Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Sue White Interview :I’m NOT Retiring; I Just Want a Party

It seems like I’ve known Sue White forever. Though we share a common surname we are unrelated…still I like to think of Sue as a sister. Someone I can always count on. I love and admire her and count her as a true friend. But her legacy is much broader and influential than her influence on me – though former Beatle Pete Best would never have come to White’s Bar without Sue’s quiet back room negotiations with his California agent. In an era in which karaoke and cover bands trumped the efforts of out most gifted and original musicians, Sue continued to write about them and support their unique muse and creative impulses. Sue’s contributions to the local music scene are undeniable. For over 30 years, Sue was part of a cultural vanguard that included people like Frank Patrick, the visionary owner of Daniel’s Den; Bob Dyer and Dick Fabian- the scene-making jocks from WKNX; Dick Wagner the legendary guitarist/singer who began his career in Saginaw clubs, Bob Martin, the iconoclastic editor/owner of Review Magazine, and Eddie Kurth of Bay Music – a historian of the first degree. I believe Sue has never been given enough credit. Now it is her turn in the spotlight.
We love you Sue!

When did you discover you had a knack for writing?
I remember writing – and enjoying writing – in Mrs. Stearn’s English class at Shields Junior High, these dark, haunting stories that she must have dreaded to read.But more telling, I always had a book in my hands. I knew that the ranger stations at campgrounds had a library! Still love to read, and in my experience, the people whose writing I admire most also are voracious readers.

Sue, when did your career path crystallize for you?
It was when I went back to Delta College to study for a job in the medical field that a professor there, Bud Alberda, really directed me toward writing as a career. Jim McGinty was another professor who encouraged me, and so did Joan Ram, who ran the journalism department there. Joan sent me and another student to an internship interview at The Saginaw News, and the editors chose the other girl. Then, a short time later, they hired me! Proves you shouldn’t get too worked up about the bumps in life, huh?And being star-struck, and in love with Steve Perry from Journey, I asked if I could cover the band if it came around. The News said they’d have to see if I could write entertainment, and sent me to cover Iron Maiden. I was hooked for life! (For the record, I still haven’t met Steve Perry.)

Did anyone influence or inspire you to write?
Bud Alberda was really the turning point. Since I went back to college as an adult, with two kids already and a third soon on the way, I was overwhelmed and not at all confident. Somehow he saw something in there and brought it out.

When did you discover your own unique voice as a writer? Do you recall a particular piece that you completed, sat back at the rewrite and said to your self, “I got it. I finally GOT it”!
Ha! Does that ever happen? I keep writing and tweaking and rewriting stories until the editor takes it away from me, which explains how long and rambling some of them become.But I was fortunate in having two good editors, Ken Tabacsko and Janet Martineau, who allowed their writers to have a voice of their own. The rest came from being honestly interested in what I was covering, a double-edged sword because if I wasn’t interested, it was the devil to write. More often, what happens is that I’ll come across something I wrote years ago and think, “Dang, that was good!” and then I feel bad because whatever I’m working on at the time never measures up to it.And if I was really tired when I wrote something, like after coming back from a late, late concert and meet-and-greet at Joe Louis, I never knew whose voice was coming through.The next morning, I’d wake up and read that I played the clarinet! I was in band, but played the sax – after that incident, I always printed out the reviews and read them again the next morning, before deadline.

Did you always work for the Saginaw News? How long did you write for the News? Did anyone mentor you?
After writing for The Delta Collegiate, my first published story was in a weekly – I covered my Brownie troop’s visit to a dairy farm! Then I did some freelance work for the Midland Daily News before I was hired at The Saginaw News, 26 years ago. As for mentors, you really learn something from everyone that crosses your path, don’t you? It’s hard to single one person out, though I always loved Betty Hansen’s columns, and met with her to sound out my dreams. We met at Sullivan’s North, and I was waiting for her in the family dining room. My waitress asked who was joining me and then told me that Betty usually went to the more upscale restaurant in that complex.Sure enough, she was there waiting for me! What a neat lady … she left The News before I was actually hired but she opened doors.

What was the best advice or counsel you received from a colleague, mentor or supervisor?
Make sure your nouns and pronouns agree. Still have trouble with that … you can probably see examples above. Another is realizing that backstage is a touring performer’s personal space and you need to respect that. You don’t walk into the room any more than you’d walk into their home without an invitation. And some things, you learn by experience. It doesn’t pay to argue with the security guys who are bulldogs in protecting that space. If you have a good reason to be back there, just go find someone with the authority to make it happen. It helps, too, to behave yourself so that you are welcome around the next time. Bad behavior might get you a quick scoop but you better hope you never need another one! Larry Grover, who handled security at the old Saginaw Civic Center, taught me that one. I’ve learned so much from so many people, and I’m still learning.

