In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the approximately 40 bazillion teenage girls who plastered their bedroom walls with posters of Leif Garrett throughout the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, I had it so bad for the sleepy-eyed, flaxen-haired heartthrob that my best bud and I would spend hours throwing suction-tip darts at the images and smooching whichever one we hit. So when I finally scored an interview with Garrett, Channel Guide‘s copy chief, Jill, encouraged me not to share that particular story — or as she sagely put it, “Don’t lead with the crazy.”
I led with the crazy. And quickly discovered that my lifelong crush has evolved into an open, charming and entirely self-aware gentleman who is humbled by the international legion of fans who refuse to see his tabloid press as the sum total of the man and his career. And thanks to Garrett’s comical and sometimes self-satirizing commentary on truTV’s flagship clip show World’s Dumbest, that legion has expanded to include the kids and husbands of the long-ago girls with the posters on their walls.
“Yesterday I was at a place called Rock & Reilly’s on the Sunset Strip — I met my friend Lisa Foxx, the DJ from Star 98.7, there for lunch — and the waitress comes over and says, ‘There’s a fan at the end of the bar who would like to say hello,’” Garrett says. “She points him out and it’s a guy! He was straight as hell and so nervous and it was so flattering. I’m so used to the girls, and I was like, ‘That is awesome!’”
According to Jason Cilo, executive producer of World’s Dumbest and president of Meetinghouse Productions, Inc., it’s that broad-based appeal that landed Garrett on truTV’s executive vice president and COO Marc Juris’ short list to crack wise on the show.
“There’s a likability to him that’s different from other celebrities you may encounter,” Cilo says. “The cast has that in common — they wear their celebrity like a loose-fitting garment. They’re not uptight about it. They’re not invested in diva treatment. They respect the opportunity and they’re totally professional.”
“Wow, I like that quote,” Garrett says when I share Cilo’s loose-garment remark. “It’s almost exactly right. I don’t hide from it — and I’m not a recluse by any means — but I don’t like being treated like that. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve sat with royalty and I know how to do all of that and that’s fun, as well. But I also know how to make the man on the street, the homeless person feel comfortable, too. I’m a people person and I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. Because I think we’re all in this together.”
I talked with Garrett about his past, his future, music, his hopes for his family and the perils of 24/7 celebrity.
CGM: Since making it known via Twitter that I would be interviewing you, I’ve heard from fans of yours from as far away as Australia, all clamoring for anything they can find out about you and how your mom is doing and what you’re doing next. Are you amazed at the legion of lifelong fans you have out there?
LG: I have a hard time dealing with it sometimes, but at the same time it’s so flattering. It’s a very interesting thing to have happen to you. And I don’t get it. I really don’t get it. It sounds so hokey and cliché-ish, but I’m just a human being like everyone else. I guess everything coming together in perfect harmony at that moment made it happen. It was, obviously, the way I looked and the way I presented myself — the clothing, the attitude, the music — that sort of thing. At least I would imagine.
Whatever it is, it’s very flattering and I feel privileged to have gone through it, even with the downsides of it — my management being complete thieves, and making some bad decisions, and stuff like that. Even with all of those things, I wouldn’t change it.
CGM: I spoke with Worlds Dumbest‘s executive producer Jason Cilo about working with you on the show and he said you were on the short list of people who truTV’s GM Marc Juris wanted to approach to do the series. How were you approached and how did you make the decision to take part?
LG: They called my people and explained what it was — watching video clips and doing commentary on camera and they said, “Would you like to take a shot at it — do you think it would be funny or do you think it would not be funny?”
And I’m a frustrated comedian, honestly. I’m known to be a bit of practical joker and prankster. So I have fun with this stuff. But at the same time, it’s blown me away how it’s taken off as well as it did. It’s super-popular and I get a lot of mail from the show. We’re keeping people interested, so that’s awesome.
