Three incredible words about my video with inestimable Detroit Free Press sports columnist: Mitch Albom sings.
There was no singing by ESPN’s Mike & Mike when I interviewed them. Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon didn’t even sing during commercial breaks either time I interviewed ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” hosts. Of course, I don’t think any of these sports guys are noted for being a pianist either. Albom was at the Mall of America signing copies of his newest book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” This confluence of music and storytelling is Albom’s fifth novel and 13th book, according to a Free Press article about the “Tuesdays with Morrie” author.
An accomplished songwriter and lyricist — who plays piano in the Rock Bottom Remainders when the schedules of writers such as Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan and Scott Turow line up — should be able to sing a little of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” on the fly, I decided. So I gave Albom the lyrics and he was game. He was really getting into it by the time I thought we — I supplied minimal backup vocals — had sufficiently punished anybody who might hear this video.
In this Q&A we also talked about the flaw I caught in the otherwise terrific new movie about journalism “Spotlight” and the impact Will Smith’s upcoming movie “Concussion” may have on the NFL and football fans. I’m feeling very thoughtful, knowing that I share Albom’s thinking about getting rid of the vicious hits that some fans enjoy.
Albom is a humble sensitive guy; he told Mall of America fans that everybody’s in a band: “If there is anybody in your life who is wondering what their talent might be or if they have a gift, this would be a good [book] to give them to boost their spirit. If anybody in your life has ever played in a garage band or Guitar Hero, this [book] is chock-full of music. It makes a point that everybody joins a band in this life, whether it’s your family, your workplace, whatever, you’re in a band and you’re going to affect the other people.”
Beyond the video credit, Albom showed good humor as I complimented the unique pattern of the cartilage in his ears. Albom’s associate, a guy named Rosey, described my powers of observation as an “ear fetish.” On the video I also I made it easy to find Albom’s terse response to a question about an area of his life he likes to keep private. His response was pitch perfect.
Q: You’re a one-man multimedia company between ESPN [“The Sports Reporters”], the Free Press, an afternoon drive-time show on WJR, books, and charities that benefit Detroit and Haiti. When do you sleep?
A: I sleep in between all of those things. But you’re giving me too much credit. I do a lot of things but I don’t do any of them full time. They’re all sort of part time things and really I only have one talent, if it’s a talent, and that’s storytelling. And charity, you don’t deserve credit for as far as I’m concerned. It’s what everybody should be doing.
Q: As a reporter have you grown more at ease being the one answering the questions instead of asking them?
A: I don’t know if anyone ever gets at ease with that but I do have empathy for the people who are asking and I’m not sure that’s always the case. It’s actually made me a better reporter or interviewer, because I’ve been in uncomfortable situations on the other side and I see how it could be avoided.
Q: The Free Press needs you more than you need it …
A: Oh, I don’t know about that. [Laughs] They might dispute you on that point.
Q: Does this means that they don’t touch your copy?
A: No. Everybody gets touched and I would want to; what if I made a mistake? What if you have something factually wrong, you spell a name incorrectly or something like that? I’m not above being touched but I have had for many years the same editor, he just retired after 20-plus years together so, that was tough for me.
Q: Do you think you’ll want to write as long as Sid Hartman, 60-70 years, if newspapers are even around then?
A: I don’t look much beyond the next year. I hope I’m OK and healthy enough to do it. But I do love my community. I love being in Detroit and a voice of Detroit. That’s really why I’ve continued to write for newspapers. It’s obvious, I don’t need to do it. I have other options, but I’m proud of it and they gave me an opportunity when I was very young, when nobody else wanted me, so I don’t forget that.
Q: Will the NFL go out of business if the vicious hits and limb twisting ends?
A: I wonder about that. People say if you take the violence out of football people won’t be interested. I don’t think that’s true. People are interested in football, period. If you get rid of it what are you going to replace it with? People would still rather have a watered-down football than no football.
Q: When I hear about former players with concussion and memory loss problems, I can live without the “bell ringing.” Readers are critical of me when I say I want artful tackling.
A: It’s a violent game and that’s the attraction for some people, but not all. A lot of people like high-powered offenses. By very definition you don’t get hit as often if you are scoring a lot. I think there is a way to do football safer, but it’s going to be a long way coming. I’ll be very interested in seeing how this “Concussion” movie goes over that comes out on Christmas with Will Smith. When it hits the movies, all of a sudden it’s real for a lot of people.
Q: Is there anybody in sports who won’t return your phone call?
A: Oh yeah. [Real laughter]. Too long a list.
Q: Why do pro athletes always delay retiring when we can see their skills have become eroded?
