Steven Ward’s interview with Ken Tucker. Like previous interviewees Meltzer (at least circa 2000) and Smucker, one of our early subjects who continued to exercise his rock critic muscles on a part-time basis only. (I note that there are a lot of links in this interview, and I will eventually go through it to delete or replace any bad ones. The first priority of this migration from the archives, however, is just to get the material on to this server before my subscription at the archives server expires.)
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He Got a TV Eye on You: The Ken Tucker Interview
By Steven Ward (December 2000)
One day, back in 1974, a Lower East Side resident named Ken Tucker wrote Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau an angry letter because the Voice wasn’t covering the sorts of bands that Tucker was interested in reading about. Christgau’s response was to give Tucker his first professional assignment–writing up those very bands he wanted to read more about. The piece was published [“Notes From The Academy,” Dec. 23, 1974], and Tucker has been writing music –and other media — criticism ever since, for popular rags like Rolling Stone to obscure where-are-they-nows like Gig. Tucker’s primary outlet for the last decade has been Entertainment Weekly, where he serves as their TV critic.
And a damn fine television critic he is: Tucker on The Simpsons or Letterman is essential reading. Should any enterprising individual with too much time on their hands start up aTelevisionCritics.com, you can be sure the site will virtually be dominated by Tucker.
Tucker was happy to talk to rockcritics.com and fill in some of the blanks of his critical odyssey.
Steven: You spent a good part of the ’70s, the ’80s, and part of the ’90s writing about rock music. Today, you are the television critic for Entertainment Weekly. How and why did you switch pop culture mediums? Do you prefer writing about TV, and if so, why?
Ken: Well, I haven’t really abandoned regular rock coverage: I write occasional music reviews for EW and do weekly record reviews for National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.”
But you’re right: I earn my living now as a TV critic. The professional progression was this: first, rock critic at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner from mid-to-late ’70s (a great time to be in L.A., because glorious English punk had hit and L.A. was doing its own, mostly awful imitation of it (sorry, kids–X was a great band, but Darby Crash and the Germs sucked) and I had fun ridiculing it in a company-town where derisive music criticism simply was not done (read the corpus of the L.A. Times‘ monolith Robt. Hilburn, a very nice man and a truly awful stylist). Also, rap was just bubbling up, and I found myself one of the few rock writers who was immediately obsessed by it–some of my most fond memories of LA are of going to the Tower Records on Sunset Blvd every week and snapping up every Sugar Hill or homemade-label 12-inch single I could find, discovering treasures amidst dross in a completely random, unmediated way, since no one else was writing about, say, Kool Kyle’s “It’s Rockin’ Time” on the Enjoy label. I look back on this time and cannot believe the freedom I was given by the swashbuckling editors who ran the paper from its magnificent downtown-L.A. Hearst building, Jim Bellows and Mary Anne Dolan. But then, since the tiny-circulation Her-Ex was always on the verge of folding and I had a wife and baby to support, I accepted an offer at thePhiladelphia Inquirer, which was considered a big step up, because the Inquirer was, in the early ’80s, a Pulitzer Prize-generating machine under the auspices of editor-guru Gene Roberts.
Going to the Inquirer proved the biggest professional mistake of my life. Roberts insisted that all concert reviews be filed to appear in the paper the next day, which meant handing in a review at around 11 p.m. –a time, obviously, when many concerts are just getting good. I argued for four years with him over this, saying that I was missing the last third of most shows, and he wouldn’t ask his movie critics to leave 2/3rds of the way through a film, or his art critic to leave 2/3rds of the way through a gallery show, would he? This cut no ice.
I did my best, which was good enough to make me the finalist for the Pulitzer in criticism in 1984 [the first rock critic to achieve this]. As a hard-news editor, Roberts was brilliant, but as someone making decisions on arts coverage–well, let me just say that he thinks Bobby Bare is a great country artist.
