Though obviously Anthony DeCurtis was a critic I was aware of when Steven Ward pitched an interview with him in 2000, he wasn’t a critic whose work I was intimately familiar with, beyond the infamous dismissal of Lester Bangs he penned for Rolling Stone in May that same year. No need to re-litigate all that right now (stay tuned is all I can say), rather, I’ll just note that, I never found his interview with Steven to be anything less than informative and entertaining (even just glancing at it now, I chuckled at his “purely coincidentally, of course” in regards to his run-in with former rock critic and current multi-platinum musical legend, Ira Kaplan).
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Anthony DeCurtis: Populist at Large
By Steven Ward (November 2000)
Anthony DeCurtis never liked the rock writing of Lester Bangs. He never read Creem. After 20 years, DeCurtis still writes for Rolling Stone and still loves and defends the world’s most famous rock mag. DeCurtis hates Captain Beefheart.
Wait a minute!
Anthony DeCurtis is a rock critic and writer who does not like Lord Lester Bangs or Captain Beefheart? YES!
No one can accuse DeCurtis of not being his own man. But many in the rock-write world have accused him of something or other. None of which bothers the New York City-bred DeCurtis. What does bother him is younger writers who say older ones have no business writing about rock because they won’t dive into a mosh-pit. And writers who don’t really care about the craft of writing. Rock criticism is writing first, DeCurtis said recently during a phone interview. That is sometimes forgotten by bad Bangs and Meltzer imitators trying to impress editors with their style.
It’s no surprise that DeCurtis cares about such things as “writing” while discussing the world of rock criticism. He holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Indiana University and has taught English at Emory University and Indiana University. DeCurtis decided to switch from teaching to writing about rock because those were two of the most important things in his life: music and writing. Writing in particular made a tremendous impact on DeCurtis when he realized that he had the gift to “get ideas down.”
DeCurtis has edited a book of rock essays, Present Tense: Rock and Roll Culture, complied his own music journalism in one volume, Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters, and won a Grammy for his essay that accompanied the Eric Clapton boxset, Crossroads.
DeCurtis is more widely known as a former editor and current contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where he has penned some of the magazine’s best cover stories, profiles, and record reviews over the last 20 years.
DeCurtis is unapologetic about working for the world’s most criticized rock magazine. In fact, DeCurtis said working at Rolling Stone changed his life and gave him exactly what he wanted as a rock writer: an audience. Possibly, the largest audience rock critics have ever known in its short history.
Steven: The first thing that pops into my head is, what is a guy with a Ph.D. in American Literature doing writing about rock and roll?
Anthony: I did set out to be an English professor, but I was always a big music fan. I guess in the back of my head I believed, or hoped, that I would write about music as part of whatever I did. In my dissertation I wrote about contemporary American fiction, things that were written after 1960. Since I was doing this in the 70s, that was pretty recent. I liked the idea of tangling with contemporary culture. I went to Catholic schools for grade and high school, and by the time I got to college I was envious of some my friends and their ability to think freely. I felt like I was disciplined and learned well but I always seemed to be waiting for someone to tell me what to think. When I got to college and grad school I opened up a lot and that all changed. There was an exhilaration about writing about contemporary culture, because very little had been said about it and no one could tell you what to think. That freedom translated pretty easily to popular music. But it’s actually a long, gory story about how I made the transition from academia to writing about pop music.
Steven: You were a grad student at Indiana University when you first started writing for the little town paper, The Bloomington Herald Telephone. How did that come about?
Anthony: Through one of my friends in grad school, who is now a professor at Carnegie Mellon. His name is David Shumway. He was working at the paper as the pop music critic. He had to leave town because his wife got a job and they asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested. He said, ‘I think my friend Anthony would want to do it.’ So that’s how I got that gig. They asked to meet me. I talked to them. They asked me to write a review, and I wrote about the first Cars album, actually. I brought the piece in. They said, it’s good and they took me on. They let me write about whatever I wanted. The only time they ever complained was when I reviewed Gimmie Some Neck, the Ron Wood solo album. There was a track on there called, “F.U.C. Her.” I rendered that title in the paper and the editor, an older woman, just kind of pointed at it to indicate to me that I was not supposed to do that.
