The lost David Cassidy interview: 'Call me bad, call me lousy, but don't call me a former teen idol'

David Cassidy (Photo: The Guardian)
David Cassidy (Photo: The Guardian)
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On Tuesday, Nov. 21, musician, actor, and all-around entertainer David Cassidy died of as a result of complications from dementia, at age 67. Cassidy battled many demons over the years, as divulged in his compulsively readable autobiography, C’mon, Get Happy… Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus, and a candid Behind the Music episode on VH1, and his struggles continued until his death. But two decades ago, his life and career appeared to be on the upswing.

In 1998, Cassidy was a happily married father, the star of the then-biggest show on the Vegas strip (the $40 million spectacle EFX), and the head of his own record label, Slamajama. Sitting with Yahoo that year at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, the Hollywood hideout notorious for the debauched escapades of many celebrity guests, the only thing Cassidy seemed to be battling was a bit of a head cold, which he medicated with nothing stronger than a cup of honeyed English breakfast tea.

With his darker days of post-Partridge Family fallout, self-imposed retirement, dragged-out legal battles, and fast-lane excesses ostensibly behind him, in ’98 Cassidy was even comfortable revisiting his teen-idol past on his Slamajama-issued album Old Trick New Dog (the eight-years-in-the making follow-up to his self-titled comeback effort, which had yielded the U.S. top 40 hit “Lyin’ to Myself”). On Old Trick New Dog, he rerecorded four Cassidy classics — his 1971 solo hit “Ricky’s Tune,” plus the Partridge Family’s “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat,” “I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” and “I Think I Love You” — in a modernized soul style. The remakes had a lot in common with seductive crooners like another future fallen ex-teen idol, George Michael — who, as Cassidy surprisingly noted in his Yahoo interview, was a Cassidy fan and even sang backing vocals on Cassidy’s 1985 cover of Cliff Richard’s “The Last Kiss.”

Read on for Cassidy’s full archival conversation, in which he discussed the George Michael duet, making peace with his Partridge past, reinventing himself repeatedly, and dealing with internet trolls — even when the internet was still very much in its infancy.

Yahoo Entertainment: For many years, and probably still to this day, the public often mistook David Cassidy and “Keith Partridge” as the same person. I imagine that was difficult for you.

David Cassidy: Well, when they make bubblegum cards and comic books of you and you’re on the back of cereal boxes, and they own your name and likeness, as they did, they can make anything they want. David Cassidy guitars, lunchboxes, magazines, pillowcases, dresses, Colorforms, books, anything they could sell to kids. And they made $500 million!

$500 million that you didn’t see?

I saw 15 grand. Now, that’s corrupt. But I broke it through. I was the breakthrough person in merchandising. I busted through the gate, and the rest of them just stormed through. But I was the first person to renegotiate and get a piece of the show, the first person to get anything from these people. It’s little in comparison to today, but it was a lot then, and you have to put things in their proper perspective. I would have $80 million instead of $8 million now. But that’s fine. It’s great. I did it when I did it, and I have no regrets about doing it. I got to do something that three or four, maybe 10 people in the history of the world — let’s see, the Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Valentino got to do. Maybe nine or 10 people in the history of the planet.

Do you think The Partridge Family, along with maybe The Monkees, was a precursor to MTV, in that it was innovative by putting music and TV together?

The Partridge Family was much more successful as a TV series. The Monkees was never a hit. The reason they kept it on was because the merchandise and the records were selling so much that the network stayed with it, but it was never a hit television show. The Partridge Family was a big hit TV show. Had I not planned on leaving The Partridge Family the following year — they kept trying to find these new acts to replace me with that were scary, as if they sought out the people with the least amount of talent, incredibly bad instinct…

What? A new actor to replace you as Keith Partridge?

No, just to play another character: the kid next door, the twins, the nephew of Reuben Kincaid… they tried a number of things. There was this comedian who was really not funny. Still not funny. I think the network took it out of its time slot, put it up against what was the No. 1 show, All in the Family, in its last year, and put it on Saturday night when young people go out usually, and the show died a death.

It’s cool that even though you’ve moved forward, you don’t distance yourself from your Partridge past; you embrace it. There are some former teen stars who totally denounce that part of their careers.

I guess that’s because they’re ashamed of it. I can’t really comment on it for other people; I can only say that for me it’s because of the following that I’ve had that people pay to see me. Certainly, I have a lot of [newer] fans, people who have seen me and my work in the past 10 years, but I think that most people who I’ve had an impact on came through my television work, being on television that past 25 years, on Nick at Nite, VH1. It goes on and on and on and on and on. I feel good about it. I have no apologies to make for being so successful. But I don’t like it when they use the term “teen idol.” I always back away from labels, as I think it inhibits your creativity and your opportunities. Man, don’t call me a former teen idol. Don’t call me a heartthrob. Don’t call me a sex symbol. Call me a writer, a singer, a producer, an actor. Tell me I’m bad, tell me I’m lousy. But don’t call me that. I needn’t say anything more, other than I’m really proud that I feel that way about the material, that I cut enough songs that I wanted 20-odd years later to go back and recut them [on Old Trick New Dog]. I guess Eric Clapton with “Layla” — he’s certainly cut that song every possible way, and that’s always been his signature song, so why not?

