When you tell an outsider that you’re “covering the Grammys,” it sounds pretty swank. Before I did it for the first time, I imagined a lot of glamour, some rubbing elbows and, above all, music. But the reality is a little less sparkly. Those of us not covering the red carpet are planted in a hotel conference–looking room next door to the Staples Center, and can’t see the proceedings firsthand. Our windows to the Grammy action are four TV monitors placed throughout the Staples Center Wachovia Room, which could easily pass for a Hampton Inn in Chino. Six rows of tables are arranged in a semicircle facing a stage, on which Grammy winners are corralled. They’ve got big smiles on their faces, but their audience, a bunch of print journalists in a digital world, consists of one of the most joyless groups of lifers you’ll ever see. Peppered throughout, of course, are enthusiastic exceptions, but the overall vibe of this room is … dead. No wonder print is on the ropes. We reporters are bores. A dying industry covering another dying industry, like a bunch of telegraph operators sending missives about a carburetor convention.
But an electric jolt shoots into this sad-sack crowd when word starts spreading that Rihanna has canceled her performance, and is perhaps — the rumor at the time went — in the hospital. A few tables over, someone makes a phone call, then says, “Chris Brown apparently beat her up,” and everyone starts surfing for news — (at least those with Internet connections; the Grammys charge something ridiculous, like $400 per person, for a DSL line, which I refuse to pay).
Such news about two of America’s biggest pop stars doesn’t exactly engender joviality, for sure.
In such a dead-eyed world, musicians and producers are beacons of light. Throughout the day — which begins with the nontelevised awards portion at 1 p.m. — they walk onto the pressroom stage 15 or so minutes after their acceptance speeches, giddy to be winning an award considered the pinnacle of their profession, only to sit before a roomful of people bruised by layoffs, worried about their paychecks and smarting from the back seat they take to the television journalists, who get first dibs on interviews 10 minutes earlier in the TV room. It ends up being a long day. Or, as director Jason Reitman, co-winner for Best Soundtrack Compilation recording for Juno, keenly observes after answering some of the first questions of the night: “Have fun interviewing the next 120 winners.”
And then it becomes clear why we’re here: Musicians and those who record them are, for the most part, interesting people. Over the next five hours a line of incredible minds both known and unknown tell captivating stories, as they are paraded before us to talk about their year. Vance Powell, winner with Joe Chiccarelli and Jack White for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, talks about Nashville’s studio scene, and why the city is producing not only great country but great rock in 2009. Steven Lance Ledbetter, owner of the amazing reissue label Dust to Digital — a small concern out of Atlanta, which won the award for Best Historical Album — discusses the creation of Art of the Field Recording Vol. 1: Fifty Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum, about finding a man who had been recording music throughout the Midwest for the past half-century. Then Rosenbaum steps up and explains how he’d first started when he was young, learning the banjo while listening to Pete Seeger, then deciding to travel and record musicians.
“I went out and met migrant farmers in the blueberry fields of Michigan,” Rosenbaum recalls, “and blues singers in my hometown of Indianapolis and banjo pickers in Kentucky, first out of passion and interest for myself, not for any particular reason or project or release — though, over the years, some of them did get released.” That kind of stuff is what makes the backstage Grammys worthwhile.
It’s also revealing to learn that the winners of Best Recording Package, Bruce Duckworth, Sarah Moffatt and David Turner, for work on Metallica’s Death Magnetic, are new to the field of CD design; this was their first CD package project. They talk about the size and shape of a disc, and the challenge of creating for an iTunes-size square. Their company, Turner Duckworth Design, in fact, deals mainly in brand identity, and has worked magic for Coca-Cola (the Tab energy-drink can), Amazon and Howling Monkey Black & Tan Ale, among others. They discuss the thought process behind the design, which looks both like a coffin with dirt surrounding it and, rather disturbingly if you think about it, either female genitalia or its neighbor to the south (exactly what they’re trying to say about coffins and vaginas/anuses, they do not answer). They beat L.A.’s decidedly un-coffinesque No Age, who were nominated for their design of Nouns.
Paul McCartney comes out supercool and chatty. I ask him about his plans for Coachella — how the gig came about, and what kind of set he may do. He says he agreed to play Coachella after he was asked because he heard it was a cool thing to do. As to his set, Sir Paul says that he usually decides that stuff a few days before the gig.
John Linnell of They Might Be Giants talks about the rationale behind the band’s move to the children’s market: “It’s crazy money!” he exclaims. “Those kids are loaded.”
Peter Bogdanovich discusses winning the Grammy for Best Long-form Music Video, his four-hour documentary of Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream. Says the director of The Last Picture Show of his rock project: “It’s longer than Gone With the Wind, but it plays.”
We learn from a dashing, best-dressed award–winning will.i.am that the new Black-Eyed Peas album will be called The End, and will feature a song unimaginatively titled “Boom Boom Boom” (and apparently not a John Lee Hooker cover).
Natalie Cole sits down and talks about heroin addiction, her search for a kidney after contracting hepatitis C, and the offers she’s had from fans volunteering to actually donate an organ to her. That’s the power of music: to be so moved and connected to a performer that you’d actually give a piece of your body to them. Would anyone in this room do that?
I’d donate a kidney to Katy Perry after her little performance in the pressroom. Say what you will about her music and what she represents; anyone with the nerve, confidence and ambition to plant her body inside a giant banana and descend onto the national stage to sing a semiprurient song about hot lesbian action is inherently more interesting than the grunts who write about her. After the show, Perry is incredibly charming, forthright and thoughtful. That huge smile on her face and that insanely bodacious body, combined with wit and natural grace, make the room a million times brighter than it had been moments before.
She ends her conversation with thoughts on traveling with the Warped Tour this summer, and how people had dismissed her as being underprepared to rock on that particular stage. She brushes them aside with a clean little exclamation point: “I’m at the Grammys, so fuck them!”