Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Excerpt: Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist by Thomas Wictor

Thomas Wictor, author of the book Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist, stopped by to share with us an excerpt from his book.

Excerpt, Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist by Thomas Wictor
(Schiffer Publishing, 2013), copyright: Thomas Wictor, 2013, all rights reserved.

Since Bass Player had never written anything about Gene Simmons, I pitched him to Jim Roberts. Jim agreed, telling me it would be another feature article, my third. I contacted Simmons's publicist, who asked if Gene would get the cover. That decision was out of my hands. Jim said he never made deals and had to see the interview first. The publicist and I called back and forth a few times until I threatened to move on to another project.

Simmons himself called me without warning a few days later and wanted to do a phoner, which I refused. The point for me was to meet him and hone my chops. He abruptly hung up, called the next day, and asked if I could meet him in half an hour. When that didn't work, I cleared my schedule and waited until he called a third time and we worked out a deal to talk at the studio where Kiss put the final touches on their new album. I interviewed Simmons on January 28, 1996.

The interview began with him actually taking my tape recorder out of my hands and cradling it in his lap as he sat on the sofa with his legs stretched out on the coffee table. He went into his standard interview, which I let him do for a while, and then I started in with questions I'd never heard anyone ask him before. I don't know how I figured this out, but with someone as famous as he is, it's a complicated dynamic: You can't be too deferential, or they get bored because everyone kisses their rumps all the time, but you also can't be too familiar, because then you're disrespecting their hard-earned position in society. The key is to simply be perceptive. I took my cues from my interview subjects; they always let me know exactly how to interact with them.

When speaking to Simmons, I remembered a story I'd read about the actress Ethel Barrymore, who was a legend in her day. At a party, a stranger kept addressing her as "Ethel." Finally, she shouted, "Ethel, hell! Just call me 'Cuddles'!" So you have to show that you're not a sycophant, but you're also not in any way taking liberties. I can tell you the exact moment I won him over: I referred to myself as an insignificant insect, and he whistled the way you do when you witness a terrible disaster or something you simply can't believe. At that point he knew I was camping it up for him, and he knew that I knew he was camping it up for me, and everything was going to be okay. It was something neither of us acknowledged, of course; if I'd punched him on the arm and said, "Aw, ya nut!" he would've rightfully cut me off at the knees.

Initially, the Gene Simmons interview was the most difficult balancing act I performed in my career. When I asked him my most combative questions, I actually got out of my chair and sat cross legged on the floor at his feet, like an acolyte. From this position, I could then really challenge him. An extremely intelligent man, he knew exactly what I was doing and appreciated my strategy. All was well, as long as I didn't overstep my bounds by acknowledging the art we created together. That would've been boorish and disrespectful, and would've shown unearned familiarity. It also would've put me at the center of the story. My goal was to telegraph to Simmons that he was entirely the focus; he'd set the agenda; and I'd make him shine by playing the straight man. He got it--understanding that in no way was it manipulation--and ran with it. I always shudder at interviews I read, thinking, No, no! Why'd you ask him that?

Though the interview was originally supposed to last no more than an hour, he gave me two. We had a huge, shouting fight over tone when I told him I could tell different brands of bass by the sound, and he said I was full of it. The fight wasn't real, but we had to pretend it was. It's very hard to be deferential while yelling at someone, but it can be done. I told him that he was full of it because the tone of the bass in his songs changed and so did his instruments. If it didn't matter, he wouldn't have changed tone or basses. He eventually admitted that tone is important, but he refused to tell me a thing about his equipment, settings, or anything technical. At least twice in the interview he said he needed to be on the cover; what I did to allay his concern was to present him ever more opportunities to say outrageous, entertaining things. It was up to him.

About the book:

Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist chronicles Thomas Wictor's ten years in the Los Angeles music industry and his quest to free himself from the past. Ostensibly a memoir, Ghosts also asks - and possibly answers - provocative questions about fate, destiny, and life after death. The book is structured as a collection of anthologies rather than a continuous narrative; the seven anthologies detailing Wictor's failed career are separated by six interludes with the "Collateral Ghost," one of the most brilliant, yet unsuccessful, musicians who ever played - former Frank Zappa bassist Scott Thunes. Thomas Wictor's experiences include multiple failures across multiple spectra and an endless series of coincidences that always returned him to the notion that there is a Plan. Losing nearly everything he loved gave the author clarity, enabling him to see patterns of guidance and sustenance visible everywhere once he was no longer blinded by rage and negativity. This clarity exorcised Thomas Wictor and brought him peace of mind, which allowed him to transform the anger over what he lost into gratitude for what he once had. Written with profane humor and no self-pity, Ghosts and Ballyhoo includes previously unpublished articles, excerpts from interview transcripts personal correspondence, and photos.

About the author:

Thomas Wictor is the author of five books. A failed music journalist, failed military historian, failed novelist, failed ghostwriter, failed biographer, failed poet, failed essayist, failed rock musician, failed miniaturist, failed photographer, failed field representative for a document-retrieval service, failed delivery driver, failed temporary worker, failed voiceover actor, failed copyeditor, failed technical writer, failed editor of the world's first online newspaper, failed bartender, failed archivist, failed longshoreman, failed ladies' man, and failed ally, he is the planet's only expert on World War I flamethrowers. He lives happily by himself in Southern California.


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