Why did you choose to do Partridge Family songs on Old Trick New Dog, and why did you choose the style you remade them in?

The style I chose to do them in was like the acts I used to listen to as a kid growing up: Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, the Supremes, Sam & Dave. There were lots of soul bands. I mean, the Rascals were a white band that played soul. You can name lots of them that were R&B/soul-oriented; Hendrix, very much so. I got exposed to a lot more styles, because of the time when I grew up, than people are now. There was one or two radio stations in town that played hit music, and you’d hear Tony Bennett, the Beatles, Petula Clark, the Stones, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave. You’d hear everything and anything, all on the same station. I’ve never been ashamed of my musical influences, which I think are incredible, and the fact that I lived in a time, growing up as teenager, where I got to see Marvin Gaye, I got to see B.B. King, I got to see Eric Clapton, I got to see Jimi Hendrix five times, I got to see the Velvet Underground, I got to see the Doors, I got to see Buffalo Springfield… I’m thinking about all the acts I saw, like Buffalo Springfield at my high school; they played an assembly. I got to see the Doors at the Whisky. I saw the Stones in ’68. I saw Hendrix five times. I saw Jimi Hendrix open for the Mamas & the Papas.

So consequently, we were all exposed to really different styles. I made a couple of RCA albums, and if you listen, I was doing a lot of R&B stuff back then. It’s now just in terms of using the technology that’s available and using the organic stuff, which is where I come from. I chose to do those songs because I played them in ’91 or ’92 when I went out and toured, and people come up and talk to me about them every day. And they were my favorite songs from that era. There were one or two others, but I wanted to incorporate the songs and embrace the songs and be true to the integrity of the songs, and yet sing them as a completely different guy now. And so consequently, they’re much sexier, they’re more soulful. But certainly the influences of today have steered me in that direction.

Do you think the time is right to bring back those old Partridge songs, particularly “I Think I Love You,” which was so prominent in Scream 2, in the cafeteria scene where Jerry O’Connell serenades Neve Campbell?

I didn’t see Scream 2, but “I Think I Love You” was nominated [for a Clio Award] in a Levi’s commercial. It’s been in people’s consciousness, and it’s hard to call it just a record. It’s almost like an earmark of a whole generation, an innocence. People love it; I love it. It’s a great song, and great songs survive and they get recut and redone. With a great song, you can do it lots of different ways in lots of different styles. Look at how many people cut “Fever.” I did it because I thought people that would buy this record, some of which would be my old fans, would really love it, and there are a lot of people who never heard my records. I certainly wanted to make a record that was radio-friendly.

Did you hear Less Than Jake’s version on the Scream 2 soundtrack?

No. A couple people told me they didn’t like it. When I heard what they wanted to do with it, I assumed it would be a grunge sort of ear-crunching thing. Not that I don’t like some of that stuff, but it’s a great melody and it’s a great lyric, so if you want to kill the melody and kill the lyric, why even cut it? Find something else.

When you performed “I Think I Love You” as the surprise finale on the 1997 Billboard Music Awards, how did that come about?

They called me and invited me to come and do that; it took place at the MGM Grand Garden, and I play at the MGM Grand Theater [in the Las Vegas show EFX]. They called me about a month before and said, “We want you to be the surprise guest, and we want you to close the show. We’re using the theme of television and music, and if anybody’s that guy, it’s you. With what you’ve done with you career in the ’90s, it makes perfect sense, especially since you have a following here in Vegas.” I had just cut the new single. I sent it to them and said, “You better listen to this, because I’m coming out with a record in a few months.” They listened to it and said, “We absolutely love it, but what we’re doing here is not with this and you. We want you to be more true to the original version [of ‘I Think I Love You’].” So I went and sort of did a little bit of a hybrid, a lot beefier than the original record but true to its arrangement. And I had a great time. I heard an awful lot of positive feedback about it.

I just love to perform. I do it a lot. I’m not good at many things, but I’m good at that, you know? And I’m lucky that I am, because if I wasn’t successful at it, I probably wouldn’t be very successful at life, because I really don’t do very many things well. I wasn’t big enough and I wasn’t quite good enough as an athlete, which I loved — I’m a huge sports fan. As a ballplayer, I just wasn’t quite good enough, and probably too small. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to be in a creative field, and I’ve done what a lot of people, I guess, assumed I couldn’t do — because of my early career. But I think a lot of that was based on me playing a role on television and, like you said, people identifying me with that role, when I was a lot different [from Keith Partridge]. Obviously now they know, but at the time it was really difficult.

So how did you get away from the Keith stereotype?