I wrote about The Clash, Lou Reed. I did mostly record reviews but I did some overnight reviews. Bloomington was a cool town. It was on the way to Chicago, so someone like Luther Allison would play there regularly. The music school there is good, so jazzbos would come by a lot. I wrote about Dexter Gordon and Sun Ra, who both performed there. If someone was passing through town–like Weather Report, I got to meet Jaco Pastorious–I would review them. I reviewed Elvis Costello and B.B. King. I mean, the job was nice but it was ridiculous. I got paid $12.50 a story, which at the time was a nice addition to my meager income as a graduate student. The job market for English Ph.D.s was shrinking, so the notion that I might have something else in my pocket was inviting. I was then hired to teach for a year in the English Department at Emory University in Atlanta–freshman writing courses, surveys in poetry and fiction. I taught a seminar in Thomas Pynchon. While I was down there, the whole Athens thing was going on. When my year at Emory ended, I stayed down South and I was looking around for work. I sent a letter to Jim Henke, who was an editor at Rolling Stone, and asked him if I could write about the B52s who were coming back to Georgia to do their first shows after becoming successful. I wanted to write a concert review. I didn’t send him any clips–just a brief, three-paragraph note. He called me up one day and said, “Look, I don’t know who you are or what your writing is like, but it’s a good idea, so go and review the show. If your piece is good, we’ll run it.”
Steven: Too bad those days are over.
Anthony: Yeah. I was too naive to know that you were not supposed to do that. But I got the assignment and I began to cover that scene a bit, both locally and nationally.
Steven: That was before you started working at Record, right?
Anthony: Yeah. Writing for Record was the breakthrough for me; I think that was 1982. I got the Rolling Stone assignment in 1980, and did one other piece for them. While all this was going on, I got a job as a business and technical writer at Georgia Tech to make money. But I also started to do more journalism and a lot of that was music writing. There was a little monthly called Muzik! that I wrote for–for free of course. I was trying to pick up experience, to get my work out there. I felt that I was good and if people saw what I could do I would get other opportunities. I wrote for Musicianthrough the recommendation of the now legendary Andy Slater, who these days manages and produces The Wallflowers, Fiona Apple and Macy Gray. Andy was a writer back then in Georgia, and we were good friends. He got an assignment from Musician to review a Clash show, but he couldn’t do it, and he recommended me. I got a few assignments from Musician subsequently. But at Record, this guy David McGee really took a liking to my stuff, and that’s where I did my first big stories. I did a David Byrne cover, a Go-Gos cover. Getting that regular work and that platform gave me the courage to move back to New York City, where I grew up. That was in 1984. I got hired at Record in 1985.
Steven: Who were some of the other staffers at Record?
Anthony: There were not a lot of us, believe me. McGee was the editor. Wayne King had been there but he left just when I came on. John McAlley, who is now the music editor at Entertainment Weekly, was the photo editor. Joe Dizney, who is now the art director at the Wall Street Journal, was our art director. It was an extremely small staff. I think there were four full time edit people.
Steven: Record was some kind of music offshoot of Rolling Stone, wasn’t it?
Anthony: Around 1980, Rolling Stone began to cover other aspects of popular culture more energetically than music. Music was not really happening at the time on that mainstream level. There was a sense that Record would become the full-on music magazine and Rolling Stone would be this pop culture publication. The demise of Record came about because Rolling Stone started moving back to covering music aggressively and because Jann bought US magazine. We were always like Rolling Stone‘s bastard kid brother anyway. Rolling Stone would be jetting people all over the place for stories, and we would have to beg for $500 to touch up a photo for our cover. I mean, Rolling Stone would kill photo shoots that would have cost our entire photo budget for the year. Record was definitely run on a shoestring. But it was great for me. I got a lot of experience there and not incidentally, the guys at Rolling Stone saw my work. Jim Henke was the music editor at Rolling Stone then. So when Record folded in 1985, I gave him a call. I said, “Hey, I’m looking for work. If you have anything for me to do, I would love to do it.” I had been reviewing pretty regularly for Rolling Stone while I was at Record. Jim said they were a little short-handed and he started giving me stuff to do. A month later he hired me. And that was the total breakthrough.