What was your favorite era or time @ the Saginaw News? Why?
It was probably in the 1980s, when we were swept up in the whole amazing world of entertainment for the first time. The 1990s were great, too, when I finally had a feel for what I was doing. Or lately, catching up with old friends and still having fun discovering who’s new.There really isn’t a favorite because each brings something new to the plate. I’m loving what we’re doing right now, blogging from the SYS Fest, for example, and in effect covering the day as it happens, from a laptop on site.And the videos that are coming out of “Catch the Muse with Sue at the News” are fun, too, with the focus on the bands and including live performance shots. I’ll tell you when life is really good – sitting out back at White’s Bar, with Stewart Francke on stage and Pops cooking up some barbecue to the side. That’s the day I just sat back and thought “Geez, I’m being paid to do this!”

Who was your favorite editor? publisher? Why?
Ken Tabacsko, my features editor, hands down. He was the one who hired me, allowed me to grow in the job and became a good friend in the process. We had the happiest corner in the newsroom…Gunnar Carlson was another favorite … he was the paper’s editor when I came in, and he believed in me. That makes a lot of difference; I wish managers everywhere realized the power of an encouraging word. You’d fall on the sword for those people.Rex Thatcher by far was my favorite publisher. We were talking about him again the other day, how he really pulled us together as an organization and made us all feel as if we were part of its operation. He was pure class. We have a good group of people calling the shots right now. Jodi McFarland, Carol Zedaker and John Hiner have a lot of vision; you get swept up in their enthusiasm. When I was still in the newsroom, it felt like being on the team that plays harder when it’s shorthanded. And I still get to do the work I love, writing about the musicians, the people around here who make a difference, the arts …. Life is good!

What are your views of the changes and current status of the Saginaw News?
If we can survive the transition, I think you’re going to see what is possible … very exciting times! We post a story on, our readers create a dialogue through the comments, we join in, and we can throw in videos such as “Catch the Muse” to fully capture what we’re talking about. It’s been interesting, too, to see what it has brought out in different people. Jodi McFarland is a good example … as community editor of The Saginaw News, she is dancing fast, orchestrating the coverage as the business reinvents itself almost daily. It’s been fun to watch her take ownership of the post.As with all businesses going through these times, you wonder in hindsight why we didn’t see earlier the changes that might have prevented the downsizing, etc., but maybe nothing would have prevented it.We’re certainly not alone in this!

What do you think about dissemination of information through internet? Has it totally co-opted and changed the way we gather information and learn in a negative way – are we too plugged in?…or is this a positive thing? Can this explosion of info-minutiae be harvested for the common good? Can hard copy survive – newspapers, books, magazines and journals?
Wow. I think the Internet is firmly in place, just as surely as the first cars took over the roads. It’s not going to go away, folks. The big trick now is to set ourselves aside, as a news providers, from the flood of information – and misinformation – that comes from people with an agenda or without a clue.I love the Internet for plugging in lyrics and coming up with a song title – my personal challenge – and hearing the bands on YouTube before I interview them. And you can’t ignore the way the doors it opens for musicians, to put themselves and their music out there for the world instead of depending on a major record label to do it for them.But as you point out, the explosion of info-minutiae calls for someone to step forward and sort through it for us. It’s going to be interesting to see who does that and how they do it.Then there’s the billion-dollar question – how do you make it pay?And I don’t see hard-copy completely disappearing any time soon, though it will become the vinyl of the print world. People still love to sit down and read something, but I have a feeling the immediacy and widespread availability of the Internet will make it the primary source for news.

We all know you as an entertainment writer but you’ve done much more. What is form of journalism do you prefer?
It sounds so cliché, but I love people. That includes entertainment, getting to know the people making the music and the teachers who are so great in the classroom that their students take the time to write about them in the Crystal Apple Awards and the lady who crochets a new afghan for every family who moves into a Habitat for Humanity house. In reading back over that, I realize that it’s the passion for life that intrigues me. There’s a new fellow at work, Michael Wayland, who’s working on the “Catch the Muse” videocasts and he was just saying the same thing, that we have this wide variety of musicians already taped, from polka to hard rock to good listening music, but it’s as if they all come full circle, to the same love of music.It’s the same way with my favorite stories … they’re all about people who love life. (And a fortunate side effect – it’s catching!)