I left. I retired from playing stadiums and closed the cover on that part of my career. I retired for three and a half years, and I came back as an actor. I got nominated for an Emmy for a two-hour movie [Police Story’s “A Chance to Live”] that was a dramatic role, and subsequently did a series [David Cassidy: Man Undercover]; they used the movie as a spinoff for that series, which it wasn’t intended to be, and the series was pretty disastrous. It was night shooting, most of it, in downtown L.A. in the wintertime. It was just so unpleasant. I was going through so much personally; I’d lost my father the year before, and I’d lost my manager. I was in really bad shape. The show wasn’t successful, and it shouldn’t have been. But I got wooed into doing it, and I just knew then that I needed to do something else, and try not to capitalize or rely upon or compete with my fame and my career that I kept on the shelf. “There it is five years of your life, let’s encapsulate it. There are all your records, there’s all your merchandising, and now it’s over.” So I began to go back to acting class and work with other actors.

What came next?

I did some theater, and I began playing again for fun though I didn’t make another record until 1984, when I recorded an album for Arista in the U.K. I moved to the U.K. and I was in the horse business and doing pretty well in the ’80s, and devoting an awful lot of time to it: raising, breeding, raising, managing. I really enjoyed it, but I missed doing what I do the best. I was playing and writing a little bit, and I went over to England and started writing with Alan Tarney. He had just signed an act called Wham!, and he introduced me to George Michael, who was a big fan. George actually later sang some background and produced a track that neither one of us wrote [“The Last Kiss”]. I had a huge record in England and Europe, and because of my difficult relationship with Clive Davis, I wasn’t signed. He felt slighted that I wouldn’t just give him the record, that I wanted to make a separate deal. My production company and my publishing company got into a lawsuit with Arista and the record never came out, was never released. But I wrote a couple of good songs — “The Last Kiss” is a good song, even though it’s a pretty dated record now, pretty 1984. I did a big tour over there, I did well.

So between the theater — doing Joseph on Broadway, and in that two years in England I also did Time in the West End — I didn’t have a lot of creative freedom in the ’80s. Also, my emotional self was not healed. I went into analysis for three and a half years, starting in 1987. So by 1990, when I started recording for Enigma, I had already been writing for a year, and had gotten covers by Cher and Heart and Asia. As people started covering my songs, I signed a publishing deal. I was signed, but not as an artist. So again, it’s about the work, not about the result. It’s not about fame, it’s not about money — it’s about doing what I like to do. And I think I do it well. I found the world opened its arms to me. I played some demos on [KLOS radio show] Mark & Brian in L.A., and the response was unbelievable — I got three offers from labels from one time on the radio. Enigma had a tremendous enthusiasm, the whole label. A lot of really big fans. But unfortunately, they ran out of money.

Did that sour you on record companies? There was a big gap between albums.

Yeah, it soured me. I began writing and recording shortly after, I did a tour, and I just thought the record business at that time was beginning to fragment. Independent labels were started to happen. If your intention is to make a lot of money, you can build a little label, build some credibility, get a certain amount of hipness, and then get $5 or $10 million by selling to a major label. That’s not my intention. I’m not saying it won’t happen — if they make me an offer, that’s great — but that’s not my intention. My intention is to be successful and fully support the record as much as I can afford to do, all the way from the recording to marketing to manufacturing to independent promotion, doing in-stores. I know how to do it. I have an audience.

Is there a reason why you chose you release Old Trick New Dog on your own record label, Slamajama, instead of going with an established label?

I never played the album for anyone, never had any intention of doing anything else. I’ve been wanting to do this for the last few years, and it’s been seven years since I made a record, so I had a lot of people telling me I should go here and I should go there. And I realized that I’d walk in with my hat in my hand, going, “Please listen to this, please sign me!” And I thought, “Wait a minute. I’ve sold nearly 30 million records. I play to nearly 3,000 people a night, and those are people that are potential record buyers.” A lot of fans of mine are out there. I know that this is something I should do myself, because I know how to get to them; I know how to reach them. I have gone through the experience of being with a big record company, and I’ve gone through the experience of being with a small record company. I’ve gone through the experience of putting out a good record that wasn’t heard, and mediocre record that everybody bought. So I understand what it takes. The Enigma Records experience really taught me the most. I went to 120 radio stations personally, and I shook hands with the guys that put your CD in a box and ship it to the rack-jobbers. I got all the way down, met all the distributors. It means something when you personally show up and you do that. You understand the way it works; you understand that it takes that guy to do that job. Without him, I’m nothing — I’d be pumping gas.

You released your album early on the internet. Are you into the web? Are you aware of all the David Cassidy websites out there? [Editor’s note: Back in 1998, this was a relevant question!]

I’ve heard about those sites. I don’t go on the net. I did twice, and the response was amazing; I did it through a friend of mine. And then someone got on the web and impersonated me, began talking about my father’s sexuality, his bisexuality, his homosexuality, and he — or she — was speaking as my voice. So I sent a message through my friend that I would no longer ever be communicating through the internet, unless it was on my page, because that was the only way they would know it was me, and if anyone were speaking as me, it would be false. It was disturbing and unfortunate, but there are disturbed people out there.

You never found out who it was?

No. We couldn’t trace it. We tried — had some people really trying. I have a feeling I know the culprit. There are some slightly twisted people out there who have followed me; you can just tell they’re unbalanced. But the majority, 99.9 percent of the people, are great. It’s a shame, the world we live in. But hey, that’s life.

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