February 13, 2013 by s woods
Steven Ward’s interview with Tom Smucker from October 2000, great for his refreshingly candid comments on Pat Boone alone, though it’s of course interesting for a bunch of other reasons as well. As noted and linked to at the bottom of the interview, you really should dig through some of Smucker’s personal archives; some fantastic stuff in there.
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Tom Smucker Keeps Us Hangin’ By the Telephone
By Steven Ward (October 2000)
Tom Smucker writes about music when he wants to. I wish he would “want to” more than he does. Since he feeds his family by working as a unionized, Central Office Technician at the New York Phone Company, Smucker has had the luxury of taking assignments from the Village Voiceand his good friend, former editor and neighbor Robert Christgau, when he wants to. So Smucker gets to pick and choose what he writes about. Usually, it’s something he likes. If he does not like it, and it’s popular, Smucker goes one step beyond and tries to figure out why it’s popular.
Smucker–who has been published in Fusion, Creem, and most often throughout his career at the Village Voice–is a devout Christian, proud union man, radical leftist and a music critic who champions both the Beach Boys and Pat Boone (that’s right). But that’s just part of Smucker and who he is; it does not begin to explain his writing gift.
Here is a snapshot of Smucker doing what he does best. This snippet from a Voice review that was published in February of this year is about salsa princess India and her CD, Sola. This is Smucker’s response to a record store clerk who told him that India was “the singer that crossed over to Latin.”
“So then, what if it isn’t an expressway, but more like a grid of streets in Manhattan? And you’re walking down the street on your own side, but you’re hearing other music from the other side, from someone walking by or from a passing car. And you cross the street to hear the music coming out of a store, or turn the corner and go down the block and come back to your side again, or maybe come back at all. Or you’re walking past Tower Records and so many people are waiting to see Ricky Martin that they fill up the whole street and, in a sense, cross over to you. Or in the case of me and India: I’m walking down the street, let’s say on the street of Old Beach Boys on one side and Chicago blues on the other, and over on the next avenue, I hear India’s voice, and it grabs me by the ears and pulls me across. If that’s the model, then India’s a crossover artist, because she crossedme over.”
Here’s Robert Christgau on Tom Smucker:
“Tom Smucker remains one of the most responsive listeners and original thinkers ever to write rock criticism. Full of laugh lines, full of ideas, his ability to explain the appeal of music that snobs like me dismiss as schlock links directly to a history of day-to-day political activism that is unequalled and then some among even part-time critics–and that continues from his experience as a Vietnam War C.O. and leftwing communard in Queens to his current vocation as editor of a union newspaper. In addition to his well-known paeans to the Beach Boys and disco, I would especially recommend the Woodstock post-mortem reprinted in Jonathan Eisen’s Age of Rock II, his long defense of Pat Boone, his glorious celebration of Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” his Anne Murray-hooked taxonomy of (that word again) schlock, and “Percy Faith’s Challenge to Mewzick,” which I’m proud to say I named myself, though “mewzick” was of course Tom’s term. And as a final note, let me add that no one who hasn’t watched Tom induce an Upper West Side apartment full of red-diaper babies dance to Buddha’s Bubble Gum Music is the Naked Truth compilation can fully understand the concept of party animal.”
The recent (Sept 2000) e-mail interview that follows is an enlightening journey into the hows, whys, and whats of Smucker and his writing.
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Steven: Several things make you, as a well-known rock critic from the ’70s (a.k.a. Golden Age), stand out from your peers, but the one I find the most fascinating is that you had a day job with the telephone company for most of that time. Was that out of necessity? Did you always look at rock writing as just a hobby?
Tom: I grew up and went to school in Chicago and moved to New York City in 1967. In 1968 I moved to East 9th Street between Avenues B and C and at the time was writing to my friend Vicki back in Chicago. She wrote back something like, “You are living on the same block as another friend I have who has the same point of view as you, that pop music and movies are just as important as great literature.” (An off-beat idea back then). That was Bob Christgau down the block, who I think was already writing about pop music for Esquire. I called up Bob and we’ve been friends ever since.