But I LOOOOVED newspaper writing: I discovered I could write well under deadline pressure, and readers responded to the informal voice I developed. But the Inquirer‘s we-know-better-than-you arbitrariness was maddening. Fuck this, I thought–I loved rock & roll too much to do the job in this institutionalized half-ass way, so when a position as TV critic came up, I asked to be transferred. Lo and behold, I discovered that this was a good decision: By the mid-’80s, my rock-crit colleagues were most agog over bands like R.E.M. and U2, whom I could appreciate but never felt any passion for (after punk, I could never understand the continued appeal of the great-rock-band concept). Just around the time that Robert Christgau was announcing his sensible theory of “semi-popular” music, I switched over to covering the TV industry, where “semi-popular” got you cancelled, and I re-discovered that I really liked writing about MASS culture, and increasingly disliked the prevailing trend in rock writing, which was: Pick a subculture (post-punk, dance, hip-hop, country, whatever), unearth the most obscure examples of it, and then write hipper-than-thou panegyrics. That wasn’t for me; I was happier using my newspaper skills to ponder Seinfeld and eight-hour miniseries.
Which, in turn, led to an offer from Jeff Jarvis, who was starting up Entertainment Weekly for what was then Time Inc. EW got off to a rocky start in terms of sales, and soon we had a new editor, Jim Seymore, a People magazine vet whose mission was to keep the red-ink-spurting mag from folding. All of us critics thought we’d be the first to be fired, since all we ever heard from upper-management was that we were “too negative,” but god bless him, Seymore not only turned EW into a profit-maker but has stuck by the critics, with the result that EW contains more hardheaded criticism of all the popular arts than any other national magazine. I have pinned to my wall a yellowed clipping from the Village Voice the year Entertainment Weekly launched, in which the music critic Richard Gehr referred to “otherwise intelligent people (you know who you are)” who would write for so “soul-depleting [an] embarrassment as Entertainment Weekly.” Since I knew Gehr slightly in L.A., I don’t think it was vain of me to believe that I might be one of those “otherwise intelligent” depleted-souls, and I’m happy to say, a decade on, that Richard Gehr can kiss my ass.
Steven: Give me some bio info. Where did you grow up, go to school etc.?
Ken: I grew up in Connecticut, the son of a steelworker–an alcoholic with truly excellent taste in country music (Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, Ray Price, George Jones, Homer & Jethro) who kept a rifle in the living-room closet for special domestic occasions. As first child in the history of the Tucker clan to attend college, I was able to escape to New York and go to NYU only after swearing I’d get a teaching degree–my father’s interpretation of “learning a useful trade.” But a semester spent student teaching in a Brooklyn junior-high convinced me that I wasn’t cut out to be an educator, and, with just an English degree and no money, freelance writing became a way to finance a pleasant mid-’70s, Lower East Side semi-bohemian existence.
Steven: Do you remember the first piece of rock criticism that “touched” you in some way?
Ken: I had begun reading scrupulously Bob Christgau’s Village Voice writing while in high school, and in college I read his first book, Any Old Way You Choose It, whose introductory essay, “A Counter In Search Of A Culture,” was thrilling and galvanizing on a number of levels. Like me, Christgau came from a Working class background and proved you didn’t have to have a trust fund to pursue a passion. On an aesthetic level, I had always liked pop (as opposed to rock) music more than my high school friends did–which is to say, I liked Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Just Like Me” as much as, say, the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” but, until Christgau, hadn’t read a justification for my instincts, or understood the importance of following those instincts.
Just as I had moved to Manhattan inspired by the poet Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” so I determined to do some rock writing based on Christgau’s notion that, as he wrote, “popular art was not inferior to high art, and… that popular art achieved a vitality of both integrity and outreach that high art had unfortunately abandoned.” Christgau’s writing, along with that of Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone and in his book Mystery Train, as well as Ellen Willis’s columns in the New Yorker convinced me that there was a way to write about rock in a way that could combine a critical apparatus couched in a demotic style that appealed to me enormously.
