This week In the Hot Seat with Harvey Kubernik, author/historian/music journalist.
Harvey Kubernik is a Los Angeles native who is a damn tough interview.
Not that he doesn’t answer a question, he does; but there’s a journalistic nakedness that Kubernik displays, and it’s a lot to deal with.
This is someone who has gone all over the place to meet everybody throughout the music industry.
Working in the low and high ends of America’s musical circles— Kubernik goes flat out in his replies. He jumps down rabbit holes with detailed asides, and with fascinating commentary, and historical minutiae that winds down more hills and valleys than the number of canyons above Hollywood.
All the while hardly taking a breath.
Also as a gifted author, historian, and music journalist for four decades, the quick-witted Kubernik also easily anticipates questions, and will challenge any perception that doesn’t jar with his memories of the moment.
In time, yes he does answer the damn question, but the back story is vitally important to him and, frankly, the majority of his back stories—extremely caloric appetizers-are riveting.
With a brief music industry job interlude as the West Coast director of A&R for MCA Records, Kubernik has been a music journalist since 1972, and a record producer since 1979.
His writings have been published in such newspapers as The Los Angeles Times, and The Los Angeles Free Press as well as such music-related publications as Melody Maker, Crawdaddy!, Musician, Billboard, Variety, Record Collector, Goldmine, Ugly Things, Mix, Mojo, Discoveries, Uncut, Music Life, Classic Rock, Hits, and Record Collector News where he currently serves as contributing editor.
A graduate of Fairfax High School, and West Los Angeles College, he holds a B.A. Special Major Degree (health, sociology, literature) from San Diego State University.
Kubernik is the author of 8 books, including: “This Is Rebel Music” (2002); “Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music In Film and on Your Screen” (2004); “That Lucky Old Sun” (2009) a limited-edition title in collaboration with Brian Wilson, and Sir Peter Blake; “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (2009); Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 (2014); “It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood” (2014), and “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows” (2014).
With his brother Kenneth, he co-authored “A Perfect Haze: The Monterey International Pop Festival” (2011). The pair also wrote the text and captioned the photos for the 2014 lavish coffee table book, “Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons: Through the Lens of Guy Webster” which the Independent Book Publishers Assn. recently awarded the brothers with its 2015 bronze medal in the category of Art & Photography.
In time for Neil Young’s 70th birthday on Nov. 12, Kubernik dissects the Canadian musician’s life and career in the upcoming book, “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (Backbeat Books).
You are the undisputed voice, and the primary music historian of California, specifically Los Angeles.
I am but I also constantly write about so many other (musical) genres. I write other heritage legacy rock stories, and occasionally do some rap situations. I consciously do that as well because those are the assignments that I initiate or they come to me.
At the end of August, Record Collector News Magazine will publish my cover story on Motown Records. Later this year it will run my cover story on the Beatles as I examine their “Rubber Soul” album 50 years after it was issued in December, 1965
That being said, in a world before the internet and the web, I kind of was this lone wolf out there. From writing a column in Melody Maker 1974 to 1981 that said, “Los Angles” every week. Just that concept and writing for over a half of decade, it was not tattooed and it’s not just having had a branding iron on me. The thing is that I was born and raised on the border of East Hollywood in Los Angeles from Echo Park, it’s part of me.
You circle back to Los Angeles/California musical roots continually in books and articles.
All of the time because of what has happened in the past 20 years, especially since I have had a forum. See, I’m not a blogger. I’m not a child of Wikipedia. (Before the internet) I was publishing hundreds and hundreds of articles, and my name has probably appeared in 285 books with either citations or acknowledgements. So I have been out there, and what has happened—not consciously, more subconsciously; but now it’s more of a reality, and I’m going to admit to it that I’ve become this voice of this whole basin. So I do circle back like “Bonanza” or “Wagon Train” or something just because I am always fascinated to find out how many types of musics, recording techniques or record labels all began here. Or I learn about the jazz artists who spent time here like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry or (Charles) Mingus who all went to school here, at least high school here or spent many years here. They go to New York and, all of a sudden, life begins for them in New York or the media which is largely preoccupied forgets the first 16, 18 or 20 years of the their lives. So I get to talk about that.
Los Angeles has forever been a company town, and a studio town. As much as it has had a vibrant club scene over the years, you do think of the great studios there like Gold Star Recording Studios.
As far back as 1973 or 1974, I knew it (the scene) was about the recording studios and the (recording) engineers. Everybody else was preoccupied with the lead singer or the songwriter or the band. When I would be invited to studios I would talk to the assistant engineer who often ended up being an engineer who goes multi-platinum. I also sort of knew (I had) a future messenger role or one as a documentarian when I was meeting people like (producer, recording engineer, and Gold Star co-founder) Stan Ross at Gold Star in 1973 for the first time, running tape on in 1975 with him and (recording engineer) Larry Levine.
