Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – “GOD ONLY KNOWS WHAT I’D BE WITHOUT YOU…”

Doug Thompson headshotBefore you begin reading, please note that occasionally, I will be quoting short lyric lines from various hit songs to accent this article (with proper attribution and year it was a hit).  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  

So here I was in Los Angeles in the early summer of 1976, recording interviews for a Canadian radio special for Footprint Productions in Toronto called “Welcome Back”, a multi hour back-to- school radio special featuring celebrity memories of their high school years.

I’d been in LA for nearly two weeks and this was the Wednesday of my final week and although he’d agreed to an interview the week before I left for LA, Carl Wilson was still a ‘no-can-do’ (Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” 1982).

Resigned to the fact that this probably wasn’t going to happen (and I’m not by nature a pessimistic person), I dialed The Beach Boys office one last time and told the woman who answered (who knew me pretty well by that point) that I was leaving Friday morning, Carl had promised…blah blah blah.  She said she’d call me right back.  I had heard this before and refused to hold my breath.  But lo and behold, miracle of miracles, five minutes later, the phone rang in my hotel room and ‘oh by gosh, by golly’ (topical Christmas song reference), Carl Wilson would see me tomorrow at noon at his managers’ office in Beverly Hills.

Hallelujah!

Now, here I have to digress for a couple of paragraphs.  In my last blog, I mentioned that I severely sprained my left ankle coming out of a restaurant and my friends took me to the Emergency ward at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Beverly Hills.  A more up-to-date, state-of-the-art hospital you won’t find anywhere…except for the emergency ward.  That room is the same the world over…you sit ‘and a-wait and a-wait and a-wait and a-wait’ (“Over and Over” by The Dave Clark Five 1965).

After about an hour, I was ushered into a room with several examination tables with the ubiquitous curtains drawn around each table.  I sat and waited for another 20 minutes or so, until I heard someone come in.  Couldn’t see who exactly since I had these curtains around me, but I could hear him talking to other patients who were ‘just like me’ (Paul Revere & The Raiders 1966).

When he came to the guy who was next to me, and from the conversation I gathered that he’d been there for a good couple of hours already, the doctor said ‘It appears that you’ve had some kind of allergic reaction which is why your skin has broken out in that rash.  We also found traces of a green substance behind your ears.  Do you have any idea how that happened?”  The guy sheepishly ‘fessed up right away, “Yeah, I was playing an alien for a few days for a TV show this week and they painted me green.”    He did mention the name of the TV show that he was painted green for, but for some reason, it’s been deleted from my memory’s hard drive.  “Well”, the doctor replied, “that’s why you have the rash now.  I’ll give you something for the rash, but I suggest you go home, have a shower to wash off any paint residue and rest up for a couple of days.  You’ll be fine”.  Wow, cool bedside manner there doc.  I could have given him that advice.

crutchesFinally, it was my turn.  The Doc came in. He was a young guy, so I assumed he was an intern on his residency, stuck on an emergency ward shift.  He examined my foot for about a minute or so, then stated, “Well, It doesn’t feel broken, but it appears like you’ve severely sprained your ankle.  Can you stay off of it for few days? (This seemed to be his standard reply to all medical problems – ‘rest up, you’ll be fine’.  What were they teaching in medical school back then anyway?)  I explained my situation and he suggested that I rent crutches to get around until my plane left on Friday.  Cedars Sinai emergency actually had crutches available, so I rented a pair (actually I only need one for my sprained ankle, so I left the other one in the hotel room, where it magically and inexplicably disappeared the next day).  I paid my medical bill (back then, the cost wasn’t more than a couple of hundred dollars.  Today that same visit would have me calling my bank manager back in Toronto to get a second and third mortgage on my home).

At the best of times, ‘it’s impossible’ (Perry Como 1971) to find a cab when you need one.

At the Cedars Sinai Emergency Ward entrance, it was even worse.  I stood there for more than half an hour, and you’d think that they’d use it as a cab stand at the very least, since there were usually patients needing a ride home), ‘but noooooooo!” (John Belushi “Saturday Night Live” editorials).

There were simply no hacks to be had.  Eventually, I started hobbling my way along Beverly Boulevard for a good couple of blocks on my newly rented crutches, until finally, a solitary cab with its light on (meaning it was available) approached on the horizon.  I stuck out my good crutch, the cab mercifully stopped and took me back to my hotel.

That Thursday, I took the good doc’s advice and rested.  I didn’t have any interviews scheduled, so I relaxed, watched a little TV, ordered room service, took a light afternoon nap and mentally prepared myself for Carl Wilson the next day.  Not that I thought he was going to be difficult, but after waiting nearly two weeks for the interview, I wanted to make sure I had interesting questions for him.  Since the subject matter was to be his memories of his high school years, I supposed that would be unique enough from the usual round of inane interviewer questions such as “So Carl, what’s it like being a Beach Boy?” and “Is Brian really like all those stories we hear?

Now I should also explain here that there were no digital recorders back then, and since I didn’t especially like the quality of cassettes, I was using a Kudelski Nagra reel-to-reel tape machine on which to record my interviews.  These were the professional recorders that movie and television show audio sound guys used for several decades.  They only had one drawback…

They were heavy, baby, heavy!