Steven: Could you tell me how you first started writing for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice and which one you preferred and why?
Ken: Christgau gave me my first professional assignment. I wrote him a letter complaining that, under his music-editorship at the Voice, he wasn’t covering the mid-level bands that appeared at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street. Christgau’s response was to call me up and say, OK, I’ll get you the press credentials and you spend one month seeing every single act at the Academy, and write it up. I did that, watching everyone from Uriah Heep to a pre-stardom Bruce Springsteen, spending as much time in the men’s-room where the weed was being sold and the music was being critiqued by the tokers as I did in my paid-press seat. I wrote it all up, dropped it off to the front desk at the Voice, then a day later called up Christgau and apologized for handing him such a terrible mess of reportage and criticism. He said, in the imperious way I was to learn was his primary operational mode, that I was an idiot to make such a call to an editor, that the piece was very good, and after a few editing changes we would go over together, would appear in the paper the next week.
Looking back, it’s remarkable that an editor would bother with a nobody’s snotty letter, let alone give him an assignment based on it, and I owe my career to Bob–after theVoice piece, I started writing the short record reviews that were then called “Riffs” in the Voice, and then Rolling Stone noticed me and let me write some reviews, and my freelance career was launched. The Voice was always the place I was most comfortable writing–I had more space, I learned a huge amount by being edited, line by line, word by word, by Christgau–he even let you come up with your own headlines for reviews, if they were clever enough. But to make a living, I also churned out reviews for every rock mag you can name, including a stint as reviews-editor of Gig, which must qualify as among the most obscure rock mags to feature major bylines and brought me into contact with Lester Bangs, Billy Altman, and other good writers.
Steven: What were your favorite rock mags when you started out and who were the rock critics that most influenced you?
Ken: The first rock magazines I read were the Paul Williams Crawdaddy (which was to be found only in the sole “head shop” in the small town in which I lived and to which my mother insisted on accompanying me, lest I also purchase rolling papers and heaven knows what else), Rolling Stone, and 16 Magazine,”all of which, in the late-60s/early-70s, were equally informative and fun. 16 was a fanzine, but a really well-written, joyous one–for a time, stuck in Connecticut, it was the only place I could learn about the favorite colors and foods of the British Invasion bands I was crazy for; since it was a pin-up mag aimed at girls, 16 was something I hid from my friends–a true guilty pleasure; only later did I learn that intelligent, witty people like, Gloria Stavers, Danny Fields and Lisa Robinson developed its tone.
As for Rolling Stone, I think Jann Wenner was a fascinatingly eclectic editor–anyone who could found an utterly sui generis magazine like Stone and publish writers as various as Greil Marcus, Grover Lewis, and William Greider, is an example of how to use an autodidact’s instincts for cultural good. Of course, I say this from a safe distance: I used to write regularly–and only–for the Stone record-review section under the various editorships of Dave Marsh, Paul Nelson, and others, but Wenner was never my boss–a role that I gather is not an easy one for others to endure.
Other favorite old rock mags: Creem, of course, for its diversity, from Bangs to Marsh to James Wolcott, and Circus magazine, which was marketed as a junky hard-rock/metal mag but when Paul Nelson ran the record-review section was a fun thing to read. Without Circus, I would never have been asked to interview Black Sabbath, and in the process learn that I had no gift for interviewing rock stars.
Steven: Were/are you a fan of the Bangs/Meltzer gonzo style of rock writing?
