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Behind the Curtain: The Challenge of Interviewing Robert Fripp of King Crimson
For this month’s Behind the Curtain, Steve Rosen details the trials and tribulations of interviewing one of rock’s most unique personalities…
Robert Fripp conjured music with King Crimson that was strange, haunting and disturbing—not unlike the man himself. A Crimson song was unsettling—so was Fripp. A King Crimson album was dark—the stuff nightmares were made of—and Fripp was the boogeyman inside that bad dream.
His staccato guitar lines bit at your flesh like some unseen thing as the mournful Mellotrons washed over you in a way that was suffocating. For all the world, it felt like you couldn’t catch your breath and that’s probably exactly the effect the Crimson King was looking for.
I was that drowning man 40 years ago when I interviewed Robert Fripp for Guitar Player magazine. For over an hour, I gulped for air like a goldfish dumped from its bowl. Fripp sucked all the oxygen from the room and left me gasping.
After leaving, I felt drained, disillusioned and disappointed. I loved King Crimson and had been anxiously looking forward to talking with Fripp. But he didn’t turn out to be the person I thought he’d be. He was rude and dismissive towards me and in thinking about that moment now, I still experience a shortness of breath and lightness of head.
In the days following the interview, I kept thinking back on it and realized there were a lot of bottled-up emotions. There were things I wanted to say to Fripp but obviously couldn’t during the formal confines of an interview. I wasn’t his friend, crew member or fellow musician simply having a conversation. I couldn’t tell him to f—k off though I absolutely wanted to. And I wasn’t going to gather up my cassette and walk out of the room 15 minutes into the interview.
I was there as a professional rock journalist and had a job to do. Even though it took every ounce of energy in me not to reach across the table at which we were sitting and rip out his throat.
So in some weird way, I found I could exorcise those demons—if temporarily—by muttering his name over and over. It was like some incantation meant to release evil spirits: FrippFrippFripp. I did that repeatedly and found some small amount of solace in the act. However, at a point in time, the word itself began taking on a strange aspect. At first I thought it sounded like the squawks an angry bird might make when poked by a stick: fripp frippfripp fripp.
Or the squeal that came from a mouse when cornered by a threatening cat. Or even the hushed and deadly sound a bullet fired from an AK47 with a silencer would create as it rushed through the charged air at 2,000 feet per second in search of a target: frrrrrrrrrrrrppppppp.
Was I going crazy? Possibly. Was I angry? Absolutely. Then it came to me—I was that cornered bird and that trembling little mouse. And that bullet? It was looking for me. Fripp had crawled under my skin and made me feel vulnerable and defenseless. That was the aftermath of my meeting with Robert Fripp and here’s what happened several days earlier when we first came face-to-face.
We met in late 1973 at a hotel somewhere in West Hollywood—difficult to remember where—after I’d pitched the story idea to Guitar Player. This was an interview I wanted to do and was probably one of the first two or three stories I had done for the instrumental magazine. Upon arriving at his hotel room, the then 28-year old guitarist seemed cordial enough if a bit distant.
Certainly we must have shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. There was a table in his room so I sat on one side and Robert sat on the other side facing me. After setting up my cassette player, adjusting the microphone, and laying out my notes, I began.
The questioning would have started with queries about when he first started playing and why he picked up the guitar. His responses were thorough but what immediately hit me was how mechanically he delivered them. They were such measured tones that it sounded like the world’s most boring history teacher reciting the names and dates of the most boring battle ever fought.
At first I thought he was just having some fun and would break out of the monotone and continue in his normally-inflected voice but there was no other voice.
He spoke like a robot or an alien recently landed on Earth who didn’t know the language. Where certain words and syllables were meant to be accented or emphasized, there was nothing. No modulation of the voice; no rising or lowering of pitch. It was impossible to tell whether Fripp was expressing joy, sadness, triumph or defeat. In the most proper of English accents, he had a complete absence in his speech of all the natural mechanisms and patterns human beings used in conversations every day.
Everywhere except in that West Hollywood hotel room back in 1973.
That was unsettling. There was a sense of Fripp making fun of you though you couldn’t be sure. Even when saying something mildly amusing or borderline humorous, he never laughed. A smile might appear but it always seemed more confrontational than charming.
Still, I understood people had certain ways of talking and different speech patterns, so I just chalked it up to the way guitar players from Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England [Fripp’s hometown] spoke. It was uncomfortable but after all I was in a room with Robert Fripp, the Crimson King himself, talking about music and sharing ideas. So I took a deep breath, steeled myself and forged forward. What happened next, however, was beyond any inner resolve I thought I had. It was my last breath—the bullet had found its mark.