They weighed at least 10-15 pounds.  Friday morning arrived (as it usually does each and every week, even Friday December 21st  of this year, thank you very much Mayans for scaring the world half to death) and I figured with my new immobility, I should leave a bit early just to be on the safe side.  In my hotel room, I practised carrying the Nagra on my right shoulder while using the one crutch for my injured left foot and it seemed to work well.  Then I hopped into my Avis rental and headed for the hills of Beverly.

At that time, Carl Wilson was represented by Jerry Shilling, former Memphis mafia member and a close pal of Elvis Presley’s, so that’s where the interview would take place.  If you’ve ever tried to park in Beverly Hills around lunch time, you know how ridiculous that is.  I couldn’t find a lot closer than 4 blocks away.  I KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAdidn’t have time to screw around, so I parked and started on my journey.  I’d only tried a few steps back in my hotel room, but what I hadn’t figured on was everytime I took a step, the Nagra swung out, then swung back and hit me right around my left thigh.  Oh, this was not going to be pretty.  Normally, I could have walked from the parking lot to Jerry Shillings’ office in less than 5 minutes.  With the crutch and the swinging Nagra, it took me close to 20.  Needless to say, I was five minutes late.  Walked through the door at 12:05PM precisely.  The receptionist said Carl and his wife were in with Jerry and he’d be right out.  A few minutes later, Carl and his wife, Annie Hinsche (the sister of Billy Hinsche from Dino, Desi & Billy as well as a long time touring Beach Boy) entered the reception area, we introduced ourselves, his wife sat down in reception and grabbed a magazine from the stack on the table as Carl led me into an empty office.

Carl-Wilson-Annie-HinscheI explain what the radio program is about while I set up the Nagra.  He says he, Annie and Jerry were going to lunch right after and he hoped this interview wouldn’t take too long.  I told him about half an hour.  A couple of frown lines appeared on Carls’ forehead, but he didn’t say anything. I started asking questions about his high school days as well as the early days of The Beach Boys and Carl answered with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  One word to my wonderfully thought out questions.

This obviously wasn’t going to work for radio.  I said, ‘thanks Carl, I know you want to go to lunch and we can’t use one word answers, so I’ll just pack up and head back to my hotel”.  Now, Carl was genuinely a nice guy and from what I understand, a deeply spiritual person.  I don’t think he wanted to be a shit to someone who’d flown several thousand miles for an interview.  Plus, he HAD agreed to do it.  So while he’d honoured his commitment to be there, at that moment, I suspect that he’d rather be eating at Nate ’N’ Al’s or some other Bev Hills eatery than sitting there answering questions for me.  He thought for a second, then said, “Hang on a minute, I’ll be right back” and true to his word, he was back a minute later.  “I sent my wife and Jerry on ahead to the restaurant.  Let’s do this.”  For the next twenty minutes, Carl was fabulous recalling his high school days in sunny, southern California and the early days of The Beach Boys.

Carl Wilson had an interesting life besides being the youngest of Murry Wilson’s sons and the brother of a musical genius.  As I mentioned above, Carl’s first wife Gina MartinAnnie, was the sister of Billy Hinsche of Dino, Desi & Billy fame.  He didn’t have to go far to meet his second wife, Gina Martin.  She was Dean Martin’s daughter and the sister of Dino, Desi & Billy’s Dean Paul Martin, aka Dino .  Carl and Gina were together until his death.  Carl’s spirituality grew throughout the years.  So much so that by 1988 he was an ordained minister in the Movement of Spiritual Awareness.  I was quite surprised to learn, in doing research for this blog that Carl contributed vocals to so many other projects besides The Beach Boys.

Did you know he sang backup on Chicago’s “Baby, What A Big Surprise”?  I didn’t.  Carl also added backup vocals to Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” and, not surprisingly, David Lee Roth’s version of “California Girls”.  An interesting piece of trivia is the fact that The Beach Boys 1965 original Carlof “California Girls” and David Lee Roth’s cover version 20 years later both went to # 3 on Billboards’ Hot 100 chart.

Carl also co-wrote songs with Canada’s own Randy Bachman in 1980.  Carl liked to write with Randy because as Carl later told an interviewer, ‘Randy rocks and I like to rock’.

It’s so sad that Carl died so young.  He was only 51 when cancer took him in 1998.

“AND SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS….I HOPE YOU HAVE FUN.”

Every Christmas, my thoughts always turn to John Lennon.  What incredible music and art could he still have created if that a**hole hadn’t shot him dead on December 8, 1980.  John was my favourite Beatle and over the years, I’ve written and produced more radio specials about John Lennon than anyone or anything else.  I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and to interview many of the people that were in his life, including Yoko (3 times), son Julian several times, his first wife Cynthia, boyhood friend Pete Shotton and so many others.  John was certainly not a saint, nor did he ever claim to be.  He was a complicated, creative character who most likely would have become famous even if he hadn’t met Paul McCartney at that Woolton Parish fete on July 6, 1957.

To wrap up this year, I leave you with the timeless words of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from a song they wrote 41 years ago.

“And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun.

The near and the dear ones, the old and the young

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”

=DT=

Doug Thompson’s column regularly appears every fourth Friday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

DBAWIS ButtonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

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