martial arts instructors, Chinese herbalists, swords and weapons to be bought and all the raw theater…"

Speaking of what you can find in New York, he says, for example, that the venerable singer-songwriter Dion (of the doo wop Fifties group Dion & The Belmonts) held one of his rare concerts at Joe's Pub. Allen Toussaint, who has no home in New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina, makes numerous appearances around the city, to the delight of New Orleans aficionados. "And if a movie comes out,” says Lou with evident pride, “it comes out here first. We're not in Kansas anymore.” He added that his favorite movie of the moment is Peter Jackson's “King Kong.”

Apropos of Manhattan’s skyline, Lou says he witnessed the collapse on September 11, 2001, of the World Trade Center. He watched it go down in flames from his downtown loft. That moved me to mention the impact of the Velvet Underground on cities other than New York, cities such as Prague. That’s where the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 took the former Soviet territory on a new path, led by dissident playwright and activist Vaclav Havel and contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The former Czech President professed admiration for Lou Reed’s music and maintains friendships with several rock musicians. Reed and Havel, an Odd Couple, appeared on stage last year in Prague for a public seminar. When a reporter asked about his influence on the events that contributed to the end of the Cold War, Lou said, "I haven’t got a clue." Now I asked the same questions.

"I do not know," he says. "I have no idea if the Velvet Revolution means something. What is it that really makes sense? It is named for the Velvet Underground because you consider velvet in the sense that no one was actually hurt?"

We reflected on that for a moment. "When I was in Prague, President Havel, in his office, he introduced me to many dissidents and I gave him a book with my lyrics. At the time, he said, you could go to jail if you had that in your possession. Can you imagine? They told me that my words were a source of inspiration. I always wondered why. I asked them why, and I guess it was the anti-authoritarian stance—for lack of a better expression. Maybe that was the reason, since that’s Havel says. And Havel is an intellectual."

Will he and Havel get together again? "I sure hope so. He is a great friend," says Lou. The contrast is stark and ironic: Reed’s  ballads of deviant sex and illegal substance abuse such as “Heroin” ("Beware of the text,” he says, “but it is a beautiful piece") was rewarded with cheers instead of imprisonment.  He reflects on Havel’s very different experience. "I was lamenting with him," he continues, "because I had done a show with Bob Wilson and I was not able to hear it in English since they staged it in Germany and it had been translated into German. So I have not heard even in English. And I was surprised when I said that to Havel and he told me that because he was in prison, he has never been able to hear his works brought to the stage in Czech—in his own language. It is almost inconceivable, right?"

And speaking of the great power of music in social change, I say - bringing the conversation closer to my only really important question—that rock music is heard everywhere today in commercials. (“Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop sells Holiday cruises). "The kids today think it's cool to have a song in a commercial," Lou interrupted. "Warhol was always into that sort of thing and it was fun. And I thought, 'Well, if it's okay for Andy ...' But people got really angry with me because I did it, although personally I thought it was funny. But the fans did not think the same way. So then I stopped. Even today, there are certain things that others do that I cannot do because I think the fans would feel betrayed. Now, if I had serious financial problems, I would not think twice about it. It is easy to have ethics long as you have enough money. God forbid that a loved one is in trouble and that you need something—hey, here's the Cadillac. So do not begrudge anyone anything."

Speaking with his typical New York accent, with his assistant smiling uneasily to signal the end of the interview, Lou continues: "As we age and understanding more about the world, I think that we cannot speak for others outside of our own circumstances. I do not give a damn about a rapper covered with jewelry who makes a commercial for whatever.”

Lou shakes his head. "This is not for me. If I can avoid it, I avoid it. They say, 'Hey, the kids like it, and in the end what does it matter?' And, you know, what do I care? Do I care? But there is a certain—I don’t know—call it a certain patina on some rock songs that would not be there if it was just another jingle selling something for the business world. In this country, no matter what you do, you are absorbed. If you're around for a long time you soak up the alternative. So now you're part of the alternative part of the whole thing. No matter how far off you are, you will be the alternative alternative. Whichever way you put it—Christian alternative devil alternative, heavy metal, speed metal, death metal—you become absorbed.”
Okay, at this point I pull out The Question: Is it still possible for rock and roll—as Lou claims in “Sweet Jane”—to save people’s Lives?
"Absolutely," says Lou. "Rock and roll speaks of the spirit of the heart. Music is strange—it's just a sound. Sound waves. Words. Movement. Sound. I'll give you a perfect example, okay? There is an album that was released just now, called ‘Our New Orleans.’ There is a piece by Buckwheat Zydeco with Ry Cooder on guitar called ‘The Streets Are Cryin. ' I listened and it was devastating. I was listening to it on a fucking iPod. It's a miracle. This means that you can carry the church around in your pocket."

Lou laughs at his notion: the church in his pocket. He’s going to tuck that one away for future use. "There is nothing else that can do such a thing," he insists. "Anyone can listen to Buckwheat Zydeco. It requires no preparation. It is music, that’s all it is. Music made ​​with the heart. What more could you want? It is one of the great lessons of life. Wow. "

We’ve used up our hour and now the assistant and the PR girl drag Lou firmly to the dentist while I go for a walk on a chilly New York street to a record store, buy the CD “Our New Orleans” (Nonesuch), and listen to “The Streets Are Cryin’ “by Buckwheat Zydeco. It's a beautiful piece, sure enough, and I could never say that Lou is mistaken about the fact that this music saves lives, because the money made ​​from sales of the CD go to finance the construction of new homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

But when you replay Lou’s intro to the live version of “Sweet Jane…” Wow, indeed. This music has, and always will, save lives, Lou. Starting with yours and mine.

                                                          * * *


By Rex Weiner

I’m not supposed to tell you where the lead singer of Black Sabbath lives, the guy reputed to have bitten the head of a bat tossed onstage during a concert. I will tell you only this: even with the address in hand, his residence in a well-hidden corner of Los Angeles is nearly impossible to find. It takes me an hour, even with GPS. Circling and re-circling the surrounding countryside, though it is only a short distance from one of L.A.’s busiest freeways. 