Did I think that 40 years later that some of those quotes would end up in a Neil Young book? No. Was I repeatedly told—and I’m not being negative or anything. Nobody is happier than me right now because I’m healthy—but I’m a guy that was constantly told, “Why are you recording these people? What are you going to do with your life in the future? This is good for a year.”
How did that impact you?
I wish I could say that these people motivated me. No they didn’t. But I knew very early on that it was about the engineers, and the studios. Did I think that there was an afterlife for my archive? Did I think about my catalog? Well, no.
It’s been about engineers, and arrangers for me. The phone call before you was (guitarist) Barney Kessel’s son David Kessel because Don Randi’s book (“You’ve Heard These Hands”) is coming out, and there’s going to be a party for him. The same company as the Neil Young book. You see I like the facts that the dots are connecting. None of us are soliciting demos or trying to get bands signed or looking for distribution. We are in a situation where Don is getting his autobiography out. David Kessel called to thank me because I was partially instrumental in getting a Barney Kessel track on the “Wrecking Crew” 4-CD box set (with 80 tracks) that has just come out.
An important personal moment for you?
These are all fulfillment things for me. I have truly been in service most of the time (as a writer), and it means advancing the music, but it also means putting the West Coast vision under the global microscope. I know that I have done that. Now that it is getting into books, and into documentaries, the thing about this is it is primarily organic because I don’t have a manager. I don’t have a literary agent though that might change. But I haven’t had anybody for 35 years. I don’t have a website. I don’t do Facebook. I don’t have a cellphone. There will probably be some changes in that department because there are some things showing up, and I can’t be a one-man band anymore. Nor did I want that. It got defined that way because nobody else was interested.
Nevertheless that kind of dedication has led to you being a music industry insider with all kinds of close connections.
Like I ran into (producer) Don Was a few years ago. I asked if somebody was going to catch the 40th anniversary of (the Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” for a box set or bonus disc. He said, “Funny you should mention that. I just got an email from Mick (Jagger) in France, and we are discussing it. You are going to be the first person to hear it. I have a couple of questions, and I need to talk to you.” I said, “I just want to be the first person to hear it before you master it.” He then called me, and we went back and forth. I said, Go over to Village Recorders because part of ‘Goats Head Soup’ (album) was mixed there, and there might have been some ‘Exile’ stuff left over there." I do the forensic work for people. Later on Don called, and said he had roughs of the “Exile On Main Street” album that he wanted to play to me. I got to hear it. Those are the rewards that I like. Either I spur an idea, or I’m psychically involved or I’m there in a non-billing capacity and I can help people out. I don’t do it as a do-gooder. I know that it gets done right when I get involved. I’ve seen too many dropped balls, especially when it gets down to how L.A. and Hollywood have been portrayed historically. I’m talking about music and reissues. Thanks to the efforts of England, not just Mojo magazine, but record labels over there like Charly Records for putting out Kent and Ace reissues. Thank god.
Music journalism has changed over the years as evidenced at what pops up on posts on the internet.
Let me say something about the first 20 of my 44 or 46 years (as a journalist), there was no internet. Somehow due to the libraries of Melody Maker in the UK or Beetle magazine in Canada or Phonograph Record magazine (in the U.S.) people would bring me copies of my older things or they (articles would) get cited in books. Then I realize that I did interviews with people like Brian Wilson going back to 1974 and 1976. You can’t find those things on the internet, recycled or typed by somebody.
There’s Barney Hoskyn’s Rock's Backpages, a commercial website to make money for writers and itself.
I was one of the first 6 people to join Rock Backpages. I have made a few dollars there that I would never have imagined. I have known Barney for 35 years. I am always amazed when Barney sends me an email saying, “There’s been a request for an Emmylou Harris interview that you did in 1976.” That means a lot to me because I was at the rehearsal of the first Hot Band here. I saw her debut at McCabe’s. I got to meet (pianist) Glen D. Hardin, and shake hands with (guitarist) James Burton. That’s not lost on me. I love Emmylou.
Many music journalists use Rock's Backpages for deep research. Did you utilize it for your upcoming Neil Young book?
I made it a point not to do too much research because I had so many first hand tapings (interviews), and some great writing that really got uncorked in this Neil Young book. But I went on Rock's Backpages and typed in “Neil Young.” And I saw all of these interviews with Neil, and all of these reviews. I went, “Wow. Here’s Barney on the ‘Live at the Fillmore East’ record (2006), let me give him paragraph in a citation.” I excerpted a very brief part of a review Michael Fremmer did of the “Live at Massey Hall 1971” album that was released in 2007 on Neil's archive label. I was impressed Fremmer cited the work of the mastering engineer who made the cut of the disc we finally got to hear as a sanctioned retail item. I do this sort of thing in mass market books, and not just in technical or recording industry magazines. I like it when those kind of things can get jammed in book.
With Neil Young and Leonard Cohen there are plenty of books. Why should anyone care about new books on them?