You know I tell this story in a fairly offhand way but all of this was very emotionally charged for me. I was in my early 30s by this time. In all modesty, it had always seemed like I was going to do something big, but nothing ever seemed to work out. Because of the job market, my academic career was a crushing disappointment. I left that world with the greatest reluctance, and I was unprepared for anything else. The transition to journalism was not easy. So when I was first hired at Record, it was a huge thrill. I thought, finally I got a gig. But then Jann folded Record within a year of my getting there. So whenRolling Stone hired me after that, I mean, that was unbelievable. I got the job at Rolling Stone because I had been offered another job–a time-worn path to getting anything beneficial at Rolling Stone, as I was later to learn. After Record folded, I was freelancing and then the Westchester-Gannett newspapers, a string of 10 newspapers in the suburbs north of New York City, wanted to hire me as a news feature writer. I thought, “Great, I can do the newspaper thing.” But Jim had asked me, in this very mysterious Rolling Stone type way, “What’s going on with you?” I said I was looking for a job. He said, “Don’t do anything until you talk to me.” So when I got the newspaper job offer, I told Jim about it. Jim said, “Let me talk to Jann.” So he did and they made me an offer matching–though not exceeding–the Westchester Gannett salary, another aspect of Rolling Stone that I would come to know. To their credit, Westchester stepped up and offered me a couple of grand more–$29,000. Rolling Stone held firm at $27,000, and I took it. I walked in there to accept the job offer and Jann came into Jim’s office. Jim said, “Jann you know Anthony right? He’s come to work for us.” And Jann said, “Yeah. Hi Anthony. Welcome aboard…again.”
Steven: Tell me about your favorite non-music writers?
Anthony: Don DeLillo and Martin Amis are probably my two favorites. Both have a vision as well as a style. The writing, in both cases, is particularly strong. Amis is a little easier match to what I try to do, though I’m not as much of a smartass. But he can do the high style, while also doing the slang and the hip stuff. DeLillo is a little more enclosed although his characters play around with some of the goofier aspects of language. But both those guys are models for me.
The often overlooked and un-discussed aspect of music criticism is that–it’s writing. It is not the music, and it is not your version of the music. It’s writing. So, you want to have a style that makes sense for what you’re writing about. This idea that writing reproduces its subject is ridiculous. If someone wants to feel the effect of the music, they need to go listen to the music. That’s what the music is for. But rock critics are supposed to be writing, and what they do has to succeed as writing. I really believe that, but I’m not sure that many other critics do.
Steven: What rock mags did you read when growing up?
Anthony: The first rock criticism I read was in the Village Voice. It was by Annie Fisher. Her stuff was really good. I read Richard Goldstein. I remember the semi-famous piece he wrote on the Rolling Stones when they were in NYC in 1966. It was great. I remember sitting in Downing Street Park on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, which was where I grew up, and just devouring that piece. The Voice was also important to my political coming of age. I grew up in the Village, but it was an Italian neighborhood then and it might as well have been some tiny town outside Naples. It was very enclosed. People spoke Italian and the Catholic thing was in very full effect. It was almost medieval. But I grew up in an apartment at the corner of Bleecker Street and 10th Street, and so all I had to do was walk outside and there were alternatives. The Voice offices were right around the corner, literally two blocks away, and reading the Voice was where I learned about politics when I was a kid. It was transformative. It made a huge difference to me in terms of pop culture and it gave me a larger way of thinking about issues like the Vietnam War.
