Interview Mag - Boz Scaggs Interview

Above And Beyond The Middle Man

[Tinkerbelle Interviews Boz - Interview Mag 1980]

Boz Scaggs... I wanted to interview him for his name alone. I knew there had to be something amazingly cool attached to the label. And I was right. He is, without question, a man with chariz.

His music states in very clear terms and sounds: Here's a guy who doesn't write a check with his name that his act can't cash. And his personality - gentle, serene, gracious, amusing and understated - would make any woman proud to be his armpiece for a night. He lights ladies cigarettes like a conditioned reflex (even for chainsmokers!), and he'll hold doors, coats and your attention for hours. If he's bored, only he knows it.

Boz and his music are two of the greatest things that ever happened to the music industry. He wins GRAMMY's like most people get phone bills and he sells records by the trillion. Face it, the king of blue-eyed soul can do no wrong. Even though his phenomenal success in 1976 with SILK DEGREES was followed by what was considered disenchantment in the form of DOWN TWO THEN LEFT, the album, in retrospect, is still cranking up sales and airplay. Boz, however, still considers "Down Two Then Left" a letdown for all concerned.

"That album confused a lot of people. And to tell you the truth, it was confusing for me to make it."

Whatever the consequences of his weak follow-up, Scaggs has now more than compensated for the possible disappointment suffered by his fans and followers with his new smasharooney, MIDDLE MAN. Like Silk Degrees it's already shooting up the charts and as of this writing, has sprung two off-shoot hit singles.

Apart from his music, Boz Scaggs has become an intriguing enigma out of his own mysterious style. It's rare that a class act will emerge from a hard rock background, let alone be interesting. Part of the ingredients comprising the man's smooth appeal are his meticulous professionalism, his sophisticated but real life-style, and his personal friends which are refreshingly not restricted (as in the case of most rock stars we've known and loathed) to musicians. A highly trustworthy inside source (his wife) cited the perfect example when she told me the only guest present at the Scaggs' wedding was HUNTER THOMPSON. Need I say more ? Mr. Boz Scaggs. So cool, he's hot.

The bulk of our conversation took place at one of those Upper East Side restaurants specializing in attitude a la carte.

It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr Scaggs. I feel like a very lucky woman.
"Really? And how should I address you?"
My real name is Veronica, if you prefer.
"Maybe I'll call you Ronnie as in the Ronnettes."
I would have given my left anything to be a Ronnette. But not a brunette. I've heard, incidentally, an interesting rumor about your name.
I heard you named yourself after heroin.
"That's a good one."
I used to spend a lot of time just thinking about your name. I thought, "If he's into alcohol he could call himself Booze Scaggs."
"You have some wonderful ideas about me. But you do know where rumors like that come from, now, don't you?"
Yeah, from junkies.
"Well, a black cat came up to me once and said: "That's such a hip name, man." He was thinking, of course, of boss scag. And the song Lowdown had a lot of people thinking I was a black singer. It was very popular with street people."
I also thought from hearing that song that you were black, but I'm not too disappointed that you aren't.
"Why thank you" (He says it with a slight, laid back Southern drawl.)

Did your parents call you "Boz" ?
"They do now. But they named me Bosley. And somewhere along the line when I was in school Bosley got shortened to Boz."
A very likely story.
"Well, its not too corny to not be true. But no one is really sure about my name because the guy from school who started it is now deceased."
I see. Very conveniently deceased, so we'll never know for sure if he was a heroin dealer.
"Where do I start? Listen, I'll just keep bouncing around with you. All right?"
Sure, Boz. We'll find our space.
"Oh. So you've been to California."
Yes, and obviously so have you.
"I'm gonna get something because my nerves are a little... lets order some drinks."

I seconded that emotion and we ordered the first of several hard-hitting vodkas. The party was just about to begin, and I didn't even know it. Boz Scaggs, it turned out, is a man full of surprises.

In addition to your name, your lyrics are pretty hip, too. Do you have any interesting lies to tell me about them?
"Should I be specific, or would you prefer one sweeping fib?"
I like specific lies. Tell me how you stole, I mean composed, the "jones for this, jones for that" lyrics for Lowdown.
"I can't believe you've actually listened to my music."
Just once when I was too lazy to get up and change the station.
"I'm very flattered. But, again, the unfortunate truth is, with that song, the lyrics are just street. I write music first when I write a song, and I hear the rhythm first. Then I get chord patterns, and in setting the chord patterns, I set a mood or an emotional pattern. And then I write the words. With that particular song the rhythm came first, and the nature of the way that track was laid out required that it have a kind of dialog spoken to a certain meter."