There are a couple of prime reasons why you should consider buying the book. Know that my heart and soul is in this book, and I wasn’t a guy hired for a word count and then I disappeared.
As a fan, I care about Neil and Leonard, but not any of that.
Okay, I’m essentially involved in an assembly of images. So I made sure that there are some pictures and some things ever, ever seen including some things that are very dear to me like a poster John Van Hamersveld did for the first Pinnacle dance concert with Buffalo Springfield. There are situations where I find pictures of concerts I went to or posters of shows that I went to. I bring those in. I’m talking about the visual stuff. Now that’s what makes this (Neil Young) book different.
[Best known for his psychedelic patterns, and daring color graphics, American visual artist/designer John Van Hamersveld has been responsible for so many iconic music, art, surf and pop culture images over the past five decades. His landmark 1968 Pinnacle rock concert posters, especially the famous Jimi Hendrix portrait, created a monumental influence on pop culture artists to this day.]
Stop right there. Where did you get the photos for “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows.” There were at least 75 photos of Leonard I had never seen before.
Let me tell you something. I will outwork anybody. That means calling this owner, or calling this widow who now runs an archive of her husband who was a photographer. There might be some Leonard Cohen stuff there. Do I work in association with Getty Images occasionally? Of course, I do and there’s another photo editor involved. As far as the Neil Young book...when I go to Henry Diltz’s to get Neil Young photos, I spent a week there. I called up Gary Strobl, Henry Diltz’s archivist, scanner and assistant and said, “Gary, I want every Buffalo Springfield photo from that Gold Star session. Not the ones that were the best lit ones. I need to see everything. What haven’t you published on Neil Young? I want to see the full contact sheets. The original negatives, and I want to see the blurred photos too.”
So I know that I deliver, and this is just the visual sense. So that was also part of the charm, and the journey on Leonard Cohen as well.
Do I wish the day would come that I would be only hired only as a writer? I can’t even imagine what it’s like, “Here’s your check. Here’s your three payments on a book. Write. Everybody else does the photos.” I take up to 7,000 hours tracking down photos, and interviews.
Did you get any help from Leonard’s business manager Robert Kory?
I had a very lovely lunch with Robert Kory. I said that I would like to interview Leonard. It did not happen due to circumstances. I thought I merited a new interview.
How about knocking on the door of Neil’s manager, Elliot Roberts?
A guy named Larry LeBlanc said to send an email to Bonnie Levetin (GM of Lookout Management which handles Neil Young). My publisher did. No response. There was going to be no badgering.
So what approach did you take on developing “Neil Young: Heart of Gold?”
When the Neil Young offer came I thought that it’s a good thing. I said, “Okay, I like Canada. Burton Cummings is always nice to me. It was Burton who sang the cover of the Neil Young tune (Flying On The Ground is Wrong” in 1967). All that stuff made sense to me. (Randy) Bachman was always nice to me. Okay, it’s another Canadian. If that’s where the vibe is coming from, that’s great.” Andrew Loog Oldham is a dual (British/Canadian) citizen and has residency in Vancouver. I said, “I’m digging this Canada vibe, but I am only going to do this Neil Young book if I can do long line narrative, put a bunch of prose in, put in connective tissue, and bring in at least 20 people who have never been in a Neil Young book on top of the usual (interviewees) like Graham Nash, Nils Lofgren, and (engineer) Elliot Mazer. They are all in there as well.
For example, I can say to you in this Neil Young book that Clem Burke, Ian Hunter, Peter Lewis of Moby Grape, Al Jardine, Don Randi, Merry Clayton, Chris Darrow, Jim Keltner, Steve Wynn (formerly of the Dream Syndicate), and songwriter Jonathan Wilson were interviewed. I also get to put in my archival interviews with Jack Nitzsche, Robbie Robertson, Stan Ross, and (producer, engineer, mixer) Bill Halverson. I dug really deep and found, besides Andrew Loog Oldham, Stanley Dorfman from the BBC who produced the first Neil Young concert for the BBC. Those people are not in the other Neil Young books.
Does that not make my book a little different?
Here’s another thing. I interviewed Neil’s bass player Rick Rosas in 2008 for my Laurel Canyon book. He left the planet almost a year ago. I have Rick Rosas in the book. What interesting about the Rick Rosas thing is his best friend from Mark & the Escorts, an east L.A. band from the early ‘60s, was Mark Guerrero, the son of Lalo Guerrero, the godfather of Chicano music, and the music of East Los Angeles. They saw the last Buffalo Springfield concert at the Long Beach Arena (on May 5, 1968).
I was able to find people who went to the concerts. I asked Rodney Bingenheimer, “Didn’t you go to the last Springfield concert.” Yeah, (drummer) Dewey Martin dedicated ‘Good Time Boy’ to me.” That’s in the book. Then I said, “Did (drummer/manager) Denny Bruce go to the concert?” I am sure he did because he was super tight with Jack Nitzsche. “Yeah,” he said, “I went with Jack Nitzsche and Neil in a limo to the concert.” He said that Neil was relieved that it was over.