The pleasure was just having a friend who thought like I did, but through Bob I got an assignment to write about the Beach Boys for Richard Goldstein who was then editing a paperback magazine called US. The piece never ran but I got paid a lot of money for it–$500 I think. Then I was interviewed for an article in the New York Times about young writers and their startling ideas, I think having to do with pop culture. At this point I hadn’t published a single word.
It looked like becoming a writer was going to be easy but as it turned out I didn’t have the tenacity or focus to develop a beat and in reality I was just as interested in politics and the New Left. Bob, and also Greil, offered me a number of opportunities that could have led to full-time writing gigs. I will always be grateful but as much as I enjoyed it and as honored as I am to have been a part of something I considered then and consider now a Worthwhile Endeavor and also An Important Cultural Moment, it was a combination of things that led to me never being a full time rock critic. I suppose it was a mix of desire, opportunity, and focus. I was interested in what I was interested in and couldn’t crank it out across the spectrum. And odd as it may sound, I found working at the phone company to be more interesting than writing about pop music.
But that was not because I thought writing about pop music was less important than politics. I consider the work that people like Bob and Greil Marcus and Richard and Ellen Willis and others did in the late ’60s to be an important part of a struggle for democracy and really self-acceptance. I believed then and still believe that pop music is the arena in which a lot of issues concerning race and sex are explored and it’s always worth exploring that. And, in the immortal word of the Beach Boys, it’s “Fun, Fun, Fun.” And Fun is worth thinking about. Just thinking about it is a rebuke to puritans on the left right and center. I’m proud to have played a good but minor role in all that.
I also need to point out for the record that Bob Christgau not only blazed a trail and tenaciously stuck with it (his third decade of “Consumer Guides” is coming out soon!), and that besides the fact that he’s a (to use his phrase) dear friend, behind the scenes he’s been a benevolent and enthusiastic cultivator of probably hundreds of rock critics, myself included. He’s also a great, great editor who has the gift of clearing up a critic’s writing while leaving the critic’s voice intact. I consider his career important, even heroic if you look at the consistency and output and influence.
Steven: What do you do at the phone company?
Tom: I’ve been a Central Office Technician for 30 years. We work inside on the switch, which when I was hired was mechanical or electro-mechanical, and just going solid state. Now it’s all computerized. It’s trouble shooting. It has its share of working class nerds and honest to God geniuses. I’m flattered to call myself a COT and a good union man. For me, personally, working at the phone company has been a wonderful chance to be in the middle of some dynamic, important cultural social political and personal changes. I’m in debt to everyone who helped me the last 30 years.
When I was hired I worked with some older Jewish guys who remembered not being hired by The Phone Company after World War II even though they’d been in the Signal Corps. The anti-Semitism had come to an end by the 1970s and Black Men were just being hired into the craft. At the time it was an all-male job. That ended in the late 1970s. It’s been interesting to watch and participate in all of that. I am thrilled to have lived through the changes in the real world that have led me to be the Chief Steward for a multi-racial, ethnic, sexual, etc. etc. etc. group of well paid, benefit-protected, militantly union minded diverse set of Americans. As far as I’m concerned, this was made possible by the Communications Workers of America, and I saw it happen inside Local 1101.
I got hired not knowing much about the union, but being a pro-union guy in a general way. My experiences at work with the union have made me very pro-union. I saw the union protect the individual’s sense of dignity, as well as benefits, wages, and bread and butter stuff like that. I was hired and worked for six months when we went out on a seven months strike. When we came back, I had very, very long 1971 type hair (it was 1971) and was told I had to cut it to keep my job. I called the union and asked them if that was true, and they said no, as long as my hair was not a safety hazard. I was in class at the time and so I told my instructor I didn’t have to cut my hair because the union said so. May I emphasize that my instructor, and the guys at the union were “short-haired” guys. But the union stuck up for me, over the phone, without knowing who I was. That impressed me.
