Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Loop Files: Bobby Skafish

 I'm working on a special project this year about a certain radio station, so I've been going back into my files and pulling out some old interviews with former Loop colleagues and pals. I'll feature one a week here on the blog. This week, it's Bobby Skafish. Bobby's arrival at the Loop in 1983 (From WXRT) was a key move, announcing a new direction at the station, away from the hard-rocking black t-shirt Loop. Bobby did the lion's share of musical interviews on the station, including virtually every major rock and roll star of the era.

Bobby's book We Have Company: Four Decades of Rock and Roll Encounters came out in 2016. There are dozens of stories in the book from his Loop days. This is just one of them. His brush with Jackson Browne. Today it appears in the Loop Files.

Jackson Browne 1986

I think radio air personalities can hold a false sense of the importance of our musician encounters. Because it looms so large in our minds to have interviewed so and so and perceive that he actually likes us, we think that the next time around with the artist we’ll be greeted warmly like the old friends we imagine we are.

This was confirmed for me by reading Jacob Slichter’s 2004 autobiography, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. Jacob who? Mr. Slichter was the drummer for one hit wonder band Semisonic, from Minneapolis, who clicked big with 1998’s “Closing Time”. At WXRT in 2001 the band performed live and we chatted when they were promoting their next album All About Chemistry. The session went well and when the man’s autobiography/music business reality check came out in 2004 I bought the book and probably scanned the index to see if XRT got a mention. Nope.

Not only that, but reading the thing hammered it home to me that bands are subjected to a massive amount of meeting people while promotionally or musically touring, all in the name of “working it.” Fleeting and superficial episodes they usually are and, with exceptions, the artist might draw a total blank on you next time around.

So why should I have been surprised that after what I felt was a meaningful encounter with Jackson Browne in July, 1986, at Poplar Creek Music Theatre (suburban outdoor venue, 1980-1994, capacity 20,000), that three years later he seemed to have no recollection of having met me at the same venue? Heck, backstage he had even introduced me to his girlfriend, actress Darryl Hannah, and her actress sister Page. Let me one up myself: when I went backstage post-gig for a meet and greet in 1989, he gave no indication that he remembered our interview just hours earlier.

The 1986 on-air situation began from the Poplar Creek broadcast booth from where I did dozens of Loop radio shows. I would do my rap while the songs and commercials were played back at the Hancock by a “board op,” usually Bob Heymann. On this day, as I broadcast on the Loop FM, Steve Dahl and Garry Meier were doing their talk thing on the Loop AM. As Steve & Garry would be cruising out after their show to the Jackson Browne concert they took a particular interest in what was going on out in Hoffman Estates, at the venue. There was some pre-Jackson Browne arrival banter with them and when Jackson did arrive, running a bit late, we were briefly all on the air together.

Once I had Mr. Browne to myself I told him that I had recently seen him on TV performing at the last stop of the Amnesty International Tour: A Conspiracy of Hope held at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, along with other superstars such as Peter Gabriel and U2, and including speeches by the likes of Robert De Niro.

I complimented him that, unlike De Niro, who would get a 10 for sincerity but a lower mark for knowledge of the subject, he scored 10s in both. With this, basically, Browne was off and running: he spoke of a book he held up on the broadcast and gave a tour of Central America Human Rights violations: Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, massacres of entire villages, people held in prison without charges, etc.

I was out of my depth here but the guy was obviously speaking passionately and informatively, so I let him go. Finally, when I had the chance I jumped in with a topic I knew a bit about:

Bobby Skafish: “It’s publicized that you took drugs; it’s publicized that you gave up drugs. Did that help you get out of the introspective (songwriting) thing? Did it help you see people around you a little more clearly? “

Jackson Browne: “It helped everything. A lot of things stopped hurting. For people who grew up in the 60s it was sort of an accepted idea that you could get a lot of self- exploration and a lot of understanding of the world by experimenting with drugs, and of course, there are a lot of casualties from that attitude. And I feel very fortunate that I’m not completely screwed up (laughs).”

We talked about his band and I mentioned the Sun City anti-Apartheid record and the Bread and Roses fair wages causes he had given his time and talent to, concluding “I’d like to thank you publically for thinking about people other than yourself.”