Boz and I are constantly interrupted by a French waiter who, despite Boz's celebrity status and my good looks, seems to want our table and our absence. We were peasants no matter how you looked at it. So Mr Scaggs very tactfully suggested we relinquish our table and as much negative attitude as possible and settle near the bar which might make us feel more at home.

Seated at a table near the bar we settled into two more double vodkas and tried to remember what we were talking about. Where were we, and when is the firing squad coming to collect us? (Boz waited a few beats, pensively trying to tie his threads of thought together.)

"Oh yes, I was trying to explain how the street jargon for Lowdown came about. The rhythm and the whole musical build-up was black idiom, so it had to talk black. And when you talk black, you walk a narrow line if you're a white boy. So you've got to know what you're talking."

Like "don't write a check with your mouth that your ass can't cash"? "Precisely".

Did you ever think of doing anything with samba or incorporating any Latin rhythms into your music ?
"Not that much. But I'm going to start listening to it more. I heard something recently that I liked, and I wonder if it's what you're thinking about."
Actually I was thinking in terms of you developing your own form of samba and calling it Boz-a-nova.
"I like it, I like it. How'd you like to be my A & R person?"
Oh, Boz. If only you weren't kidding. (I suddenly felt like one of those women in a Roy Lichtenstein comic-strip blow-up with an enormous comic-strip tear rolling down my cheek and the words in the bubble over my head reading: "If only he weren't kidding.") Swallowing my foolish womanly pride we resume our talk:

Uh, and how do you feel about reggae?
"People have been trying to do reggae and ska for a long time. And a lot of jazz people have picked up on that wave. Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, John Coltrane - and then it just subsides. It comes and goes. And there's a Latin thing that just keeps coming into American music. Herb Alpert caught the wave of it. It's real interesting that Jimmy Cliff picked up on Herb Alpert because so many musicians have been trying to capture Rasta for years. But when you try to pin point it or define it in our terms you get lost very quickly, unless you get very much into the purity of it. A lot of new wave and a lot of Punk Rock came right out of that Rastafarian influence. And those people are very single-minded and extremely violent about what they believe in and what they think. And that's where a lot of Punk and New Wave is coming from - a very basic, singular political violence like, "we want out". The system sucks and everything is evil except our new awareness."

Boz punctuates his spiel by making a gagging sound out of the intensity of all this intenseness. Laughing at his own straight rap he asks:
"You know whut aye mean?" in a Cockney accent.

He ordered more vodkas to celebrate the fact that we could still talk. Boz would be the last to admit it, but right now he reigns as the Music Man of the Moment. It started really happening for him after the release of his super-cool, Grammy winning Silk Degrees album. Some people were buying the record just for the Moshe Brakha cover which also won a Grammy. If one picture can tell a thousand words, this one's a novel. Anything can be read into the album's photos from autoeroticism to zoopsia. Boz's image seemed to go through a drastic change during this period; he'd gone from hard-rock funk to Dapper Dan smooth. He gets kind of hedgy when you bring up the subject of his new style. Apparently, his public is more aware of it than he is. Unless, of course, he's holding out on us.

When I saw your famous Black-Out concert (New York's black-out of 1977 occurred during Boz's show at Lincoln Center), I heard a few people commenting that you looked like Halston.
"I know, I've seen some pictures of him, and I know what they mean."
You don't sound like him though.
"What do I sound like?"
The way you address your audience adds to your image of Mr. Sensual; aloof and cool.
"I'm not aware of that image. And if I thought that was happening, I'd probably try to go the other way real fast."
But don't you think that's what becomes legend most?

"I never thought of my career in terms of cultivating an image at all. I haven't done that many interviews, and in the last few years there's been this recurring theme, particularly on the West Coast about my so-called new image. People ask me: 'Why have you changed? Why the silk suits?' And I'll be thinking: 'What are they talking about? What silk suits?' The insinuation is that it's the result of a conscious image-shaping effort on my part."