As I glanced down at the pages of typed interview notes to look for my next question—this was way, way before computers—Fripp reached across the table and placed his right hand on top of them. He began sliding the typewritten sheets across the table. When they were in front of him, he turned them around and began reading them. My mind couldn’t process what was happening. Maybe I was still oxygen-starved. Then I thought, “He just wants to look at some of the questions to see what’s coming and then he’ll slide them back to me.”
But that’s not what happened. Not by a long shot. That would have been bad enough but it went way beyond there. To my complete and utter astonishment and incredulity stretched to its limits, I watched and listened as Robert Fripp began reading the questions. Still scrambling to hang onto some last vestige of sanity, I sat there motionless as Fripp’s mechanical voice emptied into the space around me. Then the totality of the scene really hit me: I was sitting there like a lump of flesh while King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp read my personal notes and recited them back to me.
I was horrified, astonished and rendered mute though I may have let a couple silent FrippFripps escape my lips. This had never happened before and would actually never happen again. Fripp was the only person in 2,000 or so interviews who would ever do this.
Reading everything I’d written verbatim would have been bad enough but he wasn’t even doing that. He was paraphrasing and editing them in such a way as to minimize their full import. I’d spent days putting the interview together—researching, listening to music, analyzing—and Fripp managed to reduce all those hours of work into meaningless rubble. My house of words came tumbling down.
The height of disrespect, it began to completely shut me down at that point. Fripp cared so little for who I was as a rock journalist—or simply as a human being with feelings—that it made me stop caring. He couldn’t see that he was hurting and embarrassing me and if he did realize it, it wasn’t enough to make him stop. He continued to read the questions in that dead monotone and for my part I basically just sat there like a zombie.
Simultaneously trying to ignore the sound of Fripp’s voice while at the same time not wanting to miss anything he said, I was half in the room and half out.
As the words continued to rush from Fripp’s mouth, I began to feel more and more lightheaded. I was drowning. Gasping for air, I could feel the dark waters rising. The icy fingers gripped my ankles…rose to my knees…surrounded my waist. Just when I thought I’d finally succumbed to the relentless torrent of verbal abuse, a hand reached below the surface of my consciousness and pulled me up. I heard Fripp flatly recite, “Was King Crimson a serious band?”
I distinctly remembered writing that question several days earlier and had been anxiously anticipating the guitar player’s response. Though his answer was nothing like what I thought it would be, it did provide the life preserver I’d been waiting for.
“I don’t take anything seriously,” is what he said and in that moment I understood—or at least thought I did—what made Robert so Frippish. It wasn’t that he was trying to engage me in a war of words—every time I responded to one of his robotic retorts, he’d challenge me with a confusing splash of ideas and theories—or was even specifically looking to demoralize me.
The truth was Fripp didn’t care about the interview—or anything else as it turned out except for magic, ladies and music—and this was simply his way of participating in a verbal exchange. No more and no less. I had assumed the lifeless sound of his voice and his perfunctory attitude was a personal attack on me. It wasn’t.
Knowing this and holding onto it like a life jacket in stormy seas, I was able to endure the rest of the interview. He remained determined to undermine any comments I made in an assault of verbal volleys. Robert Fripp was an extremely bright and articulate young man. His reasoning came from somewhere deep within and in fact so deeply inside him were his philosophies unearthed that most of the time I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. Not a single idea of what he was saying.
Still, when he attacked you with adjectives and adverbs, you felt moronic.
Here were several of his comments.
“I’m not particularly interested in music,” he said. “I’ll describe my life if you like as mainly concerned with three things: I live for magic and ladies and music expresses my interest in both. However, on one level I suppose I am a guitarist although that doesn’t particularly interest me very much either. Most guitarists are interested in guitar playing and not music, which is why so many guitar players are quite boring. In fact all the best guitar players are not what I would consider to be guitar players but musicians.”
In responding to one of my written questions, “Why did you pick up the guitar and not an oboe?” Fripp answered, “No reason that I can think of. One looks back and views one’s life and realizes in certain situations one has been guided without wishing to be too melodramatic or silly about it. One finds one was guided in certain situations from time to time and the best thing to do is to follow the direction you think is right. I often find that one generally does things for completely the worst of motives. For example, you might take up guitar playing to be a star and all the reasons you suggest to me, I suggest are completely worthless [I’d talked about how a successful guitar player traveled the world, had respect and made a good living]. I have no doubt you know that too. However, I find as I say that some of the things I’ve done for the very worst of motives, as soon as one gets into a situation the original motives are dropped. And one realizes for whatever reason one is being motivated to put oneself in a certain position.”
