Why you should care
There’s nothing quite so complicated as asking a celebrity a simple question.
In October 2005, an assignment landed on my desk at EQ Magazine, a now-defunct trade journal for recording engineers. The actor Billy Bob Thornton had just finished tricking out his home recording studio and would be more than glad to chat about it, provided we didn’t spend too much time talking about the very thing that informs the public’s understanding of the man: his movies.
Having only seen his award-winning Sling Blade and the not-so-award-winning U-Turn, I found it easy enough to focus on everything but. Thornton’s easy, goofy and off-kilter off-camera persona was lure enough, as was the fact that he started out as a musician — the icing on a cake of cool associates and even cooler associations.
One of his assistants picks me up at the airport, and during the ride into Beverly Hills he lays down the various laws for getting along with Thornton. No questions about movies. No questions about Angelina Jolie. We pull up to the curb of a modest house in the flatlands of Beverly Hills and take a quick walk up to the front door and down a longish hallway lined with pictures of Thornton. With his kids. Alone. Relaxed and smiling. By the time we get to the sunken living room where Thornton is curled into his couch watching sports, I think I know a bit more about the man, and I’m pleased. Yup: as punch.
He leans in and stage whispers to me over the screaming speakers: “Can you keep a secret?”
“Look around and see where you want to photograph him,” I say quietly to my photographer, who suggests something by the pool.
“Oh, great,” Thornton smiles, but the assistant whispers to me, “No photos by the pool.” So I whisper that to the photographer. But Thornton says that’s ridiculous, and assures us we can. Within 30 seconds, as the photographer is bringing in gear, the assistant is whispering in my ear again, “No photos by the pool.” I repeat this to the photographer, who looks at us all like we’re crazy. Because we really are, and I start smiling because it’s become clear to me that Thornton will never tell me “no” because, well, he hires people for that.
“We’ll do it in the studio if that’s OK with you,” I say. Thornton stands and shrugs, and we amble off to his basement studio.
Now that I’ve passed the first test, Thornton starts in on how he’s recording this super secret talent he met somewhere in the Deep South. An old Black singer and performer whose name he’ll conceal from me at present — he just wants me to listen. He fires it up on the studio speakers and the music booms forth: not so much roots rock, but soul-inflected, bluesy boogie rock.
“This guy is going to change the world, I’m telling you.” I’ve gone beyond being just politely enthusiastic to being really enthusiastic. “What’s his name?”
Thornton tilts his head a bit as he leans in and stage whispers to me over the screaming speakers: “Can you keep a secret?”
“Not at all.”
“It’s really ME.” And he laughs and I laugh, and he’s playing different tracks and the conversation ranges far and wide, in less than linear fashion.
We do the studio talk thing: gear, projects, the fact that Slash from Guns N’ Roses used to own the house and the studio. Thornton explains why he can’t go shopping: “I’m co-dependent. I go shopping alone, next thing you know I’m listening to some guy tell me about his dentist brother. For like an hour. And I’m into it.” The rap and patter is effortless.
“Hey. You know Solomon Burke?” Solomon Burke, the R&B god among men. “Well, he gave me a shirt. It’s too big for me. You want it?”
He holds the shirt out. It fits and I take it. We shake hands, I thank him for his time, and when we emerge from the basement studio, his assistant is silent, stunned.
Driving me back to the airport, the assistant is quiet until she finally turns to me and asks where I got the shirt. When I tell her she is more than surprised.
“What? I gotta give it back now?” I ask.
“No,” she laughs. “Just — he never gives anything to anybody. If he gave you that shirt, a shirt he got from Solomon Burke? Well, he really likes you.”
“Cool. Well, when I come down again, maybe he and I can hang out. Go to see his band play or get drinks or something.”
“No, that’s not going to happen. But it’s a nice T-shirt!”
“Yes. It is a nice T-shirt.” A T-shirt that I have to this day but never managed to talk about where it came from. Until right about now.