I’m proud to have participated in a number of important strikes, including 1989 when we struck for almost four months to hold on to our medical benefits. To simplify it: we took on the Reagan Era and we won, after a lot of sacrifice. I will never forget calling people and telling them that the strike might last through Christmas and hearing people on the phone telling me, well, we will just tell our kids there won’t be a Santa Claus because we have to win this strike.
This year we had a strike against Verizon. It was a strike about job security and organizing rights. It was about an abstraction in a sense and the union pulled it off. I’m proud to have played a small role in that. was a shop steward for about 25 years, edited our Local’s newspaper the last 5 years, and am currently a Chief Steward.
I had absolutely no technical background when I was hired. We came in as the Viet Nam War generation and I learned my job due to the goodwill of my co-workers, both the young rock and roll hippie guys and the old short-haired easy listening guys. That had a big effect on me. Here and there you could run across someone who liked all the right music but had no sense of solidarity. That was thought provoking. It probably pushed me more towards a stance as a part time critic that was, “Here’s what I like and why I like it” and, “Here’s something I don’t really like but a lot of people like it and why is that” rather than, “Here’s something I don’t like and why I don’t like it and why it’s bad for you.”
I’d rather work with someone who likes music I don’t like but likes me than the other way around.
So let me expand a little bit on my answer to the first question. I took a job at the phone company when service had deteriorated badly and they were hiring a lot of people and maybe the standards had dropped a bit. I thought I was going to work for about a year and I just got in the profession and never left. Here and there I had opportunities to write that I had to pass up because of time restraints caused by the job. At other times my job was very easy and allowed me to write about stuff that mattered to me without worrying about making a living. I (almost) never regretted having a good union job and a regular salary. I had a friend like Bob Christgau who provided interesting, stimulating conversation as well as interesting, stimulating writing assignments. It was a pleasure for me to never have to hustle. Not that I think hustling is without its merits but it hasn’t been one of my skills. In my case, I think I can safely say that I almost never wrote about something that wasn’t deeply interesting to me, as narrow, or eccentric, as my tastes may be.
I read a memoir by Ray Mungo, at one time a famous counterculture writer. He described growing up in a stifling milieu in Boston where the family was pressuring him to take a nice secure job at the phone company but he escaped all that for the counter culture and eventually the great Northwest. I was coming from another direction and found my pleasure working in the phone company. I honored the counter-culture impulse by choosing not to be a Seattle Hippie, although some of my best friends…
Steven: Give me some bio information Where did you grow up, go to school etc.?
Tom: I was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1946 while my Dad was attending Seminary there. When I was a little kid we lived on the South Side of Chicago on 46th St. and Woodlawn. In grade school we moved to the western suburbs in Du Page County. In High School we lived on the North Shore, in Lake Forest. If you don’t know Chicago what that means is that as a little kid I lived in a neighborhood that “changed” and became part of the ghetto and then burned down. While it was declining my family moved out to where the “average guys” were moving, but they did something interesting. They moved to the only interracial suburb in Chicago in the 1950s. It was a co-op suburb with Jews, Asians, Blacks, a lot of left-wingers, and Christian pacifists, like my parents. In high school we lived in the suburb where the richest people in Chicago live: the Swifts, Armors, Fields. Of course their kids didn’t go to the public high school. It’s where the movie Ordinary People takes place. I found it to be a big change from where we had been living.
Steven: I know you were a Beach Boys fan when you were young. What other groups did you love as a teen and why?