When he wasn’t philosophizing in some obscure manner, Fripp was attacking. Nothing or nobody was safe.
On guitars and guitar players: “I’ve never really listened to guitarists ‘cause they’ve never really interested me. In fact I think guitar is a pretty feeble instrument. Virtually nothing intrigues me about the guitar. The acoustic guitar is an anachronism, which nevertheless has one or two interesting sounds to it. But it is an anachronism because it is in no way a form of contemporary expression. As a form of contemporary expression, the electric guitar is about the only hope for guitar to develop as a creative feeling. That’s my feeling.”
On Eric Clapton: “Clapton’s playing to me has little originality. I would say the kind of area in which he works is rather trite and a limited area. But in his early days, on many occasions, magic. There comes a point if you’re working in a particularly limited formal area—where Clapton’s playing is based on a number of licks and clichés—the magic just doesn’t permeate the notes. Clapton I think is mostly quite banal, although he did some exciting things earlier in his life with Mayall. The Mayall Blues Breakers album is superb. Clapton does quite amazingly. I saw Cream live once. I thought they were quite awful. Clapton’s work since, I think, has been excessively tedious.”
On Jimi Hendrix: “There were one or two Hendrix things I enjoyed. Not the rocky things so much, but the slower things. I haven’t been influenced by Hendrix and Clapton in the way that most people would normally say it. I don’t think Hendrix was a guitarist. Hendrix had an abysmal guitar technique. I very much doubt if he was interested in guitar playing as such. He was just a person who had something to say and got on and said it.”
On Jeff Beck: “Jeff Beck’s guitar playing I can appreciate as good fun. It’s where the guitarist and ‘poser-cum-ego tripper-cum-rock star-cum-entertainer’ becomes all involved in the package. I’m not putting it down. It’s good fun; it’s quite enjoyable. Very exciting. I wish him all the best of luck.”
After hearing him insult the world’s greatest guitarists, I didn’t feel so bad. Fripp continued reading the questions and answering them for the remainder of the interview. He finally slid them back to me and I could barely gather up my tape player and typed sheets quickly enough. I got up to leave and was determined to walk out the hotel room door and not say a word. But I couldn’t do it. Almost out the door, I turned to him and said, “I worked a long time on that interview. I really loved King Crimson. You didn’t have to make fun of me like that.”
If you think he was humbled and felt contrite about the way he’d treated me, you’d be wrong. I honestly don’t recall what he said but it certainly wasn’t apologetic. I don’t want to make Robert Fripp sound like a monster. He wasn’t. There was a kind of charm to his oddness but that didn’t make what he said and the way he said it any less destructive.
Christmas was coming and for some perverse reason I decided to send him a holiday card. He’d given me his address—Fripp wanted to be sent the Guitar Player issue when it was published—and I used it to send him a card.
To my complete shock, he sent back a short letter. Handwritten on thin, sky blue onion paper, he’d written, “Dear Steve, Thank you for the card—also for the December edition of G.P. [I’d sent him a December 1973 issue of the magazine, which featured a Jeff Beck cover story I’d written. Fripp’s interview wasn’t in this issue—that appeared in the May ’74 magazine, which I would send to him—and I’d only mailed the Beck cover to him to sort of stir up the hornet’s nest. It was meant to imply, ‘You might have treated me like an inferior but I’m still writing cover stories for Guitar Player. And you might have bashed Jeff Beck but here he is on the cover’}. “But you would have to know me to realize I didn’t make fun of you.”
And there it was—as close to an apology as Robert Fripp was capable of mustering. From my point of view, it was acceptable. I was staggered he’d referenced my comments at the interview at all. It helped me breathe easier in recounting my underwater experience.
I ran into Robert about eight years later in a second interview. He was still the same stoic and reserved personality but time had smoothed out some of the edges and at least on this occasion he allowed me to ask my own questions. Regardless, I can’t help but thinking of that moment so many years ago when our conversation had just ended. Walking down the hotel hallway back to the elevator, I must have had a stunned look on my face.
My eyeballs would have been bulging as if I’d just heard something horrible and my nose flared like it was trying to suck in air that wasn’t there. In all likelihood, my mouth would have been agape in an expression of sheer terror. That combination of facial mutations would have suggested an expression somewhere between horror, disbelief and the aftereffects of someone who’d just survived a drowning.
If you can’t picture that, picture this: the cover of In the Court of the Crimson King. Can you see it? The eyes popping out of the head and the ears distended as if they’d heard something horrible? That was me. A frightened bird and a cornered mouse. Vulnerable. Shaking. And reduced to muttering a monosyllabic mumble that sounded exactly like frippfrippfripppppppppppppppp.
October 27, 2020
October 26, 2020