Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Q&A with author Kenny Weissberg

Kenny Weissberg is the author of the new memoir Off My Rocker: One Man's Tasty, Twisted, Star-Studded Quest for Everlasting Music. A former disc jockey, journalist, and rock singer, he lives in San Diego, where he spent 23 years producing the Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay series.

Q: As someone who worked in a variety of music-related jobs (DJ, musician, writer, concert promoter), was there one that you preferred over the others? Why or why not?

A: I've loved all the hats I've worn, but if I have to pick one, I'd go with disc jockey/talk show host during the underground, freeform radio days of the 1970s.

Being on the radio had been my dream since I started listening to East Coast AM stations on my transistor radio at the dawning of the rock 'n' roll era. I announced at my eighth birthday party that I was going to be a disc jockey when I grew up. Fast forward 15 years to 1971 and that prediction came true.  

There was something so liberating about picking and playing my own favorite music music every morning. Having that responsibility forced me to broaden my horizons and sample music I'd never heard of before.  

And my radio show opened the floodgates for all my future gigs. Newspaper and magazine editors hired me to write for their publications because they liked what I said on the air.

Once I became a music critic, musicians who didn't agree with my reviews challenged me by saying "I'd like to see what you could do onstage!" I took that to heart, formed a band and played live for four years.  

Then, a former fan of my radio show called me out of the blue and offered me a job producing concerts in California. I switched careers on a dime, moved to San Diego, and presented 2,000 concerts over the next 23 years. My little radio show opened all those doors.

Q: You write that your favorite show of all the ones that you produced was a Roy Orbison concert in 1987. What made that event particularly noteworthy? On the other hand, you mention various performers who were extremely difficult to work with. Is there one concert that you would describe as perhaps your least favorite?

A: When I started presenting live concerts in 1984, I was fortunate to work with a lot of my heroes. Most of them were wonderful. A few were assholes.  

Roy Orbison's career had been in decline for a long time when I booked him in 1987. Even his agent thought I was making a mistake by booking him. I'm glad I didn't listen to her. I would never have passed up a chance to meet Roy Orbison and hear him sing. So I rolled the dice and made an offer for him to do two shows at Humphrey's, the outdoor venue I managed in San Diego.

A few months before the concerts, Roy formed the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. His career resurgence was spectacular and his two San Diego shows sold out.  

He was as kind and modest as a human being as he was transcendent as a singer. I sat with my jaw on the ground watching him hit perfect crescendos during "Crying," "Only the Lonely," "Running Scared," "In Dreams" and "It's Over," not to mention the majestic "Oh, Pretty Woman." He got 10 standing ovations during each performance and I cried crocodile tears of joy.

My least favorite was probably Chuck Berry. I was repeatedly warned not to work with him but I ignored all that good advice. You can read about it in detail in Off My Rocker, but the capsule summary is that he tried extorting money from me five minutes before his show began . . . and he did it with a smile. I was being held hostage and certainly honed my negotiating skills that night.

The show went on, he sang and played horribly out of tune, and the crowd loved every minute of it. He had the nerve to invite me to have Chinese food with him after the show. You'll have to read the book to see if egg rolls were part of my denouement.

Q: In your book, you discuss all the changes in the radio business over the decades that you worked in it. What do you see for radio in the years ahead, and are there any shows or personalities that you like and listen to at this point?

A: I was on the radio on and off from 1971 to 2007. When commercial radio started tightening its playlists and lost its imagination in the late '70s, I cofounded a public station (KGNU-FM, Boulder, CO) and that was a great alternative for awhile.  

When I switched careers and moved to San Diego in 1983, I figured my radio days were behind me. But I hooked up with a visionary program director named Bob O'Connor in 1993 and created a freeform specialty show called "Music Without Boundaries," that incorporated rock, R & B, blues, jazz, folk, oldies . . . an unheard of palette for commercial radio.  

That show ran for 14 years on five different San Diego stations, but the freedom of musical choice that I continued to have was a complete anomaly in the cold, corporate world of consolidation that has destroyed FM radio.  

Satellite and internet hold the only hope for creative radio in the years ahead. I listen to Sirius XM satellite radio, mostly to Little Steven's Underground Garage or The Loft for music and Howard Stern for talk.

Q: If you were going to put together a playlist of the top songs to accompany your memoir, what would that list include?

A: Wow, Deborah, how much space are you going to give me :-)  ? A playlist of the music I love would go on for 150 pages, but here's a random list of the first songs that come into my head. Of course, my playlist would change every day until infinity with no repetition whatsoever.

Otis Redding                                  "Try a Little Tenderness"
Spirit                                              "Dream Within a Dream"
Johnny Clegg & Savuka                "Asimbonanga"
Love                                               "You Set the Scene"
Etta James                                      "Tell Mama"
The Byrds                                      "Lay Down Your Weary Tune"
Sandy Denny                                  "Solo"
Wes                                                 "Awa Awa"
Dawes                                             "A Little Bit of Everything"
Ange Takats                                    "Minnesota"
Graham Parker & the Rumour       "Fool's Gold"
Wilson Pickett                                "I'm a Midnight Mover"
Eric Andersen                                 "Blue River"
The Beatles                                     "In My Life"
The Jarmels                                    "A Little Bit of Soap"
Miles Davis                                    "Concierto de Aranjuez"
Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash            "Girl from the North Country"
The Strawbs                                  "The Flower and the Young Man"
Gene Pitney                                    "I'm Gonna Be Strong"
The Heptones                                 "Book of Rules"
Catie Curtis                                    "Radical"
John Prine                                      "Hello in There"

Okay, okay, please stop me!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Answering your questions. You set me up for that one!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was the oldest child in a traditional, Jewish New Jersey family. My parents hoped I'd become a corporate lawyer, pediatrician, or a stockbroker.  

I loved them unconditionally but they were horrified when I relentlessly followed the music for the rest of my life. They relaxed only when I started making a good living as a concert promoter.  

As my mother lay dying in 2005, her last lucid words to me were "So when are you going to write a book?" She slipped into a coma that night and died three days later.  

I started writing Off My Rocker shortly thereafter, kind of fulfilling her final wish. This is a memoir about the joy and pain of a life devoted to music as well as a love story about my wife of 42 years and our family.  

It's the hardest thing I've ever attempted as well as the most fulfilling. I became a stronger, more honest person telling this story. There are a lot of cringeworthy moments along the way reflecting some bad choices I made. I've also been told there are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments.

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment