From the Archives: DeRogatis, Ward, and Woods (2002)

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July 5, 2013 by admin

Three Boys and a Tape Recorder: Conversation Between Jim DeRogatis Takes Aim at Rock Critics and at rockcritics.com

Conversation between DeRogatis, Steven Ward, and Scott Woods (March 2002)

Jim DeRogatis wrote Steven Ward and myself a bunch of e-mails telling us all the problems he had with this site (he likes some stuff about it, too). I agreed with some of his criticisms, thought he was way off base much of the time (still do), and after a bit of back and forth between the three of us, Jim suggested we discuss this stuff over the phone — sort of as an addendum to Andrew Lapointe’s interview. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Unexpurgated navel-gazing? Gutter-level gossip masquerading as “discourse”? Mere boys club buffoonery? Like the site itself, I’ll wager it’s a little bit of all three. Or maybe Jim’s own capsule summary of rockcritics.com (from his homepage) gets closer to the heart of the matter still: “Warning! It can be enough to make you gag. But if you just can’t get enough…”

Thanks, Jim–couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Scott:   I don’t know exactly where you guys want to start with this…Jim, I appreciate some of the stuff you’ve written to us in recent e-mails regarding the site, and stuff along those lines in general, and as I told you, I kind of agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I guess I just want you to clarify a little bit, starting with a more general slant on things. I don’t know, talk about rock criticism in general…

Jim:   Well, let me turn the table on you guys first, ’cause I do like the site, and I think it’s needed. I think it’s extraordinary that we have this fucking Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and I mean, there’s no library as part of it, nor is there one as part of the Empower Music thing in Seattle [Experience Music Project]. I mean, the history of rock criticism–if pop will eat itself, then rock criticism has been eaten a hundred times faster. It’s just non-existent. As I discovered when I was doing the Bangs book, it’s impossible to track down, even in the Underground Press Archives–which is probably the best thing of its kind in the country–its coverage of CreemCrawdaddy!, and some of the smaller magazines is really spotty. There’s no resource. And so, obviously, having devoted a big chunk of my life to doing this book about the history of a rock critic, a biography of a rock critic, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I think you guys in some ways are doing God’s work.

Scott:   Well, thanks!

Jim:   And, you know, obviously having been a fucking teenage geek myself who interviewed Christgau and Bangs when I was a senior in high school, I can even kind of understand the impulse of where you’re coming from. You know–pathetic as that may be!

Scott:   Yeah, we can probably all be counted in that!

Jim:   And you have to say it self-deprecatingly, with a laugh! But, that having been said, one of the things that mystifies me about rockcritics.com is why you guys–you kind of pull your punches. I mean, the e-mail exchange we’re talking about–what I wonder is, I understand doing a fanzine, I understand wanting to cover these people who don’t get covered and to convey information, but where you let me down as a reader and as a fan of rock criticism is, I wanna know what you think about people; I wanna know when you think Chuck Eddy is full of shit. I mean,surely–you devote as much space to Gary Graff or to Anthony DeCurtis as you do to Robert Christgau, and certainly you don’t think those are talents on an equal plane! I know you don’t!

Scott:   Well…

Jim:   You can’t! There’s no way you possibly can!

Scott:   No, let me clarify. I’m not saying such and such a person is necessarily a talent on the same level as such and such another person, but I think it’d be ludicrous to just give the big guys, or the guys who are most near and dear to our hearts necessarily even, the most space, or treat them with more reverence. Like, Steven has covered some people who I’d never even heard of until he said to me, “I want to interview this guy.” And some of these people I’m still not remotely familiar with their work. But I mean, they’ve got stories to tell that are just as interesting–well, possibly–as, you know, Robert Christgau or…whoever you wanna say, Greil Marcus…Jim DeRogatis!

Steven:   Even before the site, you can go all over the internet and you’re gonna find interviews with Marcus and Christgau because of their books…

Jim:   Yeah.

Steven:   And because of their background. But some of these people that tell their stories–I mean, you probably will never hear from them again, interview-wise, or they may never write a book or anything. So, at least it’s part of that historical thing, where some of these outsiders, or some of these lesser-known guys, tell their story, and they’re part of that, and they’ll always be part of that. I don’t know–for me that’s kind of…

Jim:   Well, yeah, I guess I was trying to push it toward a question, I don’t know if I got there, but, do you guys see yourself as…as what then? What do you see yourselves as doing?

Scott:   I guess to a certain degree we are providing this kind of “service.” I don’t know if this is gonna answer your question, but I think in terms of pulling punches, my feeling about that is, I’m happy to take someone on if an opportunity–if I feel there’s a specific opportunity for me to do so. I kind of battled with Chuck Eddy a few years ago when I interviewed him, and I mean, I am a big fan of Chuck, much bigger than you are, obviously, of his writing…

Jim:   Well, I think Chuck is an entertaining clown, but to take him seriously as a critic, it just offends me, because, you know, the kid who bought that heavy metal book because he really cares about heavy metal–Chuck just fuckedhim out of his $15 by telling him to go buy Teena Marie.

Scott:   Not necessarily…

Jim:   Oh, he did. He wrote that as an in-joke to rock critics, to you and to me.

Scott:   I think there’s also the possibility that there’s that kid out there who’s into heavy metal who’s gonna say, “Hmmm, maybe I should check out this Teena Marie record, or…” whatever. I don’t know, it sounds like you kind of wish he had a more narrow structure of what he covered in his book, and I think that’s one of the things…

Jim:   No, no, no, no, no. No, I don’t really think that Chuck likes music. I think Chuck likes music criticism. There was a Philadelphia Inquirer profile of him a couple years ago, and there was that famous quote of his where he said, “I never keep more than 2,000 records in my house at a time.” And to me, it just seems like, yeah, he would have a passion for Italian disco, and have all those records, then he’d get tired of that and trade all that in for a bunch of hair metal records, then he’d get tired of that and trade them all in for–you know, whatever. And to me, that doesn’t seem like a guy who has a deep and abiding knowledge–or love–of music. I think he was fond of the danceof music criticism more than actually dancing himself.

Steven:   Chuck comes up with some really interesting ideas when he goes off on tangents. I mean, I read one of his articles before I went to Stairway to Hell, and he said some things about Def Leppard that sounded crazy at first, but when I started to think about it, it made a lot of sense. And that’s how I went back to his book. And it’s not necessarily something that a heavy metal person or a person that likes Def Leppard might connect with, but if they would read it, and think about it, and go back and listen to what Chuck compared it to, they’ll find a connection that’s interesting.

Jim:   Well, see, I think Accidental Evolution was a much better book because it was about ideas, and you know, I think Stairway is a fundamentally dishonest book because it presented itself as a consumer guide or as a genre study, and it really wasn’t either. And as such I think it was just a fundamental disservice to readers. And when Chuck is just being Chuck, which is what he’s doing in Evolution, I have no problem with that. But when he’s trying to be a rock critic, he’s pretending to do a record review, and it really is about anything but the record.

Scott:   But didn’t Bangs do that?

Jim:   I don’t believe so. I don’t think when he was writing, even when he was flying furthest afield, when it seemed like he was not saying anything at all about the record–when he was talking about himself–I think that eight times out of ten, the point he was making was actually profoundly fundamental to that record. He never had a disrespect for the reader to the point where…you know, Meltzer jokes about reviewing records that he never opened the shrink wrap…

Scott:   Well, there’s a good example.

Jim:   Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a fundamental disrespect to the reader. That having been said, Meltzer’s toss- offs about his bottle cap collection were probably a million times better than that Wishbone Ash record–whatever. But Meltzer has nothing but disdain for the Wishbone Ash fan, and maybe they deserve it, maybe they don’t. But Lester never did, Lester was writing about something deeper than the actual grooves sometimes, he’s writing about the soul of the music. You know, eight times out of ten; the other two times he was full of shit. Chuck’s batting average, I think, is probably two times out of ten he’s connecting, and eight times out of ten he’s full of shit.

Scott:   But I’d argue about “disrespect” for the reader. I don’t think not writing about the music in a consumer-oriented way is always about disrespecting the reader, it’s also like he’s opening readers minds by approachingwriting in a different way.

Jim:   Well, we can agree or disagree on that, but the thing is, both of you guys just gave me more opinions in those couple sentences from each of you than I’ve gotten from rockcritics.com. And it seems to me that if you’re gonna be a fanzine for rock critics–which is sort of what you are–or you’re gonna be a repository for rock critic knowledge, or a community gathering place–and all of those things I think are valid and great and sorely needed–one of the things that I’m missing is any sense of why you’re doing it, and what you value and don’t value. Because I really think–I know, deep in my heart–that you honestly don’t think that Gary Graff is a talent who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Rick Johnson or Paul Williams or Kordosh, or…you know what I mean? You guyscan’t possibly believe that.

Steven:   Yeah, but when you say “the same breath”…It’s like we have this–it’s kind of like a level playing field in presentation…

Jim:    Yeah, but that’s fucked! It’s like saying Led Zeppelin IV is the same kind of record as Britney Spears’s last record. I mean, by presenting all this stuff on an equal level, and sans any sort of commentary from you guys, I don’t get a sense that if you think J.D. Considine is as “important” or as talented or as insightful or as great a writer or as significant a thinker as you think–Greil Marcus is!

Steven:   I do! I mean, that’s my opinion…

Jim:   Well, that’s what I want, I want more of that!

Steven:   Well, here’s the thing. Those interviews, whether they’re e-mail or telephone–and there’s no doubt, Scott and I have both said that the telephone interviews are far, far better, ’cause we get this back and forth…

Jim:   Yeah, I’ve stopped doing e-mail interviews, ’cause it’s really onanistic and solipsistic.

Steven:   Some writers prefer that…

Jim:   Yeah, they want the control…

Steven:   But I don’t know if that interview is the place for that. Maybe there’s some avenue where we can go into opinions and what we think, but those interviews, I don’t know that they’re the place for them. I like the fact that, you know, we’re gonna have an interview with Greil Marcus and then one with Gary Graff. I don’t want us to be like–and maybe this is a horrible analogy–but I don’t want us to be like the Village Voice or something. I don’t wanna just have the essay on Bob Dylan, I want to have the essay on Bob Dylan, then after that have an essay on AC/DC.

Jim:   Well, I applaud that, you know. Creem covered Van Morrison and they covered the 1910 Fruitgum Co. And my ideal fanzine does the same–Jesus, I write for a daily newspaper, you know, with a circulation of, whatever it is, one-and-a-half or two million. I have to cover Britney Spears, and I cover the White Stripes, and I wouldn’t want to miss either. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m glad Gary Graff is up there, I’m glad Considine is up there, if only so that I can laugh at the stupid things Anthony DeCurtis says, you know what I mean?

Steven:   I know that one especially aggravates you; I love Anthony DeCurtis, and I know you can’t stand him.

Jim:   I just think he’s the worst. I mean, I think he’s subhuman, but that’s me, it’s just opinion, and certainly it’s not gonna come as news to Anthony, though not as many care about Anthony as Anthony would like to think–it’s probably only Anthony and maybe, you know, Anthony’s mom–but you know, given the small circle of us who docare about this, part of the fun it seems to me is talking about what’s worth valuing and what’s not. And what I was saying to you in one of those e-mails is, I disagree with you, I think you can do it in an interview, I think you can do it in a couple ways: I think you can do it in the introductions to your pieces, I think you can do it more in columns, I think you can do it–I mean, in any of a million forums. But don’t rule out being able to do it in an interview. Some of the best interviews that I’ve done–I think I’ve gotten to be a really good interviewer, and I actually love the Q & A as a format because…It seems like 99% of the artists I’m talking to these days–and certainly the writers are the same way–they expect to be taken by the nose and be given this opportunity to be selling whatever it is they’re selling. And when they’re presented with someone who may disagree with them, someone who may not like their new album, who may not appreciate what they’re selling and is going to veer off the course and is not just gonna let them hit auto-pilot and give them this tape in their head which is this prepared spiel–suddenly, you’re having a real conversation. “What did you say? Did you just say ___?” I started an interview with Damon Albarn–and I’ve interviewed him a lot of times–I’ve liked Blur–but I started an interview with him the other day, and I just said, “Congratulations, this Gorillaz thing is the biggest scam ever perpetrated in rock history…”

Scott:   Ha!

Jim:   “I mean, you really pulled the wool over…”

Scott:   Yeah, it’s a piece of shit…

Jim:   And he just, he just laughed, he laughed hysterically. Now, maybe he wouldn’t have and he would’ve hung up on me, and John Lydon is famous for hanging up on interviewers. But you know what? The ones who have character–and this isn’t self-serving, I’m not saying, “this is a brilliant interview, gentlemen!”–but that chat I did with Stephan Jenkins that got reprinted in the Da Capo book [Best Music Writing 2001, ed. Nick Hornby], you know, that guy hates my guts, and I’m no fan of his, but it was a good conversation because we were talking about ideas, and I respect him enormously. You know, I’ve had contentious interviews with Courtney–and I don’t mean you have to have that Bangs/Reed contention thing, I don’t mean that–but we can talk about ideas, you know, and you can challenge people in an interview or present your idea. You know, “Hey, Chuck, I think this is what you were doing,” you know? “Tell me why I’m wrong, or tell me what you think you were doing.”

Scott:   Well no doubt about it, and the last thing I want this site to be is subservient and sort of lame. But Steven hit upon a very good technical reason why that does happen sometimes; it is often just way more convenient for both parties to do the interview by e-mail, and that isn’t an ideal way to do it often because you can’t do the back and forth thing.

The other thing I would say is, we let a lot of that stuff come out just in what the critics say themselves. I mean, for me, some of my favorite stuff on the site is when the critics do kind of bitch about other critics–it’s fun stuff to read–and there’s plenty of that on the site. I mean, I agree with you that maybe not enough of our own personalities has come into it, but I would find it a little weird to get this person to answer all these questions by e-mail, take up all this time of theirs, and then sort of write an introduction saying, “Well, you know, in the overall scheme of things their writing was kind of shit, but, you know, we thought they had a good story to tell.”

