David McGee kicked off 2001 in rockcritics.com with what I’m pretty sure is the longest interview we ever ran on the site (a couple roundtable-style features may have exceeded it); it’s just shy of 17,000 words. Scanning it now, there’s so much interesting stuff here, the excess doesn’t bother me in the slightest; to the contrary, I think it’s what was good about us back then. (If you think this is some kind of terrible indulgence, I have to assume you don’t have a lot use for the topic in general, no?)
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David McGee: He will never be the editor of a rock magazine again
By Steven Ward (January 2001)
If anyone ever writes a history on rock criticism and music writing, the names of Stanley Booth, Peter Guralnick and Nick Tosches will surely lead off the chapters on roots rock and American vernacular music writing. But if the author leaves out the name of writer David McGee, neither the chapter or the history of music writing will ever be complete. McGee has been writing about music since his college days at the Oklahoma Daily–the student newspaper at the University of Oklahoma. Like many kids growing up in the ’50s, Elvis Presley changed McGee’s life. After a cousin asked McGee to put his ear next to her tiny transistor radio one summer day in 1956, McGee heard the first strains of “Heartbreak Hotel.” There was no turning back after that.
Since that time, McGee has written about rock and pop music for the now defunct Record World, Rolling Stone, Pro Sound News, Spin, and the short-lived but intelligent and lively Record (where he served as managing editor for the magazine’s entire five year run).
McGee’s superb Carl Perkins biography, Go Cat Go: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, The King of Rockabilly, is sadly out of print. Go (Cat Go!) and find it at an out of print on-line dealer.
Although McGee has written about all kinds of popular music throughout his career, his specialty has always been country music and the music that sprang from the South in the ’50s and collided to create rock and roll–country, blues, gospel, and bluegrass. Today, he is the country music editor atBarnesandNoble.com, an editor at Pro Sound News, and he’s about to start work on the next edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide.
McGee has also finished the script for a Broadway musical based on the life and songs of legendary songwriter Doc Pomus. The musical, Save the Last Dance for Me, is scheduled to begin workshops in Minneapolis in June, with an opening on the Great White Way planned for early 2002. He is also collaborating with Pomus’s daughter, Sharyn Felder, on a companion book to the musical. It will include previously unpublished transcripts of interviews McGee conducted with Pomus in the late ’70s; powerful, poetic, intimate entries from Pomus’s personal journals; plus reminiscences of Pomus by people who knew him best, including his brother, the noted divorce attorney Raoul Lionel Felder, his daughter and son, and musical soul-mates like Phil Spector and Dr. John.
As McGee says in the following interview, the rock music of today does not really move him like the music of his youth still does. That does not make him a bad guy, just one who couldn’t edit a rock mag today.
Judge for yourself, but I don’t think McGee is bothered by that at all.
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Steven: So what have you been up to lately? I understand you are the Country Music Editor for BarnesandNoble.Com. How did you get that job and what does it entail?
David: I joined bn.com a few months before it went online. Apparently, I was recommended for the position by Alan Light, whom I had met when he was at Rolling Stone, and whose then-fiancée, now-wife Suzanne McElfresh, was the site’s pop music editor for about a year before she moved to another online publication. Apparently Suzanne told him bn.com was looking for a country editor, he gave her my name and number, and I got the job, which is a freelance position. It’s always heartening when someone like Alan, who is one of the best writers and editors around, gives you a vote of confidence.
Because bn.com is an online retail store, the job of all the music editors is to weigh in first on the major releases each week–the ones that sell lots and lots of units–and to try to keep up with worthy small label releases that we feel fans in each genre would enjoy knowing about. A good example of the latter was the 1999 debut album by the Groobees, whose principal singer and songwriter is Susan Gibson, best known for writing the Dixie Chicks’ breakthrough song, “Wide Open Spaces.” I think Susan is going to be a major writer as time goes on, and the Groobees ought to be around for awhile too if they can find it economically feasible to stay together until they get established as a touring band. Right now they’re pretty much just playing clubs in their native Texas and surrounding states, but they’re a good, solid band and deserve a wider audience.
Back to the question, what we do at bn.com is not music criticism–because bn.com hopes to sell these albums, the reviews emphasize the albums’ positive aspects. If something is truly egregious–in my department that would be any, oh, Brooks and Dunn album, for example, or a Tim McGraw release, or… well, let’s not go into each and every one–stuff that is so formulaic, so bloodless it really is beneath commentary or contempt–then I have the option of not signing my name to the review, or making it nothing more than descriptions of a few typical songs and getting out quickly. Does that bother me? Only a little bit. I would prefer simply not having to write about hack mainstream artists at all. But I’m used to this approach, because the first seven years of my professional career were spent at the music industry trade publicationRecord World, and keeping it positive was the rule of the day there.
The most satisfying aspect of the job is in being able to do interviews with the artists. I love talking to artists about their work, and the bn.composition allows me to do this on a regular basis. It’s always gratifying to cross paths with an artist like Clay Walker, who has multiple sclerosis but doesn’t make any issue of it, doesn’t ask for anyone’s pity, and keeps on finding ways to look for positive things in his life and career. Rather than cursing the hand he’s been dealt, Clay’s thankful for the blessings he’s received, and for that reason he reaches out to others similarly afflicted to help them understand how to cope with their illness and make the most of their lives. He also happens to make very good mainstream country albums–he’s one of the best selling artists of the past decade–that stay close to a gritty, contemporary honky tonk sound. The mainstream’s not in as bad shape as my colleagues in the press, some of whom know not of what they speak, make it out to be, but it’s not altogether healthy either. But Clay is an artist who makes you feel good about the mainstream’s prospects, and makes you feel good about being alive. I doubt I ever would have had a chance to meet him had it not been for barnesandnoble.com, and that makes up for having to write about Tim McGraw from time to time. In the past year I’ve interviewed, among others, Shelby Lynne, James Talley, Kathy Mattea, Trisha Yearwood, Cindy Bullens, Suzy Bogguss, Charlie Daniels, Hank Thompson, Wynona–all thoughtful, articulate artists with interesting histories–in Hank’s case, towering history–who make an effort not to paint by numbers when they go into the studio. Sharing ideas with people whose creative work has made an impression or even had a profound impact on your own life is the best part of the music writer’s life, as far as I’m concerned. If I could only do interviews and never write another review again, I’d be happy.
Steven: How is this job different from print work? Do you think the advent of the Internet has changed music journalism for better or worse?
