It was a cold, rainy February evening when the summons came from Rupp Arena.
The headlining artist that evening required an audience. Well, all artists seek an audience. That's why they play the arena. But the audience sought in this instance was the press.
Over the years, a few country artists have made a big to-do with reporters before shows. But rock acts? Hardly ever.
But who was I to argue? The artist requesting a news conference was Paul McCartney.
The year was 1990, long before blogs and long before the accentuated presence of alternative press or even cable news networks. The backstage room where the conference was held was filled with all of 15 people — essentially, reporters from the local television stations, their photographers and me.
"What the deal?" I thought to myself. "Where is everybody? This is a Beatle for crying out loud."
About 15 minutes after the gathering was called, in walked McCartney and his wife, Linda — unassuming in appearance but not temperament. We were told that time was tight and that each reporter was allowed only one question. After that, the McCartneys — then in the midst of their first major North American tour in 14 years — were off to take a sold-out Rupp audience on a quintessential pop nostalgia ride.
That amounted to about a dozen questions, all of which Paul fielded without assistance from Linda, all of which he answered at length with polite candor and insight.
My turn was at hand. I learned long ago that when you know your interview time with a subject is limited, ask broad-ranging questions. Better an overview-type reply than a sliver of detail that leaves the work of the subject largely uncovered.
As such, during the roughly five minutes I was eye-to-eye with a Beatle, this was my question: "What do you hope to accomplish on this tour?" I thought that would spark something, especially since the tour marked the first time McCartney was bringing many of his Beatles classics to the stage since the band's 1970 demise (McCartney's 1976 tour tipped the scales far more in favor of music made by his ensemble Wings).
McCartney smiled at the question, paused a moment and sailed into a lengthy discourse on the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which he was promoting on the tour. I felt suddenly numb. My one shot at asking a question of Paul McCartney, and I'm getting a truckload of gushing sound bites for what was, essentially, a sponsor.
"Hey, I'm all for folks who want to save the earth," I thought to myself. "But they can by God get their own face time with Paul McCartney."
Accolades complete, McCartney ended his embracement of Friends of the Earth by looking me square in the eye and said, "And that's what I love to tell people about, especially when folks like you ask questions like that."
I sunk. I had been duped by a Beatle. I had been presented with a dose of well-meaning environmental backslapping that, in the context of a music story and review, was pretty much worthless.
But instead of moving on to the next reporter, McCartney paused. "There are some other things I hope to accomplish, too," he said.
And with that the floodgates opened, and McCartney waxed on about his famed music with the Beatles, his then-new solo album Flowers in the Dirt and the prospect of playing to American audiences again after such a lengthy hiatus.
I got what I hoped for.
Now, 21 years later, with McCartney every bit the image of rock 'n' roll resiliency at age 67 and a tour that visits Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park on Thursday, I remember with subtle unease how this pop icon nearly had the best of me. Then, as now, the once-and-forever Beatle is the master of any arena before him — be it a stadium full of 50,000 fans of all ages and expectations or a room with one very playable journalist.