George Plimpton . . . he's an actor in many ways.
But my thing is different. I'm going to use my knowledge, and my body, to defeat some guys, that's all. Because I think I'm as good or better. Just 'cause I'm a singer has nothing to do with it.
You've got to be on some kind of battlefield, right?
That's right. And with the best. And if by some miracle I defeat them, can you imagine the feeling that'll be? That's worth all the agony and pain. And what is life anyway – except, I mean, really . . . you get up the next day and you say, "Well, better be careful because I may catch . . ." or "I don't wanna," or . . . Why not be bold? And so I get mine out there. So, "What a stupid thing to do." Was it really? So you live another 20 years. So what? It's what makes you happy in life, and to pursue it, I think, is brave and a wonderful thing. I don't care what people say. I just want to pursue what makes me happy. I've been competitive all my life. I've never had a chance to exercise my competitiveness through athletics, of course, because my father loved, I imagine he overloved me, if that's possible.
He sheltered you . . .
Quite a bit. Yeah, he thought I would get hurt because I was kind of a frail kid . . .
And the church played a part, too.
I'm in the church since I'm a baby, till I'm 17 . . . But getting back to where my heart is . . . it's hard to explain. It just means something to me. I just want to say that I bested you, at a physical game or a mental contest, football or chess. Just for the thrill of it. If I beat you playing pool I enjoy it. But what I enjoyed was controlling myself when I was behind. And I think, "Now am I going to be a chicken and just fall away or am I gonna muster myself together, swallow my spit and really get down and win?" If I come up from behind and win like that, it's a fantastic feeling; I get chills all over. If I lose, I feel like a faggot.
Did your father teach you a different kind of idea, of what getting ahead, what satisfaction, could mean?
Outside of the feeling that I was trying to express to you, the only other feeling close to that would come when I had my moments with God as a child – or the Spirit, as we called it. And the Spirit as it manifests itself through my mother and my father in church and the other – as we called them – brothers and sisters. It wouldn't happen all the time, but sometimes my mind would get fixed on a certain . . . dimension, I guess. I could see things and sense things, and feel the kind of happiness that I don't get now, quite frankly. That I really miss. God was very good to me as a child, and I'm a very blessed individual.
* * *
What's Going On was my first production ever. I conceived every bit of the music. I hate to brag and everything like this, but I had no musical knowledge, I can't write music, can't read music. But I was able to transmit my thoughts to another person, and David Van DePitte, through the graces of God, had enough talent to be able to receive it and put it on paper for me. He is fantastic, and he did the horns and the strings on the "Inner City Blues" track for me.
I thought at one time that I would take off and go to school and learn to write music, because as I listen to composers like Gershwin . . . I mean I'm awed by him, that he wrote all his music himself. You know, I can go around all day and say, "Hey, dammit, I composed that album," and Dave can come back and say "No you didn't, I wrote it," and I'm going to take it to a judge and say "Well, I thought it," and he'll say, "Wait a minute, well, who wrote this music?' Dave Van DePitte. Well, you get it; it's yours. But I'm gonna learn how to write music, so I can do it. Why? Because I want all the credit.
Did you get to a point where you thought, wait, I'm singing everybody else's ideas?
No. Singing other people's ideas is good because you owe them that service, in a sense, because they can't sing it. I feel in that sense I'm like . . . who was the piano player who played everybody's stuff? Franz Liszt. Like a guy who writes a symphony wants to hear what it sounds like, he'll go get Franz Liszt to play it for him. Because he's a great pianist. So a guy writes a piece of music, and he says, "Well, hey, listen, I can't sing this but I know it's beautiful, and you're the guy I want to sing it," so in that respect singing other people's ideas is a trip, and a good one. But I can't be on that kind of trip all the time because I got some highways to ride up myself.
You were thinking about this before What's Going On?
I felt that had I gone to school in the last couple of years, right now I could take a pencil and just put ideas down. And I can hear instruments. Once I learn an instrument I can create new instruments. I have a theory, like that stuff I played for you. There has to be another dimension. Why are there cracks in the keys on the piano, for instance? There's some music in those cracks. Why couldn't there be another musical system in fact, a whole new system that I could invent. And why is it that when something is out of tune, it's not music? It's still a note. Can get a little complex, you know, but that's the area, the unknown area, that I want to get into. I'd like a bunch of those sour notes to make into a symphony.
What were those early "Motortown Revues" like?
The people were great to be with, but, other than that, they were nightmares for me. I had a lot of hang-ups. It was some of the hardest work I've ever done in my life, which I thought was completely unnecessary. Working for a lot of mercenary people. The people at Motown weren't so mercenary, it was the promoters – get as many shows out as you can, work them till they drop. Make all the money you can. There was no more than one concert in one city per night, but we did more than one show a night. Very seldom would we do three shows. But during the earlier years we did as many as seven shows a day. In, say, the Apollo theater.
How long would you stay on stage?
Were you paid a salary, or what?
A salary. A very small salary.
Later on, and even now, Motown is known to set up the whole show for its artists – the kind of clubs they perform at, which means how choreographed you have to be, with the real rehearsed stage band, and the jokes between songs and . . .
The same old bullshit.
But some acts have avoided that. I'm talking about those who never had to start that way, like Sly and the Family Stone or Isaac Hayes. Do you think you would have the chance now to do that?
I haven't thought about it very much. But you're right, Motown is very instrumental in the makeup of their acts and shows and the way they perform, where they even sleep, to be quite honest with you. They're very protective. That protective care is breaking down a great deal now of course, but they were super-protective five years ago.
Have you enjoyed an independence at Motown?
No, I have not. I have not. I just happen to be a very loyal person. I can't help it. If I were with Pipsqueak Records, I'd still probably be with Pipsqueak Records. You know the type.
Seems like you stand apart, though, from the other acts, the so-called "Motown Sound."
Only because I demanded it be that way. Only because I'm an individual, and I demanded that I be treated as an individual and not as cattle. My position and my independence has gotten me into a great deal of trouble in the past, but I've managed to overcome it because my convictions are honest.
What kind of trouble?
I don't know. Attitudes . . . towards me . . . publicity. But I have no problems today. I don't care. Eventually I'm gonna do it anyway. Just be a little longer. They're just putting their agony off [laughs]. It's gonna happen. I mean, are they kidding? Am I going to join this rat race? I mean, I'm not going to be part of it.
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