Gary Graff: Rock 'n' roll observer


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Rock critic, author, mythbuster Gary Graff is about to enter the Hall of Fame. Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- quite yet -- but the Allderdice High School Hall of Fame.

The Squirrel Hill native and Class of '78 alumnus wrote his first music article for the Dice newspaper The Forward, left Pittsburgh for the University of Missouri and went on to a career as a rock journalist published in the Detroit Free Press, The New York Times, Billboard and The Boston Globe, among others.

He has written a handful of books, including "The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen A to E to Z" and the MusicHound Essential Album Guide series. His most recent project is "Rock 'n' Roll Myths: The True Stories Behind the Most Infamous Legends," co-written with Dan Durchholz.

In advance of his visit here, we got a few stories from the Detroit-based writer.

So how was the hip-hop scene at Allderdice in 1974?

[Laughs] You know, I was the OG back in 1974. It's certainly been interesting from afar to watch your alma mater become the hip-hop capitol of the world, which you never would have expected -- although Allderdice was an interesting place when I went to school because we were busing in kids from Lincoln Park and Homewood. It was a real melting pot school at the time, but there was no rap. Rap didn't exist. It was really right after we left, I distinctly remember hearing The Sugarhill Gang in college.

Did you write for the school paper?

The first thing I wrote for The Forward was a preview of a Black Sabbath concert. I did pieces about music along the way, but I also wrote about sports, and I was the ad director, of all things. I think that was one of those cases where I missed a day, and then the next day I came back, I was ad director. I was a newspaper geek at Allderdice.

What was your first job outside of college and how did you parlay that into writing nationally?

I got hired at the Free Press in '82. The nice thing with the Free Press and being part of Knight-Ridder, it was a big newspaper, it was top 10 in circulation, and it had its own newswire that went far and wide. That got my stuff out there, and at the point where we had the strike in '95, and I guess there was a mutual decision for me not to go back, I at least had established a reputation where I could get national work. I just kind of hung up my shingle and went from there.

What have been some of your most memorable interviews?

There was the 1986 one in New York where I made the grave mistake of trying to keep up with Keith Richards, who had arrived with a bottle of Rebel Yell in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other. It was a great interview, but at the end they had to pour me into a cab with my airplane ticket pinned to my front like a little kid.

I had a good time with the Go-Go's in 1982. They were playing a converted castle in Northern Michigan and we all got lost in this castle.

When I talked to Mick Jagger, the first time, and I'm all but 21 years old, he was bouncing off of me. When he wanted to punctuate a remark, he would physically bounce into me and bounce back. Like, really?

It's always cool to talk to a Beatle because they sound like ... the Beatles! It's still striking.

The "Myths" book, were you trying to perpetuate them, debunk them or what?

I think all of the above. Buying into the idea that rock 'n' roll is tailor made for mythology -- it's bigger than life, it's huge, and the personalities in it are so great -- we came up with a long list of some of our favorites and some of the most well-known myths and legends, and just dove into them. Some we debunked, some we supported, and others are left hanging.

Talk about some of the stories and the research you did.

We do the Paul is Dead one, and I had done a long article about that years ago, so I kind of went back to that and refreshed some of the interviews I had done originally. I had a chance to ask Paul about it way back when.

Alice Cooper, when I talked to him for a regular tour stop, we talked about the myth that he killed a chicken on stage [editor's note: Alice threw the chicken out to the crowd, which tore it apart in Toronto in 1969]. We did one about Jerry Garcia, the story that one of his guitars had a compartment built in for his stash. I was able to get a hold of the guy who made the guitar and talk about it.

That was true?

It wasn't there necessarily for his stash. It was there for acoustic resonance, but he had heard that's how Jerry used it, and the current owner of that guitar is Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, so I talked to his guitar guy and he said the first thing they did was go looking for that compartment and any residue they could find.

Kiss, I was able to talk to them about putting their blood in the ink for the comic book, and about Knights in Satan's Service and whether Gene [Simmons] really did have a tongue transplant.

And?

No on the tongue, no on the knights, but yes on the ink in the comic book, which I kind of knew.

Keith Richards, I had talked to about blood replacement and whether he snorted his dad [the ashes] and I got the same gobbledygook answers that are in his book.

I had talked to Lady Gaga about being a hermaphrodite. She isn't or at least says she isn't -- and she did not present any evidence either way.

Talked to Slayer about whether they were Nazis. And they're not.

Got great stuff out of Weird Al Yankovic about being mistakenly related to Frankie Yankovic. He told me about the day Frankie died, being woken up by a press call, offering condolences about this father, who at the time was still alive. That was startling.

Was able to talk to one of The Ohio Players about whether they killed a girl while they were recording 'Love Rollercoaster.' They didn't.

There were quite a few things there had differing stories, like the Led Zeppelin mud shark incident [with a groupie]. There's differing stories depending on who you talk to. In some ways they were the most fun, because there's no definitive answer to them.

The Hall of Fame induction will be held at 7 tonight in the Allderdice auditorium and is open to the public. Mr. Graff is being inducted with baseball writer Murray Chass ('56), cable TV exec Douglas Holloway ('72), Dr. Henry Mankin ('46) and attorney and gay rights advocate Evan Wolfson ('74). The William Fisher Teacher's Award will be presented to longtime teacher Benita "Bunny" Morris.

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.


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