Creem meant nothing to me. It just seemed like a magazine for kids and geeks. Rolling Stone made a huge impact. That was gripping. It was something I really wanted. What Jann meant it to be, is what it was–sort of a news magazine for the counterculture. It covered those things very seriously. They would take Pete Townshend…
Steven: Pete Townshend is my hero.
Anthony: Yeah. Jann would do a 10,000 word interview with Pete Townshend. I can still quote from that piece. That’s what I wanted to read. That made a big, big impact on me. Fusion was a good magazine. I actually sent them some stuff when I was 17. I sent them a review of Beck-ola, the second album by the Jeff Beck Group. I got a letter back from an editor saying, “I already assigned this to someone, but please send us more record reviews.” I just thought that was the kind of thing he must say to everyone, so I never sent anything else to him.
Steven: You touched on this already, but what other rock writers did you like and which ones might have influenced your writing? I know Lester Bangs surely did not.
Anthony: Yeah. Lester was the counter influence–what not to be. But John Mendelssohn, who I later had a bit of a falling out with when I was atRolling Stone, was a guy whose writing I liked a great deal.
Steven: Really? He was sort of lumped in the Bangs/Meltzer camp
Anthony: Yeah, but he was better than either of those two I think. I also used to read Crawdaddy! Paul Williams was someone I liked. It’s funny because I can remember buying a copy of Crawdaddy! in this little record shop on Bleecker Street. It was stapled together and had a picture of Donovan on the cover–from his Sunshine Superman period. One issue had, like, a 10-million word interview with Brian Wilson. Nothing could have seemed less hip at the time. Things like The Stones and Dylan seemed dangerous and scary, but–Jesus Christ!–Brian Wilson? How could he be taken seriously? But how prescient that was. That was the first piece I ever read that took the Beach Boys seriously. Paul really understood what was happening with that. As for other writers who influenced me, I should also mention John Rockwell and Robert Palmer, who was a friend and my absolute favorite music writer.
Steven: What about Robert Christgau? He’s a fan of your writing, from what I understand. Did he have any kind of influence on you?
Anthony: Christgau made an impact on me a little later. When punk happened, he came alive in a really compelling way in the Voice. Especially then, when there was no Internet and it was hard to get information. In 1977, was cable TV even around? Mainstream media would never touch the punks. So these pieces Christgau was writing and assigning week after week made a tremendous impact on me when I was in Bloomington and later in Atlanta. When I began to hang around the music scene in Athens and Atlanta, I began to understand how a mention in the Voice could mean everything to people. Bands would live on it, and it could really help energize a scene. I interviewed Bob once for a fanzine in the early 80s, and he was very gracious and generous with his time. He took me seriously. He asked me to vote in the Pazz and Jop poll which, to me, was a big deal. He never asked me to write for him in theVoice–I pitched him once or twice–but he was even gracious about that.
It’s funny that you say he likes my writing. I had the impression that he liked my writing reasonably well, but thought that it was just not right for the Voice. He recommended me to others and made suggestions. He was a total pro and seemed like a nice guy. One person he recommended me to was the sainted Billy Altman, whom I actually know a bit now. Billy sternly lectured me about calling him at home. He was working for Creem. Christgau gave me his phone number. So I sent Billy some stuff and then I called him. I got this very severe, “Why are you calling me at home?” He had enough writers, he said, and didn’t need any more. Years later, one night at the Bottom Line, he apologized for it. I was struck that he even remembered it, because it was a five-minute conversation. I remembered it, but you tend to remember anyone who is cruel to you while you are coming up. A particularly notable asshole I remember was the equally sainted Ira Kaplan, who is now in Yo La Tengo. He was an editor at New York Rocker. He edited a story of mine and ended up killing it so that he could reassign it to one of his friends. He sent these scathing, incredibly condescending comments back to me about the piece. Purely coincidentally, of course, Yo La Tengo never got much coverage in the review section at Rolling Stone while I was editing it.
Steven: In regards to your anti-Bangs essay for Rolling Stone.com, did you ever feel like, maybe this is something I should not do? Or did you do it because no one else was saying anything negative about him?