So, I have all of these multiple views of guys from East L.A. going to see the Springfield. They had seen them at Cal State. One guy ends up playing with Neil Young later. Rodney Bingenheimer is there for Go! Magazine, and has a song dedicated him, and here’s Denny Bruce. My instincts were right. Not only did he go to the show, but he gave me a great anecdote. Those things do not do not end up in other things. When I realized that I had all of this information again part of it’s my karma.
I had interviewed Stan Ross for Goldmine magazine for the Buffalo Springfield box set (2001). I said, “I want to talk about Neil Young.” He said that Neil used the (Gold Star) studio. That a lot of the demos were done there. He did his mastering with Dave Gold there for years. It was almost prophetic. I was able to ask him about mic placement and the work that he did with Gold Star and all that. Some of it ends up in the book.
Then I go, “Okay, I know Dan and Dave Kessel, Barney’s sons. They were going to Gold Star as early as 1962 because Barney was on every Phil Spector session, and all of the Sonny & Cher recordings. Their mother is B.J. Baker, a vocal contractor (who worked as a backup singer on recordings by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, the Righteous Brothers and Sam Cooke) sang on everything.” I talked to Dan on email, and he said, “I went to a lot of the sessions on the first (Buffalo Springfield) album just because I could go to Gold Star and hang out and it was cool. I knew (producers/managers (Charles) Green and (Brian) Stone” blah. Now he’s in a book and Dan Kessel who has not been in a Neil Young book.
Did you see the Buffalo Springfield perform in the ‘60s?
I saw the Springfield a couple of times. So I kind feel that when you have actually seen the music, and have met the people socially at health food restaurants or shops in the ‘60s and see them you get closer to them. I remember (British bluesman) John Mayall coming to the Whisky (the Whisky A Go in West Hollywood) with the Laurel Canyon Band with Mick Taylor. By the way, Stephen Stills and Neil Young were next to me on the floor of the Whisky.
Today, Sony Legacy, Universal Music Enterprises, Omnivore Recordings, and Rhino Records are continually releasing top-notch historical releases.
I did the liner notes for the Ramones’ “End of The Century’ for Rhino (in 2001). I was at the recording sessions for the Spector-produced Ramones’ album, and it came to me. I worked on the Carole King Tapestry deluxe edition 2 CD-set (for the Epic/Ode/Legacy label from Sony Music Entertainment). Lou Adler suggested me. Most of my things come on referral or suggestions.
How do you figure out what to charge for those projects?
With Sony Legacy, there was a flat fee rate offered. I did the (liner notes for the) “Elvis ’68 Come Back” box set, my favorite liner notes, for one reason. I got to show Elvis in a West Coast light as far as bringing in Don Randi, and the Wrecking Crew. I got to show all of the players on that ’68 comeback as well as talk to (director) Steve Binder, and (producer) Bones Howe at length many, many times. I think it’s a different portrait of Elvis that was painted. I know that I connected on that one. The liner notes to the Allen Ginsberg’s “Reads Kaddish” reissue (2006) are phenomenal because I was blessed to do one of the last interviews with (producer and the album’s supervisor) Jerry Wexler.
Barney Hoskyns once wrote: "The sad truth is that rock journalism has become little more than a service industry, with scant critical autonomy and even less responsibility to its readers. We have all, in our different ways, colluded with the entertainment machine in its canny efforts to dictate what music sells." That said, there’s more opportunities around for veterans like you.
I am picking up consultancy fees that I never dreamed. I can sit here knowing that once a week a phone call or an email will come in, “Will you be in this documentary?” These are largely for the BBC or for Universal. I say to myself, “Somebody has done their research. Somebody knows that I knew Bobby Womack. Somebody knows that I have a platinum record for Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ and I adored (the late) Steve Popovich (founder and president, Cleveland International Records). Somebody knows that I used to write about Queen, and they knew to connect with me and ask me if I am interested.” I say “Yes.” Occasionally, there’s an honorarium. Sometimes there isn’t.
This is a trade-off you make.
When people bring me into these projects which often pay more than the writing, I then have to give them 25 other leads. It’s because they can’t find people. “You know Don Peake, the guitarist?” I go, “Yeah, I saw him last week at Hamburger Hamlet.” They go, “We can’t find him.” I go, “Here’s his phone number,” and Don Peake gets in some documentary. I am delighted to do this stuff. I don’t do it for trade-off. I don’t do it for future favors. I know one thing. That by sheer force of will, by being a kind person, and being a collaborator, I know that I am informing big documentaries, and huge books now. It goes beyond me being quoted or me being thanked or me having one or two books in a bibliography. I know 15 of the 100 interviews came from my Rolodex. That’s one of the things that you are not talking about. That I accept the messenger role, the historian role, the voice of L.A. role, but for 10 or 20 years nobody wanted to really know about a lot of the L.A. fabric, the real history, the real trench work.