When I finally discover the entrance to the gated community, a security guard checks my name against a list before lifting the barrier. The guard doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re looking for the home of the guy who bites the heads off bats.” The guard doesn’t say anything. This is L.A., after all.

Carved from dusty arroyos, chaparral flats and Miocene outcroppings by developers in the 1950s and manicured into serene estate parcels, the community is a maze of streets with Old West names. They wind past verdant landscapes surrounding mansions erected in various decades and a grab-bag of styles. I arrive at last at the address marking a steep, curving driveway leading skyward. At the very end, secure as any Tuscan castle commanding its hilltop, stands a large two-story manor house with a grand portico and a Ferrari parked out front.  It is the kind of mid-1980’s Greek Revival-meets-California-Ranch-style home favored by coke-dealers, refugee ministers escaping the Shah’s Iran with bags of gold, and heavy metal musicians.

Immediately inside the foyer I know I’m in the right place because alongside car keys casually tossed on the marble side table beneath an gilt-framed oval mirror sit a pair of spectacles, the round-lensed blue-tinted wire frames that can only belong to Ozzy Osbourne.

I am warned by the publicist, as I’m led down a couple of steps off the foyer into a sunken bookshelf-lined den, not to take any pictures or request any autographs. For my part, I’ve quietly resolved not to confess: Heavy metal is my least favorite music, after polka. I fully appreciate that, once an electrified audio pickup was grafted onto a blues guitar and made commercially available by the Rickenbacker Electro Stringed Instrument Company in 1934, heavy metal was the logical and inevitable musical conclusion, just as re-processed plutonium leads to a nuclear bomb.

And it’s not academic that, drawing upon the brilliant innovations of sound bombasts like Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and even Beethoven and Wagner, the quartet of Ozzy Osbourne, Terry “Geezer” Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi was the first to establish heavy metal as a hugely successful musical genre. Black Sabbath’s musical accomplishment is a phenomenon that has sold 70 million records worldwide and spawned legions of imitators.

In any case, there’s a new album—“13,” produced by super-producer Rick Rubin, and a global tour—and here comes Ozzy.

Descending with a feline sideways motion, one arm held delicately waist-high, John Michael Osbourne at 65 years old is slim and trim. The vocalist, survivor of decades of alcohol and drug abuse, and eponymous headliner for the long-running Ozzfest heavy metal concert series, is entirely dressed in black, except for bright pink socks tucked into delicate slippers. A necklace of crosses dangles across his chest. His right hand is bandaged. No, he says, he was not injured in the house fire reported the previous week on newscasts, gossip columns and websites.

“Not the first time we’ve had fires,” he says, speaking in the crumbly Birmingham accent recognizable from the Emmy Award-winning MTV reality show The Osbournes, and numerous TV commercials. He describes several fire emergencies that have occurred in their home. The most recent conflagration resulted from a candle that was a gift from friend and TV talk show host Howard Stern.

“Sharon’s always lighting damn candles around the house,” Ozzy says, blaming his TV star wife in the style of the ongoing sitcom reality show that is their life. ”I tell her ‘That’s why they invented fucking electricity.’” Recent tabloid reports say the couple, after thirty years of marriage, are separating but nothing has been confirmed.

In fact, his right hand is bandaged following arthritis surgery the day before. None of us is getting any younger. That includes Geezer, the band’s bassist. The longhaired, ruddy-cheeked stocky man with a reddish graying moustache and goatee comes in and sits down. Rumpled and comfortably paunchy in an un-tucked shirt and jeans, he admits to looking forward to the band’s upcoming world tour.

“Very much, yes” he says, soft-voiced and British polite. He is 63, lives in Beverly Hills and has two sons, 28 and 30. One is receiving his master’s degree at Oxford, the other works as a film editor. “Sent them to school in England,” says Geezer, with a dig at America’s spate of gun violence, “so they wouldn’t get shot.”

When not playing bass with Black Sabbath, he says his favorite activity is watching the “soccer channel,” using the American term instead of “football.” He follows his hometown club Aston Villa, but also likes the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

“Terry’s into sports,” says Ozzy, “I’m not into sports at all.”

Ozzy calls him Terry. “Tony always calls me Geezer,” the bass player explains. So do millions of Black Sabbath fans.

We are looking ahead, and looking back, too, and I want to know which of all their seventeen albums, since their 1970 hit Paranoid, they might want to re-record with the benefit of today's digital technology?

“Nah,” says Ozzy without hesitation. “Wouldn’t re-record any of them.” It’s not so much an issue of modern technological wizardry as matching the band’s performance to the original, he says. “It’s like capturing a dream.”

Aside from recording technology, what’s the biggest difference in the music industry now, from when they began making music and appearing on concert stages in 1969?

“It’s completely different,” says Geezer. “You can get books in bookshops now that tell you all you need to know about how to be in a rock band. We didn’t know any of that. We were just four kids. It’s much more of a business now. When we started, you expected to do it for about three or four years and then get a proper job.”

Ozzy laughs. “My mother used to say, when are you going stop this and get a real job?”
Geezer recalls when Ringo Starr used to say that when the Beatles were finished he was going to be a hairdresser. “We all thought that when the Rolling Stones were about twenty-eight they would be too old and they’d get proper jobs.”

“I used to say I’d never live past forty,” says Ozzy, “but when I got to be thirty-nine, well…” His years of drinking and drugging are a recurring motif of his bestselling 2009 autobiography “I Am Ozzy.”

“People want to establish careers,” says Geezer, “rather for the fun of just playing music.”

“We used to jam all the time,” says Ozzy. “People don’t know how to jam anymore. You just play, you know.”

They still jam, Geezer says. “That’s how this whole album came about. That’s how you get your ideas. Do an hour of jamming every day, loosen up, see what sparks come out. Then we record one of the written songs.”