Jim:   Well, but that’s what we do. I mean, I may interview Brandy, and I may or may not say to her, “Your album is such a piece of festering crap” to her on the phone, you know? I’m trying to get her perspective. But then, when I’ve got to present this Brandy interview, I’m certainly gonna quote her–to quote the fuzzy young Cameron inAlmost Famous–warmly and accurately or whatever–but that doesn’t deprive me of my right to say that her album is a piece of festering crap! I mean, I don’t owe you anything by you having given me an interview, you know? I don’t know, that’s just my opinion, ’cause I wonder why you guys do this and I wonder…

Scott:   Well we wonder the same thing! Believe me. And there’ve been many times over the last couple of years where Steven and I have both written each other e-mails saying, you know, this site is fucked! What are we doing this for? And sometimes an interview has been put up there, and we’re both kinda like, maybe this one’s kinda lame, but what are we gonna do? But let me just say something about Anthony DeCurtis!

Jim:   Ha Ha Ha! Can I tell you an Anthony DeCurtis story?

Scott:   After I tell you my thoughts on him. I don’t really like Anthony DeCurtis all that much as a writer. I haven’t actually read a lot of his stuff, and the reason I haven’t read a lot is because most of the stuff I have read I have not really found all that compelling or that unusual or very personal, and I don’t generally love that kind of writing, obviously. But, I maintain that that is one of the best interviews we have on the site because that was him actually speaking in a truer voice or something. And I think that’s one thing this site can do that’s valuable–it can actually give people–I don’t wanna raise ourselves to this level–but it can give them a truer voice sometimes. Especially when it is by phone and not e-mail. So, I do like that interview…

Jim:   Oh yeah, and there are actually knee-slapping guffaws in that interview, and I think, yeah, it’s a brilliant interview. I like it, I just think somewhere in there it should’ve been pointed out that the auteur genius behindRocking My Life Away is in fact a pathetic hack, you know…

Steven:   Well…

Jim:   With very little to no taste whatsoever.

Steven:   But the person doing that interview doesn’t think that at all, and I don’t know what that says about me, but I like Anthony DeCurtis, I like his writing, I like his style…

Jim:   Well, see then, I wanna hear you make the case! What do you like? What do you read into DeCurtis that gives you insight, that gets you fired up, that…?

Steven:   It’s just clear, concise, to-the-point, yet still descriptive, good writing about music. It’s as far away from stuff like Creem and the kind of…

Jim:   But that’s not the end all and be all, I get that from Pareles, and I think Pareles is a million miles away fromCreem, but, you know…

Steven:   Yeah, I like Pareles for the same reason.

Jim:   I mean, you can say those things about Jon: he’s from the musicology school, he’s very respectful, he’s very restrained, but I get real insights and ideas, but I’ve never once read a single thing that DeCurtis or David Fricke wrote that made me say: Wow! I’ve got a new way of looking at this music, because of this piece I just read by this guy, he gave me an idea! I’ve never once gotten an idea from either of those guys.

Scott:   Well, it’s interesting, too. Andrew, who just did the interview with you…

Jim:   An earnest young boy!

Scott:   But it’s very similar. There’s people out there who don’t like Jim DeRogatis, no doubt, and I don’t think anyone’s gonna get a sense from that interview. But I think what he does is he lets you say what you have to say–the David Fricke anecdote is classic…

Steven:   Yeah, that was wonderful.

Jim:   I’ve got a classic DeCurtis one. He lived in the same building, when I was an editor at Rolling Stone–he lived in the same fucking building as Fricke, but I don’t think those two got along; I may be wrong, but I think that they didn’t. This is a couple years ago, right? There’s e-mail, there’s fax, and it was only a couple of city blocks away from Rolling Stone. He would call up and he would say, “My review is ready. Would you send the messenger over to pick it up?” Somebody would have to go over to the fucking house, a messenger who makes $25 a trip or whatever, he’d go over to the house, pick up his typed-out review, bring it to Rolling Stone, where some fucking editorial assistant would have to re-type it into the system. He could’ve e-mailed it, he could’ve faxed it, he could’ve walked it over, he could’ve given it to Fricke who could’ve walked it over–you know, he could’ve fuckin’ made a paper airplane and opened his window and threw it out the window and it would’ve got there, he was so close! And he’s–“Send the messenger, my copy is ready.” I’ve got a million of those stories, boys!

Scott:   Okay, I mean, that’s a funny anecdote, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what kind of a writer he is.

