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Interview with Shirley Pena

Shirley Pena

Interview by Neil Daniels

US rock journalist Shirley Pena has written for The Los Angeles Beat, The Fresno Examiner, Keyboard Player (UK), American Songwriter, Goldmine, The Blacklisted Journalist and Majicat. During her years as a rock scribe she has interviewed Dave Davies, Roky Erickson, Jim McCarty, Ian McLagan and Gary Numan, amongst over forty plus recording artists.

What (or who) got you interested in rock music in the first place?

I had a cousin who suffered from schizophrenia, and in her whole life she never made even one friend. Her sole passion was The Beatles. As an eight year old kid I used to stand in the doorway to her bedroom, listening to her playing their music as I’d just stare in awe at her bedroom, which was a virtual shrine to them! I thought: “They must be magical for her to love them so much!” and I started begging my folks for a Beatles album.
The next year, I finally got my first Beatles album: Meet The Beatles. I got it as a ‘hand me down’ from my older sister, and I played that album to death, to the point where my mom threatened to trash it while I was away at school! I have that album to this very day.
After that, I got a brand new Beatles album every year for Christmas; my sole gift every Christmas. Forty-eight years later, I still get that very same feeling listening to The Beatles’ music as I did when I was an eight year old kid standing in that doorway. The magic is still there!

Who was your first interview with? How did it go?

My first interview was with Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.
That was rather frustrating, but later very amusing. I had traveled many miles to attend a lecture of his at UCLA, only to be told by his assistant that he never gives an interview unless he is physically handed the audiotape to it afterward, and allowed to review/edit it prior to publication.
Well, I was having none of that, so the evening amounted to me following him about as he chatted with fans, and at one point actually losing his rental car in the UCLA parking lot! To quote a line from one of his songs: “There are no words I can use…” to tell you how goddamn funny he looked literally running in a dead panic through this enormous parking lot, with me, his assistant and a half a dozen of his fastest (and most clearly devoted) fans running through it as well, looking for his car (yes, we finally found it)!
The final frustration was being informed, by the owner/web mistress of the Cat Stevens fan site that was set to publish it, that my article would be edited, “so as to avoid discussing certain things that might possibly embarrass Yusuf.”
Since the owner was a good friend of mine, I reluctantly agreed to this. It left such a ‘bad taste’ in my mouth that to this day I absolutely will not change/alter/edit another interview I do with any artist, period.

Have you had any difficult interviews?

Perhaps the most ‘difficult’ one was the recent one I had with Curt Kirkwood of The Meat Puppets. I interviewed Curt for The Los Angeles Beat, to help publicize the Meat Puppets bio by Greg Prato (Too High To Die: Meet The Meat Puppets).
I found it a real challenge to draw an actual interview from him, as he answered all my questions with quite a lot of stammering and hesitation. I didn’t fully realize to what extend, until I played back the tape and discovered it was this long series of “umms” and “ahhs” that I had to patiently wade through to extract the actual answers from!
However, in the long run it proved to be worth the effort, as I got a rather charming interview from Curt!

What do you write for now?

Currently, I write for The Los Angeles Beat, which is a Los Angeles-based, online ‘newszine’ style blog that features, as it boasts in its title, “Entertainment, Dining and the Arts.”
Its owner is Elise Thompson, who has created for herself a rather high profile in the Los Angeles Arts community, partly as an actress (she has been featured in several films by filmmaker David Markey) and self-styled food and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles area.
I had just lost my well-loved position as a staff writer for the UK magazine Keyboard Player when it folded due to economic hardship. Suddenly, I found myself searching for a place where I could figuratively hang my hat, pull up a chair and get down to some serious writing.
Then a friend of mine, who had just completed some “research” in connection to a friend’s recent interview with singer/songwriter/engineer Emitt Rhodes, told me about the online publication. He gave me the link, and the names of its owner and music editor.
When I read Miss Thompson’s Los Angeles Beat profile, describing herself as “a food, culture and music-loving punk rock Angeleno who wants to turn you on to all that is funky, delicious and weird in the city” it was all I needed to hear to know I was
“home” at last!

What have been some of your favourite moments as a rock journalist…so far?

Interviewing Gary Numan last year. That was more than an interview; that was two friends sharing a private and personal discussion! Of the many interviews it’s been my pleasure to have conducted, that was a unique and memorable experience. I’m left to wonder: will I ever have another one quite like that?
It began a bit awkward, with Gary giving these slow and measured answers to my questions. Then in the course of our conversation Gary brought up the subject of his
having Asperger syndrome, which afflicts me as well. When I shared this revelation, it changed the whole direction the interview went.
Our conversation went in every direction an interview can possibly go. Gary’s revelations of his career and his personal life were so honest and intimate that to this day I listen to that tape and I’m just gob-smacked. I’m so touched and amazed by it!
It’s still sitting, waiting for publication, a year later. I simply don’t know where to even begin to edit it. I abhor editing artists, but I listen to it, and I know I would never publish it as is. I would feel like I was betraying his trust.
I’d have to say that interviewing Ian “Mac” McLagan (The Small Faces, The Faces) and Jim McCarty (The Yardbirds, Renaissance) is right up there at the top of my list for the most sheer fun I’ve had chatting with anyone-famous or otherwise! Both are absolutely hilarious, and their natural charms are unscathed by age; still quite devastating! I reckon they could still walk into any crowded room and within minutes have all the pretty young girls there just flocking around them, like hummingbirds flying about the fairest flowers!
After all the hours of casually chatting on the phone, I’m finally preparing to do a proper interview with noted photographer and musician Henry Diltz. Like McCarty and McLagan, Henry is just a delight to chat with. He is so charming and witty, and has an amazing memory for detail. His high energy personality leaves you feeling ‘energized’ when you talk to him!