A: I don’t have a problem with that. Muhammad Ali once said, I’m a boxer; a boxer boxes, and that’s the truth. And if that’s what you are trained to do, you hang on as long as you can. Peyton Manning said, Play till you suck.
Q: He’s almost there and I’m a big Peyton fan!
A: I don’t know about that. I don’t blame him. If that was my skill I’d hang on as long as I could.
Q: Is Ndamukong Suh nuts or just kind of naughty?
A: He was a little mysterious for us in Detroit. He seemed more interested in doing things nationally than locally, which was odd because he played there in Detroit. He was a great player when he wanted to be, but he wasn’t always wanting to be, it seemed. He seems like he’s taken some of his issues with him to Florida along with a lot of money.
Q: There aren’t many love scenes in your books?
A: You mean like sex scenes? There are not.
Q: How are you going to write “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” with no sex scenes, because musicians have as interesting sex lives as professional athletes?
A: Well, you do what’s called insinuation. You stop before you get to anything dirty. It’s deliberate because when “Tuesdays with Morrie” came out, which I thought was going to be for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, it turned out an awful lot of kids gravitated to that book and that book is now taught in school systems around the world. I have a lot of young — like 10, 11, 14 — readers and a lot of them pick up my books because they feel we know what he writes. I just feel awkward inserting dirty words and sex scenes and then all of a sudden a mother will come up to me and say, I got this book for my 14-year-old and you put this in it. I’ve been gun-shy about it ever since. If you can write an entertaining adult story and not have to revert to dirty language and sex scenes, I think that’s more challenging.
Q: I was wondering if that Tennessee mom who complained about Cam Newton’s dance moves during the Panthers victory over the Titans has ever noticed the dance moves of NFL cheerleaders?
A: Yeah. I think there are more important issues in all of life than what football players do dancing wise.
Q: I gather you and your wife, your only wife, have no kids?
A: We didn’t have a child [because] we got married late. So it wasn’t out of desire, and I have an orphanage that I operate in Port-a-Prince, Haiti. There are 40 children I’ve admitted there; that I see every month. That part of me, the children-raising part of me, is more than addressed by that. It’s really an amazing experience to be able to help children, not only help raise them but in many cases help keep them alive.
Q: So, you’re like Oprah in that her parenthood void is filled by the girls at the school she runs in Africa?
A: Well, Oprah’s a very unique person and I shouldn’t be compared to her in any way.
Q: You seem like a sensitive guy. In what ways would your wife say you are an insensitive boob?
A: [Laugh] Ah, clothing. The toilet seat. The rest of the bathroom. Anything having to do with the kitchen. And probably opening doors.
Q: So Mitch Albom doesn’t wash dishes? That’s a question on my list.
A: Mitch Albom doesn’t cook, wash dishes; not because he’s above it but because he’s really bad at all of it and we mostly eat out. Ah, so my wife’s not washing the dishes either.
Q: You don’t write many stories about your wife? Nobody seems to know much about your personal life. When, was it, your mom who got sick and died you wrote about that?
A: That’s right.
Q: OK … ah, would you own a Tesla in Detroit?
A: No. There are enough great cars made in America, made right in my backyard, that I don’t have to go that far [laughs] to get a vehicle. I can just walk down the street and get one.
Q: But an electric one you don’t have to gas?
A: There’re American ones that are electric cars, too, and surprisingly I drive old cars. I have a Jeep that’s seven years old and I have a Lincoln MK something that’s a couple years old and I am perfectly happy with those.
Q: Who’s your favorite singer?
A: Oh boy. Ah, I don’t have a single favorite singer. Ella Fitzgerald is one of my favorite singers. Carol Sloane, a jazz singer, is one of my favorite singers. I like Elvis and I like, opera singers and jazz singers, so yeah, it’s too many. I wouldn’t have one.
Q: Have you seen the movie “Spotlight” yet?
A: [Laugh] I saw the first hour and then I had to leave to go do an interview, so I know the first hour.
Q: Had they gotten to the part where they were at the baseball game?
Q: When you see it this will ring untrue. Paranoid reporters would never be in the stands discussing a top secret investigation.
A: With all the people around, you’re right, you’re right.
Q: You have such interesting ears. Am I the only person who’s noted the cartilage in your ears that makes them so distinctive? I love your ears.
A: You are the first person to mention ears to me, in an interview.
Q: We had a conversation about your ears few years ago (1993). You’ve forgotten?
A: You’re still the first [interviewer to notice]. Thank you for admiring my ears. They’re really mine. [He tugged on one ear.]
Interviews are edited. The contact C.J. try email@example.com and to see her watch Fox 9’s “Jason Show.”