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Ten Songs

L.A. Girl: The Life Of Sylvie Simmons In Ten Songs
Joel McIver , February 24th, 2015 09:38

Joel McIver talks to one of the all time great music journalists about her incisive interviews with the likes of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, not to mention her own music

Consider this question: when does a successful music journalist and author become a musician whose music doesn't suck? The answer is rarely. Maybe even just once, in the recent case of Sylvie Simmons, whose career as a journo goes back to 1977 and who has waited a mere 37 years to release her debut album, Sylvie, which came out on the Light In The Attic label earlier this year.

Simmons, born in London and decamping to Los Angeles in '77 to become a correspondent for Sounds, is almost four decades into a journalistic career that is unparalleled even by the gold standards of the 1970s and 80s, a rather different era to today, when top writers were treated like rock stars: some of them even adopted cool pen names without people laughing at them. Younger hacks like me, who came up in the 90s and 00s, missed out on a lot of big-budget press trips and free drugs. Even so, we learned a lot from writers like Simmons, who began writing for Kerrang! in the early 80s and became a kind of resident sister to many of the metal bands who came out of Hollywood, whether of the hair (Mötley Crüe, Guns N'Roses) or thrash (Metallica) persuasion. Teenagers like me would read her weekly reports on the exploding LA rock scene in awe, coming to regard them as a peephole into an impossibly far-off world that we would never, ever see in person.

Simmons wasn't just a metal writer, though: as far back as the late 70s, she'd been covering stars such as Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, John Lydon and Michael Jackson. They and many more all ended up on her tape recorder and in her articles, written for a stack of magazines from various countries. Rock journalism, even more so then than now, was a largely bloke-populated endeavour, making her ascent to the top of the journo tree even more remarkable. Furthermore, Simmons blew her competition away, geezers and non-geezers alike, with her piercing, intelligent interviews. Penetrating the PR veneer behind which almost all rock stars hide, she portrayed them as they really are, and despite doing so, became the close confidante of a who's-who of musos.

A lot of writers transition from contributing to magazines to writing books: in fact, it's pretty much expected, but Simmons did it with more style than most of us. Moving to France in 1990 for four years, she wrote the definitive English-language biography of chansonneur Serge Gainsbourg, titled A Fistful Of Gitanes. Writing for Mojo magazine by the mid 90s, she went on to write landmark features on artists such as Leonard Cohen, whose interview lasted three entire days, and the ailing Johnny Cash, with whom she spent a week in 2003. The latter died not long afterwards, making Simmons his last major interviewer, but Cohen went on to become the subject of her most heavyweight work, I'm Your Man, published in 2012, with 15 translations to date. Along the way Simmons has contributed to a whole slew of projects by and about artists as diverse as David Bowie, Emmylou Harris, Brian Wilson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A pianist and guitar player, Simmons took up the ukulele a few years ago and played it while touring to promote I'm Your Man. This has led to the release of Sylvie, a fragile, atmospheric album that has been welcomed by reviewers, against most reasonable odds. As the Guardian wrote, "There's an unspoken rule among rock critics: don't release your own music [but] Simmons shatters that rule to gripping effect." With typically self-effacing humour, Simmons herself told the Times: "I've been a musical parasite all these years. Now I'm the dog it rides on." Take note, music journos: this is how it's done.

1. LA Woman - 'The Doors'

  Sylvie says: I'm more of a fan of Jim Morrison than of The Doors, especially those topless shots. But 'LA Girl' would be more appropriate, because I was so young when I went out there in 1977. How old? Let's just say older than Lady Gaga and younger than Patti Smith.

In 1977 you moved to Los Angeles and became a rock correspondent. How did this come about?

SS: I'd been running away from home since I was a kid: I was really good at it. But this one was a slightly more adult version. Though I was too young to be a hippie, I'd always had a thing about California, and I wanted to be a music journalist. When I was young I made a huge long list of all the jobs that I decided I could never do, and there were only three jobs left in the world I thought that I could do – musician, writer and BBC presenter. Back then, if a rock magazine had a woman writer, their attitude was, "We've already got a girl and we don't need another one." So when the opportunity came up to go out to LA, I grabbed it.

Did you have any writing experience at the time?