Tom: I didn’t like rock and roll while I was in high school, from 1959 to 1963. The first albums I bought were Pat Boone’s Great Hits and the soundtrack from Oklahoma. I wrote about Pat for Fusion magazine many years ago and gave him as high a rating as David Bowie in a Rolling Stone Record Guide. I wish I could say I was into Howlin’ Wolf, but it was really Pat Boone. Nevertheless, I still feel he’s at least as good as David Bowie, and an interesting, not untalented character.
I was in a rich white conservative suburban high school and I would have joined a counter or sub culture if I could have found one. So I liked folk music at a distance. My parent’s had a Pete Seeger record, Live At the Village Gate. My older brother brought back Tom Lehrer from college as well as Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. I listened to “The Midnight Special” on Saturday nights on WFMT. I took my girl friend to the Gate of Horn (a folk music club) instead of the Prom. I wasn’t comfortable in high school and I was one of those people who considered folk music “more authentic.”
I had a real epiphany one night in college listening to the Beach Boys, that, for better or worse, they were who I really liked, whether they were any good or whether they were authentic. As it turned out, I’ve decided they were pretty damn good. But as I’ve said earlier, writing about pop music for me involves a certain amount of “accept what you like and go from there.”
It’s interesting for me that the issues of authenticity and popularity don’t go away. It’s rarely put in terms of Folk Music By The Folk versus Commercial Music anymore, outside of the World Music scene. Maybe it’s alternative rock versus power pop, or Gangsta Rap versus M.C. Hammer, or old Ani DiFranco versus new Ani DiFranco, or truly fake lounge music versus faux fake lounge music. Authenticity was an issue for me and I used folk music to deal with it so I don’t knock adolescents who use current pop music for the same purposes. Nor do I knock those who come to realize that they prefer pop music that isn’t cool –let’s say Britney Spears. We’re all just trying to keep it real in our own way in a corporate consumer economy.
In college I decided my true love was Rock and Roll, but I still love Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Hobart Smith, Joan Baez, Mississippi John Hurt. I give the whole bunch of old commie folkies, especially Woody Guthrie, the credit for figuring out what these days you could call a post-modern response to affluence, and I think it’s important, and they did it mainly with music, really music that was a form of pop music. I responded well to all that in high school. I just threw out the baby of rock and roll with the bath water of an unhappy suburban adolescence.
Steven: When did you start reading about rock and how and when did you decide you wanted to write about popular music?
Tom: After seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan freshman year in college I wrote about them in a half-serious, half-satiric way for the college paper. That may qualify as the first piece of rock criticism, 1963. Somewhere along the way I was reading Crawdaddy! and the hippie underground papers as they sprung up. The emphasis there was on the scene, but the music was taken seriously. I was already reading the folk music stuff, which had established the idea that you could write seriously about something that was almost rock. I remember Paul Nelson’s Little Sandy Review. As I recall they had a weird aesthetic that supported Real folk music as opposed to fake lefty topical folk music. Nevertheless it expanded on the idea that folk music (and by extension, pop music) could be appreciated by debating aesthetic or moral or political principles. It could be taken seriously and in the process you were taking yourself seriously. Once you had a pop music with a little aesthetic distance in it, a little self-awareness such as the Beatles and the Stones or maybe any British act recapitulating, so to speak, American pop, it was an easy jump to applying some sort of critical seriousness to rock and roll
In my case I met Bob Christgau before I read Bob Christgau. Talking to Bob and Ellen Willis, who lived with him at the time, proved to me that you could talk and write about this stuff in a serious way. By then I had read Crawdaddy! and the hippie papers but looking back I would have to say they lacked a certain critical spark.
I remember reading a review Bob wrote about the movie John Lennon was in at the time (a regular movie, about World War II, I can’t recall it’s name) [How I Won the War- ed]. Anyway, the point of the piece as I remember it was that you watch the movie because John Lennon is in it and you like the Beatles, and that’s legitimate. Or something to that effect. This ran counter to everything we were taught at the time in college. It was the era still of the New Criticism. Great works of Art stood alone, and the audience, the author, the time, the place were of little importance. I read Bob’s piece after I met him, riding the crosstown bus and said to myself, “This guy is the critic for me.”
