Philadelphian, Pierre Robert got his start with WMMR in 1981. Pierre is known for his eccentric personality – which has treated him well, becoming one of the most identifiable disk jockeys in radio history. Because Pierre is a seasoned La Colombe regular, it would only be right to turn the mic around and have our own “Coffee Break Music Marathon.”
PR: Let me mix my coffee first. You as a barista know: Every cup is unique; every cup is suited for a particular person, so there has to be the right chemical balance. In your experience how many people just drink it black?
T: Alright, from your standpoint, can you give me your La Colombe history lesson?
PR: Well, I don’t remember when it started. What I do remember is your location. The Wellington building is right across the street from La Colombe on 19th street. MMR was based in this building for the first 23 to 24 years. We were on the third floor right on the corner. Our office space was kind of a dump compared to the high-tech stuff you would see, but the location was priceless. We could open the window and look out on the square. The square is my favorite spot in the city. On a beautiful day, I would go into the city, and sitting in the square, you see every kind of humanity walk by. Young and old, black and white, gay and straight, religious/non-religious, students, business men and women, people in love, old people with young people, kids. I just love the square. I didn’t realize how special it was until a few years into my tenure there. Then, when we moved away, I have never stopped missing it. I have missed it to the degree that it is not directed in my will, but this may last if I were to drop dead tomorrow. I want half my ashes to go around Rittenhouse Square and the other half to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe.
So I came in 1981 to MMR, and we left Rittenhouse Square in 1992. Do you know when La Colombe began?
PR: The point of all that rambling is that there was no La Colombe when we started or when we left Rittehouse Square. There was a place called the RW Deli, and our Promotion Director, John Bloodwell, used to call it the land of grief. He called it that because every time you walked in there, it was miserable. The people who worked there were miserable. It was a traditional Philly deli. The people behind the counter were always yelling at each other. That deli is where I started getting my coffee. There was a waitress named Penny. She knew how I liked my coffee. But you know when you say sugar and cream to someone… They will give you half a gallon of cream and ten teaspoons of sugar. As I mentioned before, it’s a delicate mix for each person as to what is their proper chemical balance when you get a cup of coffee. If La Colombe had been there when I was working near Rittenhouse, I would have moved in and lived in La Colombe. I would have had a sofa bed for the day where people could sit and have their coffee. Then, at seven, I could fold out the bed, get a TV, and I could have lived there. I would have been the best customer. I am still a good customer, but had it been open I would have been one of the best. In fact, when our company moved out of the city, my first day on the air here, I called a taxi company. I said to them, “Here is what I want. I want you to drive to La Colombe, get me two cups of coffee, and come back out here.” The whole thing was on the air. That’s how much I missed city culture – city life. So I don’t remember when La Colombe opened or when I learned about it, but one day there it was. I thought, “Where were you when I needed you?” I couldn’t start my show without coffee. It’s my true addiction, and I’m proud of the addiction.
When I met both JP and Todd, they told me the story that they did research as to what place may really need coffee, and they decided to come to Philly. Their business started growing, and the next thing I knew some of the hotels were starting to carry it, like the Four Seasons. To watch the company grow has been fascinating. La Colombe has built an empire in an age when Starbucks was putting people out of business. I love local businesses, city run, unique things that aren’t a chain. So I started to follow La Colombe’s progress, and all of a sudden, they were in Macy’s in New York. A few years into the start of La Colombe, I was in San Francisco in a little hotel I stay at on Union Square. They have a little French cafe below the hotel. They were selling La Colombe coffee out there, and I thought, “Man, have those boys done well.” I just know fairly recently, after they opened, I stumbled upon it. I started liking it, and following their process.
T: When you came to the cafe, we talked about you giving the coffee to some famous people. Would you just give them the coffee, or watch them drink it?
PR: I’ve done a lot of interviews. MMR has been on the air for 45 years, so for a rock and roll station or any radio station to maintain the same thing is pretty unusual. In my line of work, for me to have such a long career at one station is also really unusual. This station is a exception to the rule – much like how La Colombe is the exception to the rule. Over my time here, I have had a lot of artists come and play live here in an acoustic session. We call them MM archives sessions. We will set up a studio and bring in a small audience. We have an extended conversation with people where they play songs or talk about their albums. It is a nice intimate living room kind of a setting. I started reading that on the big TV talk shows, like if you go on Jimmy Kimmel Live or David Letterman as an artist, you get a robe or a swag bag of some kind. We couldn’t afford that here, but I started thinking I could give the artists beer or coffee. We would give them La Colombe because every rock star traveling on a tour bus needs to wake up. I give it to them, but I don’t watch them drink it. I say, “Do you like coffee?” and I have never had one of them say no. I give each player a bag of coffee. Oftentimes, they come in a tour bus, and most of those buses are equipped with coffee makers and grinders. It’s a nice little gift for being on the road and a reminder of Philly. I tell each of them – this is the best coffee in Philly. I tell them that JP and Todd established this place, and it’s unique to Philly. Rather than giving them a plastic copy of the Liberty Bell, I give them really awesome coffee that they can actually use. I started to get this idea when I had Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne in. We had an hour-long conversation with an audience. Afterwards, I gave them the coffee, and Sharon said, “Thank you,” and off they went. It got a nice reaction from them, and I started doing it with every band that would come in for an extended period of time.