Anthony: I’m curious, why would you think that I might think twice about writing it? I’m curious about your perspective on that.
Steven: Well, the guy is so liked. I mean, I’ve read everything there is to read about Lester and your essay was the first time I ever read anything negative about him.
Anthony: Well, that’s why I wrote it. That was the reason to do it. Not to sound crass, but I felt like at this stage in my career I could write it. If I really thought it was going to have a terrible impact on my career, I probably would have kept it to myself. It wouldn’t have been worth it. I must say, though, that his popularity, so to speak, is something that has always mystified me. But I’m not the only one who feels that way. I swear to God this is true–a stranger stopped me on the street at 1 a.m. to thank me for writing that piece, and I’ve gotten many similar responses–“Thank God someone finally said it.”
Steven: Why do you think Lester’s writing touched a nerve with so many though?
Anthony: First, the autobiographical aspect–the fantasy about his life has overwhelmed the writing itself. I remember once reading a piece by Barney Hoskyns, a very underrated writer by the way. Barney was writing about Gram Parsons in Mojo. Gram was supposed to produce a Merle Haggard album at one point and it never worked out. So critics speculated that maybe Merle Haggard didn’t want Gram to produce it because he thought Gram was “too wild.” This, to Merle Haggard, who had been in prison and was a pretty tough guy and for whom Gram Parsons was probably just some two-bit drug addict punk.
There’s a parallel here. Lester Bangs seems a “wild guy” to a lot of the sheltered, geek-type people who tend to grow up to be rock critics. He does not seem that wild to me, and his various antics never impressed me. I grew up in a pretty tough neighbourhood and somebody like that seems to me to be a dope. All the silly excesses, to me, seemed not only not cool, but something that would get you smacked down. I just don’t think it’s a great act of rebellion to walk into a party and knock over the fucking punch bowl. That just seems stupid. Rock critics tolerate that in Lester Bangs–they’re even titillated by it. But if some rock star did it, they would think, “Aw, fuckin’ millionaire thinks he can do anything he wants.” But if Lester did it, it’s cool. As for the writing, I don’t like the adolescent snottiness–which, unfortunately, has come to be what most rock writing is about. Writing with that kind of aspiration to stupidity does not make sense to me, maybe because I always wanted to be older when I was a kid. I was trying to figure out what someone like Don DeLillo was thinking about. I like some of Bangs’ sources but I don’t think Kerouac was trying to write like a kid. As for why it’s so influential, well, I think that’s because it looks easy. Most of Bangs’ imitators aren’t even as good as he is, but it’s still easier to attempt that gonzo style than to actually learn how to write well.
Steven: What about Meltzer? Was he the same for you.
Anthony: Pretty much the same. There’s the same goofiness, which I really can’t stand, though I did occasionally enjoy the lunatic aspect of his writing. He seems smarter than Bangs to me. Bangs I found useless most of the time. I read him in the Voice, so maybe I missed his good stuff, which people say was in Creem, which I didn’t read.
But one impression about my anti-Bangs piece that I would like to correct is that I actually do think Jim DeRogatis did a good job with his book on Bangs. I’m not a big fan of Jim’s but I think he was fair-minded in his presentation of Bangs. Whether he knows it or not, I think the book paints a damning portrait. Jim didn’t hold back unflattering information just because he happens to worship Lester Bangs.
Steven: When I first asked you about this interview and you checked out rockcritics.com for the first time you said something very similar to what Stanley Booth said when he first looked at it, you said It’s intriguing but kind of scary. Do you think it’s crazy for people to be fans of rock critics and rock writing itself?
Anthony: I have a certain amount of ambivalence about doing this. Not this interview, but about the world of rock criticism that I’m inevitably a part of. If there’s a situation where there’s going to be a bunch of rock critics, I generally try to avoid it. Like South by Southwest for example. I went once.
Steven: Didn’t you answer a question given to you there while you were on a press panel about how people in their 40s or 50s could not write about rock effectively without being in a mosh-pit or something.