As I said, Bob introduced me to Richard Goldstein, who I believe wins the prize for inventing the whole idea of Rock Critic. I think Ellen might have gotten me a job at the Guardian newspaper, which was a lefty paper at the time. They didn’t like my stuff; I think it was too personal and I praised someone who wasn’t in the left-wing cannon–the Everly Brothers as I recall.
I had a conversation with my Dad in college where I said something like, “I don’t just care whether something is good or bad. I want to examine why Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’ is popular and what that means”. I never did figure out Nancy Sinatra, but I did meet Bob Christgau.
Steven: Tell me about your influences in writing? Who were your favorite rock critics and why?
Tom: When I was in college and very unhappy with the whole set-up I splurged and bought two hard back books. They were Tom Wolfe’s Kandy Kolored …Streamline Baby and Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. I have to say these books changed my life. Wolfe’s book, although not rock criticism, legitimized writing about the real, pop world out there for me. And he was writing about it in a descriptive but not amused and detached 1950s style. Sontag’s books contained the title essay as well as her essay on camp. It legitimized for me looking at the context in which culture is appreciated and it legitimized serious intellectual attention to something like Camp. Sontag was a certified well-educated official intellectual.
At that point I would have been happy to become a minor-league Wolfe or a minor-league Sontag. But my favorite writer has always been Nelson Algren, both as a fiction writer and a critic. I try to steal his writing moves, so to speak, and admire his stance. Man With the Golden Arm is my favorite book, hands down.
My favorite critics were Bob and Ellen, but I learned more from talking with them than reading them, if I think back. I’ve always liked Greil, who was very helpful to me over the years… I’m particularly fond of Vince Aletti’s disco writing. Vince had a way of describing the surface of the music that was absolutely beautiful. I wish it was compiled somewhere. I liked Lester Bangs as a person but I didn’t buy into everything he did. I remember reading and rereading an article Bob wrote that was in Any Old Way You Choose It that explained the big difference between Barbara Streisand and Hank Williams. This was important to me and I read it very closely.
If I had to describe my rock critic writing I’d describe it as in the style of Nelson Algren, appropriating the ideas of Bob Christgau. Of course, like all true Beach Boys fans, I feel I have a remarkable resemblance to Brian Wilson. And Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture has had a big effect on me. I’m a big Paul Tillich fan.
One fanish footnote. In Sontag’s essay on Camp she used as an example a British group called The Temperance Seven. They existed in the 1960s and played 1920s pop. I supposed it was camp because it was affectionate, note-perfect, but a bit over the top. At the time my parents were heading to England and I asked them to pick up some Temperance Seven records which I got at the end of the year when they returned. I loved them as soon as I played them and I’ve loved them ever since. I’d rank them as one of my top ten all-time favorite bands and I have never seen a mention of them anywhere in any rock press or ever seen them for sale anywhere in North America. I doubt that Susan Sontag listens to them all that much but who knows?
Steven: How did you first get a job writing for the Village Voice?
Tom: As I mentioned before, through Bob I got a couple of writing jobs. I wrote a number of articles for Fusion magazine, out of Boston, for Robert Somma. Whatever happened to him… Dave Marsh let me write a two-issue cover story on the Beach Boys for Creem. There were some other jobs.
When Bob left the Voice for Newsday I was given half his column but I didn’t keep it going. I don’t feel I really started writing for the Voice until Bob took over the “Riffs” column for ten years. During that time I wrote reviews and features. The two I remember most fondly were a lengthy feature on Arlo Guthrie called “Arlo Guthrie and the Communist Mystical Tradition” and one on Anne Murray called “The Woman Who Would Be Schlock.” I was the first person to write about P-Funk and Kraftwerk for the Voice. But none of that was a job. I was a freelancer and the editor was a close personal friend. A close, personal friend, I might add, who would turn down my work if he didn’t like it.