You’ve met and known a lot of famous people. Who are your favorites? Any bummers? Do you have any unusual stories about the rich and famous (rock stars)?
Oh, the stories! My friends joke about who I’ve kissed lately …. I do seem to get a lot of hugs and kisses. One of my first was a big kiss from Jon Bon Jovi, and then I told him how my sister would kill for one of those.That was years ago … he was opening for Ratt at the time, I think. Then a few months ago, my granddaughter saw Bon Jovi on TV and said that was the man she wanted to marry some day.Without thinking, I told her that I had kissed him before, on the lips, and that was the end of her crush. Apparently, the image was too cruel to imagine.Speaking of Bon Jovi, I remember sitting with songwriter Desmond Child in the lobby at WIOG, and he pulled out his guitar and played “Living on a Prayer” for me. While Bon Jovi performed it as an anthem of sorts, Desmond wrote it in a far more reverent sense, performing it that day like a hymn. That’s a moment I cherish, even more than a kiss. I met Paul McCartney, my own schoolgirl crush, and afterwards, you wouldn’t believe the number of people who argue with me about how tall he is! We were right there, standing nose-to-nose, yet fans will pull out those old bubble gum trading cards and show me that it says he’s six-foot-whatever. Roy Orbison was the true gentleman, and he’ll always be one of my favorites. We spoke a few times. So is Roger Daltry from the Who … met him twice, and the first time, I stood there speechless. The second time, I decided to figure out ahead what I was going to say, and I bring up a guy who unknown to me had been recently convicted of crimes against children in the Far East.After the thunderclouds cleared from his face, Roger was very charming again. He’s really great. And when he stood behind Pete Townshend during that pornography probe, I knew Pete was innocent. I had seen for myself what Roger thinks of those kinds of people! Comedian Sam Kinison was always special to me. We would talk for hours about religion and life in general, deep discussions with a very intelligent, spiritual man. One time, we were on the phone for four hours, and when he came to Saginaw, he had the guys from the hosting radio station take him to a flower shop and he bought me a dozen red roses. I still have them, dried, in a little wicker basket. I miss him a lot.Another comedian I love is Steven Wright. He’s a genuinely nice guy. Same with Larry the Cable Guy, who is very intelligent. You don’t have the success he’s had without some smarts.Talking about religion, George Carlin and I had a long discussion on the same topic before his last show in Saginaw, and in the end, we amicably agreed to disagree on our beliefs. Soon after, he died, and I always wondered if maybe our conversation gave him something to think about. God works in mysterious ways.There weren’t many creeps through the years, thankfully. Axl Rose comes to mind; he was not very nice. What I’ve found interesting, too, is that the people who cling to the last shreds of their fame sometimes are the most arrogant. It’s not always the case, but often …Then you have the Rolling Stones. I went to Detroit with my little sister to pick up my press credentials, and while the Detroit papers had camped outside the hotel for days, hoping to get a few words from one of the guys, we stood in the hall with Bill Wyman and talked for a long time.It was years later that the reason for our good luck popped into my head. My sister, about 16 at the time, looked like a blonde, blue-eyed Barbie doll, and Wyman was notorious for dating and marrying girls hardly out of their teens. And I haven’t even touched on Alice Cooper feeding my kids candy corn on his tour bus, Ted Nugent calling my mother-in-law to give his condolences after my father-in-law died, so many more …

Can you tell me about the most memorable concerts you covered? How was it that a particular show resonated for you? What did it mean to you?
There was a Billy Ocean concert years ago, and I can’t remember much about it now but at the time, I thought life doesn’t get any better than this so it must have been good. Kissed him, too.The big country and rock show, This Country’s Rockin’, at the Pontiac Silverdome really meant a lot to me. We had full access so we were backstage with people like Steven Stills and Graham Nash. And everything got backed up, so we were in the front rows at 4 a.m., watching Carl Perkins close the show with “Blue Suede Shoes.” I just remember how cool that felt, feeling the euphoric second wind that comes that late, listening to a legend. It was sweet. I went to the first Farm Aid concert, too. Talk about ground-breaking! We had full access again, and I was sitting next to Martha Quinn from MTV in the front row of the press tent and Mary Hart from “Entertainment Tonight” was behind us. It was so wild, the people we met that day, everyone from Johnny Cash to John Mellencamp and Tom Petty and, again, Jon Bon Jovi. It all seems kind of surreal now.Watching Morgan McMillon and Richard Baskin win the Apollo Theatre award in New York City was another unreal experience. They were so full of wonder and anticipation, and when they hit the stage, they just exploded. It was a beautiful thing to see.And I remember one of the Nick Andros scholarship benefits when this great collection of local musicians came together and jammed. We have so much talent around us, right here in Saginaw.Oh, and Stevie Winwood at the Midland Center for the Arts. Anyone who was there knows why … he’s a master guitarist. So many great concerts … so many great people!