SS: I'd written some things for a girls' magazine called Mirabelle, and I remember that Debbie Harry and Blondie had come into town and I wanted to interview them, but Mirabelle said no. I did get to interview David Bowie for Mirabelle's Christmas message to their readers, which lasted about five seconds, but mostly it was the Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers... the real cool crowd! I'd also written for music magazines in Italy and Germany, but my forays into being a rock journalist hadn't really worked in England.

How did you get the Sounds gig?

SS: The UK record company PRs I knew from my pop stuff telexed their LA counterparts telling them I was legit, and almost as soon as I arrived there I was offered an interview with Steely Dan, who were promoting Aja. We got along fine, I interviewed them and took pictures of them standing outside the Beverly Hills hotel, and then I phoned NME, Sounds and Melody Maker asking if they were interested in the feature. The only one who asked to see it was Alan Lewis, the editor of Sounds. He put [the feature] on the cover, and then I did Mink Deville, Tom Petty and AC/DC for him – and then Sounds sent me on the road with Black Sabbath.

You landed on your feet pretty quickly, then?

SS: It was really a case of me being in the right place at the right time. Believe it or not, there weren't many rock writers in LA in the late 70s. I had a weekly column in Sounds too called Hollywood Highs, and after a short while a radio show and a regular gig with the US magazine Creem. I had the time of my life. I used to send my mum pictures of me posing with people that I knew would horrify her. At one point I sent her a picture of me with Barry White, fully aware that she wouldn't have a clue who he was, and I wrote 'The baby's on its way and we're getting married next week'. It was very cruel. My dad got the joke, though.

2. Mötley Crüe - 'Live Wire'

  Sylvie says: For me, the Crüe were more about the visuals. In the beginning they were more like punks, but with stiletto heels instead of spit. It was fun. Do I still like the songs? Let's just say I don't play them very often. Sorry Mötley, you know I love you.

How did Mötley Crüe strike you when you first saw them?

SS: I remember walking past the Starwood club, where they were playing, and there was a gaggle of teenagers outside, all wearing New York Dolls-style clothes, with the scarves and the tight trousers and the exploding Christmas-tree hair. I went in, because my name was on all the clubs' guest-lists and I'd get a tab which got me free booze. Did I drink a lot? You bet I did. In the beginning the clubs covered all my major food groups: Kahlua, cream and peanuts. Mötley's set was very ramshackle, but there was something about them – a kind of commitment and drive that I knew was going to work. This was back when you could write about unsigned artists, so I did a double-page spread on them in Sounds. I remember asking them about their hair, which apart from [singer] Vince Neil's was blue-black like mine, and we compared hair tips. Sleeping on their foreheads, and using half a can of Flex Net hairspray – that kind of thing.

3. Nickelback - 'Rock Star'

Sylvie says: Before this interview, I was just hoping you wouldn't ask me about Nickelback or Mumford & Sons. Some things cannot and should not be spoken about.

By the late 80s you were interviewing the biggest names in music.

SS: Even when I was writing a lot about heavy metal, I was also listening to and writing about other kinds of music. I loved early-70s soft rock and singer-songwriter stuff. I adored James Taylor, especially the early stuff like 'Sweet Baby James'. I loved Joni Mitchell's Blue too. In my early days in LA I was interviewing Michael Jackson, Muddy Waters, Rod Stewart, you name it, and also all the new wave pop bands like Culture Club and Duran Duran. But in LA I was surrounded by metal at the time, and even if a genre of music isn't really your favourite, you soon learn to distinguish the good from the bad.

Talking of which, how did you get to know Metallica?

SS: Lars Ulrich used to hang at my place in LA with a friend of his. He gave me a cassette of his band playing in the garage, before they were called Metallica. It didn't do much for me personally, but I passed it on it to Brian Slagel from Metal Blade, who saw much more in them than I did and put it on his compilation, Metal Massacre. But Metallica never forget, and they invited me to their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009.

4. Serge Gainsbourg - 'La Javanaise'

Sylvie says: This is so romantic. Gainsbourg wrote this for women: he had that feminine side to his writing.

Why did you move to France in 1990?

SS: I had moved back to London in 1984 and was finding it hard to deal with a lot of stuff. I didn't want to live in LA again, although I'd go back every couple of months to do an interview, usually with a heavy rock or metal band. And as the decade went on, so much of that scene had become totally corrupted by too much coke and money and silicone.