David: I guess the biggest difference is that the online sites I’ve written for–Amazon and bn.com–insist on brevity. As you can tell from my answers, brevity is not my long suit. I’ve struggled with bn.com’s 150-200 word limit on reviews. I don’t think you can say anything useful about an album in 150 or 200 words; and when it’s an album like Shelby Lynne’s or Trisha Yearwood’s most recent efforts, which are very personal affairs, the restrictions are frustrating–there’s so much to deal with you can barely even suggest what’s there in a 200-word review. In those two cases I was able to follow up the reviews with interviews, so I did get an opportunity to get into some of the issues they dealt with on their albums and, I hope, do something worthwhile in support of two albums that I believed were as good as anyone was going to hear in the year 2000. The online retail sites seem to think their readers don’t have the attention span to endure lengthy reviews, hence the emphasis on the thumbnail, just-highlight-the-selling-points approach. Perhaps they’re right. I doubt many people log onto bn.comor Amazon hoping to find provocative writing about music or books or whatever it is they’re shopping for. At the same time, I believe you should respect anyone who visits your site, and offer some content with a little meat on the bone. Maybe, just maybe, your visitors then make a purchase they hadn’t anticipated when they logged on.
With regard to the emphasis on quick takes rather than in-depth commentary, the Internet is simply mirroring what’s been going on in the print medium for almost 20 years now–that is, shorter reviews, shorter features, shorter Q&As, shorter everything. Rolling Stone instigated and has bucked that trend over the years. In the early to mid-‘80s, when I was working there at Record World, Jann Wenner ordered that all reviews, other than the lead review and any other secondary highlighted reviews, be no longer than a certain word length–I believe it was 200 words at that time. Jann’s decree was one of many factors in Paul Nelson’s leaving, which I was there to witness up close and personal. I remember a couple of long nights in my office listening to, and I hope providing some support for, Paul in what really seemed an agonizing moment for him. When Anthony DeCurtis took over the section in the late ‘80s, the reviews ran a little longer, but still nothing like the length they were in the magazine’s early days. Now it’s back to the shorter length, and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon.
But you know, looking back on it now, I think Jann, who has brilliant instincts as an editor and has always been more attuned to the little seismic movements of the culture than is ever acknowledged, realized that the days of the discursive review were numbered with the advent of MTV and its emphasis on news briefs and videos cut quick on the eye. Now a whole generation of music critics has grown up knowing only the short take, at least in the mainstream press, where the only money is to be made. That form is as natural to them, I suppose, as the long form is to my generation. What all this boils down to–the short form, that is, whether it’s in a print magazine or on a web site–is a diminished dialogue with the readers. I don’t get a sense of today’s average music fan being engaged with music writers in the way my generation connected with the most prominent writers in Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and Creem. There are many reasons for that, but one reason is that the short form review doesn’t allow for much of a point of view or distinctive style to be established. Would Lester Bangs have become Lester Bangs if he were starting out today? Not in the mainstream press. Maybe on the Internet, if he had his own web site, but not in the mainstream press.
Steven: You grew up poor in the South. Can you give me some more bio background information? Where you were born, went to school etc.
David: I was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and raised in Tulsa, where the family moved when I was four. My dad was from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, my mother from Carbon Hill, Alabama, but she spent part of her childhood in Hazen, Arkansas, where her parents had moved the family to start a small cotton farm. The farm failed, eventually, and they returned to Carbon Hill before she started high school. I still don’t know much about my dad’s family or background, except that his father was a Methodist minister, and my dad, apparently, fell out of a tree when he was a kid, landed on his head and was never the same again. He was something of a hobo, or wanderer, and one day found himself in Carbon Hill, a little town about 50 miles north of Birmingham. My mother was working as a waitress at a little restaurant there–well, everything in Carbon Hill was and is little–and he swept her off her feet. She once told me he was some kind of silver-tongued devil. Among the things he claimed to her was that he had been a country and western singer in his time. His sister later told my mother that my dad couldn’t carry a tune if his life depended on it, which doesn’t mean he didn’t ever try to be a country and western singer. Suffice it to say there is no record, other than his word, of him ever having been a country and western singer. So they got married, and their plan was to move to Memphis and start a family there. Off to Memphis they went, and rented a room in a little dive of a hotel across the street from the Peabody, the plushest hotel in the south. The second day they were there my dad went out ostensibly to look for work and never came back. My mother tracked him down in Fort Worth, Texas–he had showed up at unannounced at his sister’s house a few days before my mother called. My mother then took her son by her first marriage–her first husband had died of a heart attack at a young age–to her sister’s home in Little Rock, and then hopped a train to Fort Worth and dragged my dad back by his ear.
At that point it appeared he became an honest man, because he never strayed again. They moved to Oklahoma City, where I was born on December 19, 1948. I don’t have many memories of Oklahoma City, except that the boarding house we lived in was next to a railroad track on the outskirts of downtown OKC, and my mom or dad would take me down to the tracks so I could watch the trains go by. I remember the air being fragrant with the sweet smell of the new railroad ties, how the ground shook when the train rumbled by, the engineers smiling and waving at me from their cabs. My mom and dad owned a small restaurant in town, but I have no recollection of where it was located.
When I was four we moved to Tulsa, where one of my mother’s sisters lived with her husband and young son. They had told her the future was in Tulsa. We lived in a rented duplex on Route 66, 11th Street, near the Arkansas River bridge, right next to a motorcycle repair shop that became something of a hangout for me when I five, six years old, before I started school. The summer before I started second grade my folks had put away enough money to buy a little house on the north side of town–literally the other side of the tracks, in an area my aunt and uncle found so frightening that they eventually stopped visiting us altogether. It was, in fact, the same neighborhood that Larry Clarke chronicled in his acclaimed book of photo essays called Tulsa. He took intimate photos of guys in and around my neighborhood who were shooting speed all the time and really living the thug life, and passing it on to their kids, who were my age. I first saw that book in the mid-‘70s and finally understood why those guys I lived around were so mean, hating for no apparent reason. Riding your bicycle on their blocks was an incredible act of courage, because all they wanted to do was pummel you–they didn’t even care about taking your bike, they just wanted to beat on somebody. The adult men were beating on their wives and girlfriends and kids, the kids were beating on other kids. But there were a lot of other families in the neighborhood who were like ours–went to work every day, went to church every Sunday, and had done nothing wrong save for being part of what is now called the working poor. My aunt and uncle didn’t seem to see that side of the neighborhood; I have no recollection of ever hearing anything but the most sarcastic comments about our neighbors, our house, my clothes, you name it. It was through them that I came to realize how bad off we were. My uncle was a racist Post Office lifer, my aunt was a religious fanatic housewife whose only contribution to my life was in changing me from left-handed to right when she saw me printing with my left hand. This was before I had started school, and I had taught myself to read and to print while in her care during the hours my parents were at work. She said the left hand was evil, and I should always do things with my right hand so I wouldn’t go to hell. The effect of that was to make me ambidextrous, which came in real handy when I started playing sports, especially basketball. And to this day I don’t believe my soul is going to suffer because I sometimes do things left-handed instead of right. Despite their best efforts to pull me onto the righteous path of their own design, I made lifelong friends in my Northside neighborhood–the three guys I grew up playing ball with, listening to rock ‘n’ roll with, chasing girls with, and growing up with in every way through high school remain my best friends on this planet, and I made sure to thank them in the acknowledgements in my biography of Carl Perkins. And all of those guys have turned out better than my aunt and uncle’s pampered son. So let’s hear it for the north side of Tulsa.
I learned many years later that one of the reasons my parents left Oklahoma City was that my dad had drank up all the profits from the restaurant and left the family in dire straits, so Tulsa was seen as a place to start over. Funny thing is, our home never had alcohol in it, and I never saw my dad drinking or even smelled alcohol on him, ever. But the family’s fortunes didn’t improve much in Tulsa. My mom worked as a bookkeeper at The 1800 Restaurant on the south side of town–the other side of the tracks–and then for a lumber yard owned by the same fellow who owned the 1800. My dad opened another restaurant of his own, downtown, on First Street, behind the Greyhound Bus Terminal, on Skid Row. I’ll say this for my dad: he was a lousy businessman, an habitual liar (he once told me he had played in the New York Yankees’ farm system, although no one in his family ever knew about that, any more than they knew about his country and western singing days), and a shiftless, irresponsible man who may well have fathered and abandoned children all over the country during his many wandering years–maybe I should mention that when I was born he was 65 years old, so he had had the opportunity to sow a lot of wild oats before my mother tamed him–but he was one hell of a good cook. As a child I used to hang out in his First Street restaurant when I wasn’t in school, and he would fix me whatever I wanted to eat. That guy could make the best breakfasts you ever ate, and his burgers were to die for. I have no idea where he picked up that particular talent, but it was one thing he could do well, without having to embellish the truth a whit. He was also a big-hearted, good-hearted guy. When his Skid Row buddies would come in hungry, he would always give them something to eat, even if they didn’t have any money, which, apparently, they rarely did. One of the important lessons my dad taught by example was loyalty to and compassion for his friends; he should have taken better care of his business, and maybe our family wouldn’t have struggled so much, but he never turned his back on a friend who was hurting. There’s no question in my mind that he saw himself in those guys living on the fringe on First Street, and knew that if it weren’t for my mom he would probably be among ’em. She imposed discipline on him that he didn’t possess himself.
Given the desperate financial circumstances we were in, my mom often apologized for not being able to buy me more toys at Christmas, always with the hope that one day things would change for the better. I have no memory of my dad ever offering an apology for or explanation of our situation, but after I got interested in rock ‘n’ roll he began buying the used records off his restaurant’s jukebox. So although Christmases were meager, throughout the year–once a month or so, sometimes more often–he would bring home to me these used records as presents. This was 1956-57. At first they were all 78 rpm discs–all blues, country, R&B, doo-wop, pop and early rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis, all the Sun guys, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jo Stafford, Tony Bennett, The Cadets, Frankie Lymon, The Moonglows, on and on, all on 78. Then the 45 became the dominant format. I still have some of those records, and a few of them in picture sleeves–Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential” single, his “Great Balls of Fire” single, a rare Sun EP of Jerry Lee’s, Elvis’s “All Shook Up,” the Elvis EP A Touch of Gold, and a few others. The only 78 from those years that still survives is Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” one of my favorite records of all time. Obviously my parents weren’t influenced by all the talk of rock ‘n’ roll making juvenile delinquents of America’s youth. A couple of years before she passed away my mom told me she liked it when I was listening to those records because she always knew where I was. I can tell you honestly that I never heard a discouraging word from either of my parents about rock ‘n’ roll, the rock ‘n’ roll culture, the artists, whatever, any more than I ever heard them say a harsh word about blacks, even at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when things got a little scary down south. I think they believed that if they taught the right values in the home, and gave me a chance to build a foundation for a spiritual life, that everything would fall into place. I didn’t learn about my dad’s follies until I was grown and married and on my own, so as a child I wasn’t carrying around any baggage about what he had done. To me he was a benign but benevolent presence who had once played second base in the New York Yankees’ organization, who loved politics, boxing, music, movies, Jimmy Durante, the great Jewish comics who were all over TV in its early days, and passed his time reading the newspaper, smoking a pipe and fixing me wonderful southern meals, heavy on collard greens and vegetables of all kinds, when I got home from baseball, football or basketball practice.
After all this stuff about my dad, maybe I should add that the positive force in our home was my mother, who had the strength of character my dad never possessed. She was born into deep poverty in Guin, Alabama, started picking cotton to help support the family when she was five, six years old, walked five miles to and from school, rain or shine, cold or hot, was one of the first children in her entire family to graduate from high school, buried three husbands and a son, and remained true to her faith right to the end of her life. I mean, she was a role model–a soft-spoken, gentle, but iron-willed and deeply spiritual Southern woman who knew right from wrong, didn’t agonize over shades of gray in moral issues, and taught me from a young age to be truthful, to judge people not by the color of their skin but by their character and heart, to work at every job as if it’s the most important job in the world, to respect the rights of others, to respect yourself and stand up for your principles–to “be good,” as she always put it. It was a lot more important to her that I grow up to an honorable man than a wealthy one–in fact, in a household with very little money, I don’t recall her ever saying anything like “Maybe one day you’ll be rich.” It was always moral and spiritual instruction I got from her. Maybe because at a young age I told her I wanted to be a writer she figured I would never be rich anyway, so better work on the other things.
Steven: Did you know you wanted to be a writer early in your life?
David: Absolutely. When I was in fourth grade at Celia Clinton Elementary School I read Dickens’ Great Expectations in a single day over Christmas break, and when I finished it I knew I had found my calling, trying to move people with words. Once I started writing my own short stories, I discovered an unexpected benefit: I was and am a quiet, rather reserved person, and writing gave me a chance to express some ideas and feelings that might otherwise have remained contained. I was always pointing toward short stories, books, plays. Although I read a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll magazines in my youth, it never occurred to me that a living could be made writing about this music, even though I was reading about it regularly. Dig was far and away my favorite, but I also liked the Song Hits magazines that reprinted song lyrics; and the owners of a neighborhood candy store called The Flattop would allow me to put certain magazines in layaway and pay 10 cents a week until I had paid them off. In that way I nabbed a couple of great special issues, one on Elvis–with a flexi-disc on the cover that featured an interview with Elvis–and another that was evenly split in coverage of Elvis and James Dean.