CGM: And it’s letting you build a whole new fan base, in a whole different arena …
LG: That’s exactly right. The platform is awesome, because reality TV made it possible for me to do this — and now I’m ready to go do standup, maybe try an open-mic night. Because I like to meet chicks [laughs] and because I think it would be fun. It’s definitely a trapeze act — you either make it or you fail. It’s not like doing comedy on camera where you joke around and they take the best stuff. With the live audience, it’s like doing a live singing performance — you know the immediate feedback, you know how things are going, and you adjust accordingly.
Obviously, I would love to do it on film and in other venues as well, but [for now] I have a few friends who are coaching me. I’d like to at least try it anyway. Even if I don’t continue pursuing it, just to say that I’ve tried it would be really cool.
CGM: I’m all for it — especially if you eventually take your act on the road and tour the country, ahem.
LG: [laughs] Another vote for trying it! All right!
CGM: Cilo also said he thinks your life and your journey would make a great docuseries in and of itself — if you ever got to a place where you’d be open to that. Is that something that you’d be interested in doing, or do you prefer to keep your private life private as much as you are able?
LG: That’s the only problem … because this has been sitting on the table for a while. The possibility of doing that was presented to me, I’d say, maybe two or three years ago? And I just can’t figure out the format yet — how to do a reality show and keep as much of my private life private. Because they do want to be there for your entire life, basically. So I’d like to do one on something like me trying racecar driving — have the cameras follow me doing that. If there’s a way of doing it without every day going back into my home, and like, “There’s Leif brushing his teeth!” That’s just errrgh.
CGM: It’s a little scary how, courtesy of reality television and social media and the like, people seem to believe we have the right to every moment of someone’s life if they choose to be in the entertainment industry.
LG: It’s amazing how voyeuristic we’ve become as a people and a whole. The whole gossip machine, and the gossip websites — it’s just out of control. There’s a cool thing about mystique and not being there when somebody’s in a light that you don’t want to see them in. Sometimes it’s good to have our fantasies and our idols.
I mean, I don’t want to see Robert Plant getting dressed or grocery shopping or whatever. I want to think of him onstage, live and doing his thing. Don’t get me wrong, I mean I’ve met him and it’s OK that he’s human — but there’s that part where you’re not living with them, you’re not their boyfriend or their girlfriend, and you don’t need to know all of the intimate details that should only be for someone that close to you.
CGM: And that’s the story you should get to make up in your head — what your idol is “really like” offscreen. The rest ruins the magic.
LG: That’s part of the fun!
CGM: And now Twitter has literally made for 24/7 celebrity …
LG: I heard there’s, like, 45 million fans on Facebook and 25 million fans on Twitter that are getting Justin Bieber’s updates every hour. You ever heard of “familiarity breeds contempt”?
CGM: … and everyone has cellphone cameras, too, so no matter where you are, someone can snap a photo.
LG: And now phones have cameras that can do a live feed, too — you can send a live feed to somebody!
Some things should be private. Let’s say a basketball team wins a championship and they’re in the locker room. They’re sitting in their locker room enjoying their win. Those are things that only they need to feel and be a part of. Those guys — who earned it, who fought for it. Not somebody who just sits at home and flicks the channel on and gets to be there.
CGM: And no matter how famous you are, should you really have to be confined to your own home to ensure your privacy?
LG: There’s no chance to screw up! And we all screw up! And that’s OK!
CGM: Well, speaking of invading your privacy, where can your fans see you next and what are you working on now?
LG: I’m about to play the Sunset Music Festival coming up in August here in L.A., and I am probably going on tour to Korea again. I went two years ago, but it looks like I’ll be going back in October. And then I’ve been talking to the person in Europe that I’m doing a record with. His name is Chilli Aguilar and he’s a big artist in Spain and France. I’m doing a single with him as we speak. I’m doing a remake of “Surfin’ USA” — by his choice, not mine. [laughs]
It’s crazy, but I’ve been getting letters from people in their teens and 20s that want to come see a show because they’ve heard the music online. So there are things about the future that are really cool. We just did a remake of Neil Young’s Old Man — and by “we” I mean me and my guitarist and writing partner Craig Else — and “Help You, Make You” is the new song that’s really good. It’s very close to what I needed to get out with my Zeppelin thing. I think I’m done now. I feel good now that I got that out there. I’ve exorcised my Zeppelin demons. [laughs]
CGM: There’s nothing wrong with Zeppelin demons. If you said you had Bieber demons I might worry.