It would have then been primarily included in a Goldmine magazine article.
Also we got tired of seeing incorrect information. I’m not a letter writer. If someone makes a mistake or spells a name wrong I’m not going after them. But I do cringe at some of the theories offered that are so wrong. But I don’t have the time to be the head master at the school. All I know is that I am making a difference.
Here’s the best thing about this whole gig. There are people who come up to me and say, “I read an old interview (on the internet) that you did with Arthur Lee (of Love). My boyfriend and I just bought ‘Forever Changes’ (Elektra Records, 1967). I say, “That’s great.” Then someone goes, “So what did you think about the album?” I said, “I have a signed copy from Arthur.” They are stunned. I wasn’t an autograph hound but occasionally I would do this.
The beauty of the internet is having your articles re-discovered.
Articles I did on Leonard Cohen 39 years ago filter into either authorized or unauthorized (sites). I don’t yell “Put it up” or “Take it down.” I don’t do any of that. However, I was right about asking Leonard Cohen about the songwriting process. I was right asking about (producer) John Lissauer. I was right asking him a question about (producer) John Simon. I was right not just asking about “Suzanne.” I was right, and right means that I was focusing on the music. As Ram Dass says, “Honor the incarnation.” I like the music. I deeply care about the music.
What was the first publication you wrote for when you started in 1972?
I wrote for The Hollywood Press. I also wrote for the LA Free Press. The first interview that I really did was with (British jazz and rock keyboardist) Brian Auger in 1974. I was 22. I was just graduating college. The first check for the Hollywood Press was $7.50. The Brian Auger interview check was either $27.50 or $32.50. I never once complained.
Well, you had record companies sending you free product.
Remember that I am the guy who never uttered the words, “Death to disco.” I was so glad that there was a disco era of double albums, and all that stuff because more product was sent to me; and there were so many press parties that I could eat at the great restaurants in town. I was so happy to go to Donna Summers’ launch party for "Love to Love You Baby” at a big Beverly Hills’ restaurant (in 1975). I never knocked that shit.
Music journalists used to get everything from labels.
This is a quote from (journalist/editor) Roy Trakin. He said, “With the record business the easiest thing used to be was to get albums and tickets from a record company. Now the hardest thing is to get albums, and tickets from a record label.”
Decades ago, music journalists were out at clubs 6 nights a week.
I was out 7 nights a week for 15 years. When someone like (the late West Coast RCA publicist) Grelun Landon called me saying, “Harvey, Grelun Landon here. Will you talk to the Hues Corporation? Something is bubbling with them, ‘Rock The Boat,’” I’d say, “Yes, but I need to speak to the producer or the songwriter of the record, and not just to the people in the band.”
What was Grelun’s reaction?
He was kind of silent, and then he said, “You are very serious about this thing “ I said, “Yeah. I really am not looking at it as a gateway to be in a band. If I ever end up working for a record label, it will be because the talent that I display as a journalist, and somebody might ask me to work for a label. I’m not sending my resume out to anybody. I like things that come to me.” He said, “That really doesn’t work in show business. You really have to hustle.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “You keep doing what you are doing.” I said, “One other thing Grelun, I want to go to the RCA Studio (in West Hollywood) where (the Jefferson Airplane’s) ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, and (the Rolling Stones’) ‘Aftermath’ and everybody have recorded. I want to meet people like (engineer) Ray Crawford who worked with Elvis later in Las Vegas.” He said, “Why don’t you just come to the studio?”
How did editors react to your approach?
For the first 10 years of my writing, from 1972 to 1992, I would turn in articles and the engineer and the arranger would always be cut out. Nobody cared about them. It’s was heartbreaking that nobody thought that they meant much. I wanted to know about the engineer. I wanted to know where it (the recording) was mastered. I was getting into things with (famed audio engineer) Bruce Botnick in some interviews where I asked about the difference between Scotch, and Ampex 456 and 406 tapes. I can do that kind of thing. Why? Because I wrote for Mix magazine years ago. I don’t get a chance to show those chops often with the volume of work I put out, and the humongous tasks I have to do. I also have to make those requests in either the book outline or the initial stage (of negotiations). What’s happening is that people are making it easier for me because it’s new information. It not all about (the late Crazy Horse singer) Danny Whitten and the same people that permeate the Neil Young books.
I’m not saying that I was some aggressive character but I wanted to study the process. Part of that comes from that I wish that someone at San Diego State had told me that there was a college radio station on campus. I wish that the guidance counselor would have said, “You should be a broadcast journalism major.” I wish those options were at least available to me. They weren’t.
The only journalist doing seriously study of music were people like Paul Williams with his book “Outlaw Blues” and Crawdaddy! magazine.