I am promised a preview of their new album. Then Ozzy’s talking about how the newest digital technology affects sound. “Our new album,” he says, “we recorded it the way we would have done on analog. On analog you couldn’t bend notes and match things up perfectly, the way they do now. That’s not the way music is. It’s supposed to sound like people are playing it. Not so clean, you know?”

But Ozzy and Geezer are not so eager to put down the music being played today.

“I think pop music is really good at the moment,” Geezer says. “Lots of good stuff. Back in the Sixties and Seventies among all the good stuff you used to get all the horrible crap stuff, too, especially in England, all those novelty records. There’s better standards now.”

Ozzy nearly spits with disgust at the memory of English Sixties Top of the Pops. “One-Horse-Jimmy, or something.” He starts singing “My Boy Lollipop” in a voice you could wrap fish in. “Drove me fuckin’ nuts!”

Well, then, I ask, who do you listen to?

“Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk,” says Geezer, a solid jazz fanatic.  “Loved Amy Winehouse. I like Adele. I like people who actually have good talent.”

Ozzy shakes his head.  “To be honest with you,” he says, “I don’t listen to music much anymore.”

Geezer smiles, knowing what Ozzy means. They’ve been to the mountaintop—they don’t need to hear anything else. “I’d really rather listen to audio books,” says Geezer. Currently, it seems he’s listening to Ian Fleming’s whole James Bond series, “From Casino Royale, right along, in proper order. Not the way the films came out.” He listens in his car, driving around L.A.

Ozzy goes into a tirade against driving, various technologies, and the combination of the two, including the phenomenon of text messaging while driving. He marvels at his young assistant who does that, but acknowledges it’s a $150 ticket if you are caught in the act.

But getting back onto the subject of reading, Ozzy says he recently read a biography of John Lennon but couldn’t finish it. “When it got to the part where he got killed I couldn’t read anymore!”

Well, what about the Beatles—did Black Sabbath and the Beatles ever get together? “Never met Lennon,” says Ozzy. Neither did Geezer.  But they both met George Harrison and Ringo, and both like Paul McCartney. “Paul is a nice guy,” says Ozzy.

But don’t they go to see other musicians play, or check out new bands at Hollywood clubs?

“My wife always saying to me ‘Why don’t you want to go out?’” Ozzy frowns, “But I tell Sharon, ‘My job is going out.’”

Ozzy has five children from two marriages, ranging in age from 27 to 41, three of them with Sharon. He is a grandfather six times over.

I ask them what’s the biggest misconception about Black Sabbath that they would like to correct, aside from the business of Ozzy biting off the head of a bat tossed onstage during a concert (a much disputed occurrence that has passed the fact-checking desk into legend)?

“The biggest misconception when we first started,” says Geezer, “was that we were all Satanists. People were totally misinterpreting the lyrics. They saw the name of the band and immediately put us on the dark side.”

“It’s just a role we play,” says Ozzy.

"And the lyrics are all against Satanism,” Geezer insists, “if they care to listen to them properly.” Both Black Sabbath members are eager to dispel the notion that the band promotes Satanism or has anything do with the dark arts or occult beliefs.

“We were in Philadelphia,” says Geezer, “Someone said, well, you’re the Satan band, you’ve got to see this new film called ‘The Exorcist.’ Well, we were that fucking scared after seeing ‘The Exorcist,’ we all spent the night in the same bedroom. We had to go see “The Sting” afterwards to calm down, we were so out of our fuckin’ minds, that’s what fuckin’ Satanists we were.”

“That’s always gotten me,” Ozzy says. “It’s just a fucking stage role. It amazes me what people believe.” In the beginning it was just a sort of literary experiment, according to Ozzy. 

“We said, wouldn’t it be good to write scary music, haunted music, like Halloween. But we don’t burn virgins.”

“Too old for that now,” Geezer grins.

It seems that band reunions, such as the Rolling Stones currently embarking on their 50th anniversary tour, is one of the few challenges that remain for Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers who can still mount a stage. This is especially true of a band like Black Sabbath, torn asunder over previous decades by conflicts, substitute lineups, deaths and hobbled by addictions. It’s certainly not about the money.

“It’s not a job, this album,” says Ozzy, who with his wife ranks as one the wealthiest rock stars, worth more than $145M according to the London Sunday Times 2011 “Rich List.” 

“We’ve all grown up, there’s nobody better than anybody. We don’t drink much. We don’t smoke cigarettes. I’ve never been so fucking healthy in my life.”

In one of those ironies that are almost cliché among rockers (Alice Cooper’s devotion to golf, for example), Ozzy says he prefers a bit of quiet these days, and enjoys a solitary hobby. 

“I just sit in my own room,” he says. “I like to paint.” Paint what? “”Things,” he says. “Just things.”

But being in the band still gets them up in the morning. “I love playing music,” says Geezer, “more than ever. At my age now, to still be able to play bass and write lyrics, it’s like a blessing, and I’m really grateful for it. I don’t take it for granted.”

Ozzy says similar feelings among their contemporaries is not uncommon. “I was in a restaurant one time,” he says, “with one of the guys from the band Chicago, and he has a small apartment overlooking the 405 Freeway. That’s it, right, because he tells me ‘That’s all I need. I’m always on the road,’ and he went back home last week, and looking the window saw all that traffic bumper to bumper, and he says ‘It got me thinking I’m so fucking lucky just for the fact that I don’t have to do that every fucking day.’ That alone is so fucking worth it. And I don’t want the green M&Ms either.”

Guitar slasher Tony Iommi isn’t present because he’s undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma in the UK. “It’s been a long road in terms of Tony battling cancer,” says Ozzy, whose wife has had her own battles with cancer. “I spoke to him this morning. He sounded tired. I’m sixty-five, and I’m thinking—fuck, I look in the mirror and thinking my dada died at sixty-five. And I remember thinking, well, he was an old guy. Time, as you get older—time goes by so quickly. Sharon said to me, we only have ten years. I said, what are you talking about? She says, it’s not that long before we go under.”

