Seven Questions: Rona Elliot, Rock Journalist/Editor - 'The Woodstock Experience'
LA has a diverse cast of characters. Whether it's the characters with stirring stories or interesting occupations or the people who are just simply characters, this town has them all. In an effort to get to know some of those characters a little better, we've created "Seven Questions with..." If you have a suggestion for a future Seven Questions subject send us an email.
Today's subject is Rona Elliot.
As a rock journalist, Rona Elliot has had the opportunity to eyewitness and participate in some of music's most memorable moments. The former music correspondent for NBC's "Today" show broke the first Band Aid story in London out of Abbey Road studios in 1984, worked at historic Live Aid, was the first to interview Tina Turner during her acclaimed comeback and traveled the world with her. Rona, who currently teaches music business class at UCLA extension, was on hand to report on Nelson Mandela’s welcoming at London’s Wembley Stadium, she traveled with the Rolling Stones for the first rock concert ever in then Czechoslovakia, served as VH1’s first news anchor and was in the USSR for the country’s first rock concert ever with Billy Joel.
Forty years ago, Rona was working in public and community relations for a little concert called Woodstock. Her first-hand experience at what is perhaps the most famous music festival of all time matched with her incredible ability to interview music legends is on display in The Woodstock Experience, a remarkable limited edition hand-bound dual-book package from London-based Genesis Publications featuring words from the original festival producer Michael Lang and photos from official Woodstock photographer Henry Diltz.
Rona who currently resides in Los Angeles took some time to speak with LAist about the making of The Woodstock Experience, working on the festival, rock journalism and the current state of music.
1) How did you get connected with Genesis Publications?
Genesis Publications is a UK company. What they do is make the most beautiful and magical limited edition collectible books. The books are usually between $650 to $1,000 and there's usually only 1,000 copies. Genesis prides themselves on creating books that feature collections of photographs that nobody has ever seen.
For example, there's a book called T.O.T.A. '75, Tour of the Americas. The book has a collection of photos from the photographer who was on the road with the Rolling Stones from 1973-75. The book not only has his astonishing photos of the Rolling Stones, but it has every memo, every room key, everything that a collector would truly love. Because they're limited edition, they have these incredible photographs, made in the UK, printed in Milan and hand bound, they're just theses astonishing pieces of collectible art.
I first heard about Genesis because I wrote a story about a book. This was about 20 years ago, when I was working on the Today show. I was writing a story about a book called Fifty Years Adrift which was written by Derek Taylor. Derek was The Beatles' publicist. I was holding in my hand a book that was a complete history of The Beatles from someone who was there since day one. Derek had kept every ticket, every memo, every song note, every lyric, every postcard and all of his memories. And there was the history of The Beatles in my hand. I just couldn't believe it. I did my story about the book, which cost $1,000 at that time.
Genesis had created this treasure, something that someone like me who cares so much about music would want to own. If a book came along that was really important, I'd buy it. It just became this incredibly precious thing to me to have the history of a particular band in my hand. Little did I know that some years later fate would cause me to intersect with Genesis in a very LA way.
Henry Diltz who's the famous rock and roll photographer who lives in North Hollywood, I've known him since before Woodstock. He hired him to photograph Woodstock. One day back in the 90s, he said to me, 'Some day I want to have a book.'
Henry was the kind of guy who kept notes and scrap papers from everything he had done. I told Henry, 'If you ever want to do that, these are the only people (Genesis) in the world who could do that with you.' I showed him all of the Genesis books I had collected.
Fast forward 12 years, he tells me, 'They're doing a book on me.' I then contacted Genesis and I end up having a series of conversations with the owner. We were having a chat one day and without ever mentioning what I do he asked me, 'Do you know anyone who interviews musicians?' I said, 'That would be me, it's all I've done for the past 30 years and I've interviewed many of the legends in Henry's photos.'
From here I started to build a relationship with Genesis both from working on Henry's book and from having known Henry for so long. The photos in Henry's book were everyone that was relevant in the Los Angeles music scene between '68 and '74, Henry documented the whole thing.
I was interviewing John Sebastian for Henry's book who lived with Henry and my friend during that time period at a place called "The Farm" off of Barham Blvd. John lived in a tie-dyed tent and wore tie-dyed clothes. Henry had a lot of pictures of him. John came to Woodstock, NY to be interviewed and brought with him a piece of tie-dyed from that time period which Henry had photographed. That tied-eye became the template for the cover of Henry's book, that piece of tie-dyed went to Milan where the books are printed. This piece of tie-dyed which Henry had photographed so many years ago was now the template for the cover of the book, this is the kind of veracity that Genesis brings to their books.
These are my kind of people.
2) When did the idea for The Woodstock Experience come along?
In 2004, 2005 we started talking about Woodstock. I had worked at Woodstock. Many of the people who worked at Woodstock were still in my life. Michael Lang was still in my life. Brian Roylance who was the founder of Genesis and we all agreed to do a Woodstock book. Shortly after we agreed to do the book, Brian passed away. It was in 2005, he died playing soccer or rugby.
Michael Lang and myself set out to record exactly what had happened there that summer. I personally arrived at Woodstock in May 1969. I had been in Algeria; I had gotten a telegram from my ex-boyfriend telling me to come home for a festival in upstate New York. I had previously worked on the Newport Pop Festival and Miami Pop Festival. I came back and Michael had hired me to do the local public relations and community relations.
What was important to me in the book was to tell the story of what really happened. We weren't interested in the opinions or the international urban legends. We set out to interview as many musicians who were still alive, as many people who worked the event that we could find.
Front and back cover of The Woodstock Experience by Sheppard Fairey
3) What does Woodstock mean to you?