Jim:   Oh yeah, ’cause he thinks his fucking prose is James Joyce, boys, that’s what I’m trying to say. The point of the anecdote is, he thinks he’s a genius! He calls his book Rocking My Life Away, he puts a painting on the front of it, a full picture on the back–he thinks he’s fucking God! He thinks he’s better than Lester Bangs!

Scott:   But what rock critic, what great rock critic, to some degree doesn’t feel that way?

Jim:   No, that’s true, you’re right…

Scott:   To think that anyone’s gonna buy a book full of your opinions–most of the people who hate rock criticism hate it for that very reason.

Jim:   Here’s where I disagree with you. You’re right, young Andrew was totally intimidated by me, and the reason I said, “Gee, a lot of people think I’m a prick”–I’m bringing up the subject. Andrew! Come on! I want you to give me some shit; if you’re not gonna do it, I’ll do it myself! All right, you think I’m an egotist, whatever–I don’t care about any of that stuff–but the one thing you’re never gonna be able to say about me is I wasn’t interested in other people’s opinions. I am interested. And I have a huge amount of respect for Chuck, even despite all those disagreements I voiced earlier, because Chuck and I have had great back and forth debates about that. And I think that what we have here–and I used the word ‘community’ before, in the best sense, for what you guys are trying to do, and I applaud that–and the thing I hate to the core of my being, and the reason the Fricke anecdote is in that interview, is just that thing where, “I’m not gonna play with you; I don’t have enough respect for you to even talk to you,” you know what I mean? It’s like, all of these guys are my peers, and I’m taking shots at them, and they’re welcome to take shots at me. Considine and I have worked together before–I’ve edited him, he’s edited me–we’ve traded nasty digs about each other–and I respect him for that. Because we can disagree about each other’s work. I don’t think he likes me at all; I don’t have much use for him. But I respect him, and there’s a difference, it’s respect, okay? And I think it’s in the dialogue.

Scott:   What was your point in your e-mail about the Village Voice and the EMP conference? I can’t remember exactly what you were saying…

Jim:   Yeah, I probably can’t either!

Scott:   Something about them being a closed community or something?

Jim:   Yeah, well I think that there are definitely left and right coast cliques, and it’s really dominated by New York. I hate to sound like fuckin’ Dan Quayle, you know, when you talk about the media elite, but he was right–he was onto something. And there is a media elite in rock criticism. You know, there was a great Neil Strauss piece a couple of years ago in the New York Times, where he took a look at the guest list of a couple of hyped shows, and it turned out that 75% or 80% of the house at some of these New York rock critic-friendly shows–I think one of them was Meat Puppets and Big Star at Trammps–and like, literally 80 or 85% of the house was press, radio, and industry. Right? So now, I go to see a show in Chicago–you boys go to see shows where you’re at–and it’s me, it’s Greg Kot from the Tribune, Peter Margasak from the Reader, and then 797 people who paid to get in. And as we walk through, 600 of those people are gonna stop us, pull us by the sleeve, and say, “Ahh, that fucking thing you wrote on Friday was a piece of shit!” Or they’re gonna say, “Hey, I liked your column.” Either way–we’ve got a dialogue, because we can’t escape it, with our readers. In New York, 85% of the fucking house is publicists and writers and radio people–they’re talking to each other, they’re writing for each other, they have no idea who reads them, and they don’t care…

Scott:   Well…

Jim:   They are not talking to real people, and they are not listening to music in the way that real people listen to music.

Steven:   I have a similar criticism of the Village Voice.

Jim:   Yeah, absolutely, it’s solipsistic and just awful.

Steven:   And I kind of talked to Chuck about that, but Chuck’s thing is, if you want to write a piece for the Village Voice, then you need to go into great, great detail and tell me why it’s important enough for you to write it, and, more importantly, why is it important to be in the Village Voice.

Scott:   I don’t have a problem with that, though. I mean, one thing I will say is, I don’t think the Village Voicemusic section is nearly as solipsistic, as you say, as it used to be. For a few years in the ’90s, I basically stopped reading it, ’cause it was very much this type of discourse which was very much like, I don’t know, a lot of terminology and jargon. And I think it actually has gotten away from that a lot.

Jim:   Yeah, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, the reason we talk about the Village Voice is that there was a point in time where if you cared about good, smart, well done writing about rock ‘n’ roll, you had to read the Village Voice. And that hasn’t been true…when I was in college in the mid ’80s, Wednesday morning, first thing, seven in the morning, I was there buying the Village Voice–and I couldn’t imagine not reading the Village Voice. And I happened to be in New York, but if I wasn’t, I would’ve done whatever I could. And now it simply doesn’t matter.