Then when the Beatles hit, I became an avid reader of 16, when it was edited by Gloria Stavers. Even after I got involved in team sports in grade school and continued on to the Division 1 University level, I never lost the desire to be a writer. So when I came down with tendonitis in both knees during my freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, I took it as a sign. I had played football, baseball and basketball on school teams since grade school, always a starter, always a key player on my team, and had never suffered an injury that kept me out of a game. So when I came down with an injury that not only kept me from playing but actually made it difficult to walk, I said to myself, This is a message to get on with your life’s work. I was invited to come back to the OU basketball program in my sophomore year, but by that time I had met and come under the influence of the man who became my writing mentor, William Foster-Harris. He was a crusty old fellow at that time, in his late 60s or early 70s, and had been at Oklahoma a long time–the joke was that they had built the journalism school building around him. He was an expert on the Old West, had worked as a young man at the Tombstone Epitaph in Tombstone, Arizona, had consorted with some of the notorious gunfighters and lawmen of legend, and was close friends with the great western writer, Louis L’Amour, whose work he introduced me to, and with John G. Neihardt, author of Black Elk Speaks, a book Foster-Harris advised me to read and absorb; he knew that Native American culture and philosophy had exerted a strong impact on the way I viewed the world, and sensed thatBlack Elk Speaks would get right into my bloodstream. He was right, as usual. In addition to classroom lecture, I had one-on-one sessions with him that required me to write a new short story every week and bring it in for him to “edit.” What he did was to take a red pencil and rip each story apart–he wrote as many words in the margins as I had written in the story, and there were angry red streaks all over the manuscripts from changes he had made.
I endured this for two years until I finally worked up the nerve to ask him if he would tell a student to consider some other course of study. He answered that sure, he was always up front about things like that. So I asked if he had just been humoring me all this time, and he pointed out that I wasn’t paying attention to what he had been doing. He explained that all those red streaks and the margin commentary were meant to instruct me in matters of structure. “You’ve got the one thing that can’t be taught,” he said, “and without it you can’t be a writer: Imagination.” That was an enormous boost in confidence, but he had really put me through some trials and soul-searching, but it was all for the good, because for those two years I really worked hard at writing better short stories and stretching my imagination, if only to please Foster-Harris and come out of a session not feeling like he’d blown a hole through me with a bazooka. He wrote a wonderful book on fiction writing calledBasic Formulas of Fiction, which was our text in the professional writing curriculum at that time. The title is deceiving: Foster-Harris’s theories about writing were rooted in Aristotelian philosophy, and his book elucidated those theories and provided practical instruction in clear thinking and, hence, clear prose. I loved that man, and was sorry he didn’t live to see me published in Rolling Stone. For me he had picked up where the instruction of Eddie Sutton, my basketball coach at Tulsa Central High School before he began a college coaching career that has placed him among the legends, left off–same emphasis on self-discipline, nose to the grindstone, practice makes perfect, take pride in who you are and what you do, prepare properly and things will take care of themselves.
Funny to look back on it, because my father wasn’t much of an influence in my life, but at key points I’ve had these larger-than-life father figures enter and change my life. First it was Coach Sutton; then William Foster-Harris, and shortly after I started writing for Rolling Stone in 1975, the songwriter Doc Pomus befriended me and became, really, the father I never had and the wisest sort of guide through the treacherous waters of the music business.
Steven: When did you discover rock and roll and what artists were part of that experience?
David: I remember that day as vividly as if it happened yesterday. It was the early summer of 1956. I was on vacation visiting my grandparents in Guin, Alabama, where our family used to go for about two weeks or so every summer during my childhood. At the time we were there, my mother’s sister and her family were visiting from Flint, Michigan, where they lived–her husband worked in the GM auto plant up there. Their oldest girl, my cousin, was 13 or 14 then; I was seven. She carried a little transistor radio around with her all the time, but I never paid much attention to it. Then one blistering hot, humid day she and I were sitting on a hill of scorched earth next to my grandparents’ corn field, when suddenly she got worked up about something coming on the radio. She held that little transistor up to my ear and said, eagerly, “Listen to this! Listen to this!” It was Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel.” I’ve been trying ever since to articulate what I felt when I first heard Elvis’s voice, but I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I went out of my grandparents’ shack one person and came back in another. Something fundamentally changed in me when I heard “Heartbreak Hotel.” I heard Elvis saying, in effect, to be fearless in your individuality, to follow your own muse, to be unafraid to be a non-conformist; understand, I was a young kid; I didn’t understand those ideas in that way, but I got a clue, in the way that kids do, just instinctively. I remember running back into the shack and asking my grandmother if she had ever heard of Elvis Presley and her answering, rather dismissively, “Oh, that’s that boy from Tupelo.” Mind you, my grandparents had no TV, no telephone, no indoor plumbing, heating by wood stove, no air conditioning, no fans, but they did have a battery-powered radio. So I guess she must have heard and heard about Elvis on a country station. She always had the radio tuned to old-time country music and gospel stations, but Elvis must have sneaked in there somehow.
Hearing Elvis opened up the world for me, and I started paying attention to the artists I was hearing on the radio. So while I was still in Alabama that summer I found out that a lot of the country music I had been listening to was being sung by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams; that the gospel artists I was hearing were groups with names such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, a particular favorite of my mother and grandmother, the Sensational Nighingales, the Blackwood Brothers, the Soul Stirrers, and so on. When we got back to Tulsa after that visit, I started toying with the dial on our radio and found a great rock ‘n’ roll station, KAKC, and basically took up residence in front of that thing for the rest of the summer. The universe of rock ‘n’ roll revealed itself, and I was hooked. At this time I still had not seen a photograph of Elvis or any of the artists whose music was electrifying and energizing me. That came later, when I went with my mother to the grocery store and saw a music magazine on the rack. I still remember the cover: a big picture of Elvis, from the cover of his first album; smaller pictures around the border of Ray Charles, Al Hibbler and LaVerne Baker. Somewhere in this time frame I also saw Elvis on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. Suffice it to say I did my best to become the Hillbilly Cat. I was in pretty deep. I had hair back then–few people are left who remember seeing me with hair on my head–and for some reason my folks let me grow it pretty long, so I could get the ducktail working. When I was in fourth grade my mother bought me my first pair of white bucks. Those were my shoes for the entire school year, because we couldn’t afford more than one pair a year, so you can imagine that those bucks weren’t very white come May when school was out. But I loved them, they were the slickest shoes I had ever seen, and I kept powdering them with that bunny bag, but it was a losing proposition when you had to wear them rain or shine.
I also took to doing impersonations of Elvis at school. Every Friday was talent day in our music class, and the teacher allowed any student to demonstrate his or her musical ability. So I started lip-synching to Elvis records. I practised at home, in front of a mirror, for hours, perfecting the moves I saw Elvis do on “Ed Sullivan” and in his early movies. I mean I had him down–and tell you what, that footwork came in handy when I started playing football and basketball. I became a cause celebre in my grade school. Girls would chase me at lunchtime, and I had to have a teacher escort me around the playground to stave off the mayhem. When I would do my Elvis impersonation on Fridays, the students in other classrooms in the wing adjoining ours would congregate at the windows watching me–I mean it was madness.
Then in fourth grade I fell in love with a beautiful strawberry blonde girl named Jackie Higgs, who more than anything loved seeing me do Elvis on talent day. One day we had a spat, and to punish her I retired Elvis. I quit doing the impersonations, just walked away in my prime, all to spite a woman. It was then that I started playing sports full time and left the rock ‘n’ roll world for athletics. But I never stopped absorbing that music–my dad was bringing records home for me, and the music was shaping my life. Remember, a lot of those early vocal groups were cutting songs written by the great American pop songwriters of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s–literate standards with lyrics that were exquisite poetry to my ears. I was also reading voraciously by the time I was in second grade–in the summers I would check out six novels at once and read them all in a single day–so between the literature and the smart songs, I was building a vocabulary and absorbing some great poetry, developing a facility for language and starting to use it writing stories for myself, and writing and drawing my own comics. I was also hearing in that music a moral code that buttressed the lessons my mother was teaching in our home–lessons about respecting yourself and respecting others. I believe that’s the subtext of a lot of early rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and especially doo-wop songs: respect, tolerance, unconditional love.
I’ve named a bunch of artists who shaped my early musical sensibility. Elvis was by far the most important, but shortly after I discovered him I found out that in Memphis, a town that obviously looms large in my history, had a record company in it called Sun. Every summer my mom and dad would drive from Tulsa to Guin, Alabama, to visit the relatives, and after I found out about Sun I put up such a fuss about seeing it that they went out of their way to drive down Union Avenue until they found it. I remember my dad saying, “Little ol’ building don’t look like much.” Every Sun record my dad brought home to me sounded like the greatest thing I had ever heard–that would be Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, primarily. But I was also immersed in all the other styles of music that were bubbling up in the wake of rock ‘n’ roll, and I loved a lot of different types of artists, some new, some from earlier generations. I couldn’t wait for Jimmy Durante to sing a song on his TV show; I was completely nuts about Jo Stafford, and I played the 78 of her hit “On London Bridge” to the point where it almost wore out; Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played in Tulsa every Saturday night, and every home I was in, including mine, seemed to be ringing with western swing, whether it was on the radio or via Leon McAuliffe’s local Saturday afternoon TV show; and though doo-wop wasn’t big in the Southwest, KAKC would play it late at night; I remember sitting in front of the TV with tears in my eyes at the end of an episode of “I Love Lucy”, when Lucy, Desi–Ricky Ricardo–and Bob Hope performed a beautiful version of “Thanks For the Memories,” with Desi singing his verse in Spanish.
In the mornings when my mother got me up for school, when I was in elementary school–this would be from ’56 through ‘61–she would turn on Jimmy Dean’s early morning TV show, and I’d see all the top country stars of the day; when I was in junior high and high school, Saturday afternoon was the occasion for Porter Wagoner’s great afternoon TV show, and that’s where I first saw the young Dolly Parton, Mel Tillis and Porter himself. Needless to say, Saturday nights were Grand Ole Opry nights, at least until “Gunsmoke” came on TV. And all around this–on the radio, mixed in with the rock ‘n’ roll, pop and country songs; in the magazines; occasionally on TV; in the movies–were the great black artists. Louis Armstrong was beloved by my family, and it seemed at times that he was as much a presence in our home as those of us who actually lived there. Ditto Nat King Cole. I could go on, but you probably get the idea that I was right smack in the middle of a musical melting pot, growing up in a time before there were these repugnant consultants who narrowed and whittled radio playlists and segregated black from white. I guess most people feel that the time they’re growing up in is the best time, but imagine an era when the artists on the front line were Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ruth Brown, Rosemary Clooney, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Fats Domino and so forth. They were all exciting, all different, all inspiring in the way they seemed to me to be the very best at what they did.
Steven: Where was your first piece of rock journalism published and how did you first get into writing about music?
David: My first review was published in the Oklahoma Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Oklahoma. It was a review of the Rolling Stones’ concert in Dallas on the 1969 tour that ended at Altamont. I wasn’t assigned; I went on my own and came back and submitted a review over the transom, and the editor published it, uncut. It was about 700 words, and with a photo of Mick Jagger onstage, it took up almost an entire page in the paper. I couldn’t believe something I had done on a whim got such play in the school paper. But for some reason I didn’t follow it up; in fact I didn’t write anything else for the paper until the summer of ’72, the year before I moved to New York, when I wrote a weekly music column for the Oklahoma Daily, very much inspired by Ralph J. Gleason’s musings in Rolling Stone.
I wrote about Frank Sinatra on the occasion of his “retirement”; about the Doors after Jim Morrison announced he wanted to take a break from the rigors of superstardom; about Woody Guthrie and some people in Oklahoma who were trying to organize a celebration in honor of Wood’s music but weren’t getting much support from anyone; a moody think piece about Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album–whatever was on my mind that week, and it all reflected the diversity of music I had grown up with and still listened to. I didn’t think the columns were all that good, but they were among the clips I sent over to Dave Marsh in 1975 that resulted in me getting my first Rolling Stone assignments. I moved to New York in the fall of ’73 and almost immediately had a review of James Taylor at Carnegie Hall published in a free Long Island-based newspaper called Good Times.
But after that Good Times piece and before the Rolling Stone assignments I was on the staff of the music trade magazine Record World, which is now defunct but through the ’70s was a lively competitor to Billboard. How I got to Record World was pretty wild. I was married then, and my wife and I had moved to New York in hopes I might be able to get a job at a magazine–there wasn’t much opportunity in Oklahoma, unless you wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and that was never my thing. So we packed up our VW station wagon and drove to New York, arriving here in September 1973 with exactly twenty dollars left in this world. That first night here we saw a TV ad for a new A&S department store that was opening in Rego Park, Queens. The next day we went to the store, and both of us were hired. They assigned her to the hardware department, but they put me in a franchise stationery kiosk rented out by a printing company. I was selling wedding invitations, making Xerox copies, that sort of thing. The reason I was put there, according to the woman in personnel who hired me, was because I had a degree in journalism “and you’ll want to be close to paper.” I swear that was what she said. But I will go to my grave thanking her, because her tangled logic changed my fortunes. Across the aisle from my kiosk was a watch repair shop, and it was manned by a fellow my age. We both worked the late shift, got to talking one night when nothing was happening, and he found out that I liked music, knew a lot about its history, and was aiming to be a writer. Turns out this guy was Barry Mills, whose family was a major player in the music publishing world with Mills Music; his grandfather, Irving Mills, had managed Duke Ellington, launched Lena Horne’s career, booked the Cotton Club, and had co-written a bunch of great songs, including “Lovesick Blues.” That was for starters–Irving Mills was a giant in the early music business; a controversial giant, but a giant nonetheless.