After Rolling Stone came along in 1967, there were Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau writing in the Village Voice; and Jon Landau in The Boston Phoenix. Then there were such influential British publications as Zig Zag, and Let it Rock, as well as Creem, Fusion, Phonograph Record, Goldmine, Trouser Press, New York Rocker in the U.S.
Among the new music writers were Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Jon Savage, Nick Kent, Chet Flippo, Dave Marsh, Richard Williams, Charles Shaar Murray, Greil Marcus, Lenny Kaye, Dave Laing, and Ben Fong-Torres.
I followed Lester Bangs at San Diego State by the way. I just wished that somebody had let me know what a radio station was. Now that I’m older I am very thankful the way the path has worked out.
[In 1969, while more or less attending San Diego State, Lester Bangs published his first record review in Rolling Stone magazine.]
There was then a fraternity of music journalists, and a considerable market available to feature solid articles on music-related subjects then. There’s a more limited market today.
Look, I knew 25 years ago that I needed to make some sort of leap or some kind of move. I never thought of the word, “marketing.” But I said, “If this writing thing is as good as I think it is”---girls were running up to me at supermarkets and bringing books, or record geeks would come up to me at clubs with cover stories from magazines for me to sign—“I need to do books.”
But what happened is that like Jack Kerouac who probably wrote 5 or 6 manuscripts before “On The Road” was taken by a publisher, I wrote a lot of books. Or at least 40% of the books over 20 and 30 years. I knew that either they would should up in anthologies or I would put something in and that would occasionally.
Back in those days you could sell the same article to different publications in different territories.
Thank you very much. I said I am just going to keep writing. If there’s one thing that I’m proud of, and I think that it permeates my work, and it’s why I think my stuff resonates around the world now is that I was right about the long-form neo-narrative format, meaning 5, 10, and 20,000 word articles. As the world was going into a sound bite society, and as many editors were saying, “We love your stuff, but we don’t have space” I would say, “Take what you want.” I was never saying, “Cut it down.” It never went down that way. To this day If somebody from a magazine says that it’s (the assignment is) 4,000 words, I will say, “I need to give you 8,000 words. I have a problem doing short form.” They will go, “fine.” What happens is that they read the 8,000 words, and they come back with, “I’ll tell you what we are going is to make it a 6,000 word article, and can we give you more money?” And I say, “fine.”
Do you ever see one of your articles on the internet that you’d forgotten you’d written?
That doesn’t happen. What does happen is there are a few cringe worthy elements where I didn’t realize that I was being such a rambling, unsentanced guy. Some great college professors, PhD’s that teach literature and English, are friends of mine. They all say, “It’s kind of good that you weren’t an English major. It kind of good that you never took a journalism class in college. You do have a tendency for some run on stuff.” Somebody asked, “Don’t you know the difference between a colon and a semi-colon?” I said, “I’m still working on it.”
So what do you charge for writing a 6,000 words article with photographs? Are you on the high-end of the payment scale?
Remember I also have a hippie and a flower power price. For example, Ugly Things magazine emailed me, and I like this magazine. It’s a thick quarterly fanzine, but it’s much deeper (than most music publications). I told them I was working on a Brian Jones’ piece. It turned out to be 17,000 words. In my mind, I’m writing a Rolling Stones’ book in the next two or three years. The Ugly Things’ people said that they can’t pay writers. I said, “It’s 17,000 words.” They said that the production costs and so on..... I said, “Okay it’s Brian Jones, a fellow Pisces, it’s correctional karma for Brian Jones, You can have it for free. Just give me 10 copies of the magazine.” Ten copies showed up. I have a new friend. Now, I can’t afford to do that all of the time.
When I did that a lot of things came to me. When I showed my Stones’ card it knocked people forward. I have done 6 covers on the Beatles. I’ve written a book on the Beatles in Hollywood and L.A. I do it all. I’m doing glitter. I’m doing glam. I love Barry White. I wrote Bobby Womack’s eulogy for the Hollywood Reporter. Don’t pigeonhole me. I am a writer.
With so many projects you must also be constantly writing.
Here’s the deal. I rarely have to ask permission to write. Like (the late author) Charles Bukowski, I write every day even though 92% of the stuff doesn’t come out in articles or book form. I just have it. I conduct interviews with people that I go, “Oh you are an assistant engineer on this thing, you might be big in five years.” It turns into bio work for me, and I get invites to parties because I can just spot some of that talent. As Ray Manzarek said, “The Doors were working in future space.” I have to think of future space as well.
Music journalists were once generalists covering all musical genres. Today, one sees very little coverage of blues, country, heavy metal, jazz or Americana in the mainstream press.