LG: I gotta tell you, I don’t think his new singles are that great — and I’d give him props if I thought they were really good. Justin Timberlake is the one who knocked me out. He blows my mind, because he made the crossover — because he had people working with him instead of against him. His people did the right thing by hiring Timbaland to do his producing. He was the hottest thing in producing at the time and the other artists that he worked with, they all had nice No. 1 singles.
That was really smart, because the audience grows up and you have to grow up with them or you get left behind. You can’t keep making that kind of music when you’re 25 — it just doesn’t happen. It’s like, you were listening to the Mamas and the Papas and now you’re listening to Frank Zappa. It’s that big jump. You went from Elton John to Zeppelin to Sabbath. Your tastes get a little more experimental and dangerous, so to speak — the stuff that your parents thought was really not good. But you really needed to hear it … and you liked it. [laughs]
CGM: Plus almost everything on pop radio now sounds the same. Bands hit with one song, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon and you never hear from any of them one CD later.
LG: It’s too quick! This is part of what we were talking about — it’s all happening so fast now that you can’t put out a few singles and wait for a year to see if your first record does well. In that time, people are pushing you off the edge and standing in your shoes. There’s no room to take a break. You have to hit it hard and keep going and keep going and keep going until you just can’t take it anymore.
And hopefully your fans will still be around when you come back.
CGM: Plus, what exactly is supposed to be the “classic rock” for this generation of kids?
LG: That’s what I want to know!
CGM: People wonder why everyone still clings to the music that actually debuted on vinyl. Now everything you hear on the radio is so vapid. I mean, whatever happened to lyrics that spoke about what the singer was feeling … other than “I’m wasted”
LG: They’re so gross. And the misogynistic lyrics — ugh! I hate them. Hate them. It’s the lowest common denominator of human intelligence. How many boats you have? I don’t care. I don’t care how many naked women you have dancing around your pool.
CGM: I seriously doubt that those are the albums that kids are going to be clinging to when they become adults and are telling their own kids, “God, this record just said so much about how I was feeling and what I was going through at that particular time!” Although now I guess you have to cling to your iPod, anyway.
LG: And whatever happened to the journey that you go on? There were artists that didn’t need hit singles to be out there and be heard — such as Pink Floyd. Where you listened to the record from beginning to end and you got the whole vibe of them going into the studio and how they felt while they were doing it. That euphoric feeling you got from feeling like you were a part of it.
CGM: And now when I listen to music from before the days of auto-tune, I’m almost overwhelmed with nostalgia for the honesty and the character in the voices.
LG: Neil Young — can you imagine Neil Young’s voice on a tuner? Bob Dylan on a tuner? Are you out of your mind? Willie Nelson on a tuner. No! Robert Plant? C’mon! The “bad notes” are part of it — and they’re not even bad notes. It’s a feeling. There’s a reason that they left it in.
CGM: So what would constitute the perfect career to you — movies? Music? Both?
LG: Everything was absolutely perfect up until ’84. And ’84 was when the Scotti Brothers made the mistake of telling Paramount and Universal that I didn’t want to sign to a two-picture deal after doing The Outsiders. They started their own production company with me doing a movie about … foosball. Are you out of your fricking minds? I just did The Outsiders and you’re having me do a B-movie about foosball now?
I knew how we had to make my crossover to adulthood. But the people who were in charge, supposedly, had no intention of ever letting me have any kind of say in anything. I would have made a better choice than believe what I was told — that I had no other offers and nothing else came in. They were greedy and wanted to start a production company with me.
CGM: Seems like you really didn’t have much of a dog in that fight, since you and your mom were both pretty much at the mercy of your management.
LG: Exactly. And I was busy doing the other work. I was busy being in front of the camera while other decisions were being made. And that was just totally wrong.
