David Cassidy: Don't Look Back

Former teen idol is forty years old and ready to rock

David Cassidy in 1990. Credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

ON APRIL 12TH, 1989, a comeback attempt was the last thing on David Cassidy's mind. The former Partridge Family star and reluctant teen idol had been living in a self-imposed musical exile since the late Seventies, devoting his time to film and theater and to a newly discovered passion: breeding thoroughbred racehorses.

But old habits die hard. By the late Eighties, Cassidy had begun writing again in earnest. He had also, thanks to three and a half years of therapy, developed a sense of humor about his pinup past. So, when his thirty-ninth birthday rolled around last year and he happened to hear Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps, the sarcastic morning-drive team on KLOS, in Los Angeles, launch a roast in his honor, Cassidy called the station to get in on the joke. At the invitation of Thompson and Phelps, he drove to KLOS and played three of his new songs on the air. By the show's end, curious fans had begun gathering in the station's parking lot, and three record companies had called to offer recording contracts. One of those companies, Enigma, released David Cassidy — his first U.S. album in fourteen years — in October. "It's the first time people are seeing and hearing all of me," Cassidy says proudly.

Outwardly, Cassidy has changed little from the twenty-year-old whose boyish, beshagged image was plastered on magazine covers, lunch boxes and bubble-gum cards in the Seventies. Though the last strains of Keith Partridge hysteria subsided nearly sixteen years ago, the man who played the role still has to don a baseball cap and sunglasses if he wants to see a movie in peace. In early October, visiting New York for a week-long publicity blitz, Cassidy registered at the Plaza hotel under the name Bennie Getsoff. He chose the alias for obvious reasons but also, he says, because he wanted to thumb his nose at the stuffiness of the hotel. "Jim Nasium would've been much too easy," he says, laughing. "Don't you think?"

The last time you talked at length with ROLLING STONE [in 1972], you were obviously wilting under all the pressure and lack of privacy. You must have thought long and hard before deciding to subject yourself to that again.
No, actually, I didn't. In fact, my fear has always been, well, I'll come back and people will go, "So what?"

That's obviously not the case.
No, so I feel good about that. I mean, I've really sensed that people have an affection for me. But I didn't know whether people would think about this as a novelty, or what. And this is not a novelty — this is something that I've been doing for close to twenty years. My album may not be your taste, but it's definitely somebody who has put his ass on the line.

You've said you hadn't intended to attempt a comeback before you appeared on KLOS, but if you were working on songs, there must have been something tugging at you.
Every day, someone would walk up to me in a restaurant or on the street and go, "Why aren't you making records anymore?" And honestly, I guess I didn't feel I should have to go begging for a record deal. My pride wouldn't let me. Nobody likes to be rejected, you know? I had experienced enough of that over the last fifteen years.

Did it surprise you when the record companies did call?
Yeah, it was really a shock. I always felt like if I did come back, I'd be able to sell records. I just wasn't aware that it was right there. All I had to do was go down and talk into a microphone, and there were a hundred people in the parking lot after I was done.

Did it give you a sense of déjà vu?
No, it gave me a sense of "I did it right." I retired. I didn't end up some sad, tragic guy singing in a lounge somewhere. I never went out and took big money for nostalgia and became like an oldies act.

That would have been horrible to behold.
Horrible. But don't think, as I was making scale in the theater and someone was offering me $100,000 a night to play a date in the Philippines, that it wasn't tempting. Four years ago, they offered me an enormous amount of money to re-create the role of Keith. It was a lot of money, man, and I didn't have a job. But I couldn't do it.

Millions of people would have watched it.
Probably so. Maybe not. There's a part of me that feels better about it now, because I've talked so much about it. In fact, I'd like to do it as a one-shot deal, and do it camp. You know, turn him into a hairdresser or something. It would have to be so sick and twisted that I'm not sure I could keep a straight face and do it. It's the kind of thing that would be very fertile Saturday Night Live material.

You've said that the real David Cassidy wanted to be playing "Purple Haze." Why didn't you delve into hard rock with this record?
Going through The Partridge Family, I looked up to people like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and all those guys. But as an actor playing a part, I had to sing what was right for the character and the show. And I really got to appreciate the quality of those songs. I learned how to write songs from all those great pop songwriters — that was how I perfected my own style. When I sit around and play, I play things that are closer to the blues. But I don't think I've ever finished a twelve-bar blues song.

Why?
Because I can't compete with the great blues players. Just the thought that any of those guys might hear me and go, "Oh, man, I did that lick back in 1967." It's fun to take chances, but I can't afford to indulge myself like that. I mean, when I play live, it'll definitely rock. I actually get to play live with a band and perform on television for the first time when I do Arsenio [Cassidy appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show on October 11th, a week after this interview took place]. [

Aren't you afraid Arsenio will be snide?
[Laughs] You know, no one can fuck with me anymore.

That seems to be the pervasive theme on your album.
Yeah. I don't give a fuck what they say about me anymore. I used to go through hell about it. I cared. When I say no one can fuck with me anymore — they can fuck with me all they want. It's just that it doesn't matter to me. And I've been fortunate enough that people aren't fucking with me right now. [Laughs] I know just as soon as I say that, I'm dead. I can feel them loading their guns.

What sort of reaction do you get when you meet people at awards shows and the like?
I've gotten some pretty amazing receptions in the last couple of months. People have made me feel so welcome. Like I made the right decision to do what I'm doing. Accepted, you know?

Seeing you probably reminds a lot of people about a time in their lives that holds fond memories for them.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm really glad I have that effect on people.

In the liner notes of the album, you thank your manager for wardrobe advice. You weren't planning on posing for the album-cover photo in a lime-green leisure suit, were you?
Of course I was. No.... Joe Regis is thirty, and he's very cool. He's been a very good manager for me. He's very hip, and he'll tell me: "You know, you gotta be careful. Sometimes you choose these clothes...." The first thing he said when he found out I was doing Arsenio – before we started discussing the performance or the musicians – was "Black T-shirt, black jeans, right?" I said, "No, Joe, I thought I'd get out the maroon crushed-velvet Partridge Family vest and really go for it."

You really seem to have made peace with your past. Are you still in therapy?
Not any longer, although I could see myself definitely going back after this week. I stopped about six months ago. I'd been going for three and a half years. And it was the best thing I ever did for myself. I've read things about myself saying that I was nervous, that I was introverted, that I was defensive. And maybe I was. Of course I would've been all those things, being that guy in those days. But I'm happy to be this guy today. I like what's happening in my life.

Despite the negative aspects of playing Keith Partridge, would you do it all again?
I 've thought about this a thousand times. Who knows? I mean, I'd never have been as famous or successful, no matter what I did. I think about all the incredible moments that I've spent.... I spent an evening with John Lennon — he came over to my house on New Year's Eve in 1974. We'd been drinking, and we sat in my bedroom and played Beatles songs all night. I got to sing all of Paul's parts, you know? I never would've been able to do that. Sure, it's been a burden and a price to pay. I mean, I had no idea what was awaiting me. I never thought that people would think I was like Keith. But, yeah, I'd do it again. I feel really lucky. I honestly do.

Let's play word association for a minute.
Okay.

Bus.
[Laughs] I've been looking for that bus for a long time. I want to do something with it when I go out on tour. There's a part of me that would like to have it go through town and ... I don't know, I'd like to blow it up or something. People loved that bus. I heard someone saw it in Owensboro, Kentucky, parked on a piece of property off the road. [Laughs] A multicolored, psychedelic bus. What a concept! Can you imagine I used to fucking drive that thing?