Barry, as it turned out, had left Record World a few months prior to our meeting, when he had to have surgery on his back. Writing about music was not what he wanted to do, so he resigned his position and at A&S he was in the process of staking out new turf for himself–he eventually became a stockbroker. Barry called Mike Sigman, the editor of Record World–and son of Carl Sigman, one of the great pop songwriters, who wrote “Ebb Tide,” “It’s All In the Game,” and several other standards–and told him about me. I sent Mike some writing samples, and he told me he would hire me the next time he had an entry-level position open. I asked him how often I should check in with him, and he said to call about every two weeks. So faithfully, for six months, I called Mike every two weeks. But no jobs opened up during that time. Finally, in May, as the weather was warming up and I was getting restless being cooped up in a store without windows, Mike had an opening in the mailroom. I jumped at the opportunity, and was hired in May of 1974, at a weekly pay of ninety dollars. I ran errands, went to the bank, picked up ad material from the agencies, got the mail out every day, and really had a great time as someone new to Manhattan whose job was to run all over town. During that summer Mike assigned me to write concert reviews of shows the staff editors didn’t want to attend. I saw some terrible bands, and I saw some great ones, and I learned how to write a negative trade review that sounded like a favorable one. By far my most memorable assignment was to review Anne Murray in Central Park, which meant I also had to review her opening act–Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And I must tell you, I got the same kick inside hearing Bruce the first time as I had when I first heard Elvis, when I first heard the Beatles.
What I’ll always remember about that period was when I turned in my first review to Howard Levitt, the managing editor. It was a review of a show at the Bottom Line by the British jazz-rock fusion band If. A few minutes after I put the copy on Howie’s desk he came into the publisher’s office, where I was watering the plants, and said, “This is better than 90 percent of the stuff that crosses my desk.” Mike, Howie, and another staff editor, Ira Mayer, who had been the Village Voice‘s regular folk music critic for years, believed in me and encouraged me all the time–it’s impossible to measure what their support mean to me, but suffice it to say that they opened a very big career door for me. I still look back on that and am amazed and humbled by the good fortune I had all along the way in meeting selfless people who had their own goals but also made time to assist neophytes like me. Plus they’re all great guys and treasured friends.
Anyway, summer turned to fall, and Clive Davis formed Arista Records. One of Clive’s first hires was a fellow named Gary Cohen, who was the retail editor for Record World. Mike Sigman then offered me Gary’s position. In three months I had ascended from the mailroom to an assistant editor’s job. And then all of a sudden I was getting free albums, free concert tickets, full tabs for food and drink at all the clubs in town, limo rides to some concerts, invites to all the best clubs and parties in New York. Coming from where I had come from, the north side of Tulsa, I could not believe what was happening to me, or that this world even existed, or that I got paid to do this and got all this free stuff besides.
One of my first assignments at Record World was to attend a reception at the Swiss Embassy for ABBA, who then were celebrating their first Number One single, “Waterloo.” It was there that I met Dave Marsh, who was about to join Rolling Stone as reviews editor. I hit Dave up about writing for him, and he asked me to send him some non-trade writing. So I sent my college newspaper jottings, and he called back with an assignment to review the southern rock band the Outlaws at the Bottom Line. It was published without even one word being changed. Then another assignment came to review the Allman Brothers at Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey; on the heels of that assignment, I got a call from Chet Flippo, then the music editor, with an assignment to do a feature on Paul Kossoff’s new band, Back Street Crawler. And then it was off to the races–steady assignments from Rolling Stone; a job offer from Jann to be an assistant editor in Rolling Stone‘s San Francisco office, which I declined in order to stay at Record World; an offer from NBC Radio to write scripts on a freelance basis, for a series of shows being produced on country music stars; a call from Larry Flynt’s wife offering me a job as Hustler‘s music critic, which I declined. But I didn’t do a lot of freelancing beyond Rolling Stone. I did do the scripts for NBC Radio, but between Record World and Rolling Stone I had a full plate and a lot of prestige–the hippest trade publication and the hippest, most important music magazine around.
I began writing a weekly column for Record World called “New York, NY” and even more doors opened, because everyone wanted to get ink in that column. “New York, NY” had an irreverent attitude–a fellow who is now a major executive of one of the industry’s giant labels was regularly referred to as a “turkey” in “New York, NY,” for instance–and it conferred a perverse kind of status on anyone I wrote up. But I used the column as a bully pulpit to talk up a lot of new artists I thought worthy of attention, particularly if they were unsigned. One of those was an amazing blues guitarist up from Austin, who was playing in a band backing a powerhouse country blues singer named Lou Ann Barton. The guitarist was Stevie Ray Vaughan, and it turns out that the review that led off my Record World column the next week was the first national press he received. I had gone to that show with Doc Pomus, who already knew about Stevie Ray and Lou Ann. Knowing my fondness for vocalists, and being a great fan of singers himself, Doc knew I would be knocked out by Lou Ann–that’s who he was talking up when he called me, not Stevie, although he did mention that Lou Ann’s guitarist was pretty hot too. So we went to the Lone Star to catch Double Trouble’s show, and Stevie came over afterwards and introduced himself, as did Lou Ann, who already had had too much to drink. Which turned out to be a big problem for her through the years. On our way home that night, Doc said to me, “Lou Ann ought to be a star, but Stevie will be a star.” Typical Doc insight and prescience all at once.
Steven: What were your favorite rock mags in the ‘70s and what rock critics and writers were your favorites and which ones influenced you?
David: I read all the main ones at the time–Creem, Crawdaddy, a good newspaper-format publication called Gig–but it was alwaysRolling Stone for me. To me Rolling Stone epitomized the big leagues, and that’s where I wanted to play. I wanted to reach as many readers as possible.
I can’t say that any of the writers at that time influenced me directly. I certainly didn’t try to emulate any of them. But the ones I always looked for were Jonathan Cott–I liked his low-key, literate style and the breadth and depth of his knowledge about music; Chet Flippo; Ben Fong-Torres; Michael Lydon; Peter Guralnick; I liked Jon Landau’s music writing–in Eye and then Rolling Stone–but found his movie reviews strained; Bud Scoppa; John Mendelssohn I really liked and later published in Record and found to be a thoroughly decent fellow–my favorite Mendelssohn piece was his review of the first Kraftwerk album, which was nothing more than directions on how to change the oil in your car; Dave Marsh’s reviews and opinion pieces were always stronger than his features, and when he was–is–really on, he was–is–clear and concise and provocative; Ralph J. Gleason’s column was in and of itself reason enough to subscribe to Rolling Stone; and Nick Tosches. I’m probably leaving somebody out that I really liked, but those are the names that immediately spring to mind from the period in question.
Steven: How did you get involved with Record?