Maybe they can't comprehend your evolvement. It seems to me that most rock stars keep themselves limited to one sphere.
"Some of them think it's image first and what it's all about is a design of how to be a rock star."
You could write a How-To-Be-A-Rock-Star book.
"I probably could, though I could think more of all the reasons not to be one, and perhaps How Not To Be A Rock Star would be a more appropriate title."

Scaggs' ego is packed in a very inconspicuous place. But anyone who's taken a look at any of his last four album covers is gonna think the man is definitely trying to get some verrry hot and cool message across. I probed him (in the shins with my Frederick's of Hollywood backless leopard spikes) to fess-up and at least acknowledge an attempt at a cool-hot sexy projection.

"When we talk about the Silk Degrees cover, we talk in terms of it going hand-in-hand with the music. I think it should be thought of in sexy terms or an even better word is "provocative". And the music should be representative of the cover. It could also be amusing or standoffish because my back is turned on a girl. I think it's provocativein that respect. I'm very aware of styles and images, but primarily musical styles. The style of the Silk Degrees cover worked well with the music. But the music, of course, came first."

What do you say to the review of your latest album Middle-Man in Billboard magazine that stated, and I'll quote, "The one disturbing note is the cover, which seems to turn the album's title into a dirty, sexist joke?"
"I loved that review. I think she gave the album a marvellously intelligent review. And she seemed to know what she was talking about, music wise. But it's never occurred to me that any of those album covers are sexist."

That's a very clever answer, Boz. But you don't expect me to believe it for a minute, do you? (I whipped into a furious feminist and did a flawless imitation of Charles Laughton screaming at Marlene Dietrich during the courtroom scene in Witness For The Prosecution. "Why don't you just admit that you're a chronic LIAR!")

(Boz, ever so cooly.) "Maybe I should just think about it objectively to give you and steamed-up ladies like you the truth as real as I can possibly see it."
Perhaps you should.

"Perhaps I should also order you another drink. You seem a little excited."

Well, put yourself in my backless spikes, and perhaps you'd understand what we gals go through. Clever fellow that he is, Boz took this very timely opportunity to credit his wife, Carmella, as being an influence in his current image. Mrs Scaggs graced the cover of his Slow Dancer album, looking like one of those devastating sirens from the 40's who could total an entire city with one shrug of a quilted satin shoulder pad. It just goes to prove that behind every debonair man lurks a gorgeous woman in satin shoulder pads.

Do groupies keep more of a distance when guys like you are married?
"Well, usually where I travel everybody knows I am married. But you still see it around. No matter what society you're coming from, whether it be Paris, New York, San Francisco or London, you can spot the dames that are out there looking for that next possible step. And some of them pull it off in spite of general knowledge."

How did you meet your wife?
"Oh, through the most normal circumstances in San Francisco."
And can San Francisco be normal?
"Actually it's quaint. I guess that's a better word for it."
I see, so you met under the most quaint circumstances, and she was blank and you were blank....
"It was blank at first sight. And so we blanked all night and she said no one had ever blanked her quite like I did."
So you really know how to fill in the blanks, huh?
"I filled in all the necessary blanks as far as she was concerned."
The woman in the Roy Lichtenstein cartoon was thinking: "Them's the breaks" as I was saying: I wish you all the best blanks in the world.
"Well, blank-you very much".

The Scaggs, incidentally, are the proud parents of two baby Scaggs-in-blankets. And if that doesn't fill in the blanks, what can? This naturally called for a little celebration. Boz insisted on more drinks. "Now let's get one on!" Is how the proud papa put it. Trying not to be rude I shied away from this round. I'm not much of a drinker or drugger and, of course, was participating in all this imbibing for my art. It turned out I had to be talked into my next drink, and my arm still aches from Boz twisting it as a crew of sadistic French waiters nailed me to the floor and poured yet another vodka down my ever-resisting throat. Wow, did that taste good! (A girl can always change her mind, can't she?) Boz ordered another round for the hallucinating people sitting at our table.

Back to show biz, Boz. Don't you think your voice has changed, even if your drinking problem hasn't?
"You mean from the first album?"
No. From your injuries in the war.
"Ha ha ha. Sure. It's mostly because my attitudes and my influences have changed so much. It's almost impossible for me to listen to my old material."
I know what you mean. I go through that when I look at my old movies. What are you aware of when you listen to your old stuff?
"It's very distracting to hear my old albums. Now I'm more aware of timbre and tone and pitch."