Someone just came up to me and said, “I didn’t know you were into jazz” because I just wrote the cover story on the Miles Davis’ Newport box (“Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975”). I say, “Well I did produce (tenor saxophonist) Buddy Collette. I did work with (trumpeter) Gerald Wilson. I introduced (drummer) Stan Levey to Charlie Watts. I saw Barney Kessel play, and I have Mose Allison’s autograph. Do I have to keep going on? I am a by-product of not just the legendary AM and FM pop and rock 'n' roll radio stations of Los Angeles, but outlets like KBCA-FM that programmed jazz in the fifties and sixties, even the seventies, and KGFJ, an AM station, that was my door to R&B and soul since the late fifties and all through the sixties. Regional and national tunes that were debuted on those channels along with territorial, rare and UK import music album tracks I also discovered informed my audio journey that resonates on the page.
You were later than most writers in using a computer.
I got a PC computer in 1999. I wanted to be Jack Kerouac, and I was saying, “Nope. I’m not doing this computer thing. I have a typewriter. I’m Harlan Ellison.
What changed your mind?
What happened was that the world passed me by. Editors and publications started to do (Microsoft) Word documents only. So I had no choice. I dreaded it. Then in discovering this cut-and-paste deal, as far as all of the work that I do in transcription, it was like losing my virginity again. All of a sudden, I could file this stuff. I could cut-and-paste. I became a better writer.
I’d argue that Microsoft Word can inhibit creative writing in that cut-and-paste leads to even tighter editing.
We have two things going on right now. People like me who believe in long-form oral histories of just getting the information out; or people who have space restrictions due to editorial policies or the mind-set of the readers that people think we don’t need jump pages, and papers. People like me come out of newsrooms. We come out of daily papers. I have written for the Los Angeles Times. I come out of that world of deadlines, and I never write down to the audience. I've always tried to bring the readers into a world that I am partially defining, almost in an impulsive and improv manner. I am proud to write long pieces, and still implement long Q, and A. sections in my work. I don't try and entice them with juicy pull quotes, or tiny paragraphs, or being trapped by editorial demands and space restrictions.
I put the time and energy into knowing and exploring the subjects. This was very evident in my first book “Rebel Music” and continues. The best compliment I will get is somebody stopping me at a college to say, “Mr. Kubernik, I just saw Bones Howe’s name on a Tom Waits’ album. You have a picture of Bones Howe in your book with that surf guy, Jan (Berry) of Jan & Dean. He’s a really amazing man, this Bones Howe.” I love hitting the uninitiated. There’s something pure about that. That they connected the dots. And if it takes a Tom Waits’ Mr. Bones Productions’ credit to bring them into the 5th dimension, I’m all for it.
Do you tape your interviews?
I do. I have a Radio Shack cassette player with a suction cop device when I do interviews on the phone. I love the primitive aspect. When it’s over the phone, it’s suction cup/cassette player. I use Maxell cassettes. I like the 60 minute ones as opposed to the 90 minute one because you get a thicker fidelity.
Hard to find recordable cassettes today.
This is where society has called my bluff. I recently spent 8 hours seeking a pack of cassettes. I went to 8 drug stores, and electronic outlets. They didn’t have anything, and two people laughed at me. Luckily, I kept looking. I found a place that had a couple of packs of 9 that were on remainder. A friend of mine said, “Harvey, I think that God or the industry is telling you that you must go digital. You make the adjustment. It’s like a basket game. You have to change the program here because Radio Shack is closed, and you can’t find cassettes anymore. I wasn’t going to record over old cassettes. That’s bad karma.
When I do in-person interviews I bring two cassette players. Because you and I have both had incidents where the (recorder) battery stalled, and we missed half of the interview. I’m a big believer in backup. When I went to interview the Wailers in 1977 at Island Records on Sunset, there was so much ganja in that room. Not only could I not see through to the six guys in the room, I forgot to turn the cassette player on. I was hearing the patois. I was hearing real Jamaicans talking to me that I didn’t tape the interview. I forgot to turn it on. Now you know why I bring two cassette players with me.
What did your parents do?
In the ‘50s my father and mother—I’m talking 1948 to ’53 before I was born, and just after—operated a dry cleaners together. Then my dad sold encyclopedias door to door. You had to start your life again after World War II. Then he started selling swimming pools for Swan Pools. Then the most remarkable thing happened at age 40. He was selling a swimming pool to somebody who said, “You should consider becoming a stockbroker.” I said for my dad’s eulogy that I initially thought he kind of got gypped by World War II, but I’ve rescinded that. He was supposed to be a pharmacist. He never got less than an A in high school. At 19, he was flying planes in World War II, and became a captain. Literally, when he was leaving the planet, he told me that they had wanted him to go to West Point but he couldn’t do another 4 to 8 years after being in Okinawa and god knows where else.
How old were you when he died?
He died just four months ago. In December. As I said at the eulogy, he didn’t get gypped at 92. Buddy Holly got gypped at 22 years old.
Your mother worked as well?
