Bill DeYoung has been writing about music (and getting paid for it, I might add) since his very first story for his hometown newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, at age 17. And for good reason. DeYoung – a writer and editor with the Catalyst – has a knack for asking the right questions, for uncovering unexpected answers, for scratching the reader’s itch. An itch they probably didn’t even know they had.
DeYoung’s third book, I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews, published Aug. 15 by St. Petersburg Press, does just that. The 23 “lost” interviews come from multi-hour conversations captured on cassette tapes and subsequently tossed into a box, and articles long since published and forgotten. The interviews are arranged in chronological order from 1985 to 2003, snapshots in time of music greats from Tom Petty, Bo Diddley and Jethro Tull to Neil Young, Guy Clark and even The Bangles.
The title, I Need to Know is not just an homage to a song by one of his most studied subjects, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it cuts to the heart of who DeYoung is – an insatiably curious person. DeYoung counts his interviews with Sir George Martin (the famed Beatles producer) and country legend Merle Haggard as favorites to this day, and acknowledges that interviews with headliners like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson and Earth, Wind & Fire didn’t make the cut for this collection. Each of the selected pieces had to pass the muster of DeYoung’s harshest critic – himself – satisfying an intense internal drive as a journalist, an interviewer, and perhaps most importantly, a fan driven by his own curiosity.
It’s that fanaticism, that interest, that intense curiosity that makes I Need to Know such a compelling read, from its haunting introduction to its final pages. It is clear that DeYoung knows each of these artists well, and he possesses an uncanny ability to ask telling questions that reveal vulnerable answers from artists in the context of a single record or sociopolitical time. That knack is perhaps best displayed in his interviews with fellow Floridian Petty.
As the culture reporter from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ hometown paper (the Gainesville Sun, where DeYoung worked for 20 years), DeYoung’s access to the rocker was extensive. Of the dozen times DeYoung interviewed Petty, four of those conversations appear in the book, chronicling the meteoric rise of the band and the beginnings of Petty’s solo career in snapshots from 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1993.
“They always had an affection for the old hometown,” DeYoung recalled. “I would always get some kind of access to Tom and to the band … You do these interviews, you sit down for an hour or an hour and a half, you transcribe what you thought was the coolest part for your story.
“But then I’d have this hour-long interview with Petty on a cassette, and I didn’t use most of it. I just threw it in a box.”
That’s where the “lost” interviews started – in a Florida town whose proudest export was the Gators football team, where DeYoung made it his personal mission to be a mouthpiece for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. That familiarity with the band led to the kind of intimate and conversational interviews rarely seen today, in a digital age where deep, long-form interviews have fallen out of favor.
The interviews collected in I Need to Know range from DeYoung’s 20 years with the Gainesville Sun to extensive profiles from a niche international record collector magazine, Goldmine. It was Goldmine, DeYoung says, that served as the primary outlet for his curiosity outside of his daily newspaper reporting.
“There was always another side to me,” he said. “I was always a huge music nerd. And I really, really enjoyed talking to musicians who were favorites of mine – whose music I really felt something for. Music literally was everything to me, always was.”
“So to make myself a) not crazy and b) scratch that particular itch of being such a fan of this music, I would think, ‘What can I do this year?’
“It became about musicians that I liked who didn’t seem to have a lot written about them,” DeYoung explained. “Dave Mason is a great example of that [Mason’s interview appears as the 11th chapter of the book]. I just thought I’d just like to talk to Dave Mason about all of these records that I loved when I was younger. What does this song mean? Why is there a mandolin solo here? Why were you saying these certain things at a certain time in your life?”
“That’s actually the essence of what I Need to Know is. You don’t need anything – but I wanted to know. That’s the venue that Goldmine was,” DeYoung said.
As for why DeYoung, 60, decided that now was the time for these lost interviews to be found, “It just occurred to me that time was passing and quite possibly there were people who might be interested in them. I look at these things, and I think, I guess this is my life’s work. I’m actually really proud of this book.”
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from DeYoung’s introduction, which had me hooked instantly.
“Journalism, of course, is a very real job, and a pretty difficult one, whether you’re an investigative reporter, a news writer, a columnist, a sports analyst, a proofreader or a page designer. Or an arts writer and editor, which is what I became. You have to learn a little about everything in the newsroom, and you have to understand your beat – what you’re writing about, every day, and how it works in your community – because if you don’t, you won’t last long. Newspaper journalism, which was my life for 35 years, is all-consuming.
It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always fun, but I wouldn’t trade the training I got, the experiences I had or the friendships I made during those years.
There were other newspapers, and other music periodicals, and in the 2000s I started getting hired as a liner-note writer for CD reissues. At the end of that decade I began working on Skyway, my first book, and there have been life and job changes aplenty – lots of water under the bridge, as it were – since.
The artists’ lives and careers moved on too, of course. Think of these interviews as snapshots. Ghosts in the flashbulb pop. We were all so much older then. We’re younger than that now.”
I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews is available via Amazon, and all quality booksellers.