Anthony: I actually wasn’t on the panel but someone told me about it. The people on the panel were completely defensive, saying, “Well, I stood near the mosh-pit once” or whatever. The correct answer would have been, “What the fuck does that have to do with writing?” It’s ridiculous. The people in the mosh-pit can write from the perspective of being in the mosh-pit and I’ll write about the perspective of having seen Jimi Hendrix play in a club the size of my living room. You bring the experience you bring. I’m not devaluing the experience of being in the mosh-pit–though it’s the last place I would ever care to be–but it does not have anything to do with your ability to write.
All of this is an example of why I’m ambivalent. I’ve been doing this work almost all my adult life and in many ways I’m a champion of it. But at the same time the warped purism of so much of it really annoys me. It’s incredibly stupid. So when I looked at your site it reminded me of walking into a bar in Austin during SXSW, and finding at least half a dozen people I would actively try to avoid in New York.
On the other hand, to read something like your interview with Paul Nelson, who had a big impact on me, or J.D. Considine, that was a real treat. It was even kind of moving. And it certainly was exciting to think that somebody would read an interview like that with me. Very often people do not take what rock critics do seriously. So the fact that someone is, is exciting.
Steven: All these years of writing about music, has it ever taken the joy out of just listening to music for the fun of it?
Anthony: No. I remember when I got my job at Emory in 1979. I was in my late 20s. It was the first time in my life I could go into a record store and pull out a bunch of stuff and not have to go through “Which ones do I have to put back now because I can’t afford to buy them all?” That was the first time I thought, “I’m making money now. I can buy all of these.” Being a rock critic holds that same kind of thrill. There still is the excitement of getting the music I want on a daily basis and getting to listen to whatever I want.
But it is a job. When I was teaching literature, I couldn’t always read what I wanted to because I had to read the stuff I was teaching or working on. So I have to be responsible to listen to the things I have to listen to for work. There are always things I wish I could just put on because I feel like listening to it–like the new Radiohead album, which I was listening to tonight. But that said, I never, never, never make myself listen to music. I never do that thing where I force myself to listen to everything just to keep up or something.
Steven: Were you surprised when you met guitarist Peter Buck and found out that he was an actual fan of rock criticism outside of what critics had to say about R.E.M and have you met other musicians who are fans of rock writing?
Anthony: Not to the degree that Peter is–but I also met him before R.E.M. ever had a record out. He’s a rare case. One thing he said to me was, “If I go out to clubs to hear music, which I do all the time, who’s likely to be there? Music critics. Not people in bands.” Essentially that’s true, so I think he feels he has a lot in common with writers.
Steven: What was it like to work as a staffer at Rolling Stone?
Anthony: It was something that transformed my life. Rolling Stone as a magazine made a huge impact on me as a kid. To this day, Rolling Stone is my first priority in terms of my various commitments. It’s still the biggest thrill to write for them.
Steven: The magazine takes a lot of shit from rock critics today. It’s not like it used to be, or whatever.
Anthony: Oh yeah. When I would be on panels at conferences and the panel was supposed to be an hour and a half about the future of rock criticism or something, that subject would get discussed for 90 seconds and the rest of it would be about who was on the cover of Rolling Stone that month and why. It’s like the New York Times. Everyone criticises it to death, no one says anything decent about it. And when you’re working at a place that gets that big and has a powerful impact in a world where not many things do, you are set up for that sort of relentless attack. Rolling Stone is not perfect. There are dubious things that go on there that trigger a lot of the criticism. But it was over-criticised before I got there and it probably always will be. It’s funny because I would read screeds about the magazine and think to myself, “But I just got clips from this writer a month ago.” Jealousy is definitely a factor–I’d think, “That person just wants my job.” I’ve written for Rolling Stone for nearly 20 years now, and there was always a sense you were not going to get the gold watch there. You stay there for as long as it makes sense and then you move on. But I was on staff for nine years. I made a good living there, and I’m still on the masthead and I continue to do a lot of work there. They pay well, and it’s amazing to feel that you put a piece out and people actually read it. I mean, I’ve written in a million places, and the only time I get a bigger response is when I write for the Sunday New York Times. Other than that, it’s Rolling Stone.
