Though my initial interest in journalism began when I was still in middle school, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began taking it seriously. After a few semesters, like many college students, I hit that halfway point where what I was going to do for the rest of my life became a very real and impossible question. Initially, I was told to teach — a valid and respectful profession but ultimately not for me. It may be selfish, but I envision myself growing extremely upset at students that don’t listen to my “schtick.”
Though a history major, I wasn’t married to the fiscal and personal idea of attempting to make a foundation for myself doing historical research. If this was to be a passion of mine, it would come at a later date. For a brief period, I entertained writing novels, the ultimate goal of any idealistic 20-year-old. After trying to write several versions of my magnum opus, I couldn’t kick the boring narrative of boy meets girl.
And then it hit me. Why not combine all of these fluid interests into one super, mega, awesome, rewarding career? Enter stage left: journalism.
Feeling that I was yards behind many of my peers with the same ambitions, I set out to begin building as unique a portfolio. Having grown up entrenched in the counter-cultural punk-rock scene of central New Jersy, I had a laundry list of mildly known entertainers I thought would do an interview. If I reached out to these musical heroes under the guise of a youth building his portfolio, they would be crazy to say “No.” With that I opened my first Word Press account, a blog titled “Medicinal Relevance For You.” Now, three years later, I am still trying to figure out what in the ever-loving hell that meant.
There were dozens of artists I wanted to speak to, large and small; I decided to start large.
After doing a fair amount of Internet sleuthing, I was able to track down the email address of the publicist for musician Henry Rollins. You may recognize Rollins from his appearances on FX’s Sons of Anarchy and the 90′s classic The Chase. You may even recognize him from his many talk-show appearances. To me, however, he was a musician on the same par as John Lennon and Frank Sinatra.
In the 1980s, Rollins sang lead vocals for punk act Black Flag, a band that almost single-handedly created modern Rock N’ Roll. If you listen to Pearl Jam or Metallica, then you are hearing the influences of Black Flag. In 2010, their live videos ignited the stuff of YouTube legend, along with Rollins’ embarrassing treatment of another young interviewer.
Warning: This is not exactly G rated.
Within the music community, Rollins had perfected a persona of a very cranky and often cantankerous presence. I was 20 and he had absolutely no reason to speak with me. Despite my reservations, he somehow, someway, said yes.
The caveat of this proposal was that Rollins had limited time to answer such questions and I would need to submit them almost immediately. The interview would be done via email and Rollins would get back to me the next morning. Over the next few hours I scrambled to learn every single thing I could about Rollins, from his favorite food to what he thought of the Presidential election in 1996. In my madness I became fascinated with an old interview he had done with Canadian comedian/journalist Nardwuar.
This interview amused me. Rollins was clearly annoyed throughout the then 12-year-old interview. I thought that if I threw a random humorous question into the middle of the interview, it may lighten the mood. I crafted it, wrote several more and sent it off feeling very pleased with myself …
Until I realized my big mistake.
To my ultimate horror, I had forgotten to order the questions beyond how I had thought of them. Instead of appearing as a benign aside in the middle of a series of questions, the Nardwuar question, easily the worst, led off the interview. I knew I would pay for this journalistic sin, and I did.
The next morning, I opened my email to see a lengthy response from Rollins and learned a lesson that I have kept in my mind since that October morning in 2010: Know your audience.
My question and Rollins’ response— printed verbatim.
Douglas Barclay: There is an interview you did floating around online with Canadian comic, journalist Nardwuar. Were you aware of Nardwuars antics and interview practices before going into the interview? As someone who wishes to work in the field of journalism I cant quite figure out for myself whether I find him to an exploitative well rehearsed joke or if there is some brilliance into what he does. What is your take?
====== Really? That’s your opening shot? The first thing you ask the subject shouldn’t be the stupidest fucking question the subject has been asked in months. The subject won’t take you seriously for the rest of the interview. Narduwar is a grown man who acts like a child. My take is life is short and one should aim much, much higher.
And there it was. Henry Rollins, a man whose music I had listened, danced and screamed to with my friends for the previous five-years thought I was an asshole.
My heart sank. I couldn’t even read the rest of the interview. It would take a great deal of pacing, thinking and probably crying until I summoned the courage to see if he continued to yell at me. I had made one of the most serious men in music think I was a jerk, and rightfully so.
When I ultimately mustered the courage to read the rest of the interview, I saw Rollins had softened a bit after the first offense. My questions were still pretty terrible, but at least he was polite in giving me answers to questions he had been asked a million times before.
The lesson here? No matter how embarrassing your beginnings, keep at it. Remember the bad times and maybe one day you will be able to look back on them and laugh.
Just like I can.