Ozzy is clearly worried about the aging process. “My short term memory is gone. I go up and down the fucking stairs and go what did I come up here for? Drives me nuts. I can remember what I was wearing on the stage twenty years ago but I can’t remember five minutes ago.”
He continues to complain. “I’m deaf as a fucking plank. Hearing aids!”  He takes one out. I ask if it’s just one ear that’s a problem and Ozzy says, “No! One in each ear. In me arse, as well!”

Ozzy gets up from the sofa to point his posterior at me. “Eh? What’d you say?”

I stand up, point my own arse towards Ozzy’s, asking if I might listen to the new Black Sabbath album now?

They play it for me, the rough mix. 

Even I can testify: Black Sabbath fans will not be disappointed.

NO DOUBT - OF A CERTAIN AGE (Sept. 2012 #107)

By Rex Weiner

When you grow older, does rock and roll die?

Not for No Doubt, the band born in 1986 in an Anaheim garage a few miles south of Los Angeles. What happens when you get older is, your record company puts out a new album and the tour bus hits the road, just like in the beginning—only this time with nine children that all four members, Gwen Stefani, Adrian Young, Tom Dumont and Tony Kanal have spawned in the eleven years since the last album. And don’t forget Adrian’s golf clubs.

“Talking about it is super-weird,” Gwen Stefani tells me, in the high-pitched voice known to millions of her fans and phrased in the kooky dialect peculiar to Orange County, home of Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland. “It’s rad to share it.”

We’re sitting in Ocean Way Studios, a legendary recording house in Hollywood. Autographed pictures on the wall show everyone who has cut tracks here from Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Michael Jackson, to Green Day, Dr. Dre, Radiohead, Kanye West, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The studio is responsible for multi-platinum recordings and more than one billion record sales, including No Doubt’s last album, “Rock Steady,” and now add the new one, their sixth: “Push and Shove.”

“I’m not bragging,” says Stefani, “but this is the best record we’ve ever made.” That’s a big claim, coming from the band that recorded “Tragic Kingdom,” one of the best-selling rock albums of all time.

Looking as blonde and vivacious as ever at 43 years old in plaid pants, black silk jacket, and signature red lipstick, she’s accompanied by Adrian in blond Mohawk, pink shirt, Edwardian gray jacket and dark trousers, Tom in a conservative cap and black and white checked shirt, and Tony also sporting a blond Mohawk, in a casual jacket and t-shirt. The group, known for its fashion sense, stood fashionably cool in the back of the studio fiddling with their iPhones as the sound camp up big over the speakers.

“Push and Shove,” the album’s title song is a dense collaboration with Major Lazer (DJ Diplo) that also includes beats by Busy Signal, the Jamaican dancehall artist arrested in Kingston last May, extradited to the US where he faces charges on a 10-year old drug bust. The track features Stefani’s buttery, mellifluous, hiccupping voice and a flood of cascading musical hooks. It’s sure to be rocking dance clubs around the world.

The next track is “Looking Hot”… “Take good look at me,” Stefani sings, “You think I’m looking hot, you think this is the spot…” Horns blow, the beat chug-chugs. It’s hot. It’s a big, thick, rich mix with smoothly balanced sound and sharp effects. The album is produced by Mark "Spike" Stent, the man who engineered multi-platinum albums for Madonna, Lady Gaga, U2, and Beyonce, and who steered “No Doubt’s 2001 effort, “Rock Steady.”

It’s a long way from playing pizza parties.

The band started out in the late, post-punk 1980s playing ska and reggae-tinged rock. The band’s name was coined by John Spence who was playing with Stefani’s brother Eric on keyboards with Gwen singing backup. Her biggest influence was Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music.

No Doubt played a gig with The Untouchables headlining at Fender's Ballroom in Long Beach, California, along with fourteen other bands one night when UK-born Tony Kanal was in the audience. Kanal liked what he saw, and the bass player decided he wanted join the group, which he did. He also became Stefani’s boyfriend.

The suicide of John Spence in December, 10987 nearly broke up the band, but a few days after Spence’s tragic death, No Doubt played the Roxy on the Sunset Strip for a record industry audience and got a good response. They decided to continue onward.

Leaving behind a heavy metal band, Tom Dumont joined No Doubt in early 1988, adding his hard-driving guitar to the mix. The band began building a following in the Southern California ska and reggae scene while playing with bands like The Untouchables and Fishbone. Ska-enthusiast Adrian Young signed on as drummer and the group began opening shows for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ziggy Marley, gaining a mailing list of thousand fans along the way. The list was used to promote parties where the band played and pizza was served.
No Doubt signed with Interscope Records in 1991, while band members kept their day jobs and attended school. Gwen, an art student and Tony, studying psychology, both worked in a department store. Adrian, also studying psychology, waited tables at a restaurant, and music school student Tom ran a music equipment rental business.

That year the band recorded their 14-song first album for less than $13,000, with Interscope president Jimmy Iovine betting that in five years they would be stars. But in 1992, the Seattle grunge sound was big, and No Doubt, the band’s self-title album, sold only 30,000 copies. They shot a video that was never played on MTV. They set out on a tough, two-and-a-half-month cross-country tour in cramped vans playing small clubs opening for Public Enemy and 
The Special Beat.

Over the next two and a half years their break-through album, “Tragic Kingdom,” with song lyrics fueled by Gwen and Tony’s breakup, was recorded at eleven different studios. Kanal has referred to its difficult creation as a “battleground.” One of the casualties was Stefani’s brother Eric, who quit the band to join The Simpsons TV show as an animator.
By the end of 1995, with “Just a Girl” getting airplay on local L.A. radio stations, the band began to attract national attention, especially Stefani’s bindi and bare sexy midriff. By the summer of 1996, with “Don’t Speak” a hit song and sales of “Tragic Kingdom” earning certified platinum status, No Doubt was touring the world and Stefani appearing on newsstands on fashion magazine and teen fanzine covers as the reigning Queen of Pop.