Scott:    But I think part of the reason that doesn’t happen anymore is because that’s just not happening in music or in writing anywhere anymore…

Jim:   I’ve had this debate with Christgau…

Scott:   There’s no central focus to anything in the culture. And the internet has had a lot to do with that…

Jim:   All right, well, Christgau says, “Look, the Village Voice can’t have the impact it had when you were a kid”; and Creem magazine–there is no place like Creem magazine when you were a kid, because now there are so many different outlets and there’s so many voices and there’s so many people writing. But the thing is, those outlets are all saying the same thing, and what they’re saying is, “Two thumbs up–smiley happy buy-buy-buy.” You know, you can distill 90% of the writing about rock music to the simple message, “Buy this new product.” And it’s fundamentally dishonest, it’s stuff that’s being shilled, shoved down the pipeline, and one of the reasons that we talk about the Voice is they’re one of the few places where they don’t have those restrictions…to have that kind of freedom and to be doing so little with it. And we’re starved for great rock writing, those of us who love it. And we’re finding it here and there, and you asked me–and please include this ’cause you were basically saying, you know, “We’re tired of hearing you whine, who’s any good?” And I sent you that e-mail–and use it, okay?

Steven:   I have a different spin on the Voice than either of you: it never was central to my life. I started out readingHit Parader and Circus, and I didn’t care at all about rock critics. I was reading that stuff because my friends and I liked Iron Maiden albums. I didn’t really discover music writing until 1985. And it wasn’t the Village Voice, orRolling Stone or Creem. It was Musician. That’s where I fell in love with music journalism–not music criticism. Record reviews were never really my thing. I preferred reading interviews and features about how records were made and what went on in the studio. I loved the features by Timothy White, Charles M. Young, Considine, Chip Stern, Mark Rowland, Mac Randall and Matt Rensicoff. That’s why I have a strong affinity for MusicianMojo,Classic Rock–and sometimes Rolling Stone. And I think that’s what I react to in the work of guys like Gary Graff and Anthony DeCurtis. I’m not into the hip, smart, young, Ivy League kind of writing you get–sometimes anyway–in the Voice with zany puns and jokes about hip-hop, electronica and indie-rock.

I mean, this very smart and funny writer George Smith–I talked to Chuck about this–recently had a piece in theVoice about the new Yes album, and all it did was basically make fun of Yes. Nothing about the music or what it sounds like. George said something about how Yes sound like a bunch of Ph.D.s of rock or something. I just think that’s a cop out. Maybe I’m un-hip in admitting this, but I like Yes and I want to know about the music. So I mean, the Voice is not totally my thing. I’m not really looking for strong ideas to spring from record reviews. But, but, having said that, I eventually went back and discovered guys like Bangs, Meltzer, Christgau and Chuck Eddy. Still, I wanna know what the music sounds like. That’s why Pareles and Considine are so great. So the interviews I’ve done at the site don’t have to do with me thinking Graff or DeCurtis are better thinkers than Bangs, or that they have better ideas. I just like what they do.

Scott:   And I like how Steven and I have very different tastes and ideas about all this stuff, too; that’s something wecould use more to our advantage. But Jim, let me ask you ’cause you’ve written for a lot of different types of outlets: do you think some of the problems you’re describing have more to do with the writers themselves or with the editors and the outlets that they’re writing for?

Jim:   There’s a lot of bad editing out there, and a lot of insidious editing, but by all means, the problem is coming from the writers themselves. The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship. At Rolling Stone, it was very rare that Jann Wenner would actually pull something from the magazine and replace it with a positive review–it happened to happen to me, but that’s fairly rare. Far more insidious is the writer knowing, I am going to get more work if I make my editor happy, if I make the publicist happy, if I make the artist happy, the record company happy–they have this long list of people who they’re writing for. And at the very bottom of that list, if they even make it at all, is reader. And to me, the only person you should be writing for is this ideal reader. And I tried to get to this with Andrew, and I think every writer has to have an ideal reader in their head, and if you’re selling short that reader, or being dishonest to that reader, that’s just, that’s sinful–absolutely sinful!

Steven:   So are the negative reviews in Rolling Stone just written by the writers who have the courage of their convictions?

Jim:   Oh no, the stuff that gets negative reviews in Rolling Stone is the stuff that doesn’t matter. There’s no way in fucking hell, and you know it, that Mick Jagger’s last record was gonna get a negative review. And there are several hundred of those names on the list, if not more.

Scott:   Well, I’ve got a self-serving anecdote here. I actually had a couple reviews last year in Vibe magazine, and I was all excited–wow, I’m in Vibe, this is great!–and I’d developed a bit of a rapport with an editor there–and these reviews just did not show up in the magazine remotely–well, I shouldn’t say “remotely”–but they were not the reviews I had written, basically, and in one case the rating was changed…And it was like–that was completely demoralizing to go through that.