David: Out of the blue one day in May of 1981 I received a call at the Record World office from a woman named Rita Keaton, who identified herself as being from Rolling Stone. She told me they were starting a new music magazine, that I had been recommended for the editor’s job, and asked if I would be interested in coming in for an interview. The call came at precisely the right time in my career, because I had been at Record World for seven years and, as much as I enjoyed what I was doing, I probably had gone as far as I was going to go there. Plus the music business was in a terrible slump following the heady times of the previous decade, and Record World was on its way to being a victim of that downturn as labels began pulling back on their advertising. And also, I had this vague goal of wanting to be the editor of a magazine by the time I was 30. Well, I was then 32, so I wanted to at least be in the ballpark of the goal I had set for myself. At the end of my interview Rita Keaton looked at me and said, “You know who recommended you for this job, don’t you?” And I shrugged and told her, truthfully, I had no idea. She got very solemn on me and said, “Jann”–and then she paused–“recommended you for the job.” I took that as a good sign, since I really wanted the job.
I started in July. Now at that time Record was not planned to be a magazine but rather a music business insider newsletter, about eight pages. But the week before I started, Rita called and said they had decided it was going to be a monthly magazine and its format would be quarter-fold on newsprint, like the early Rolling Stone. Otherwise, no one knew what it was going to be, and my first assignment was to write a prospectus that would do two things: define each and every editorial department and be a document the sales team could use to bring in advertising for the first issue, because there was not going to be a dummy issue for anyone to see before it was launched in August. Two weeks after I started, as I was hammering away at the third or fourth draft of the prospectus, incorporating the changes Jann had requested, a friend called to tell me that my wife, who was pregnant with our second child, had gone in for a routine physical and was sent straight to the hospital. Although she felt fine at the time, she was developing toxemia–her body was poisoning itself to the pregnancy–and the doctor was going to have to perform an emergency Caesarian in order to save her life. So my second son was born weighing two pounds, three ounces, and he and my wife were in intensive care, she for a week, the baby for three months. The day after the birth, Jann called me in and said, “You get through this. It’s a lot more important than any magazine. We’ll hold off the launch until September.”
So we launched in September of 1981 and lasted until December of 1985. Contrary to what the Rolling Stone music staff thought, there was, as far as I know, never a plan for Record0 to supplant the Rolling Stone music section. But why Rolling Stone, published fortnightly, needed an all-music monthly magazine, was a question unanswered in my time there or to this day. It certainly wasn’t budgeted like it was going to supplant the Rolling Stone music section. In your interview with Anthony DeCurtis, he told you that Rolling Stone would routinely pay a kill fee that was more than our entire photography budget. He was right, but he was at Record only for the last year-plus of its existence. My editorial budget for the first year was three hundred dollars a month. That’s three hundred dollars, I’m not kidding. My staff was two freelance writers on monthly stipends of five hundred dollars, and a college student who served as my assistant, as the photo editor, as a messenger, whatever I needed him to be at any given moment. I think he even wrote a couple of record reviews. My two writers were good–Stan Mieses, who was a staff writer at the New Yorker, and Mark Mehler, who was a veteran music business trade reporter with a great, dry wit–and a couple of issues into our history I was allowed to hire a third writer as a west coast editor. That was David Gans, who some might know from his long-running radio show “The Deadhead Hour,” and his standing as a recognized authority on all things Dead. But any way you cut it, three hundred dollars doesn’t go very far, and I wound up writing 12 stories for the first issue. Jann advised me I was going to have to use a pseudonym on a few of the stories so it wouldn’t look like I had written the entire issue.
But lo and behold, Record started doing well. The format was immediately popular, it got great placement on news-stands because it was too large to fit into the regular magazine slots and would have to displayed apart from all the other music magazines, and the reader response to the editorial package was very enthusiastic. We were criticized heavily for relying on staid, old established artists for our covers–our first one was Bob Seger, the third one was Rod Stewart, with Chrissie Hynde on the second–and for too much coverage of artists in the upper reaches of the charts and not enough coverage of new artists. It was valid criticism, and the issue of new versus established was the subject of some heated internal debate. But Jann could not be convinced that a magazine strictly focused on new artists would be successful if it relied on those artists as its cover subjects.
Over time an approach developed: while we did eventually use more new artists on the cover, for a long time the strategy was to use a well-known, familiar face on the cover, then devote most of our feature and news space to new bands and a wide variety of music. I wanted the editorial content to reflect the kind of melting pot I grew up in, focusing on interesting music, regardless of genre or commercial success. The early Record was doing very well; it began cutting into Musician’s numbers, and this made everyone very happy–rather than replacingRolling Stone, it seemed as if what all the executives wanted was for Record to eclipse Musician.
But in 1983 a decision was made by the brass to change the format from the quarter-fold newsprint to a standard size magazine on slick stock, like every other music magazine out there. Almost immediately we lost readership. People thought we had gone out of business, because the book was now buried on the racks with about a dozen other music books it was competing against. Even though we looked better and we were better editorially because I now had a decent, albeit still miniscule, editorial budget and had brought in some good writers, we were going down the tubes. Record never really recovered from that format change. But there was a solid reason for the change: advertisers were dropping out of the quarter-fold because its odd size required them to make ad materials that could only be used in Record. So one of the things that made us unique was also our undoing.
Now, as a slick monthly, we seemed more directly in competition with Rolling Stone, and advertisers began to question why they should be in both magazines, or why Record instead of Rolling Stone? Of course if they could afford it they were going to be in Rolling Stone, which had a circulation about ten times ours.
But–but–Record did do some good things in its time. Things not even Rolling Stone was doing. In one of our early issues I did a 3,000 word Q&A with Luther Vandross; Doc Pomus did a Q&A of similar length with Dr. John. Dave Marsh inaugurated his American Grandstand column in Record. Deborah Frost wrote terrific profiles of Paul McCartney and John Mellencamp. Laura Fissinger was a regular contributor, and everything she wrote was wonderful; ditto Chip Stern, still one of the best music writers around. Vince Aletti was one of our reviewers, and when he was writing about the black music he loves, you couldn’t find anyone better in America. J.D. Considine was a contributing editor, and his contributions were always solid, never predictable. Nick Tosches contributed a few reviews. Peter Buck of R.E.M. filed a piece chronicling his life as a then-struggling musician. Dan Forte, who is now writing an authorized biography of Stevie Ray Vaughan that is going to be definitive, penned a thoughtful profile of wild Dick Dale when no other magazine was even acting like Dick Dale was alive. For a bit we had a back page column called “Backstage Pass,” which was a forum for commentary by the fans. One of Gina Arnold’s first pieces was published in that space. Record was the first nationally-distributed mainstream music publication to publish features on Los Lobos (again by Dan Forte) and Ruben Blades, to cover hip-hop on a regular basis through reviews, through a monthly column written by Greg Tate, and once by way of a cover-length excerpt from a book chronicling the birth of hip-hop music and culture. I didn’t get the okay to push ahead with it, but I had plans for a series of articles over the course of a year under the banner Americana. These were going to look at various music and cultural scenes around the country, scenes and people not ordinarily in the press’s sights. The country artist Michael Martin Murphy, a former racquetball partner of mine, was on board to write about the vanishing American honky-tonk, a subject he was well qualified to write about, since he was actually playing those venues. Given our limited resources, I looked for new writers who deserved an opportunity but couldn’t get in the door at the established music books. One of those was a fellow who then lived in Chicago, Christopher Hill, who developed into not only one of our best reviewers, but one of the best in the entire music press. Chris Hill was a serious, big-time music writer with a beautiful, literary touch, and Record gave him a regular platform. As an editor, that sort of thing is really gratifying, to take the negative of our budget and make a positive of it by finding hidden gems, like Chris Hill, who cared less about the money than about having a place to be published.