In LA, of all places. Who would have thought?

SS: I know. Things were tacky. Not so much that I wanted to give up rock writing, but I also wanted to try something new. So I moved to a crumbling stately heap on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere in southwest France, about 60 miles from Bordeaux: wine instead of cocaine. When I was living there, Serge Gainsbourg died, and my French neighbour, an old guy who lived off the land, was in tears. But then everybody was in tears. You turned on the radio or the television, and it was nothing but Gainsbourg. With typical British music journalist disdain, I just figured it was a testament to how poor French pop was if there was this much fuss about a guy who had one hit record, 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)'. Then a French friend brought over a load of Gainsbourg vinyl and I worked my way through it: by the time I got to L'Histoire De Melody Nelson (1969) I was thinking, 'How can this man have died before I got to know his music?' I was a convert.

How did your Gainsbourg biography come about?

SS: When I moved back to London – 20 years ago, just in time to write for the first issue of Mojo – I could hear the influences of Gainsbourg, and blatant rip-offs of his arrangements, all around me, whether in dance, Britpop or lounge music. I eventually persuaded Mojo to let me write a long article on Gainsbourg, and as a result I became acquainted with Jane Birkin. After the article ran, she suggested that I write a book on Gainsbourg, who had always been disappointed, she said, at how the British had always ignored him, even though he had recorded in the UK. I mentioned the idea to Helter Skelter, who thought it a fine idea, and so it was off to Paris to hang out in bars with some very fine people like Nick Kent and Gainsbourg's French biographer Gilles Verlant. My book's been out of print for some time now, but I recently got the rights back, so I hope to republish it this year.

5. Johnny Cash - 'Folsom Prison Blues'

Sylvie says: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die' – that is one of the great, great lines. I was in Reno recently, doing a gig, and you can't help but think of that song."

In 2003 you conducted Johnny Cash's last major interview, which lasted an entire week.

SS: I'd interviewed Cash in the past about his prison albums for Mojo, but really the last thing he would have done would have been to say, "Let's fly Sylvie Simmons out from England to come interview me at my house during my last weeks on Earth", because Johnny was a man's man; I'm sure I wasn't even on his radar. The credit for that goes to Rick Rubin, who is the biggest music nerd, with the best ears, anywhere. He called me and said he was thinking of doing a box set of out-takes from the American Recordings albums, to celebrate his tenth anniversary of working with Cash, and asked me what I thought. I said I liked the idea. He asked me if I would write a shortish book to go with the box set and a longer one that we could put out later. Then Johnny died, and neither Rick nor I wanted to rush out a book and exploit that. So there was just the small, hardback book that came out with the now-posthumous box set, Johnny Cash: Unearthed.

What was Cash like at the end of his life?

SS: Johnny was really ill. He had a cocktail of ailments, from the autonomic neuropathy that made his hands shake too much to play guitar, to the bouts of pneumonia that sent him in and out of hospital. His wife June had died, unexpectedly, and everybody was assuming that Johnny wouldn't last, because June had done so much to keep him alive. But I got a call from Rick, six weeks after June's death, saying that Johnny was back home and had told him, "I've got to work: it's the only thing that's keeping me going." He was in a wheelchair, half-blind from glaucoma, and when he reached out to shake my hand, his hand was shaking. We're talking about a broken man, emotionally and physically.

What was your interview routine like with him?

SS: Every day for five days I'd have breakfast with Johnny at his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee – the house that burned to the ground after Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees bought it, following Johnny's death. After breakfast we would talk for however long he was able to – sometimes for an hour or more, other times not so much. He was always very generous with his time, but after a while he'd say, "I think my voice is going, honey," because he was keen to keep what voice he had for his daily recording sessions in his old bedroom in the afternoons. He could talk tough, especially around the boys in the recording session, but he was also sweet and funny: he was always trying to marry me off to one of his ex-sons-in-law, because he had lots of those. An amazing experience.

6. The Beach Boys - 'Heroes And Villains'

Sylvie says: "I love this song – and it's a rare song that starts up high and works its way down, as this one does."

In 2004 you appeared in a documentary about Brian Wilson and the Smile album.