Jim:   Yeah, see, you’re just not cut out for the glossies, man! You’re not ready for the prime time, because if you’d been slicker, you would have edited yourself before you ever handed that review in. So what you have is people who are writing–tailoring themselves–they don’t need to be censored ’cause they’re censoring themselves. And the point I made to Andrew–when I’m walking through South by Southwest, and I’m hearing people say something completely different from what they said in print–I despise that! Which is what I was giving you guys a little shit for what you’re doing.

Scott:   One thing I’m amazed you haven’t brought up is–I mean, I think one of the biggest problems with our site–maybe even bigger than what you’re suggesting–and it’s not for politically correct reasons that I say this–but we just do not have…we’ve interviewed one woman on the site, and not a single black writer. And it’s not completely for lack of trying–we probably could work harder at that; a few interviews have fallen through and stuff–and I’m absolutely amazed that no one has written us a nasty letter about that. So I don’t understand what people out there are thinking of us; I don’t understand how people use the site. I think a lot of people just use it as a resource, or as kind of a library, and I don’t think it’s evolved into anything resembling a discussion yet, and believe me, I would love it if it did, but I don’t wanna prescribe some sort of feistiness–if it happens, it happens. Maybe I’m not leading it in the right direction to do that…

Steven:   Just as a side note here, didn’t Sue Cummings–it was Sue, wasn’t it, Scott?–write us and ask about the lack of women on the site?

Scott:   That’s right.

Steve:   I mean, I’m still waiting for Deborah Frost to answer some questions–it’s been three months now! And Amy Linden–she weaseled out of it after she read my questions. After she read my questions and realized she was gonna have to start talking about, you know, writers she liked and didn’t like, she changed her mind and said, “I don’t wanna do it.”

Jim:   Well, I think the bigger problem in criticism is not sexism–and I’m not denying that there have been sexist incidents–certainly Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell made that case in the intro to their book [Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap], and I’ve had this conversation with both of them, but I think the bigger problem is–I used to think it was generational, that it wasn’t racial or sexist–you know, the black writers weren’t getting published because they were black, and the female writers weren’t getting published because they were female–’cause, you know, I was a short, fat, white guy writer, and I wasn’t getting published, not because I was a short, fat, white guy, but because I was not being conducive enough to the flow of commerce. I used to think it was generational. And I think the boomer canon is really obnoxious, and I’d say it’s as obnoxious in the rock critics we elevate as it is in the rock stars.

One of the reasons I was disappointed in Anthony’s piece against Bangs is, I could write a much, much better “Lester Bangs sucks” piece than Anthony did. Believe me! I’ve wanted to do this book for a long time and nobody wants to buy it, but it’s called Kill Your Idols, and it would be some of my favorite rock writers from my generation–you know, us Gen-Xers–’cause there’s really only a handful of Ys to emerge and I think I’ve nailed them all in that list I sent you–but it would be the Gen-Xers railing against the–it’s the flipside evil perverse of Stranded. Instead of the one-album-you-take-to-a-desert-island, it’s the one-album-that’s-universally-in-the-canon-and-hailed-as-a-masterpiece that you think is a raving pile of shit. So it’d be like a 3,000-word essay on why, say, Exile on Main St.sucks! ‘Cause I think you can learn as much from a really well-thought-out negative review as you can from a positive review, and I think that if you really love an album, you also know what its biggest flaws are. You know, I think that Pet Sounds is a masterpiece, but I also can make the argument that it’s a hyper-romantic piece of bullshit. So, believe me, I can make the anti-Lester argument, and I’m not gonna make it, I’m not gonna give that ammunition to somebody, but when somebody does it, I’ll be happy to read it!

Steven:   And that’s one of the reasons why Anthony did it. And no matter…

Jim:   Yeah, but he failed–he fucked up…

Steven:   And nobody else would do it, Jim–nobody!

Jim:   Well, that’s not true…

Steven:   …like it was the Holy Grail!

Jim:   No, I think Greil did it–I think Greil himself does the anti-Lester thing. And Meltzer did pretty well in his “Lester Recollected in Tranquility,” too.

Scott:   I found almost every review I read of your book, and the Meltzer anthology to be fairly honest and intelligent. I think the only bad reviews I read of your Bangs book–and when I say “bad” I mean badly written–were the reviews where someone tried to take the stance and write like Lester Bangs, and those were completely obnoxious to read. But even some Toronto writers–they actually pulled something out that seemed to approach honesty or something. It was kind of a bizarre phenomenon! Maybe ’cause they were writing about a writer.