The Decade of No Doubt followed, with the band seemingly everywhere and “Tragic Kingdom” selling more than 15 million copies worldwide. The new millennium dawned, and with technology moving into the World Wide Web, No Doubt became one of the last MTV bands to reach the world mainly through the medium of rock video, and one of the last bands to deliver global sales of music via CDs, before Napster and downloads changed the music industry game.

They have good memories of touring, especially in Italy before the band had reach the height if its fame. Tom remembers playing a big festival in Milan during their “Tragic Kingdom” tour when Rage Against the Machine playing on an adjacent stage stole away their audience (the band members are friends). But no sightseeing for Adrian, who recalls being attacked by mosquitos during the Milano concert. They laugh about it now, but he says he jumped on a train to Germany, getting there early before their next date to recover from huge Italian mosquito bites on his skin.

Tom and Adrian also remember an historic concert in Tel Aviv in 1997 when the audience brought together Jewish and Arab Israelis and everyone got along, happily rocking to No Doubt’s music.

They’ve been busy in the eleven years since “Rock Steady,” says Adrian. “It was really healthy to take time for the kids.” On their 2009 tour the band had six kids to look after who have now grown up together. Instead of looking for clubs in the various cities they visited and bands to jam with, they had other concerns. “We’d be looking for fun things for the kids to do,” he says.

Adrian is a “scratch” golfer playing competitively with a zero handicap and often plays in charity tournaments. Both Adrian and Tom live in Long Beach, but Tom is a surfer who loves the ocean.

Tony Kanal is the late-comer to parenting. He and his wife had trouble conceiving, and Stefani says “We would come to the studio asking Tony, ‘Did you get pregnant yet?’” Now Tony’s daughter Coco is just over a year old. “Kids take your life to the next level,” he says.
Stefani, who married Bush rocker Gavin Rossdale in September, 2002, now has two young boys, Kingston and Zuma, to look after. She confesses that the rock and roll lifestyle often conflicts with her parenting role. “I feel the mommy pie gets divided up,” she says, between time with the children and time away, time in the recording studio, doing photo shoots, rehearsing, tending to her career. “Being without my children…,” she says with a frown, “Guilt!”

Stefani was four and a half months pregnant on tour with her first child. Then, once her first boy was born, she was on tour for six months, doing 106 shows while nursing. “When I got home I was pregnant again!”

“It was a super-hard, crazy journey, being a mom,” Stefani said, “but we had to fight and didn’t give up.” She says that at one point, overwhelmed, she pictured herself in a wheelchair being taken away to a rest home.

The demands of being a mother have curtailed her other career as the head of her L.A.M.B fashion line. “I missed Fashion Week in New York because the kids were starting school,” she says. But she is “super passionate” about her clothing line and the fashions business, which she calls “A lot less emotional than singing.”

But from the beginning she’s had to learn the basics about what people in the garment industry call “the rag trade.” She says, “I was late to the fashion world. I was from the OC,” meaning Orange County, a place not known for its devotion to style.

It wasn’t until she reached the age of 30 that Stefani attended her first fashion show. It was for Vivienne Westwood, the British design icon who is Stefani’s design idol. Stefani wore a Westwood corset in an early video. Meeting Westwood was “like meeting the queen,” Stefani told a fashion magazine at the time, and was also widely quoted as saying “I cried” when she was invited to a Christian Dior show and saw fashion bad boy John Galliano’s creations on the runway. Stefani has hailed Galliano, since disgraced and dismissed by Dior for anti-Semitic remarks, as a genius.

Last year she donated her pink silk faille wedding dress, designed by Galliano, to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “But it’s a work of art, it needed to be seen,” she told Elle UK. Stefani and Gavin whose 2002 wedding in an Anglican ceremony at St. Paul’s Church Covent Garden in was widely covered in the media. Now she is a L’Oreal icon, using her sponsor’s products and chooses blue-red lipstick “but I’m exploring the orange.”

From the Beverly Hills house she shares with Gavin, she travels to the Hollywood studio three days a week, and works until four in the afternoon. Often the group meets at Tony’s house in Los Feliz, which is not far from the studio. And touring now, with all families on board, has a different feel, she says. “Definitely tribal!” It’s all about the kids now, “from the minute they wake up.”

We’re listening now to the album single, “Settle Down” which begins with Indian strings, a sitar sound with tablas lending a percussive beat. Was this due to Tony’s South Asian background?

“It was actually Sophie Muller’s idea,” says Kanal, speaking of the director who has shot nearly all of the band’s official videos. The visuals and the music show a Bollywood influence
Stefani says the band is definitely together again, and after two solo albums 

("Love.Angel.Music.Baby." and "The Sweet Escape") the “Hollaback Girl” does not contemplate anymore solo recording or touring. “My solo albums were not meant to be a solo career,” she says, “but an 80’s dance record I just wanted to make. When I finished that last solo tour, I said, ‘I’m ready now for No Doubt.’”

Stefani’s solo concert concluded in 2007 at Irvine Meadows stadium which is on No Doubt’s Orange County home turf. That night the group came onstage for an encore. They played “Just a Girl and “It’s My Life.” It was an emotional moment for the audience and for the group, Kanal says, and watching it captured live on YouTube, “I still get goose bumps.”
Stefani was looking forward to hosting a “Family Day” fundraiser August 12 at her Beverly Hills home with First Lady Michelle Obama for the President’s re-election campaign. Active in philanthropy, the singer has already donated $1 million to help children affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

We’re listening to the track called “Gravity” and the lyrics say “I don’t know where all the time went, so many close calls, everybody falls.” It seems to be a song about survival, which No Doubt does well. But the best song, for at least one listener, is called “One More Summer.”

Been wasting all this time but I can’t let go
Getting used to all your mistakes
I could be right I could be wrong…

Stefani sings in a sparing voice to a strong rolling beat. The lyrics seem to be about holding onto the past while moving into the future. It’s a different sound from No Doubt’s previous work. The band is certain that their new album will take fans in new musical directions. 