You know, my mom, I love her to death and, God bless her, she’s hanging in there. She was given six months to a year to live seven years ago now — stage 4 lung cancer out of nowhere. She never smoked a day in her life. I’ve smoked everything under the sun and I’m OK. It’s so bizarre. I don’t get it.
But she looks great; doesn’t look her age at all. I see her every day, and she’s sort of coming to terms with things. It’s a weird process to watch — coming and going at the same time. Really getting her whole life and existence, and realizing mistakes that she made. And she’s come to terms with that and apologized to me about not being on top of things, and about being naive. And that’s all very true. Like you said, my mom was always just a puppet— because she never wanted to be considered a stage mother. She never wanted to be looked upon in that light.
CGM: And your sister [actress Dawn Lyn] was also in show business, so she was responsible for both of you …
And I would really like my sister to reconcile with the family, because it’s been split for a long time and that’s really depressing. It bothers me a whole lot.
CGM: Are you in contact with her?
LG: Not really. For some reason my sister has it in her head that I am my mother’s champion only. That I’m on “her side,” as she puts it. I’m not taking sides. I just want those two to … [sighs heavily] … to just tell each other how they feel about each other. Because I know that they love each other. They may not like each other very much sometimes, but that’s OK. That’s just the way things go. But that’s your mother. You came from her loins. You can’t deny that.
CGM: And there does come a point, especially when you get to be our age, where you have to just accept that your mother is always going to think of you as her child. Hopefully that can evolve into thinking of you as her adult child at some point, but …
LG: Oddly enough with my quote-unquote dad — my sperm donor [laughs] — he feels so badly about missing the years when you know you’re so proud to have son, like from age 12 to manhood, when you help influence and guide your son’s life. Well, he missed out on all that stuff. He is regretting missing that and he now treats me like that. And I’m trying to get him to understand that I’m a 50-year-old man. I’m not a 16-year-old kid anymore That boat’s gone. “I’m still your son. And I will always be your child. But you just can’t do this — you can’t treat me like a kid. That won’t work.”
It’s very bizarre because he’s missing out on time that we could spend together being friends and doing stuff like working on his hot rods or whatever. Goin’ fishin’! With a cooler full of pop — “Hey you want another cola, Dad?” “Yeah, all right.” [laughs] But he’s too busy feeling guilt.
And listen, even my mother does this — but she’s stopped in the last year, which I’m really proud of — but they both still have venom in their breath for one another. Which blows my mind! Because they were either the most in love people ever on earth or they hate each other so much that they can still, after 45 years of being split apart, still talk sh*t about one another and even care. That scares the hell out of me! That freaks me out! To hold a grudge that long? That’s really sad. That seems stagnant — 45 years! I just hope I didn’t get any of that in my genes.
CGM: So does that affect how you feel about having a family of your own — or can you see yourself having a child someday?
LG: You know, at 16 I always used to say that I never want to have a kid because I don’t want to bring it into this world. And I’ve kind of kept to that — but my paternal instincts have become very strong. I think that’s, in part, me growing up, too — because I’ve hung on to Peter Pan for a long time. And I never want to completely lose that, but part of me needs to grow up a little more. And I’ve been doing that as slowly as possible. But that’s in certain areas. In other areas — like I’ve finally learned to balance a checkbook! [laughs]
LG: I’m really good at math now. I’m great at math now!
So I would love a kid right now, but I think I want to adopt. I mean, I really want a kid of my own, too, but if that doesn’t happen, I’m not going to force it to happen and become involved with someone that I’m going to eventually regret seeing, just because that’s the mother of my child. I don’t want to do that. I mean, maybe that’s just the way it goes. But the person that I really wanted to spend the rest of my life with [actress Elaine Bilstad] passed away and that one hurt real bad. She was an angel. She was amazing to me — that someone of that much beauty, not only physically, but also in her heart and in her soul could be taken from here so quickly.
That would have been the person I would have had a child with. And I haven’t met anyone I feel that way about since.
New episodes of World’s Dumbest air Thursday nights at 9/8CT on truTV. Leif Garrett fans can send email to info@Leifgarrett.net.