Jim:   Well, I think they were writing about this ideal of rock criticism. I think it was useful in providing a forum to talk about when is rock criticism good? And I think that everybody kind of digs into the depth of their soul and says, why did I fall in love with this in the first place? Why did I devote my life to writing about this music? And, so people were really writing about that. But the thing is, I wish that discussion was continuing beyond, you know, “Lester was the best,” and “Lester’s dead,” and “now nobody writes like this–or nobody has the freedom to.” I firmly don’t believe that there can’t be another Lester Bangs–I think that list I sent you is–those people aren’t Lester Bangs, those people are better in some ways, they’re alive! They’re alive, and they’re writing today, and it’s not hubris, and it’s not me wanting to be Lester, but I mean, I think I’m better than Lester Bangs; I’m better ’cause I’m alive. I’m alive and I’m fucking 37, and I love my job, and I would not want to write about anything else, and I’ve already beat Lester by four years–I’m sorry, Lester. I love your pieces, and I think you’re the Jack Kerouac of your generation–and I admired this guy artistically. As a person, I think there were great things about him and I think there were horrible things about him, just like all of us. And I admire his work. But I certainly didn’t think that this was the end-all and be-all of rock criticism or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today. And I think that everybody–I honestly think that everybody on that list is as good as Lester Bangs, as good as Tosches, as good as Meltzer.

Steven:   But you know, before this interview, if somebody would’ve asked me, I would’ve guessed that you wouldlove Chuck Eddy’s writing. Now, aside from Stairway to Hell, and aside from how the book was marketed or put together, I would’ve thought that his writing, his ideas and stuff, would’ve been something that you liked. You don’t like any of his writing?

Jim:   There’s two separate things: you’re talking about his ideas and his writing. And I think the place where those things came together was his Accidental Evolution book, which I…

Steven:   So there is some of his writing that you like?

Jim:   Umm, yeah, but what’s gotta come first for me…You know, I abhor to the core of my being, the argument that Christgau made that Lester was all style and no substance. Christgau and Marcus both made variations of this argument, that Lester was a great stylist and there was no substance. I think Lester was ten times the intellect that either Christgau or Marcus are, and I…

Steven:   But Lester didn’t even go to college!

Scott:   Ha!

Jim:   Yeah, yeah, therefore he must be an idiot! I mean, this guy had a great brain, and to be able to really convey these deep and great ideas and at the same time be as entertaining as a writer is the ticket. And Christgau said that I didn’t pinpoint those ideas in my book, and I think he’s full of shit. You know, Christgau was like, “what were the ideas that DeRogatis highlighted?” when he reviewed the book. Well, I think that the ultimate democratic ideal, the whole punk thing, I think that’s an important idea, I think his ideas about the Dionysian core and essence of rock ‘n’ roll as expressed in his metal writing, I think those are ideas, I think there were dozens of ideas, and as I was synopsizing his pieces in my book, I was putting my finger on them, and I think Christgau did a sleight of hand and said, “these are the ideas, but everyone had already thought of them,” which is exactly what he did to Lester. But yeah, maybe there is no such thing as a new idea, but Lester gave them the most eloquent voice.

And you have Kurt Cobain in his journals, 20 years later–he’s read “Dead Lester,” he’s read Carburetor Dung, and he’s so fucking moved by Lester Bangs…did you read this in Charlie Cross’s book? [Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain] I was sitting in Courtney Love’s house–there’s a piece I just did yesterday on the horrible fight between Courtney and Nirvana over all that stuff. I was really proud of that–and this is another subject, but I think one of the things that’s really lacking in rock criticism is somebody who can do any reporting. I always–it’s a real insult, if you want to know what one of my buttons is, it’s when people say, “oh, he’s a great reporter, but he can’t write.” Or “he’s a great reporter but he’s not a great critic.” I mean, that’s like the worst insult to me. You can say anything else to me, I don’t care, but I am a good reporter and I like to try to think I’m those other things as well. But anyway–you had Kurt Cobain, and I’m sitting there reading this journal where he’s writing to Lester Bangs! You know, he never met Lester, and he never read Lester in Creem–he thought that this guy was such a conscience of rock ‘n’ roll, and this guy spoke to him, and conveyed his ideas about the music so eloquently, that Cobain was writing him letters! In heaven! You don’t have anybody writing the live Christgau, never mind the dead Christgau, letters, you know what I mean? Can you imagine having that kind of an impact on somebody? And Lester’s had that on hundreds and hundreds of readers…But I don’t think [laughs]–I don’t think some of the guys you’ve interviewed have pulled anything like that off!

Steven:   You mean…

Scott:   Father Charley…

Steven:   You mean Gary Graff hasn’t touched you?!

Jim:   Now you said it, I’ve only insulted him six or eight times in this interview, so now you did it this time!

Steven:   No, no, that’s no insult, come on now…

Jim:   Well I get to sit by these people at South by Southwest, man, but you know, I criticize because…

[And on that note, the Maxell XLII 60 abruptly and mercifully grinded to a halt.]

 

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