T: That’s cool. What kind of coffee do you drink?
PR: I like the triple mocha because the chocolate that you use is different. You still have to sweeten it, and I like that. That’s my favorite. I wish you guys have bigger cups, but that’s fine. Lately, I have been coming in to get a cup to go, which gets me out here to the studio. I like a basic cup of coffee. I like the regular coffee, cappuccinos and mochas.
What you really want to know is about the rock stars. I don’t think JP and Todd know how many rock stars I’ve given this coffee to… I have given La Colombe to Bon Jovi twice. Richie Sambora, the guitar player of Bon Jovi, came here when the Philadelphia Soul kicked off – which Jon had bought an indoor football team – Richie and his wife at the time, Heather Locklear. After the rally, I walked by Richie, and he tells me to have a seat. He turned to Heather and said,”Honey, this is the guy who gives us that coffee.” The guys from Brad feature a member of Pearl Jam who is from Seattle. We talked in our interview here about the coffee shops they have worked in. All these guys in this band had worked at a lot of coffee shops all over Seattle. So I thought – let me give you some great Philly coffee. I gave it to Bush with Gavin Rosdale, who is married to Gwen Stefanie. Gavin came in with a guitar player to sing for me, and I gave them coffee. I gave it to Cheap Trick, Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen. I gave it to Collective Soul from Atlanta. I gave two or three bags to Chris Cornell. I believe I gave it to Getty Lee of Rush. I definitely gave it to the Offspring. I have given this coffee to people who have sold millions and millions of records. I gave it to Stone Temple Pilots – Scott Weiland and Dean DeLeo. The biggest one that I can remember is when I went up to New York to a re-release of Exile on Main Street by a band you may have heard of named the Rolling Stones. What can you give to those guys? We went in and did the interview, and I asked each of them – Keith and Mick and Charlie. Do you like coffee? They said yes, and I said, “Here is a bag of coffee from La Colombe.” It’s a pretty good mix of rock people I have given it to.
T: Awesome. I was reading about immortality the other day, and Steve Cave speaks about immortality to which he says, “We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed not only to die, but to know that we must. This is the central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth. It is what defines us as mortal.” He goes on to say that death has us at the scruff of the neck at every moment. No matter what we do; no matter how hard to strive. We know that the reaper will one day take us. Life is a constant war; we are doomed to lose. So I ask you, “If life is a constant war, we are doomed to lose. How must we win? Is it by leaving our arts, music, photographs and character, or does our existence truly amount to nothing?”
PR: No, I disagree that our existence amounts to nothing. The first part I would say that there is an old saying that youth is wasted on the young. It is so true, because when you’re young, you think you are invincible and that you sort of think you are immortal in a way. I met this kid at an appearance a couple of weeks ago. I was out at a place shaking hands and signing pictures and stuff. A bunch of people had come by, and his father sent me a picture of the event a week later. I remembered the kid when the father sent me the email, and I started reading it. The father said his son really enjoyed meeting me, and that the meeting may not have meant much to you, but his son died in a work accident a week after the picture was taken. I was stunned by it. I get a lot of emails, but I was stunned by this one. The writer you mentioned is right. Death is kind of the end game. But if you thought why bother to do anything, we do make a difference. That’s what I try to do on the radio. I try to tell people that they have an impact – even with you. How you are in that coffee shop can influence an individuals whole day. A lot of people start their day with you. You actually have the power to affect people. Each of us impacts the other. I am ever aware of that. It’s a message I try to put out there. You have the power to do it in a good or bad way. I was in a miserable mood one day, and I came to work, and a guy opened a door for me. His action just lifted my mood. Any small act of kindness can make the biggest difference. For that kid who passed away, meeting me made an impact on him. I would argue profoundly and passionately to tell me that they make an impact. All kinds of people have felt legacies that we benefit from. People in science, people in the arts, many people in other professions have made breakthroughs that have grown on top of that. Breakthroughs that could not have happen had that first person had not done that. The problem is it takes us sometimes to middle age to realize how precious it is. A friend of mine, who is my age, said, “You know Pierre we are on the back nine.” In golf, there are eighteen holes. The back nine is what they call toward the end of the game. He said we are on the back nine, and I was despondent, and another friend said to me, “What do you think life spans are these days?” It’s not uncommon to live till eighty-five maybe ninety so if you are in your fifties you think everything is done. The changes are very good that you could have thirty more years. What do you want to do with that? People get depressed, and they get sad, and there’s so much shit out there. They think, “Why bother?” I say, “Because you make a difference.” You only own this time right here. It’s all you can count on. For whatever time you have, make a plan; then have fun with it. Live life, and enjoy it. You have to live in the moment, and the other wild thing is that we don’t know what happens after. That’s the great mystery of life. What the fuck happens after? A million different religions will tell you a million different things. I don’t know what happens, but I don’t think we stop.
Interview & Photographs by Theo Constantinou
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