Three years later Jackson and I had a second go-‘round, before his 1989 Poplar Creek Theatre gig. I led, after thanking him for coming on with us live on the Loop, by saying that a lot of people were dissatisfied with his concert three years previous because they wanted to “freeze frame” him the 70s before his music became more political. I supposed I thought I was trying to line up on his side by throwing in “but time moves on, doesn’t it?,” but the whole question was a fail, I can now see. You don’t tell an artist that some people didn’t dig aspects of his show that took place three years ago! Rude. Uncool. Unnecessary. And trying to buddy up by implying those people were the squares, unlike me, was self-serving.

JB: “You know, that might have been happening three years ago. I find it’s always difficult to play the new songs from the album in this kind of setting. Maybe it’s just because it’s beautiful weather and shows they attended ten years ago at Ravinia or places like this. Audiences are more willing to hear songs that they know than songs they haven’t heard, and if the album has just come out as it did then (Lives in the Balance) or has now (World in Motion) it’s a challenge for them and a challenge for me to play the new songs. I actually think it’s going really well. People are receiving the new songs really well.”

BS: ”So you got a mixed bag…”

JB (cutting in): Always. Always. That’s what a show like this is for me, a chance to do songs from all my albums.”

We next touched on a benefit concert Jackson had given recently in Black Hills, South Dakota, benefitting Native Americans. After speaking knowingly about problems on the reservations as well as the friction with white people of the area, he proudly said that it was a sober concert and that the Red and White folk enjoyed it, peacefully, together.

I told Mr. Browne that I had read David Crosby’s autobiography, 1988’s Long Time Gone, and said that Browne “went through hell and high water to try to get David Crosby off drugs, in what’s called an intervention, and he wasn’t ready for it at the time but you put in a very noble effort.”

JB: “A lot of us did. It’s difficult sometimes to remember someone’s better qualities. I mean, he was a mess, in very bad shape, and he continually disappointed people, the friends who loved him the most and his family. He just did some terrible things, self-destructive things, things that were destructive to others.”

BS: “You basically dragged him onto a plane and flew him away and tried to…”

JB: “We basically ambushed him. He was coming home from a small tour he did acoustically and he walked through the door and the house was full of everybody who still cared about him. And after a few hours of trying to sort of wriggle out of it he agreed to go to a hospital and get well. And even as he was agreeing to do that he was sort of planning his escape. It was a pretty fruitless attempt (by his friends). Finally in the end another friend of his and I agreed to fly him down there because we couldn’t get him down there any other way because he was so strung out…and he ended up walking (out) that day.”

BS: “The good news is we eventually had a happy ending on that.”

JB: “The great news is that you should never write anybody off. You should never really give up on people even though I had to stop trying to straighten him out and deal with my own life”  

Jackson Browne had participated, as a background singer, on a 1988 long form video Roy Orbison: A Black and White Night. It was Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Roy Orbison (1936-1988) performing a taped concert backed by an all-star band assembled by musical director T-Bone Burnett: Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello, among others.

As an aside, I recall Chicago photographer Paul Natkin telling me about a Roy Orbison Park West concert during which Orbison was cheered on enthusiastically by David Bowie, members of the Grateful Dead and the Buckinghams, whose schedules somehow allowed them all to be there.

BS: “Was that (making A Black and White Night) as much of a thrill as it appeared to be to us watching?

JB: “It was. It was an incredible experience. Everybody came together with such a feeling of reverence for the guy, and awe, really, to be working with him. At the same time it was not a super-high budget production, it was something people did out of love. Nobody had to be paid –there was some kind of basic fee everybody got, across the board. These were some of the best musicians in America with Elvis’ (Presley) old band. And the thing was, meeting him and rehearsing the little bit we did with him you didn’t really get a sense of the man’s power. I mean you’re rehearsing his old hits but the guy was sort of sand bagging it, sort of playing possum. He wasn’t going to blow his throat out at rehearsal; he looked at the situation and he was such a pro. He’d been there. I think they re-edited it so you didn’t really get to see it quite that much, but people were just blown away by his first song, people on the stage! He opened up and people were just really amazed at the power of the guy’s voice, because he hadn’t been singing that way during rehearsals.”

Funny thing, Jackson Browne was at his most animated while talking about others during the course of our two interviews: Roy Orbison, Central American peasants, Native Americans, David Crosby – those were subjects that made him really come alive.

Note: In the photo of Bobby & Jackson above, that's engineer Kent Lewin looking on in his red and white striped shirt.

Next Week in the Loop Files: Brendan Sullivan