“We’ve never been stuck in one genre,” says Adrian, “and we’re always doing something new.”

Which is one sure way No Doubt never gets old.


By Rex Weiner

LOS ANGELES: On September 21, the day that R.E.M. shook the rock world by officially announcing its breakup after 31 years and one last album, guitarist Peter Buck was already gone, beginning the rest of his life south of the border, “with my sombrero and a margarita by the pool,” he told La Stampa in an exclusive interview.

With bassist Mike Mills and frontman Michael Stipe, Buck recorded 15 albums with the Grammy-award winning alternative rock group, starting in 1979 in Athens, Georgia, and toured the world. But with that part of his career over, Buck recently purchased a house in a small Mexican town called Todos Santos on the Baja California coast, about 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, where he and his fiancé are busy launching a three-week music festival January 5 through January 21 featuring Buck and some of the most influential players in the independent music scene.

Buck has not taken the farewell spotlight alongside his two more outspoken R.E.M comrades, other than to issue a statement saying, “we walk away as great friends.” But in his first interview since the breakup announcement, he says he is speaking to La Stampa because “Italian fans are the most enthusiastic on earth,” and also because he wants the world to come to Baja for the festival which he hopes will become an annual event.

Singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock and ex-Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn are two of the many musicians flying in to the picturesque colonial town at tip of the Baja peninsula to join Buck at the Todos Santos Music Festival, presented by the Hotel California, the legendary local hostelry. All proceeds from the festival will benefit The Palapa Society, a local non-profit organization that provides educational services and scholarship for young Todos Santos students.

To organize the festival, Buck has partnered with the colorful Hotel California (, originally built in 1948 and renovated in 2001, winning numerous awards for design and décor. The original 16 rooms were transformed into the eclectic 11-suite hotel on the town’s main street that in the past, according to local lore, may (or may not) have inspired the Eagles’ song. Along with several of the town’s boutique hotels, the Hotel California is offering special rates to guests coming for the festival, and several resorts in Cabo San Lucas and nearby Pescadero will run shuttles to the shows.

The music starts at 8PM each evening. “We’ll play two sets each night four nights a week, for three weeks,” said Buck, “a total of twenty-three performances.” That includes a final free concert at the end of the last week in the town plaza. “We will rehearse at my house during the afternoons,” Buck said. He’s doing it because “my social life is playing music people. I’ve been doing this since I was thirteen years old.”

Buck also believes in the charitable cause. “I feel if you’re part of the community, you have to contribute something,” he said, pointing to the many benefit concerts and community support that R.E.M performed during their days in Athens, Georgia. In this case, Buck says he has written a personal check for $10,000 to the Palapa Society in Todos Santos and is paying most of the expenses for the festival. While all of the shows are free, a certain number of reserved seats may be had for a donation. He hopes to raise another $10,000 through sales of posters and t-shirts (you can find the event on Facebook at “Todos Santos Music Festival 2012”).

Buck last toured Italy with R.E.M in 2008. The group was one of the few American alternative rock bands to play in Sicily, doing a concert at Catania Stadium in August, 1995 during their Monster Tour, thanks to their friendship with Francesco Virlinzi, Catania-born music producer, and R.E.M fan. Buck owns an Italian-made bowl-back mandolin—a gift from Virlinzi, who died in 2000—which he plays mostly at home or in his recording studio.

Buck is looking forward to living in Todos Santos, a laid-back spot for surfers and artists. But he admits that the day of the breakup announcement was “a sad day. But it was also a relief.” He said the group had decided on the breakup two years earlier. “We wanted to go out on a high note,” he said. “It was all amicable, and just time to move on.”

But more than that, it’s clear that the business of being R.E.M was going stale for him. “Do I really want to go out on stage and play ‘Losing My Religion” once more time?” he said. “I don’t want to be in an oldies band.” Inducted with the group into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, Rolling Stone counts Buck as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time and their last studio album, Collapse Into Now, one of the top 50 albums of 2011.

Other groups, of course, are continuing on the rock n roll road even longer than R.E.M. “I love seeing the Stones,” said Buck, “and I will go on seeing them play. But what they do is not something I want to do. A lot of bands out there should have shut the door long ago.”

In fact, Buck says, he is not the rock n roll party animal type. “I enjoy playing the music,” he said, “it’s a lot of the other stuff I don’t like. I don’t enjoy having my picture taken, I don’t like being interviewed, and I don’t go out to parties.” When the breakup announcement was being planned by the group and its management, Buck opted out.

From now on, for Peter Buck it’s a sombrero and margarita, playing his guitar with friends down in old Mexico.

ROBBIE ROBERTSON - "THIS IS WHERE I GET OFF" Rolling Stone Italia, April 2011:

He wrote “The Weight,” ranked #41 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time list. With its maddeningly ambiguous lyrics, from the opening line—“I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half-past dead….”—to its harmonized refrain—“A-a-a-and you put the load right on me”—it remains one of the most enigmatic popular songs ever written. And here was the songwriter himself, Robbie Robertson, seated across from me in this restaurant all dressed in black. He was laughing with the waitress, a slim blonde named Stacy.

Far from Nazareth, we were in a place called Craft, a restaurant in Los Angeles where the 22 ounce sirloin steak is $54.00 and the New Jersey pheasant will set you back $32.00. We were surrounded by men in business suits drinking after work, mostly Hollywood agents from the big talent agencies in the nearby office towers. They were accompanied by the kind of well-dressed women who marry men who go to work every day in business suits, but maybe not the ones they were with here tonight. The restaurant owner was Robbie’s friend, which was why he chose this place to meet.

We were here to talk about “How To Become Clairvoyant,” Robbie’s first album in more than ten years, his fifth solo work since leaving The Band in 1976, and the fourteenth album he’s played on since “The Weight” was released on The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” in 1968. It’s a good album with some very good songs and contributions from Robbie’s old friends Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, some new friends like Trent Reznor, and how all that came together is what we were here discuss, but Robbie was hungry.