As for being on staff there, I worked really hard. Despite its being perceived as a glamour pit, everyone works really hard there. Do I get upset when Christina Aguilera is on the cover every other issue, yes. But in every one of those issues do I think there are things in the magazine that are great and that no other music magazine would do, yes. Absolutely. I just think of the celebrity pieces as the price you pay for actually having an audience. Unlike most rock critics, I never had the fantasy of being a bohemian, maybe because I grew up in a working-class family. The idea that I would be poor and starve for my art did not hold the slightest allure for me. I always wanted an audience and I wanted to write in big places and be successful. Rolling Stone was the place to do that. I should also mention that the magazine has a wall full of national magazine awards. It’s serious, quality stuff. It’s relentlessly attacked, but I still think it’s the best music magazine out there, all in all.
Steven: J.D. Considine said something interesting to me. He said there were no new, younger critics out there that he was scared of. Are there any new young writers that you like or scare you?
Anthony: I would not say scare. I’ve always felt that the more people that wrote well, the better off I would be. Neil Strauss is interesting. He always has a fresh take. He’s a good writer. He can report stories and do profiles.
Steven: He was attacked in the Rock Critical List.
Anthony: That is really a whole other story. That was fucking ridiculous. The person, who wrote it–Charles Aaron by most accounts, though he denies it–was so childishly vindictive. Nothing is good. Everyone is an asshole. Everyone is a sellout. It was absurd. The truly perfect thing about it is that half the people he attacks are his best friends.
Steven: So Neil Strauss…
Anthony: Yes. These people are not all youngsters, and I’m leaving out a lot of people–like Alan Light, for example–who are primarily editors now. But Ann Powers is interesting. Lorraine Ali at Newsweek is someone I like a lot. Elysa Gardner. David Fricke. Tom Moon. I like Anthony Bozza at Rolling Stone–he’s got a smart, lucid style. David Prince at Spin. Matt Diehl. I always read Jon Pareles at the New York Times with pleasure.
Steven: What about J. D. Considine? He is a guy I like because he concentrates on writing about music instead of going on and on about the lyrics.
Anthony: I’m certainly guilty of that–and I do like J.D.’s writing a lot. The most common suggestion I get from editors after I’ve turned in a piece is, “Can you say something about the music?” The music is really an afterthought to me–not as a listener, but as a writer. It’s harder for me to write about music, because my training is as a literary critic. I love language. So the music part of it is difficult. Why is a sound compelling? That’s tricky. It’s tough to get at.
Steven: What advice would you give someone today who wanted to write about music for a living?
Anthony: Find a place to do it. College newspaper, local weekly, the internet, wherever you can get experience. Get your stuff out there. Work on your writing is the other advice. Rock critics all have taste. They like what’s good, mostly. But you need to be able to put words together. One of the most thrilling realisations of my life was when I knew that I had the ability to express in writing any idea that came to my mind. Popular music was the least of it–that ability was liberating for every aspect of my life. Clearly a critic is responding to the music. Now find a language to make that response compelling to people.
Steven: A new question I’m going to start asking critics. Captain Beefheart. Fan or non-fan?
Anthony: Non fan.
Steven: I don’t believe it
Anthony: (Laughing) Why?
Steven: To be a rock critic, you have to love the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart.
Anthony: I love the Velvet Underground. Captain Beefheart is corny avant-garde. Bloops, squawks and bleeps. Sorry. I’m afraid not.
Steven: What would be your choice for Greil Marcus’s Stranded 2000. By the way, he’s not putting one together, as far as I know.
Anthony: Blonde on Blonde. It’s a cliched rock critic answer, but I love it. I’ve never heard that record without finding something new. That album would do me on a desert isle. I could happily listen to it once a day for the rest of my life.