Welcome to The Quazcast, a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.
I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that. The Quazcast is about digging deep and avoiding the cliché questions and answers that too often plague sports interviews.
This week’s guest is Kay Hanley, the former lead singer for Letters To Cleo. From cheering on the Boston Red Sox during their World Series to performing the National Anthem at Gillette Stadium on multiple occasions, Hanley is an enormous supporter of the Boston sports scene.
In addition to being the vocalist for Letters To Cleo, Hanley has written and performed songs for multiple television series, films and video games. She has also released several solo albums and EPs. Football fans in the Boston area will never forget her streak of performing eight straight National Anthems before New England Patriots wins.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation and a recording of the complete interview. As always, to get future podcasts downloaded straight to your listening device, you can subscribe to The Quazcast on iTunes.
Jeff Pearlman: So I live in New York, I was at SI (Sports Illustrated) during a lot of the Yankee dynasty and I always thought the Yankees’ fans got a little spoiled, obviously, you win, you win, you win, you spend the most money and I remember in ’96 when they won for the first time in years and years, since ’78 and it was just magical, it was really magical, it was really intense and Jim Leyritz became this sort of iconic New York hero and is that gone for Red Sox fans? Can it be as sweet this year as it was when they won the first one in 2004?
Kay Hanley: 2004 was insane, but a lot of that had to do with the ALDS where we had that incredible series against the Yanks where we were down, but we came back and swept them in the last four, I mean that was like, that may have been the most incredible series of my life and it’s funny because at the time I was in-studio with my writing partner, Michelle Lewis who is a life-long Yanks fan. We just happened to be recording an EP at the time for a band and we were in the studio everyday and it just so happened to coincide with the series and I had an MLB.com subscription and so we made this deal with each other that we would, every other game we would either listen to [Boston radio] or we would do the simulcast on her local radio station in New York. Anyway, we know what happened with that series, Michelle and I managed to remain friends and we’re still writing partners to this day. So it didn’t put the nail in the coffin with our friendship or anything.
That to me was like maybe the most incredible, I don’t know, confidence builder? It just changed my perception of what the Red Sox could accomplish, I’ve never seen or experienced anything like that in my life and then of course we went on to take the whole thing. So in 2004 it was much different, the series against the Cards, even though there was some fear in games two and three it was like ‘ohhhhh nooooooo’ and they definitely scared us for a minute there, but by the time we got to game six there was a sense of… it was just different, it was different, it felt like it could happen.
JP: I’ve had a conversation with a lot of people in New York about the Red Sox, a lot of Yankee fans and some Mets fans, I think there’s a begrudging acknowledgement that the Red Sox are kind of likeable. It’s hard to hate David Ortiz, maybe you think he’s on some sort of juice or something, but he’s a loveable character and the beards, I felt like John Lackey seemed like a doof and I guess what he did to his wife wasn’t so nice, but as a whole they seem like a likeable sort of group and I think most people even here kind of acknowledge that they aren’t the jerks. Can you feel that way about New York players? Like can you hate Derek Jeter?
KH: I was going to use him as an example about how it shifts the other way, there is nothing to hate about that guy. He’s a great athlete, good guy, puts his nose to the grindstone and get his job done and he just seems like a nice person, I think he’s great and I’m a fan of him as an athlete and as a team player, so yeah I get that and it really was hard to hate the Red Sox team this year and we’ve had that a couple of other times with like “Cowboy Up” and “The Idiots” and stuff like that, like even our stars aren’t like superstars on the national stage, like our Pedroias. I don’t know, I guess the word to use is that he’s probably the closest thing we have to a household name outside of Boston.
JP: I just had a really fascinating talk with former Chiefs’ linebacker named Pierre Walters, I was talking with him for an hour about this idea of “the life.” You come up and you always dream of “the life,” you’re him and you dream of the NFL, maybe you’re Kay Hanley and you dream of musical success to one degree or another and people assume that once you reach “the life” that this dreamy existence awaits.
“Oh my god you play in the major leagues, you’re life must be a dream.” “Oh my god, you have a record deal, you’re getting paid to sing? You’re life must just be a dream.” You’ve reached the dream, is there any legitimacy to that idea whatsoever or is it just a total mirage of nonsense?
KH: There is some truth to that I think, at least in my experience having, getting “the life,” but here’s the thing, “the life” as you describe it is fleeting so you have to take that experience of getting “the life” and figure out how to turn that into an actual life.
Last time we spoke we talked about guys kind of hit their stride outside of their athletic heyday, you know guys who have gone on to either coach or become talking heads on game day, on television or become writers or become agents or whatever and in my case figuring out a way to sort of parlay “the life” into the real life that I want which is turning writing music into a career and not trying to hold onto this fleeting thing of being a pop star. Turning that into a career because it’s never going to be and if you’re an athlete and you get hurt and you haven’t thought about what you might do after you’re off the field, you know, you’re kinda [in trouble].