What are your thoughts on the current state of music magazines in the USA?

Sadly, it’s been my observation that much of the former “fire” has gone out of American music publications in the last decade or so...maybe even longer. I attribute much of that loss to two things:

1. The dramatic economic slump in America, which has resulted in publications either folding altogether or being “absorbed” by bigger, older publications that put the emphasis on business first and music a distant second.

Rolling Stone is a prime example of this dilemma, I’m afraid. Nowadays you can look through it until your eyes ache, and you won’t find a Cameron Crowe or Ben Fong-Torres among its current stable of writers. The sheer fun, sense of adventure and anarchy that once was its benchmark has long faded away, replaced by the need to “play it safe” so to speak, when covering those “flavour of the month” performers it’s so in love with nowadays.

2. The emphasis on ‘youth market’ in American music publications, which has now spilled over from the artists and performers it covers to the writers who cover it. 

It’s becoming a rare thing to see experienced, seasoned music journalists featured in American music publications, and with that goes much of the sheer craft of writing. Writing is like any facet of the arts: it requires more than talent, it requires time to hone one’s skills and bring one’s talents to their full measure of effective power. In today’s America, the old adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” is fast becoming an archaic idea.

What do you think about the quality of writing online?

I’m glad you asked me that! I’ve done both, and the major difference I’ve noticed is that with online writers you see a lot more genuine enthusiasm about the music itself. They’re not afraid to ‘wear their hearts on their sleeves’ so to speak, for the artists they believe in and the music they genuinely love. As a writer, it’s always been my belief that if you do something that you love then you do it better than one who doesn’t.

Which books on rock would you recommend?

Wonderland Avenue: Tales Of Glamour And Excess by the late Danny Sugerman remains my all time favourite book about rock! I seriously don’t think that anyone will write a better book about the history of rock music as it emerged in the Los Angeles area scene during the 1960s-1970s. It is everything a great book should be: entertaining, poignant, thought-provoking, engaging and honest. Just a fantastic piece of work!
Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators And Eccentric Visionaries Of ‘60s Rock by Richie Unterberger is an absolute must read for anyone who is as fascinated and curious about the artists themselves as they are by the very music they created. More than any other book I have read it’s this one that helps you to understand how truly gifted musical artists, as opposed to those who are simply performers, think in unique and creative ways that the average human simply does not compute. Their talents are special because they as humans are special; they are not like you and me.
I can remember a conversation I had a few months ago, in which an artist was being discussed: Neil Diamond. At one point in the conversation, a woman (who is an agent, so by all logic should bloody well know better) declared: “Music artists are just like you and me! They do the same things in the same ways as anyone else!” I told her: “If that were the case then there would be no individuality in their vision as artists! All of them would sound the same as anyone else you meet in your everyday life, and just how many folks do you encounter in your daily affairs that have that strong an effect on you as does an artist whom you admire?”
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know quite well a number of iconic artists, among them Peter Green, Syd Barrett, Mose Allison, and Emitt Rhodes, to name but a few. I can assure you that none of them “did the same things in the same ways” as myself or anyone else I’ve known in everyday life! I can remember Gary Numan discussing with me how he can hear music in everyday sounds, sounds that the average person pays no mind to, much less actually hears music emanating from! Artists are a different breed, God bless ‘em!

Who are your favourite rock writers?

My favourite remains the first ‘famous’ person I ever got to know well: Al Aronowitz. The man was a truly brilliant journalist. I read pieces he wrote fifty years ago, and I’m stunned by his ability to paint such intimate and revealing portraits without wasting even one word in the process. I’d read two bios on Bobby Darin, but didn’t feel I really knew him until I read one interview with him by Al.
If I live to be 100, and I write an article every day for the rest of my life, I reckon I will never be half as great a journalist as Al was the very first time he put pen to paper, simple as that…but I keep trying!

What is your music collection like (LPs, CDs, books etc)?

My collection features my greatest passion: 1960s rock. I agree with Richie Unterberger: the greatest and most innovative rock music was created during the 1960s.
That being said, my collection is a very rich and varied mix of everything from jazz to blues to big band to classical to R&B to country & western to ‘Third-World’ and it just goes on and on! As long as the music is genuine, it has a place in my collection.

Can you name some of the best gigs you’ve been to?

The best I’ve been to remains a Bruce Springsteen three hour, non-stop concert at The LA Sports Arena, back in the 1980s. God, it was truly life-affirming! No wonder they call him ‘The Boss!’
The highlight was a stunning performance that he gave that night of one of the songs from his then latest album (‘The River’): ‘Drive All Night.’ When he sang…no… when he performed the lines:

“Don’t cry, dry your eyes!
Come here…come see what I brought you, and dry your eyes!
Don’t cry…don’t cry anymore!”
I just lost it; started crying like a baby!

I swear in all my years of going to concerts I have never seen anyone give a more powerful performance than that; words could never do it justice! I don’t think I’ve seen an actor give a better performance reading any line than what Bruce gave that night!
Sadly, to my knowledge, that performance wasn’t captured on film that night.
It’s a damn shame too, because of the countless times I’ve seen Bruce in concert it’s that performance that stays in my mind all these years later. In my honest opinion he’s never given a performance before or since, that I’m aware of, that had that kind of utter magic to it. That was a one-off!

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