He wrote one of the most iconic rock biographies of all time with The Dirt. He bared the truth about many a talented pickup artist in The Game. And he’s covered some of the greatest musicians in the world for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, among many others. Neil Strauss is one of the most prolific rock writers and biographers working today. So, his next book took a natural turn—a collection of the most telling moments behind the more than 3,000-plus interviews he’s conducted over his career. Here, Strauss talks to us about Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, the art of the profile piece and Britney Spears.
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What was the idea behind putting together the collection?
The original plan was to always do an anthology of my favorite pieces—one was on the death of Kurt Cobain, in one I spent six months underground as stand-up comic and so on. When I do a book, I look at everything else out there similar to make sure I’m not doing something that’s been done before.
I looked at all the anthologies I could…and anthologies are hard to read front to back. By the time you’re done, you’re sick of that voice. So I completely scrapped that idea and tried different approaches and played around with it. Then I thought why don’t I just pick the best part of each experience, the part where you really see the person? That’s all anyone cares about. So I picked what’s most interesting as a human being, and that’s always interesting.
It was a big mistake. It was supposed to be three-month project and it ended up taking two years.
Since your earlier days doing magazine pieces, how have profiles changed?
Longer profile pieces are a dying art, that’s the point of the book. It’s not the same anymore. Back when I wrote my favorite pieces in there, I got so much access to the musician, I spent a week to a month with them, traveling through multiple cities, I’d go on tour. I really got inside their world. A Rolling Stone cover story was the only way they could communicate who they were to their audience…Now, it’s not necessary. They’re on Twitter, put updates on Facebook. They don’t need us anymore to communicate with their audience.
Did you find yourself liking people you didn’t think you would? Disliking folks you admired?
Yeah, and vice versa. In fact, my whole [book] career started with Marilyn Manson. I thought this guy was a big phony, that it was just goth rock, and that I was just gonna go off on this guy. It turned out that I really, really liked him. He was really smart, and he knew exactly what he was doing, and that turned into the first book. I just interviewed Howard Stern for a Rolling Stone cover, and the guy is just so different off the air. You get to see people with their masks off.
And then there are those whose music you like, like Lauryn Hill, who turns out to be very unlikable.
Any excerpts you wanted to use but couldn’t?
I had a rule where I didn’t put something in there based on how famous a person was. I put them in based on how good their answer is. A lot of people I interviewed I really liked as artists, say Stevie Wonder to Iggy Pop to probably at least a hundred others, but if it wasn’t something that someone who had never heard of the artist before could read and find interesting, it wouldn’t make it in.
The only thing that didn’t make it in, for legal reasons, was a letter from Phil Collins, hate mail I received at the New York Times that ended with him saying, “Fuck you, Neil.” Actually, “Neil, fuck you” were the last words. There were a couple “fuck you’s” in there...The letter was just really this two-page, handwritten, extensively detailed letter—it was really something else.
You just did a Wall Street Journal piece about those who are most famous have a strong conviction to God or the idea that they’re supposed to be famous. Any other qualities that the highly successful and/or famous share that you’ve found?
In bands and groups, there’s usually one guy who’s incredibly in it with an insane mono-maniacal drive for success in the band, and he’s going to drag that band, sometimes even kicking and screaming, to the top of the pop charts…
Sometimes it’s hard to separate qualities they take on after getting successful versus the qualities they had originally. One thing I noticed is that people who are at the top and felt they deserved it, as much hubris as that is, often stayed there longer than those who got to the top and had doubts. Other examples in the book, like Jack White saying “we don’t belong here,” and obviously the White Stripes just broke up. Jewel said, “Why me? It’s not fair I got successful in five years,” and at that moment she had her second top 10 single. Since then, she’s done eight albums and not had another top 10 single. One has to have some sense of deservedness and worthiness once one gets success. It’s a scary thought that Britney Spears has been around longer than the Beatles, had a longer career than the Beatles…
And that’s another commonality—people who were raised and didn’t have unconditional love from at least one parent are the ones who get involved in big-time scandals, who really become public spectacles once they get famous, because they just don’t have that grounding and that stability. They’re less able to handle it, they’re so needy for that love, they start doing stupid things. That’s your Courtney Loves, your Britney Spears, that’s your Paris Hiltons and all that.
The dedication is for people who are gone—who were some of the saddest to you personally who’ve died?
There are two examples in the book, both sides of people dying. Obviously it’s sad when anyone dies, but there’s a guy like Rick James whose last words in his interview were “my resolution is to leave that cocaine alone.” Then he dies with all these drugs in his system…He never beat the demons that were haunting them.
Then there’s John Hartford, the bluegrass player, who wrote “Gentle on my Mind.” He knew he was sick, he knew he was going to die, and he was like, “I’m just going to play the fiddle and get better at it until I can’t play it anymore.” He knew there was a choice involved, knew he was in control, knew how he was going to spend his last days.
Or Johnny Cash. I love that part of the interview when he talks about being in the hospital and he has that near-death experience and says it was indescribably beautiful, and woke up alive and was disappointed. That’s somebody, when they move on, you know, one can say they made their peace with it versus the Ike Turners and the Rick James’s, who never made peace with themselves.
That’s one thing from all these interviews, the one thing I realized about life—you’re handed a certain set of baggage from your parents, your situation from growing up, etc., and if you can get past that baggage and become yourself in this lifetime, then you’ve done a good job.
Neil Strauss’ three favorite rock bios of all time:
Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys by Steven Gaines
Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga by Stephen Davis
Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who by Dave Marsh