Jim's Reviews > Everyone Loves You When You're Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness

Everyone Loves You When You're Dead by Neil Strauss
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's review
Feb 28, 2011

it was amazing
Read from February 01 to March 01, 2011

Neil Strauss has spent the bulk of his life interviewing musicians and performers for newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Rolling Stone. He's also written a number of bestselling books, most notably The Dirt, which is about the willfully destructive mayhem machine that is Motley Crue. At first, I thought Everybody Loves You When You're Dead was an anthology of Strauss' best interviews, but its something far more complex than that. It isn't a book of interviews so much as a collection of moments--some hilarious, some poignant--organized to illustrate different themes. Most of the "interviews" run for a page or two and the longer ones are chopped up into shorter sections spread throughout a chapter.

At first, I found this to be extremely off-putting. I thought, who wants to read 500 pages of sound bites, even if some of them are funny or outrageous or thought-provoking? Is this the direction in which pop culture writing is headed? Reality Hunger-esque takes chopped up into easily digestible segments for the Maxim crowd? I was particularly perturbed by the longer interviews chopped up into shorter segments. Did Strauss have so little faith in his readers?

It's easy to see why Strauss has enjoyed so much success. He has a knack for getting his subjects to open up. His questions go a lot deeper than “What are your influences?” and “How long have you been singing/rapping/writing music.” Strauss does his homework and often knows details the artists themselves aren’t aware of (or don’t want to be reminded of) like how many years it’s been since they performed in New York or released a new record.

But this is misleading. The most important thing for a music journalist is access. The larger or more prestigious the publication, the easier it is to get access to your subject. I have some experience with this. As someone who has interviewed at least as many bands for punk rock zines and alternative weeklies as are featured in ELYWYD, I’ve been turned away, screwed over, and lied to by publicists who have never heard of zines like Flipside or Razorcake--problems I never had when I was a freelance radio correspondent for National Public Radio. I’ve done 700-word profiles based on a ten-minute phone conversation and long 15,000-word interviews that lasted all weekend.

It’s easy to say that interviews are a pure form: artists in their own words talking about their own experiences. But this, too, is misleading. The writer asks the question that prompts a response. The writer then gets to cherry pick which responses to use, a little from over here, a little from over there. And then they get to stage manage those responses to express the idea the writer wants to convey. These are all things that good interviewer do. (If you’re ever giving an interview a word of advice: ignore the questions. Say what you want to say, and don’t be baited into talking about things you don’t want to talk about it.) The bad interviewers also mislead, misrepresent, and intentionally make their subject look bad and sound like an idiot.

So considering Strauss’ access the shortness of these interviews seemed very suspicious to me. If you follow anyone around for a day, a week, an entire tour, you’ll capture moments when they sound like a moron and seem like a jerk. In the time Strauss allows, anyone can be made to look like anything. It’s not the least bit fair and why so many musicians and artists have a cantankerous relationship with the press or stop giving interviews altogether.

In spite of all these trepidations, I came to really love ELYWYD. Strauss is not a participatory journalist. He prefers to stay out of the story and let his subjects take center stage. He is particularly adept at getting artists to acknowledge the struggle it took to get where they are, a struggle that often overlaps the present moment. Perhaps, I’m naïve, but I was surprised by the extent to which so many of Strauss’ subjects were willing to elaborate on the nature of their struggle. If that sounds a bit twelve-step-ish, so be it, but I found it inspiring to hear the stories of how these artists and performed overcame their worst instincts in order to become (or sustain) the success they enjoy today. Indeed, Strauss concludes his epic series of interviews with eleven guidelines for living a happy life that he has gleaned from interviewing countless famous people, most of whom were miserable.

And then there’s the story of Paul Nelson. A cautionary tale for every artist who has ever felt his or her work didn’t measure up. Nelson was a zine writer, a music label exec, and a writer for Rolling Stone. Strauss considers him the father of rock and roll criticism. Even David Bowie cites him as an early influence. One day Nelson left the office of Rolling Stone and disappeared. Fifteen years later his body was found in his apartment. He’d been working in a video store. He’d starved himself to death. There’s more to the story, and I won’t give the details here, but Strauss cites it as the hardest story he ever had to write, and it’s one that will stay with me for a long time.
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