Steven: What were your favorite rock mags then, and are there any out today that you still read?
Tom: I liked Creem and Fusion. Things were more up in the air then. A magazine didn’t have to deliver a demographic as clearly and the canon was still being figured out. There was no such thing as classy writing about rock and roll. Looking back Creem was at times truly great. A lot of smart people who weren’t snobs! They reprinted Bob’s “Consumer Guide,” Vince had a column, Georgia Christgau wrote movie reviews, Dave Marsh hadn’t discovered Bruce Springsteen. Lester Bangs was alive. It wasn’t as precious as Rolling Stone which I never liked because it didn’t have any craziness about it.
I read Rolling Stone today and either Vibe or the Source, and of course, the Voice. When I’m in Chicago I read The Reader. I also subscribe toSing Out and Dirty Linen. I wish someone would compile an anthology of good pop music writing from around the country because I think there’s a lot of interesting writing in regional papers and magazines. I’ll read anything I find written by Bob, Greil, Ken Tucker, Chuck Eddy, Nelson George, and Greg Tate, to name just a few. I like Jim Farber in the Daily News for his reach. He writes about everything
Steven: Are there any newer music writers that you admire, writers who are very young or have only been doing it for the last 10 years or so?
I’m out of the loop, but again, I wish someone would come up with an anthology or a list. I think it just goes to show that writing about pop music as a critic is not taken as seriously as the same stuff applied to films, art, or literature. That’s disappointing.
Steven: What do (did) you think of the whole gonzo/Meltzer/Bangs “in your face” type of criticism?
Tom: Based on a few chance encounters, I liked Lester as a person and didn’t like Meltzer. “In your face” in real life was not so great. Also, I never understood Meltzer’s writing. I understood Bangs, even when I thought he got it wrong. and of course, he was a great writer. It was fun to read whatever he wrote. Lester was attempting something worthwhile, and he had a moral core. He knocked the punks when they started going racist. And I remember him knocking Dylan for glorifying Joey Gallo.
I guess I feel that the birth of rock and roll, and then the birth, or whatever it was, of rock, and the birth of rock criticism were all gonzo moments. But how do you extend a gonzo approach into a non-gonzo era? Growing old with your music is a legitimate area of inquiry. Carola Dibbell wrote a great piece on that recently pegged to Patti Smith and Lou Reed. Can you have a gonzo approach to growing old? It’s certainly a rock and roll question. But if the gonzo approach doesn’t fit non-gonzo moment music, does that mean the music doesn’t matter? Or that it’s no longer interesting? I don’t think so. Maybe it means you have to grow up. I believe Bangs was struggling with that. I honestly don’t know if Meltzer ever did.
Without being able to identify it, I believe that some of the hip-hop writing has that old gonzo touch.
Steven: In your glorious Stranded review of Thomas Dorsey’s Precious Lord, you talk about your Christian upbringing a little and how that shaped your views of music. That’s an approach readers don’t really find much in rock criticism. Do your religious beliefs still inform or play any part in your music criticism today?
Tom: My Dad was a minister and teacher of the liberal, tolerant, Protestant type. I’m a member of a similar type Church today, in the East Village, where I have been a deacon and an elder. That’s me, and I’m sure my religious beliefs inform every part of me. As I mentioned before, my thinking in general was influenced by Paul Tillich. I go to a Church with a good Gospel choir. That’s a must.
From my point of view, a lot of rock and roll is just Black Christianity for white people minus Jesus. Of course, Thomas A. Dorsey came out of the blues and brought that back into the Church. Maybe Gospel Music is just Blues minus the sex.
I’m interested in a secular culture that’s affected by religion. I never liked the Christian Rock stuff and I thought it was interesting that by and large, overtly Christian words and images don’t make it in the pop marketplace. Perhaps Bob Dylan himself ran into this problem during a part of his career.
