From the Archives: Tom Smucker (2000)

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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Part-Time Writer
Tom Smucker Keeps Us Hangin’ By the Telephone

By Steven Ward (October 2000)

Tom Smucker

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 FusionCreem, 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.

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