JP: To give some background, Kay was in Letters to Cleo for 10 years, a great run, here now was a song that for time was ubiquitous, it was featured on Melrose Place, etc., etc. I think it’s the equivalent in many ways athletically of a guy in his prime and so you’re some athlete and you’re in your prime, you’ve made it, playing for the Denver Broncos, you’re starting at linebacker for the Denver Broncos, you’ve made it to the show and you think this is it, this is it, this is the greatest thing ever, is it harder to deal with than people think or is it floating on a cloud?
KH: Well for me it was harder than you’d think, I did not like it, I did not feel comfortable.
JP: Why is that?
KH: I did not feel comfortable being the lead. I felt comfortable being the lead singer in a band when it was my hobby and when I was waiting tables and my band was my thing that I did to escape and blow off steam and to play at the local clubs and stuff. That was the best thing ever, but once we got our deal and it became my job and people were making me do it and I had to do it, I was very resentful and I felt really embarrassed about having people tell me how to look and how to act and what to say in interviews. It just felt very uncomfortable to me. It was embarrassing and I just felt silly, it made me cranky and I just really rebelled against it, which did not do me or my band mates any favors.
We were luckier in our circumstances than my behaviour might have dictated because I definitely sabotaged things for all of us many times, but the good news is that we’ve all, in our band, gone on to do other things and we’re all happy and employed in other areas. For myself I started to get little clues of how I could turn this into something that would make me happy, like when I did Josie and the Pussycats I was lucky enough to get this incredible gig doing Rachel Leigh Cook’s voice for the film Josie and the Pussycats. So I did all the vocals for that and it was at that point when I met Babyface, who was producing the songs for the movie, that I saw his life and how he had like gone behind the scenes and like he was controlling the show. He was making the calls. He was making the plays and he was making the money, but he was responsible for his failures and his dismisses and I wanted that, I wanted control over my own destiny. I didn’t want some old guy at the record label who really, we weren’t partners in this thing you know it was like he was trying to make records with a bunch of different people and whoever was getting the hits was going to get the attention. I was not a partner in that, I was a pawn I guess and I never felt comfortable with that.
JP: I have a book coming out shortly about the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s and they had a guy on their team, famous ball player named Bob McAdoo and McAdoo hated Boston. He thought it was a racist city. Well, really he thought it was a racist, bigoted city and he thought if you was an African-american ball player going into Boston he was never going to be embraced or that it was a different criteria. Of course I remember probably about two decades ago now, was it Dee Brown, am I right on that? Dee Brown was stopped by cops and pinned to the ground and Boston definitely has that reputation from afar. I don’t know up close, but from afar and I wonder if that’s fair or not? If that is a fair thing that Boston has to deal with or is that something from twenty years ago and we need to move on?
KH: Oh, it’s definitely not like it used to be. I mean when I was growing up, I actually did grow up in a racially mixed area of Dorchester and it was hardcore, but you know, I went to school with black kids and black kids went to school with white kids, which actually was not very normal in Boston in the 70s and 80s. I also had friends from the Southie projects. I mean this was not long ago, this was in the late 80s. Black people still could not move into the projects in Southie which is insane. There were three white projects in South Boston, it was acceptable in Boston, no one including blacks had any interest in changing it and I remember when I attended high school briefly on Deacon Hill at this public school that was affiliated with Dorchester high and I remember that was the first time I’ve ever walked up and down Newbury street and I was like you could walk from one end to the other and not ever see a black or brown person and I remember that lasted into the 90s. You would walk from one end of Newbury street to the other and never see a person of colour and this was just so, for people to say that about Boston, especially in the 80s, was not unfair. I think Boston – for all of its reputation of being this like Liberal bastion or whatever – was incredibly racist, but in a different way than you would find in the South and that people were just completely ghettoised in every possible way.
JP: What of the four major sports, if you’re Boston, do you care about the least?
KH: People will be sad to hear this, at least two of the four people listening today will be sad to hear that I don’t care for hockey very much.
JP: Wow, so Bobby Orr shows up, ehhh don`t care?
KH: Well, in the 70s I was into hockey, so no, if Bobby Orr showed up I`d be stoked. I went to see the Bruins play against the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup last year in Chicago, so I mean, I love all sports but I`m just not invested in the Bruins.
To hear the entire interview – including similarities between the sanitization of sports and music ,and the general lack of authenticity and individuality in professional sports - you can download the podcast here or listen below.
Jeff Pearlman is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of six books including Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, The Bad Guys Won (a biography of the 1986 New York Mets) and Boys Will Be Boys (an account of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty from the 1990s). His newest book – Showtime (due to be released on February 11, 2014) - explores another famous sports dynasty: the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.