While it's a badge of honor, and always a conversation stopper when I mention my work on the festival, it's also a part of my personal history. It's shaped me as a person, and it's shaped the lives of all the people who were there. From the people on staff to the people stuck in the mud to the musicians, it's a part of their personal history as well. I mean it was Santana's first big gig. One of the guys who played with Jimi Hendrix, had never played in public before. He was Jimi's roommate. There's just a million stories like that.
The festival was different things to different people. If you were anti-war, Woodstock was an anti-war festival. If you were a hippie, Woodstock was a free love festival. For the people who were down by the lake and never got in, it was three days of being in a lake naked. For the people who were stuck in the jammed up traffic, it was a party on a highway. Everyone had their own individual experience.
People often ask me, 'What did it really mean?' Here's what I tell people - Here we are 40 years later and all the around the world you'll still hear the festival being mentioned. When Barack Obama was being inaugurated, you heard CNN, USA Today and other news outlets refer to the moment as "Obama's Woodstock." That's shorthand for peaceful gathering, where people get along, nobody gets hurt and a vision is shared. That's the legacy.
4) Was there anyone, whether that's an artist or a staff member, who was difficult to track down for an interview but you felt like you HAD to have them to make the book complete?
There were people who didn't want to talk about it because they were tired of talking about it. People who didn't have a good experience. People who were dead. People who were writing their own book. There were people of various stripes that we came across along the way.
We started out with a complete list of all the people involved and went through it. Janice, gone. Jimi, gone. And so on. Then there were those who are still around but are missing in action like Sly (Sly in the Family Stone) who put on one of the most astonishing performances of the festival. A lot of the staff isn't around either, which is sad for me because you know, we all lived together.
5) Since you were working at the festival, how much of the music performances were you actually able to see?
I didn't get to see much. My greatest recollection was Jimi Hendrix. I was busy working but I do remember being blown away by Jimi's performance. It was early in the morning, we were in our trailer and I just remember hearing these other-worldly sounds from Jimi and his rendition of the National Anthem. He was unbelievable. One of the greatest things I've ever heard. That remains for me, I saw Jimi at Monterey when he set his guitar on fire but that Woodstock set to me is the best.
I was so focused on my work at the festival, because it really did take a village to put it all together so I couldn't see much but if I was going to see anything I'm glad I got to experience that.
6) You were the music correspondent for the Today show on NBC for a decade. How did you come into that position? Also, currently national news programs like the Today show have gone away from covering music and have simply thrown it in with pop culture/entertainment coverage. What do you think caused this transition in the way music is covered?
I had a long history in music journalism and radio. I was very involved in breaking the Band Aid and Live Aid stories. There was a visionary producer at the Today show named Steve Freidman. I had done a lot of work with Tina Turner in radio, network radio which was in the same facility as NBC. I went down to the third floor of the building where the Today show was located and I approached Steve and said I had this vision for doing something with music on the show. I told them you may not hire me, but nobody's ever going to do it better.
This was before celebrity journalism and gossip journalism, well I don't even call it journalism I just call it gossip and junk.My vision was to do long form sit-down interviews with the musicians, which is something I had been doing for a long time on the radio. The Today show says, well if you're so great, get me interviews with Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen - mind you this was 1984. So I wrote to Tina and asked her; she responded to me saying I'd done so much for her with radio that she'd do whatever I needed.
She agreed to let me interview her for the Today show. That interview was unlike anything done on television before. I got to travel with her, go backstage, and did some lengthy interviews with her. Over the next ten years, I'd do that with pretty much everybody. I got to travel the world.
I never asked anyone about who they were dating or what they were wearing because I didn't care. For me it was all about the music and what this music communicated and where it was coming from. How did Eric Clapton come up with "Layla?"
I never did what you see on television now. I can't watch that stuff. I treated the musicians with enormous respect because music was such a large part of my life. Thanks to NBC, I was able to travel the world with great musicians and share their gifts and tell their stories. I felt like it was a privledge, every day that I had that job.
I left the job because I felt like it was time to go. I felt like things were changing. The value that I ascribed to was moving into a different world.
The long form interview just isn't valued anymore. I mean you still see it on "60 Minutes" but fast and cheesy, and drug addictions and who's sleeping with with who sells. I think if the people were fed quality work, there would be a marketplace for it. I don't want to insult anyone's work but I just think that I have a different set of standards and values and that's not what's being sold to the people right now. The pendulum will swing back eventually. In this age of Twitter and tweeting, hearing Eric Clapton describe his writing process is something different.
7) You've mentioned that much of your career in music was spent in radio. What do you think of the current state of radio, especially radio here in Los Angeles, where so many stations have turned to the "Top 40" format?
I don't think you're going to find good music on any of these stations. That's just not where good music is. That's where Britney Spears and the Jonas Brothers are. As I explained to my kids who are 12, there's always going to be people who listen to pop music, and take nothing away from them.
The difference is, when I was listening to Top 40 you would hear the 1910 Fruitgum Company but you'd also hear Jimi Hendrix. Top 40 back then was color blind. You had rock and roll, hard rock, you had Smokey Robinson and Motown records, it was a little bit of everything. That's not what you hear now. In order to hear Motown now, you've got to listen to K-Earth or KJLH.
Top 40 today is not what it was back then. You will not hear quality music there. To me, Mariah Carey, and no offense intended, but that's not good music. It's just pop music. Britney Spears - forgettable. Madonna - flushable. This is just an opinion, and opinions are like assholes but Madonna hasn't made a lasting song. Not saying that we won't be hearing her music in 40 years, but I'd like someone to explain to me the long-lasting value, the contribution that her music has made. Sure, it makes people dance but it's not music from my point of view.
I just don't see music serving a larger purpose anymore. It's here to sell commercial time. If I want to find new music,I'll go on Pandora or some other sites or I'll call up people whose taste in music I trust.