Did you develop any long lasting relationships with any artists in which you keep in touch through letters or email?
Alice Cooper sent Christmas cards for years. For years, my kids thought Uncle Ted (Ted Nugent) was their biological uncle.But what has developed more is an easy bond where, when we get together before or after a show, we get talking as if we’d never been apart. That’s really cool …

Of all the great local bands you’ve covered through the years, which ones standout the most for you? Were there any bands that you thought would make it to the big time but somehow became sidetracked or lost their focus like the Frost or The Paupers?
Favorites? It’s whoever sparked the memory at the moment, and believe me, these past few months, the memories are flooding back.I was talking to Brian from Silverspork the other day, and we were talking about the photo shoot we did years ago from the top of the News building. I love those guys. Sharrie Williams, oh my. That’s probably the story that gives me goosebumps every time I think about it. Mary Washington called me about a single mother living at the projects whose sons were involved in her theater project. She said the mom – Sharrie – started coming around, too, so Mary put her in the play and she told me “You wouldn’t believe the talent this woman has!” The rest is history, of course, but to follow Sharrie down that road has been incredible. We’ve become good friends through the years, too, and she means a lot to me.The guys in the Mick Furlo Band … I remember going to lunch with them one day early in my career, to Zorba’s, and they were all dressed in these very cool greatcoats, and I was hoping someone I knew would drive by and see me walking with them. They looked like something off an album cover … I was so in awe. I even remember what I ordered for lunch … lemon-grass soup. And look where they’ve all gone. If you haven’t seen Mick as Keith Richards in Voodoo Lounge, get to it quick! Mike Brush is such an incredible talent, not only as a performer and songwriter himself but what he brings to anything he joins, and the work he’s done with young people through the years. Loren Kranz is a favorite, too. I tease him about being Saginaw’s Michael McDonald because he pops up everywhere, but the truth is he makes everyone he joins sound better. Donny Brown is the same way … I still listen to the Nick Andros compilation he produced, and he made the local groups sing on that recording! Matt Besey, first as the wonderkid and more recently watching his interaction with Drew Pentkowski. Steve Eckstorm, a friend from Harlet days who has always stayed close.Question Mark – I just love him, and Bobby and Frank Lugo. Brent Grunow, who you’ll see billed as Brent James soon, was another I first met in Ocean Sol, at a concert where the band members’ mothers brought all their table lamps to serve as stage lights.Look how far they’ve come.
And remember Mach? James Owen? Billy Howell? I’ve been so blessed to meet so many great people. Marty Viers, all the way back to Cornbread Jam.
Bo, we could write a book about the great people we’ve seen come through here.
Bo - "Let's do it!!"

What are you doing now?

I heard that you are working with Larry McCray. What’s it like for you to be changing gears? How does it feel to open yourself up and begin another phase in your life? Is there a big learning curve?
It’s very, very exciting. I had a sense, when the changes at The News were first announced, that everything I had done to this point was just training for what would come next, and I didn’t even know what would come next then! Two things have helped in working with Larry, remembering what I really appreciated in a good publicist and knowing how to talk “reporter.” The hardest part is balancing what I want to do, photo shoots, etc., with others’ priorities. I want to jump right in and do it all!And I’m working with Ricardo Verdoni, too, on his video projects. That’s been fun, and a totally new experience.There’s always something to learn, and I hope that never changes. The best part of my whole career has been never knowing for sure what each day would bring, and that’s still the case. Now I have the best of two worlds … I still write for The News, as a freelancer, so I can cover the scene I love, and I have ventures that open a new future to me. And I’ve very careful that the two don’t cross … you won’t see me writing a Larry McCray story for The News now.People have always said they appreciate my credibility and I don’t take that lightly.

Let me tell you that you are fabulous and your gentle love and kindness is a true inspiration. Any last thoughts or comments?
I’m not even sure how to put this in words, but the truth is that I’m the fortunate one, and I have a feeling most of the others would tell you the same thing. To start with a love of music and then to be allowed to immerse yourself so completely in the scene, even when you can’t carry a tune in a bucket and people would pay you to stop playing the sax, is unbelievable. My grandfather was a Big Band drummer, and more importantly, he loved music. His fingers were always drumming out a rhythm to whatever I was playing at the time. And there’s so many times through the years that I’ve wished he was still alive and could be there and get into the conversations you have sitting on a bench in the dimly lit backstage. When Robert Plant came to Saginaw years ago, he was alone onstage, just playing his guitar for himself, and I was the only one in the arena, sitting high up in the seats, staying really quiet so he wouldn’t notice me and kick me out.Then he saw me, smiled, nodded, and went on playing for himself. It was like we both knew what this is all about. That’s what the greatest of the local bands have done for me, given me the nod, let me in the circle and share that with everyone else. I’m the lucky one; God has blessed me with an embarrassment of riches in the friends I’ve made, including you.


With Warmest regard and love
Bo White

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