“I haven’t eaten all day,” Robbie told Stacy. “Bring us some snacks.” From the sommelier he ordered a glass of wine, requesting the El Capitan, a Santa Barbara Syrah, 2008 vintage. Make that two glasses, said I.

Expecting someone mysterious and elusive, I was ready for the singer/songwriter and lead guitarist from The Band to be a difficult artiste, like Bob Dylan, with whom Robertson and The Band toured in the early days, or Van Morrison, a close pal of Robertson’s. Anticipating a tight-lipped man, reluctant to reveal himself, jealously guarding his hidden soul, I was going to ask him something challenging right away, a deep question like: What the hell does “The Weight” mean, particularly the part about “Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me at the bar…”?

But a few minutes into the conversation, and after a few sips of the excellent El Capitan, it became clear that Robbie was no mystery man. Smiling, loquacious, with a genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence, he was ready to get personal, which was good because “How To Become Clairvoyant” is a collection of twelve deeply personal songs. He was open to talking about anything at all—even drugs, which was my fault because I brought up the subject. Wild behavior, and the price you pay, is part of the confessional Robbie delivers with this album. So it was understood, without saying, that each of us had done his share of misbehavior and illegal substances.

Robbie described how when he first joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in Toronto in the early 1960s when he was in his teens, a lot of musicians on the scene were popping Benzedrine pills—“Bennies.” We talked about the varieties of amphetamine: Dexedrine, Dexamyl, Black Beauties… the green-and-whites were my favorite.

“So what happened,” Robbie asked me, looking me in the eye. “You don’t like speed anymore?”

“No,” I lied. My editors wanted this article done in just couple of days. Damn, how else was I going to get this done without the usual chemical assistance?

“Makes you smoke a lot, doesn’t it?” Robbie reminisced. “Cigarettes tasted so good.” Shaking his head sadly, he said, “You know, there are a few things in my lifetime that I regret. One is all the cigarettes that smoked. Because it really beat me up. I did great damage to my respiratory system.”

But if he had not smoked all those cigarettes he wouldn’t have his very cool and unique raspy singing voice either, I was thinking of saying, but instead asked Robbie if he had a cigarette. If he did, we might have stepped outside for a smoke, because I was dying for a cigarette. But no, Robbie and I agreed, we don’t smoke anymore. So we just sat and drank wine and ate from a parade of appetizers Stacy brought out—oysters, sausage, lamb—and plunged into the past.


Robertson was born in Toronto, Canada. His father was Jewish, his mother a Native American of the Mohawk tribe. He grew up learning, guitar on summer vacations at the Six Nations Reservation, where his mother was born and raised. His Indian roots would later lead to working with The Red Road Ensemble on the soundtrack to the 1994 television miniseries, “The Native Americans,” with a selection of songs issued as an album. Tribal spirits also inspired his 1998 album, The Underworld Of Redboy, which led to a one-hour TV documentary “Robbie Robertson: Making A Noise.”

He joined a touring bar band led by Ronnie Hawkins that became known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, which included the players who would later form the nucleus of The Band. Leaving Canada, they toured the southern states on what was known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” a tough series of one-night stands in bars and honky tonks that polished the young guitar player’s riffs and shaped Robertson’s profound repertoire of American music.

Robertson captures the feeling of coming of age on the North American road in the Fifties and Sixties in a track on the new album called When the Night Was Young:

We headed straight south in a sundown light

On highway 61 through the delta night

We shared the backroads with cardsharks and grifters

Tent show evangelists and Luke the Drifter

The backup vocals of Angela McCluskey on this track ring out behind Robertson like a doo wop angel. McCluskey has earned a cult following since her days with the Wild Colonials. In music circles, she is known as a singer’s singer.

“She has a great sound,” agreed Robbie, pleased to have chosen her to sing on his album. “It just shows you I know what I’m doing.”

That may true, but for Robbie, knowing what he’s doing seems to come only after a bit of exploration. How to Become Clairvoyant began with a trip to London in 2008. Robertson spent three weeks in a studio with Eric Clapton, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas.

“Eric and I are old friends,” he recounted, and they had been talking about doing something together for years. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We had nothing specific in mind yet. We said, let’s just do something and see what happens. So we recorded some tracks. And Eric said to me, this is really your record. I would love to be supportive—sing, play—whatever you want.”

But then director Martin Scorsese called. Robertson had collaborated with Scorsese over the years on many films including Raging Bull, King Of Comedy and The Color Of Money. Scorsese, of course, directed The Band’s epic farewell concert film, The Last Waltz. This time, Scorsese had a new project, Shutter Island, a thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I had to switch gears,” said Robertson, who jumped off his own project into a totally new realm of music for Scorsese’s project. “I said to Marty—I think in this movie we should use all modern classical composers like John Cage. I was talking about going deep into the well. I went completely into that world and when I came back to the album, I had a particular cinematic vision of what should be done to finish it.”

As if casting people in parts for a movie, Robertson brought in McCluskey for backup vocals, guitar hero Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph, and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, along with Winwood and Clapton. His aim: “To complete a collaborative vision. There was a lot left to do, because some of these songs were just a germ of an idea.”

Unlike his other albums, which were recorded in a single long stretch, this album benefitted from the long interruption. “Having that break was something I’d never experienced before – to go away and come back with some clarity instead of exhaustion – it made this album what it is.”


During the making of “The Last Waltz,” Robertson and director Scorsese spent a lot of time together. In fact, they were housemates. The hard-rocking track “He Don’t Live Here No More” is about that time, “a song about excess,” according to Robbie. “It was a lifestyle of the time that most of my friends went through, some came out the other side, and for some, the train ran off the tracks.” The song features Clapton on harmony vocal and electric and slide guitars alongside Robertson playing a soulful solo on his 1928 Martin 00045 “gut string” guitar.

Got a ticket on the mainline

I was stranded on the fault line

I got wasted on the moonshine

Too far gone

“The Martin 00045 is an exquisite instrument,” Robbie told me. ”Martin has a new version, they’re going to start making them again. And on this album Eric is playing it or I’m playing it. Eric gave up his own classical guitar made in Spain,” because Clapton liked the sound of Robbie’s gut string better.