SS: That man is a genius, and I do not use the term lightly. As a kid I used to love songs like 'The Lonely Sea', 'Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)' and 'In My Room'. Americans seem to view the Beach Boys as happy, sun-and-fun music, but there's a deep sadness in some of their songs. It's wrong to be too fixated on the whole saga of Brian the tortured genius who lost the Beach Boys name to his more shallow, less talented cousin, Mike Love, but, having said that, I do tend to be drawn to the darker, more melancholy side of the band's output – more 'Surfer Girl' than 'Surfin' USA'. Hmm, I only just made the connection but my instrument of choice is the ukulele, whose reputation is very much bouncy sun-and-fun, but the songs I write on it are dark and melancholy.

So what's Brian like?

SS: I've interviewed him a number of times, but the most troubling was the one we did for Smile. With the help of his band – who are not just excellent musicians and Beach Boy fans, but devoted to Brian and his wellbeing – he was working on the various fragments and tapes from the abandoned Smile sessions that they had diligently unearthed and digitised. One thing I felt when talking to Brian back then was that, whenever he spoke about an incident from the past, he seemed to be reliving the experience in his mind; I thought I could see the pain in his eyes as he talked in detail about the making of the album that seemed to have pushed him over the edge. But then the album was finally done and Brian premiered it at the South Bank in London – and it was just glorious. Mind-blowing, really. Van Dyke Parks, who'd collaborated with Brian on the lyrics, was in the audience, in tears. So were grown journalists and rockstars. And backstage, Brian was glowing. It may be an exaggeration, but really it seemed like completing this album was the saving of him somehow.

7. Tom Waits - 'Kommienezuspadt'

Sylvie says: "I was a huge fan of the Alice album, but not particularly this song. Although I'm a great admirer of the weird, deconstructed stuff that he does, I'm more drawn to the sentimental heartbreakers like 'Flower's Grave'."

Also in 2004, you interviewed Tom Waits for Mojo.

SS: Yes, and I had a wonderful time. I love Tom for the same reason I love Leonard Cohen, which is that they are both one-offs, templates; they both seemed old, or at least dressed old when they were young; both kind of lived their careers backwards – Cohen got his biggest audiences in his seventies with his comeback tour; Waits got signed to a punk label in his fifties and had his biggest album success – and both of them carry notebooks around all the time and jot down notes. They're also shy men, with a taste for mystery. Like Leonard Cohen can give you "Leonard Cohen" – the self-deprecating wit, the slow, considered speech, the perfectly-honed anecdote – Tom Waits is far more comfortable giving a journalist "Tom Waits" the character, whose conversation is really a series of strange tales, learned or ad-libbed.

Before the interview began, we chatted for quite a bit. I think Tom's UK publicist Rob Partridge (sadly now deceased) had told him about the time I spent with Johnny Cash, and also that I'd just published a book of short stories on William Burroughs' old imprint, because he was asking me all these questions about Johnny and the book. So it was very interesting for me to see how his manner changed – not just his manner of speaking but the way he sat, and his mannerisms – when he became the "Tom Waits" interview character. I may be flattering myself here, but I do think he opened up a lot more than usual during our interview, though. I know Rob Partridge, who knew Tom very well, said something to that effect afterwards.

8. The Stooges - 'I Wanna Be Your Dog'

Sylvie says: "What's not to love about this song, even for a cat person like myself? I saw Iggy dive off a stage face first and bleed for us. I also loved him when he did his Blood On The Tracks with his divorce album Avenue B. Another complicated man. You seem to have picked a lot of them here for my song list.

Your 2004 fiction collection, Too Weird For Ziggy, was a cool, surreal, unusual book.

SS: It was originally going to be called Too Weird For Iggy, but the publisher wanted me to clear it with Iggy and his manager told me Iggy said no. Apparently it was too weird for him; go figure. Of course I was disappointed, because I really like Iggy: he's an extremely smart man, very erudite. But mostly I was mad. I'd had the title for a couple of years by then, so it was like being asked to rename your cat! I loved writing that book. The stories were all interlinked and set in the music business: variations on a theme that had been nagging me since the late 80s, that celebrity corrupts and absolute celebrity corrupts absolutely, not just the artist but the people around them, even the fans. The difference between fiction and journalism is that you can disguise the characters, so you won't get your legs broken, and there's no interview tapes to transcribe. What they have in common is that they're both short-form and you won't make much money!

