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After a decade of celebrity interviews, memories — and a basket of tapes

Rock stars tend to be funnier than comedians, and Sir Mix-a-Lot still gets asked to autograph people's butts — which he still likes, and he cannot lie.

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — My interview with singer Art Garfunkel quickly went downhill after I asked him how he felt about an old "Saturday Night Live" bit that seemed to poke fun at him.

“If I feel mocked, I don’t feel good about it,” he said, obviously perturbed. “Is that a mystery to you?”

If you want an interview to be memorable, having a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer rant at you for 10 minutes is definitely one way to achieve that. But during my decade as a celebrity interviewer, there were many other memorable moments — and most didn’t entail conflict.

Feeling nostalgic, I recently dug through the basket that contains my old celebrity interview tapes. Those mini cassettes — recorded when I was a freelance music writer and daily newspaper entertainment reporter — contain some interesting A- and B-side combinations.

While Cyndi Lauper and Kenny Loggins seem like a good fit for a duet, the tape labeled “Henry Winkler” on one side and “Sir Mix-a-Lot” on the other made me smile for its Odd Couple potential.

I always prided myself on developing interesting questions for these interviews, which required scores of research. But my first question to Mix-a-Lot, whose big hit famously declared “I like big butts, and I cannot lie,” was pretty straightforward.

“Do you still like big butts?” I asked.

It was the first and only time I’d ever ask that question during an interview.

“Oh, definitely,” he said.

Even years after “Baby Got Back” was a mega hit, Mix-a-Lot (aka Anthony Ray) said he often had requests to autograph people’s butts. And, refreshingly, he wasn’t sick of it.

“Never act ashamed of your big songs,” he advised. “Ever.”

Some of the celebrity interviews I did (Al Green, George Carlin, David Crosby, and Martin Short, to name a few) were phoners, while others were in person.

I shared a cinnamon role with B-52s front man Fred Schneider at a casino Starbucks. Backstage at that same casino, I sat next to bluesman Robert Cray, amid crates containing his band’s gear.

I had to ask him about John Belushi, who once did his famous Joe Cocker impression while sitting in with Cray’s band.

“I thought it was kind of stupid,” Cray said, to my surprise. “But he was a nice guy.”

In-person interviews always allowed for greater insight and detail.

When I interviewed an 18-year-old Zac Efron at his parents’ home in Arroyo Grande, California, there was a Lifetime movie script on the kitchen counter. When they told me he had to decide by the end of the day whether to accept a role in that movie, I wanted to suggest the part was beneath him — that a nearby pile of teen magazines sporting his image was proof of his budding stardom — but I kept my mouth shut.

They turned it down, without my advice, and a little over a year later he was walking on red carpets as his face adorned Hollywood billboards.

“I can’t believe where I’ve ended up,” he told me then. “I’ve always considered myself a theater kid from San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande.” 

When I interviewed Yes front man Jon Anderson in that same small town, I asked if I could get a photo with him and he suggested we have it taken by an Elvis statue outside Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven. As we walked toward the music store, I noticed that no one recognized him.

Despite his paint-smeared pants, scarf and British accent, he didn’t come off as a rock star.

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Having joyfully related to the movie "This Is Spinal Tap," Anderson told me he once tried to approach Christopher Guest, one of the movie’s stars, who brushed him off, apparently not recognizing the “Owner of a Lonely Heart” singer.

“I went to shake hands with a fictional rock star, and then he pushed me away and said I haven’t the time,” Anderson said. “It was perfect!”

Elvis poses for a photo with Yes front man Jon Anderson, middle, and the author outside Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven in Arroyo Grande, Calif. (Jayson Mellom via Courthouse News)

Hip hop icon Flavor Flav is a little more recognizable. During my interview with him, I couldn’t resist starting with his signature calling card: “Flava Flaaaaaav!”

“How many times do people greet you with that?” I asked.

“Ah, man — a lot,” he said. “Everywhere I go. Every place, every step I take, I get it.”

My wife will tell you I occasionally do a Michael McDonald impression (we disagree on the quality), which is always the first line from the Doobie Brothers classic “Takin’ it to the Streets:” I cowardly didn’t fess up to that during my interview with McDonald, but I did ask if anyone ever approached him with an impression, and he said they often do — and it’s the same “You don’t know me but I’m your bruuuuuh-thaaa” line that I’ve annoyed my wife with for so many years.

“Part of me is grateful they even know who I am,” he said, noting he was often mistaken for other celebs. “We’d be in airports, and people would come up to me and go, ‘Kenny Rogers!” or ‘Bob Seger!’ One person actually asked if I was Captain Kangaroo.”

Oddly enough, rock stars tended to be funnier than famous comics I interviewed.  But Ryan Stiles, of “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” had the best punchline, after I asked him about living in a home once owned by flamboyant pianist Liberace.

Stiles said strange noises that came from the upstairs had alarmed his dogs.

“Was the ghost of Liberace hiding up there?” I asked, unintentionally providing a setup.

“Yeah,” he said. “In the closet.”

I laughed — Liberace never acknowledged being gay — and added a “Ba-dum-dum.”

“And he’s never gonna come out,” Stiles added, in perfect improv fashion, “so deal with it.

I dug through the tapes, remembering more nuggets: Jeff Bridges, just like his famous Dude character, really does like Creedence better than the Eagles. Chris Isaak and Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) were both ardent surfers. And the song “Bad Company” was inspired by a photo in an old book about Victorian morals, said front man Paul Rodgers, who also decided it was a good band name.

“I thought it was interesting to come out as a brand new band with its own theme song,” Rodgers said.

The author, far right, interviewing Michael Lardie, left, and Mark Kendall of the band Great White backstage at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, CA. (Dwight McCann/Chumash Casino via Courthouse News)

Personal anecdotes often helped break the ice and lead to interesting stories, which happened when I mentioned to Henry Winkler that I had a Fonzie poster as a child or to Bill Cosby (before the scandals) when I mentioned that I had a Fat Albert lunch box.

That’s sort of how the Garfunkel thing got started.

In the 1991 "SNL" skit, then-cast member Kevin Nealon and actor Kevin Bacon portrayed a folksy duo in which one member sings and plays the guitar and the other only claps along. It was an obvious reference to Simon & Garfunkel, with a suggestion that Simon carried most of the weight.

While it had been many years, I always wondered if Garfunkel had seen that — and if it bothered him. But I wasn’t even sure if I was going to ask — until he brought up being a comic foil when performing with Simon.

“If Paul is going to tease me, but it’s a great tease, I’m gonna laugh, and do the thing that you do when you play the butt of a joke because the joke is so damn good,” he said during the phone interview.  

Seemed like a great lead-in for my question.

It was not.

He seemed to recognize it that his subsequent rant was a bit much, at one point saying, “I can see the headline now — Art Garfunkel: Still Crazy After All These Years.”

Biting my tongue, I resisted the urge to remind him that he had just referenced a Paul Simon solo hit.

I figured he knew. And, sometimes the best option really is the sound of silence.

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