Did you develop a new vocal technique to achieve your new voice?
"Where that comes from is something like a night on the road when your voice gets completely closed-up. I can remember nights when I had to do things in order to hit notes I knew I wasn't going to be able to hit. The other part of it is by the nature of the way I write, I do the music first in the studio. I do the rhythm tracks in a certain key, thinking it's going to be the right key. Just from singing along by myself I'll try it on the piano, and if I feel I have to move it a little bit, I'll change the keys in order to record it. But what happens frequently is I'll record the song in a key that I can sing it in, and then I'll do notes that are not natural to my throat, and I have to learn how to do that. Well, doing all this in the studio is fine because I can take hours working on it to get the inflection right or to perform them right. But when it gets time to do them live you have to learn how to hit notes and make phonetic moves which you wouldn't ordinarily be able to do. I wasn't aware of those things until the producer of my last album (Bill Schnee and Middle Man) started talking about it as though I knew what he was talking about. But I didn't. And he made me aware of it."

Usually an artist who's talented in one area can cut it in other aspects of the arts. So you do anything on the side? "I wrote a screenplay."
Oh, great. So tell me about it and I'll print it and somebody can read it and knock it off!
"Okay. It's about this... (more blanks)."

Boz is also in the process of writing his first film score for Robert Towne's new film. Some of Towne's credits include the screenplays for Chinatown and Shampoo. In all embarrassed humility I can't remember anything more Boz told me about this film, or what else Mr Towne has done, and I stand accused to getting too wrecked for total recall while on the job. Is my pink slip showing?

Over some strawberry vodkas (never mix, never worry!) Boz filled me in on his other hobbies: Travelling macho-style and getting it on with (I should have guessed) Hunter (Just-Thank-God-You're-Alive) Thompson.

Among his world exploits was a heavy and extended trip through Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. As anyone who has ventured through the old Kush and retained enough coherent sense to recall it will tell you, only a moron or a truly adventurous man would attempt such a life-staking schlep. Boz, of course, fits into the latter category. Having already made the same journey myself on foot (Boz went in a van - he's not that stupid), I was more curious to hear what Hunter and Boz do on the boys' night out.

Does Hunter like your music?
"You never heard? He's tortured disc jockeys to play my records. No, actually, I don't think Hunter likes my music all that much. We're just friends. I think he's one of the ultimate survivors. Though he has this notion that I'm the one who's gonna survive. He and I are joining the ultimate Death Squadron. (Some men have to kill themselves to prove a point.) I've been with Hunter on some fairly evil runs."

(The blonde in the Lichtenstein is now sighing" "What a man!").
How does a night with Hunter compare with this?
"With Hunter you feel like everybody's in the same boat and you're floating down this doomed river while he keeps setting up situations. And all I think I'm doing is hanging onto the edge of the boat trying to survive it. And to try to remember any of these experiences as a writer and put it in any kind of context seems totally impossible. But Hunter is not only aware of what's going on, the time it transpired, and all the events that have taken place, he's able to RECOUNT it all afterwards. He has an amazing capacity 'cause while everything seems whoozey and beyond the fringes of consciousness, Hunter is right on top of it. But like I told you from the beginning, Hunter is one of the ultimate survivors, and I think he recognizes that same instinct in me. When Armageddon comes down I'll look to Hunter for support, and he knows he can count on me for certain things. I don't hang on his written words, and he doesn't hang on my music, although I do think that what vitality I find in his writing is very real. But it wasn't his writing that attracted me to him. And it wasn't my music that attracted him to me. Whatever that attraction may be."

Is he attractive? (The Lichtenstein wants to meet him.)
"Haven't you ever been around him?"
Guess not, I'm sure I'd remember a man like that no matter what I was on.
"He's like a magnet. I don't know anyone who's ever been around him who's found him unattractive. He has an amazing vitality."
How would you describe it?
"He has an incredible nervous energy. He talks real fast. And there's always an idea. Always a plan. Always something going on. He creates these amazing undercurrents like if he were here right now he would transform this room into a marvellous conspiracy (we weren't doing so bad ourselves with the French waiters) and therefore there are things that have to be done, and there are instruments that have to be undertaken to carry on here. And throughout all the insanity that may occur, I have implicit faith in Hunter's ability to take command or control whenever it needs to be done."