9. Leonard Cohen - 'Darkness'

Sylvie says: "Ah, latterday Leonard, in which he reintroduces himself as a bluesman: fair enough, considering the lyrics seem all about depression, obsession and sex. One of Leonard's best cunnilingus songs, up there with 'Light As The Breeze' on The Future album."

Your 2012 Cohen biog, I'm Your Man, was a milestone in your career. What's he like as a person?

SS: People think of Leonard, especially in his younger years, as a ladies' man in the horizontal sense, but he's interested in women in the vertical sense too. Women have always been important to him: his first manager was a woman, the first artist to present him to the public was a woman, most of his closest musical collaborators and co-writers are women – Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas, Leanne Ungar – and the person who inadvertently led to his comeback by emptying his bank accounts while working as his personal manager, yes, a woman too.

Has he read the book?

SS: I don't know. I've seen him several times since then, but I'm too English to ask him and he's too Canadian to say. All I asked of him at the beginning, although it was a big ask, was if I could interview people close to him without him stepping in and saying no. I didn't ask him to hand me those people: I already had my A-list and I got to 100 or so of them, including Leonard. I told him I would do it with diligence and heart and he trusted me. Towards the end of the process, he said something to me that I thought I would never hear from a celebrity: "Don't let them whitewash it. Don't let them turn it into a hagiography." What a man, that Leonard.

Are you still friends?

SS: If you mean, have we fallen out, then no. We have had some very friendly exchanges since my book was published, or a third party will pass on a very nice message. I've seen him backstage several times, but I don't drop by for a cup of tea or anything. There's a kind of natural protocol in this business, as I'm sure you know, though I'm sure if I knocked on his door, he would let me in, make me a ginger smoothie (one of his specialities) and something to eat (he has taken over from his Jewish mum when it comes to hospitality). What I can say about him is that, every time I've met him, he has been absolutely Leonard Cohen-esque: charming, with old-world manners, dressed in a suit, modest, funny and profound.

10. Sylvie Simmons - 'You Are In My Arms'

Sylvie says: "This was the second song I wrote on my ukulele, in 2007 I think. It's the oldest song on my album and the most uke-ish, in that it has that strum that summons up waves and sandy beaches – or it does if it's doing its job properly. The most recent song, in case you were going to ask, is 'Life Goes Bad (When Love Goes Wrong)', which I finished weeks before going into the studio with Howe Gelb of Giant Sound to record my album, live to tape."

Your album has had great reviews. Why do you think that is?

SS: Oh Lord, I've no idea how to answer this. Even though it felt completely natural – strangely enough – recording an album, I was very shy about making it public. In fact I didn't do so until the record company posted the release date, and I thought 'God, I suppose I'd better tell people about it now'. But, putting on my rock critic hat, if I had been sent this album to review, I think what I would pick up on was the honesty. It doesn't sound like someone trying to be a rock star or corner the ukulele market for sad songs by girls with fragile voices – it just sounds honest and sparse and a bit edgy and kind of cool. Well, Howe Gelb's musical instincts are most definitely cool, and I blame him for the existence of the album in many ways, because he's been encouraging me to record my songs for years. The songs came out of a very honest place: me just sitting there at night with my uke and a half-empty bottle, singing about stuff like love and loss and how hard it is to hold onto something. And they seem to move people.

Were you tempted to ask all your famous muso friends to guest on the album?

SS: Someone wrote in a review that I could have got a lot of famous people singing and playing on this album, and it's true, because I've been in this business 37 years and you make friends. But I didn't want to do that. I would find it uncomfortable. I'm not trying to ally myself with the rock stars of the universe. Maybe that's one of the reasons the reviews have been so kind.

Did you expect people to like your music?

SS: I was hoping they would, but at the same time I was trying to grow a thicker skin in anticipation of bad reviews, particularly from the UK, and because I'd had such brilliant reviews for my Leonard Cohen book. The Guardian reviewer said, "We should hate this, a) because she's a rock journalist and b) because she's using a ukulele" and he was exactly right: that's exactly what was going through my mind! But I thought to myself, "What's the worst that can happen? I could get bad reviews. Nobody's going to kill me…" And, as it turned out, the Guardian called it one of the most beautiful low-key albums of the year. Nice!