Ken: Yes, but possibly for different reasons than for some other readers. My take on Bangs has always been that he was a great humorist–his interviews with rock stars inCreem, esp. the period in which he was love/hate-obsessed with Lou Reed, are magnificently, deeply funny. He was a much better writer, I’ve always thought and speaking of “gonzo,” than Hunter Thompson, whose vocabulary of invective is far more limited than Lester’s. But as a critic, Bangs was useless to me–his judgments were perversely arbitrary; it was all about style, and while there was certainly nothing wrong with that (it yielded, as I say, some brilliantly funny and occasionally seriously moving writing), he sure as hell wasn’t to be trusted as an arbiter of good music. I think Bangs really came out of the Beat movement–his speed-freak productivity an elaboration on Kerouac composing on a single great roll of paper, and of Allen Ginsberg’s creative mantra, “First thought, best thought.” And Bangs was a much better writer than most of the Beats, or, say, than Charles Bukowski, a hack fake who was, unlike poor Lester, accepted by the literary establishment.
Now, all that said, I think Meltzer is the better writer and thinker. He had more range–my yellowed clippings of Voice pieces like “Meltzer At The Met” are still fresh and revelatory–and while I never shared his disenchantment with rock, he, like Ellen Willis, Nick Tosches, Dave Hickey, and Greg Tate, the other Great Rock Critic Apostates, channeled it into non-rock writing that really holds up. I don’t have that recently published collection of Meltzer’s work, but I have a fat file of Meltzer’s writing accumulated over the years that ratifies these thoughts about him.
You know who else was a terrific music writer who got fed up and created something else? Matt Groening. Pre-Simpsons, his columns in the L.A. Reader were marvelously funny and strongly opinionated. I never liked the music he liked–as I recall, he was fond of the Zappa/Beefheart/Can school of noisy art-rock–but I never cared about agreeing with his taste: It was his writing that was so energetic and exhilarating.
Steven: Do you still read rock criticism today and what magazines or papers are your favorites?
Ken: I read a lot of rock criticism–in EW, Stone, the Voice, Salon.com, Spin, Vibe, the Source, wherever I encounter it, basically. Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Simon Frith remain the most interesting writers in the field by far, but as a once-and-future newspaperman, I admire first-rate generalists who know music-theory and make it accessible to the average reader, like my colleague at EW, David Browne; my successor at the Phila. Inquirer, Tom Moon, and his second-string, Dan DeLuca; Jon Pareles at the NY Times, and until recently at the Baltimore Sun, J.D. Considine. Those last 4 guys are very impressive because, having done that newspaper labor, I know they have to slog out to every kind of club and stadium act, apply their ears to every major-label release as well as ferret out the best of the indies, and not succumb to the temptation to become blurb-machines.
Steven: Any younger rock writers catch your eye recently?
Ken: I don’t socialize with anyone, let alone rock writers–I swear to God, I didn’t even know that “Jane Dark” was a pseudonym until someone mentioned it just in passing about a month ago, that’s how little I know about my colleagues–so whether the writers I like are “young” or not, I dunno. But: I think Chuck Eddy is editing a terrific music section these days in the Voice, with that mixture of very commercial and very obscure music I appreciate. A recent Voice review of Kandi, for example, by Scott Woods, was absolutely first-rate: An enthusiastic piece of writing about a semi-obscure yet very mainstream artist that described the music vividly and gave you a sense of what the artist’s body of work was like. That’s the best kind of rock criticism. So was the recent Wu Tang/Jay-Z review by Kelefa Sanneh: a whole world opens up in writing this vivid, that doesn’t accept the critical line for these artists.
As for other writers: I wish Mim Udovitch wrote more about rock–she’s really witty and has original ideas; no one has written better about Madonna, for example, and her interviews are always revelatory. Ditto Sarah Vowell–her success as an essayist and radio performer on NPR’s “This American Life” has apparently moved her away from regular rock writing, but she’s tremendous: The way she can describe her own ideas about and emotional reactions to music is often stunning. I gather just as a follower of their work that Udovich and Vowell would rather write books or write about them, which is rock music’s loss.
Steven: What do you think about the state of rock criticism today?