My mother was a secretary for Columbia Pictures, and Raybert Productions from 1962 to 1970. So she worked at Columbia in the secretarial pool and worked in stenography. She worked for the Monkees for the first year, typing their scripts. That was a pretty interesting scene for me to watch that go down. And to see Barbra Streisand on the (Columbia) lot and all kinds of people. I was never star struck except for the Monkees which was different. Maybe because I was 16 and I loved the music, and I liked Micky Dolenz as a person. They seemed very accessible to me because you could see them at Wallach’s Music City and other places. So I’m just a product of Hollywood. That means seeing the concerts, dancing on the TV shows even though I will cop to the fact that the people were lip syncing most of the time. Nobody was playing live.
[Raybert Productions was a production company founded by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider that operated in the 1960s. Its principal vehicle was the situation comedy “The Monkees” and the co-production of the 1969 film “Easy Rider.”]
Were you attending TV shows being aired at that time?
My mother took me to tapings. I got to go to tapings of “The Judy Garland Show,” “The Danny Kaye Show,” and “The Steve Allen Show.” Either there would be tickets given away in junior high school or elementary school because they needed kids to show up. Listen, I’m very proud that I danced on “American Bandstand” for a short season in 1966. I occasionally run into this thing where people doubt me. “You don’t look like you are a dancer.” I said, “Wait a second. It’s in my resume. I’ve interviewed Dick Clark. Don’t ever try to take away my dancing credit on ’American Bandstand’ or (Casey Kasem’s) ‘Shebang Show!’ (aired over KTLA from 1965 to 1968). Why do you think that Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Billboard called me to write eulogies of Casey Kasem?”
I also saw live music like Spike Jones in 1958 and 1959, and I saw the Beach Boys in ’62.
You were obviously reading recording credits. You are one of the few journalists interested in writing about Barney Kessel, Bones Howe and Jack Nitzsche early on.
Again, I consciously wanted to know how music was made. Did I think that I could possibly be a record producer? Did I think as a writer? It wasn’t defined yet. I knew I could scout talent.
Hence your job at MCA Records as West Coast dir. of A&R where you were instrumental in engineer Jimmy Iovine becoming co-producer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “Damn the Torpedoes” album in 1979. Still you got laid off the same year.
I got laid off with a bunch of people. Everybody. But I very happy. When I saw Jimmy six months ago, he embraced me at a Patti Smith gig. Here’s the most important thing about that. I gave Jimmy Iovine a full page in Melody Maker in 1975 when he was an engineer on “Born To Run,” and had some credits.
Your mother is still alive?
She’s around, oh yeah. My brother (Kenneth), and I won the Lotto with both parents being over age 90, and we are over 60. Okay, we won the Lotto. Okay, my dad became a stockbroker. He worked until 86 as a stockbroker. From 40 to 86. Boom, at age 12, I wasn’t in an apartment with my brother in the same room anymore. We had a house, and I had my own room at age 12. That was a real shift. The world changed.
You did go to college.
I went to San Diego State after I did two years of local junior college. I went to West L.A. College after Fairfax High School. I spent the ‘50s downtown and in Crenshaw Village, sort of South L.A. now, almost Watts. Then our “white flight” was about 2 ½ miles adjacent to Culver City for the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Then living in West Hollywood for all my teenage and college years.
Were you ever a surfer?
I did spend many years in Culver City, a beach community, in elementary school. I was really a surfer. Mainly body surfing, but I did surf. All my friends are surfers to this day. Three or four of them are big surfers. I met Mickey Dora the (iconic Malibu surfer of the 1950s and 1960s.). I am thanked in surf books. I have a thing for surfing.
What’s the age difference between you and your brother?
He’s three years younger.
The two of you have worked on numerous projects together.
Well, we have decided after counseling from my mother that we were not going to have things like sibling rivalry or be like everybody else that we know that you don’t talk to one side of the family. You know that one? Or, the “I don’t talk to my sister anymore” kind of rap. We were not going to have that.
Was there any friction between you two before your mother stepped in?
No there wasn’t. The great thing is that he’s a jazz and prog guy. He’s doing a web book on Weather Report right now. We have done a couple of books together. By the way he writes for Variety. He’s the former editor of Music Connection. My brother, as I said in some liner notes, is Graham Greene as far as a writer. As a writer, he does fantastic prose writing. I bring him in, and quote him in articles. He’s really bright. Now that we have lost one of our band (family) mates in our family, we have all decided to be tight as ever. So I’m a fortunate. I’m a lucky person growing up in LA.
How do evaluate your contributions to music journalism?
I know a professor Dr. James Cushing, a disc jockey (and poet). He said to me, “Harvey what you are doing is not an oldies’ trip. It’s not nostalgia if you are bringing forward new history.” I am bringing new history. I have had phone calls saying, “I’m so glad you are doing a Neil Young book. I might learn something new.” I said, “You will.” Then somebody said, “I can’t wait to see the photos. Your writing is okay. I just kind of buy your books because of the photos.” You have to understand that surfers don’t read.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
To learn more about Larry LeBlanc and to see some nifty historical photos check out:
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