We toast to Hunter, and as if to verify his qualifications as a member of the Death Squadron, Boz mustered up an impressive tone of sobriety and lucidity. We talked music. He lent a sympathetic ear to my brain-picking rap about how thrilled I am to be studying music with Ann Ruckert - the absolute best teacher in the world, after wasting years being ripped off by mediocre coaches. He told me Nancy Wilson was one of his favorite all-time female vocalists. He asked me if I was familiar with her stuff.
Does Howdy Doody have a wooden tush?
"Do you know You Can Have Him?"
I sang the song in answer. He cupped his ear as he listened. Boz hasn't been spared the recurring symptoms of damaged eardrums from too many over-volumed stands on stage.
As we crooned: Guess Who I Saw Today? together, the broad in the Lichtenstein exclaimed: "I thought things like this only happened in comic books!"

My biggest rush next to meeting Boz was getting on a real-life musical exchange with the smoothest man in show biz. Apart from my lifetime dream to be a James Brown dancer, this was the cat's meow. But even the cat's meow comes with a catch. I was so embarrassed after getting too carried away in the presence of a Great that I felt like crawling into that little hole in my (now) vodka martini! But superman that he is, old Boz pulled me out with the most soothing dialog this side of satin goose-down pillow.
"Once you enter into the realm of musicians, you're in this other world, and you enter into this unspoken democracy, this little system that means that anything you do - in terms of music - is acceptable. All musicians are searching and trying to find. The only way you can come into real contact with another musician is by realizing that nobody really knows where you're going or what you're saying. Personally, every moment you just don't know where the next note it. I'm talking about if you're doing a standard song that everybody knows. The way that you play or perform that song, you have to give absolute and total awareness to whoever you're performing it with whether you're a singer, a drummer, a saxophone player or whatever. You automatically just give. There are no qualifications. Just total sympathy and total openness. Because you've entered that realm as a musician among other musicians. There's no criticism. There are no bonds. There are no hidden inhibitions. There are no peccadilloes hidden from anyone. You're just there. If you're a true musician you're totally acceptable. The only place you see jealousy or criticism amongst musicians is on the entertainment level."

Boz is off and running and I decided to leave him there. He wasn't just speaking to me and the Roy Lichtenstein , he was addressing novices, students and those seriously attuned to the special world of music. And he was talking from his heart and his first-hand experience of earning and appreciating acceptance as a true musician and professional. His knowledge and encouragement have a sobering but soothing appeal. He speaks his musical-philosophy like a man begging to be heard because he knows that what he's saying is the absolute God's-honest truth. He may go to heaven and get to take all his favorite toys with him.

"On a pure musical level you've entered into a realm that most other human beings have never experienced on any other social level. You are absolutely pure. You can do no wrong. If you're a true musician , you're carte blanche. You can do whatever you want to do because you're learning and you're trying, and you're always reaching for something better. If you're in tune, or of you're out of tune you have a certain musical knowledge. When I'm talking to Herbie Hancock, Herbie understands that I know things about my voice that he's trying to learn about certain notes on his piano. And I understand that there are certain inflections and changes
that he's trying to learn."
I've observed that rapport, and it's not to be believed.
"The rapport is - I can walk into any club that has almost any form of music and be accepted. I've walked into cafes in Afghanistan, India, Mexico and Russia and once I identify myself as a musician to other musicians the barriers are instantly all down. There are no boundaries amongst those who have gone through the growing pains of the process of learning music. And you, as a musician, are sympathetic, in turn, to anybody who even attempts it or shows any desire to learn about it. Does that make you feel any better?"

Yes, darling (The Lichtenstein dame has completely taken over.)
"What you need is a drink. But maybe we should go somewhere else."
I know, the vodkas are kinda weak here.
Boz asks for the check with our food bill of $1.38 and $30,000 bar tab. He pays it, of course, and not by check. We left the marvellous pretension of French accents and headed uptown to Holbrook's where people like us are understood - even if we happen to be Americans. Booze Scaggs and Veronica Vodka made a smashing entrance. But after all that hard work we felt entitled to a little night cap.


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