Ken: Christgau & Marcus are as vigorous and all-encompassing as ever. One thing that’s lacking in rock criticism is any kind of intelligent analysis of the current wave of teen-pop, apparently because rock critics seem to think it’s beneath them; look back at what Tom Smucker used to do in the Voice, writing extremely interesting, politically-infused, gently witty pieces about un-hip acts like Anne Murray, and you’ll realize that you’ve never read anything as un-condescending and revelatory about Britney or N’Sync.
Most of the rock critics whom I assume are “young” suffer from the usual flaw in young critics in all other fields these days: Their frame of reference is stunted: rock began, for them, when they began to listen to it. You think Kurt Cobain is God–fine; but tell me why Al Green isn’t Jesus, then. If you cannot discourse upon what specific Marvin Gaye recordings are important and why, I don’t care what your take on D’Angelo is; if you don’t at least admit that Chuck Berry and George Clinton are both important and enjoyable, I don’t place any store in your analysis of the Deftones or Mouse On Mars. Do your fucking homework, and that also means not just reading rock criticism butcriticism, in general; if you haven’t read Dwight Macdonald’s “Against The American Grain” or Randall Jarrell’s poetry criticism, let alone Marcus’ Mystery Train, you don’t deserve your rock-critic membership card.
Steven: Is there any part of you that would still want to write about rock and roll and if so, about who?
Ken: God, yes. A few years ago I was very interested in country music, but these days that genre seems virtually barren. Writing about that barrenness would be interesting.
What maintains my enthusiasm is, above all, black music–hip-hop, neo-soul, pop like Destiny’s Child, whatever–along with my eternal fondness for pop music that’s either truly popular (like Britney Spears and N’Sync and Destiny’s Child) or self-consciously not popular but which could be played right alongside Britney–from Apples in Stereo to Jules Shear.
Steven: Along with Ed Ward and Geoffrey Stokes, you wrote a book–a history of rock–put out by Rolling Stone. You handled the ’70s and ’80s section of Rock of Ages. How did your involvement with the book come about? Was it a satisfying experience and do you think you guys came close to putting the history of rock and roll in between hard covers?
Ken: Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll (1986) was a very peculiar project, in that each of us wrote what amounted to a separate, short book, each in a different style, about a different era, which were then sandwiched together. Ward covered rock’s beginnings with a solid historical bent; the late, generous, prodigious Geoff Stokes wrote a frequently lovely evocation of ’60s rock. Then I come along and, in what was my first piece of sustained writing, composed this awful hodgepodge of history and opinions. My section is by far the weakest, and that’s not false modesty. The writing of it was a horrible experience; my second child had just been born and I was torn in three–being a dad, working for the Inquirer (I idiotically didn’t take a leave of absence–my lower-middle-class work-ethos/paranoia forbade me from giving up a paycheck), and writing this book, whose deadline I seemed incapable of meeting. Editor Sarah Lazin finally had to lock me in a room in her Manhattan office and we put my section together like a jigsaw puzzle, literally spreading the pages out on the floor and re-arranging them, saying things like, “OK, Michael Jackson’s Thriller has to come in at this point, but how the fuck do we squeeze in pub-rock and the beginnings of punk in that chapter?” It was a mess, and all my fault. I could write a far better, very different history of that era now.
No, the best writing I’ve done that’s between covers is the essays I wrote for the first, Jim Miller-edited Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, especially the Steely Dan essay, which I’m really proud of and which–of course–was excised from the subsequent edition that is now in print. As the band itself once said, “Can’t buy a thrill.”
Steven: If Greil Marcus was putting together a Stranded 2000 essay collection today, which CD would you want to bring to a desert island and why?
Ken: I suppose under the Stranded rules, a George Clinton mix-tape of his various P-Funk incarnations wouldn’t qualify. So it would either be Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!, his best, most capacious collection, containing a range of emotions that might get me through a desert-island stay; or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which comprises the most sustainedly gorgeous music in rock history, and to whose melancholy strains I would serenely commit suicide on the island.