I’m turned off, of course, by those strains of fundamentalism that want to ?return” to a culture where any religion dominates and imposes their various intolerances. I believe religion informs most peoples perspective on morality, culture, and politics and that pop music is usually a good arena in which to examine these dynamics.
As far as my own beliefs, the fact that one world could produce the Beach Boys, Howlin’ Holf, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Bonnie Koloc, the Ramones, Cerrone, the Temptations, Dorothy Love Coates, Carole King, Fafa De Belem, India, and the Temperance Seven seems to prove the existence of God. It’s too good to have happened by accident.
Steven: You worked as a political columnist at the Voice and wrote music criticism for The Nation in the ’70s. I think your column in the Voicewas called “Tom Tattles.” What were those experiences like and do you miss those jobs?
Tom: The Nation job came about when my kids were little and my duties on the job were intense and the woman who had hired me was on a leave and it didn’t work out, mainly because I couldn’t put the time into it. It may have also been one of those moments when I didn’t have much to say and didn’t have time, with a full time job and little kids, to dig around until I located something interesting.
I’ve written at some point for almost all my favorite left-wing magazines and there is, always lurking, a little problem with writing about pop music for them. Does your writing have to prove that ?the system” is corrupt and identify underdogs and outsiders with integrity who are bucking the system? Is it OK to find pleasure in just the crazy stuff churned up by an affluent capitalist culture? That’s a kind of Tom Wolfe point. The working class gets rich and guess what? It doesn’t want European High Culture or Marxist Revolution. It wants a week in Las Vegas. In a big hotel.
I’m interested in the kid that splices together a vigorous culture whether its from Banjos in Appalachia, Discos in Fire Island, or Turntables in the Bronx. I like Billy Bragg. I love Billy Bragg. But I also like Donna Summer. Is that allowed in the Church of the Left? I’ve never been completely sure.
“Tom Tattles” was loads of fun. It was written as the New Left was disintegrating into name-calling factions and it was written like a gossip column with names of “celebrities” in boldface and Maoist ideological fights treated like they were celebrity feuds. I believe it was a unique concept. Some of this stuff, when presented the right way, was very funny without any commentary. After a while I lost interest. The aging New Left became sad, not funny, and the column had to be written with a certain amount of affection or it didn’t work. If I had really wanted to stick it out I would have probably switched to writing about the Neo-conservatives and the right wing since they were in power and about to disintegrate.
The Voice was very encouraging about an oddball format like Tom Tattles. Karen Durbin was my editor and chipped in with some unacknowledged tidbits herself. Around the same time I tried my hand as a TV critic at the Voice. That burned out after awhile.
Steven: What do you think of rock journalism today? Many professionals think the passion in the writing is gone and it’s all about “thumbs up or down” consumerism? Do you agree.
Tom: We live in an ever more sophisticated and all encompassing consumer culture and rock is certainly a product. In that context what can be the basis for passion? I think there can be a context whether personal, political, religious, moral, sexual or aesthetic. There can be a passion about consumerism. But rock itself is a commodity that’s now part of the system and has been for a long time. So there’s going to be a lot of writing that’s really just a form of packaging.
When I was first writing this stuff wasn’t all figured out and there were people that would now be considered undesirable intellectuals writing for fan magazines because it hadn’t all been divided up.
But I find the stuff I read in the Voice and the Reader at times to be as passionate as ever. I’m not sure I feel that way about what’s in Rolling Stone . Again, the hip-hop press can still have a lot of passion.
Steven: If you had to pick out a new record for Greil Marcus’s Stranded 2000 (if there was such a thing) would it still be Dorsey’s gospel music or if not, what?
Tom: Could you bring a CD box set to the island this time? If not, I think it’s a good choice. I tried to respond to Stranded as a metaphor for critic’s becoming isolated as the counter-culture hegemony of the sixties disappeared. Now I might think of it differently, but I still might make the same choice.
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