“It’s a thread through the whole project,” Robbie said.


Clairvoyant is a guitar album for guitar aficionados, for anyone who appreciates the whole history of the guitar virtuoso, or “axman” as such as player is known, which is the title of one of the album’s best tracks.

They say the axman’s coming

In a long black car

They said the axman’s coming

He plays a mean guitar

Robbie’s song calls out the names of rock and blues guitar heroes, including Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughn, T Bone Walker and Link Wray, Elmore James and even gypsy jazzman Django Rinehart. He sings of Delta Blues master Robert Johnson and “Jimi James,” the name Jimi Hendrix used when Robertson first met him, all “Brothers of the blade,” as the song celebrates them.

The song is a hymn to the six-string instrument with which Robertson won a place as Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, as did Clapton, whose friendship Robbie also celebrates.

“It’s as if our guitars are talking to each other,” Robertson said. “And it’s always been that way--natural and comfortable. It’s like in The Last Waltz when Eric’s guitar strap fell off and I picked it up. We had each other’s back.”

Another track called “Straight Down the Line” explores the history of rock from its origins in blues, gospel, rockabilly and pop, “From the Chitlin’ Circuit to the Peppermint Lounge,” as the song goes, and recalls a meeting between Robertson and classic bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.

Been run off more than once for goin’ underground

Where I met an old bluesman with a walking cane

In the days before they became Dylan’s backup band, Robertson and his bandmates were proposing collaboration with Williamson, but the elder statesman of the blues was a purist. He thought over the idea and according to the song:

Then he took a little drink

And I heard him say

I do not play no rock and roll

Would not be moved to sell my soul

“I loved that about him,” recalled Robbie. Williamson died a short while later, a bluesman to the end. It was a similar case with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose influence was felt by Robertson and endless numbers of rock, pop, and soul singers. As a Rock n Roll Hall of Famer (and inducted this year into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame ) Robertson suggested to the induction committee that they honor Jackson.

“They got in touch with her family after she’d passed away,” Roberson recalled, “and they said no thank you. Mahalia Jackson does not play no rock and roll.”

Robertson pointed out that Frank Sinatra also stood apart from the music that became the sound of the last half the 20th Century. “Those were three characters,” Robertson said, with the admiration due to practitioners of pure art, “who do not play no rock and roll.”

this is where I get off

The breakup of The Band, one of rock’s greatest ensembles, has always been the subject of much conjecture. The genius of each member—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Robertson—contributed to an enduring sound from a band that recorded seven classic albums (before he split from the group), played a memorable set at the Woodstock Festival, and toured for 16 years. What went wrong?

Robertson sighed, looking thoughtful as he sipped his El Capitan. “Some groups have been together forever and are still productive and inspiring one another. Others—it does go stale,” said Robbie. “In our situation we hit a wall. We were called The Band. All the individuals played an extraordinary part. When one of those wheels goes flat, the others can’t drive as fast. When two wheels go flat you’re limping over to the side of the road. Three wheels go flat and you need to shuffle the deck, re-group.”

Robertson has been reluctant to talk about it all these years, but he relates the story of his departure from The Band poetically on the track titled This Is Where I Get Off

Walking out on the boys

Was never the plan

We just drifted off course

Couldn’t strike up the band

Robertson blames the breakup on the nature of the era. “It was the late 70s when there was such an indulgent drug-ridden culture. You would say hey, this worked very good Tuesday but Wednesday and Thursday were fucked. Like somebody you had great sex with last week but now when you see them it doesn’t work anymore. It was that kind of situation—addictions were ruling the creativity. I didn’t know how to communicate through the fog. You try and keep trying and keep trying until you get to a point where you say, you know what? I’m falling apart trying to figure this out. For my own sanity and my own survival I need to step aside, even if I’m just as bad as everybody else.”

The breakup led to a bitter dispute with Levon Helm over song copyrights that has since been settled. “It is so long ago, so in the past and life is so short,” Robbie said.” I have such great love and respect for Levon, so many amazing experiences that I’ve had with him, and that’s where I keep that.”

Backup vocals on “This is Where I Get Off” are performed by Rocco DeLuca, a rising young artist who specializes in open-string Dobro and often opens shows for Daniel Lanois. DeLuca will be joining Robertson’s backup band on upcoming TV show appearances promoting the album.

Describing DeLuca’s high falsetto, Robbie says the singer’s voice is “like Richard Manuel,” his old Band-mate who died in 1986. Rick Danko is also gone, dying in 1999.

“Do you miss those guys?” I asked him.

Robbie took a deep breath and looked down at the table. “Of course I do. Yeah. They’re like brothers. It’s not like you forget or get used to the idea that they’re not here anymore. I often catch myself thinking—What would Richard think about that? I’ll be working on a song and this is when I would ask Richard—What do you think about this? He would always have something progressive for me in his observation of what I was doing. And we co-wrote things together. So it was it was that habit just being extended. He would write something on his own and he would say to me, Hey do you think we should go to a bridge here? We grew up doing that. And yes,” said Robbie. “ I miss him dearly.”

So just pull over

To the side of the road

This is where I get off

This is where I move on

I know where I went wrong

‘Long the way

As we left the restaurant, an old blues song was playing on the sound system. I suddenly recalled that Nazareth is the hometown of the guitar manufacturer C. F. Martin & Company. I wanted to ask Robbie about something but we were shaking hands on the sidewalk and we both had places to go and people expecting us. I remembered something he had said earlier in the evening.

“Sometimes it’s easy to find a good opening but it’s hard to find a good finish.” He was talking about writing a song, but he laughed and added, “In life, too…:”

Robbie stepped into his car and was gone like Luke the Drifter, only in a Mercedes and with song lyrics hanging in the air….

How to become clairvoyant

That’s what I want to know

Just tell me where to sign

And point me where to go…