We also had a few established writers who were regular contributors, such as Jean-Charles Costa, who had worked at Rolling Stone, and had been the editor of the lamented Gig magazine. One of his great reviews for Record was of Don Henley’s first solo album, a review that should be framed and hung in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The lead sentence was: “You know a record’s got problems when you put on the headphones for a close listening and the next thing you know you’re rousted from a deep and troubled sleep by the sound of the needle clicking in the end groove.” Really, you don’t need to say anything more. The lead J.C. crafted could and should stand as the definitive statement for everything that creep Henley has ever done. In another review Costa described Sammy Hagar’s songs as being “like nightmare express trains running through your head,” and termed Hagar “the king of slam-dunk guitar.”
Yes, Record could have been a lot better magazine. And as the editor, the buck stopped at my desk. I take responsibility for the bad as well as the good. But we weren’t mimicking what Rolling Stone or any other music magazine was doing, despite what Robert Draper says in his history of Rolling Stone [Rolling Stone Magazine]. And a lot of what we were doing–a lot of the things I mentioned above, particularly related to coverage of black music–even Rolling Stone wasn’t touching at that time. I’m not saying this to make myself look good, but rather to see to it that some very good writers, who believed in Record and worked hard for a pittance, get credit for the substantial contributions they made to its brief, tumultuous history. I believe time has been good to Record–if you look over back issues, you see some hip stuff in there.
Steven: What did you do after writing for Record and Rolling Stone on a regular basis?
David: The better way to phrase that would be, “What have I been doing… on a regular basis?” because I haven’t stopped what I started after leaving Record. For a couple of years after leaving Record I was a full-time freelance writer/editor. The most interesting project I took on during that period was a managing editor position at Spin, when it was still Bob Guccione Jr.’s magazine. Actually I was hired as an editorial consultant, and signed on for a three-month period, but I wound up being the magazine’s production manager and staying four months before leaving to pursue other freelance projects.
The first of those freelance projects was as editor of a convention newspaper for the New Music Seminar. The seminar organizers had contracted with PSN Publishing to do the paper and I wound up staying with PSN after the Seminar was over. The publisher there, Paul Gallo, wanted someone with my editorial experience for his rather young staff, and we cut a deal that allowed me to be a full-time freelancer for his company’s flagship magazine, Pro Sound News–a trade publication serving the professional recording and audio industries–and have a lot of free time to spend with my two sons. My marriage had ended at that time, and I didn’t want a job that ate up my time as Record had. It was far more important for me to coach my sons’ Little League teams and go on field trips with their classes and take them on long summer vacations on the road than to make a buck. So I negotiated a deal to take less money from PSN than my experience would normally command, and get time in return, including four consecutive paid weeks off every summer to take my sons on cross-country car trips. Guys like Paul Gallo are hard to find in any business; I knew I had stumbled on a rare breed when I met him and I resolved that this would be my professional home.
So I’m still at PSN, which is now United Entertainment Media and is owned by a huge British publishing corporation. But Paul is still at the helm, and I’m now the editor of all of our trade show newspapers, which has evolved into a year-round job, plus I write a column on the back page of Pro Sound News called “Music Etc.” It’s about the creative process as it relates to the recording studio–that is, I interview artists and/or producers–or ideally, artist/producers–about the making of an album, how they used the studio as a creative tool to get their ideas out of their head and onto tape. It’s not a technical piece; rather, it’s about the philosophical approach to recording, and covers the emotional journey of an album’s progress from genesis to release.
My time at PSN has included a four-year stint at the Nashville bureau of the magazine. I rented an apartment in Nashville and spent part of each year there and part of it in New York. That was 1990 to 1994. A month after I got there, Fred Goodman called from Rolling Stone and asked me to interview Carl Perkins for the magazine’s special issue on the 1950s. That was the beginning of another journey. In 1993, while I was still writing the book, I was asked by Jim Henke to join the curatorial staff of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Over the next year I traveled around and met with artists and their families hoping to convince them to loan some memorabilia to the Museum so that we could honor their work with an exhibit. Some of these were fairly easy to accomplish. I had met and became friends with Johnny Cash while doing the Perkins book, and he wound up loaning us some great stuff. Carl loaned us one of his guitars that he had used at Sun, and one of his stage outfits. I drove over to Macon and met three times with Zelma Redding, Otis’s widow, and she wound up loaning one of Otis’s suits and some concert posters. On a cross-country car trip I took with my sons in August of 1993, we left Nashville with one of Buddy Holly’s amplifiers in the back seat–I had obtained the amp on loan from the songwriter Paul Kennerley, who had received it as a birthday present from Emmylou Harris, when he and Emmylou were married–stopped in Fairmount, Indiana, and spent the afternoon visiting with Bob Pulley, James Dean’s best friend from childhood, dropped off the Holly amp in Cleveland, and then drove west. In California we spent an afternoon in Watsonville with Ritchie Valens’ sisters and brother, laying the groundwork for a loan of Ritchie’s memorabilia, then drove down to Pacoima and met Ritchie’s Aunt Ernestine Reyes, the wonderful woman who raised him, and she opened her house to us, showed us the family scrapbooks, some of Ritchie’s stage outfits, his first pair of roller skates, and his first electric guitar. Later she made a loan of some of those items to the museum. In between these visits we also spent an afternoon visiting Donna Fox–of Ritchie’s song “Donna”–at her office in Sacramento. Needless to say, that was a memorable trip, especially for my sons.
Right now, in addition to gearing up for the next edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, I’m putting the finishing touches on a script for a Broadway musical based on the life and songs of Doc Pomus. I was brought into the project by his brother, the prominent divorce attorney Raoul Felder, who is one of the show’s producers. This brings me full circle in a way, because one of my reasons for coming to New York from Oklahoma was to write for the theatre. I had applied to the Hunter College Master’s program in playwrighting, but before I even got an acceptance letter back I decided to forego school for awhile but to come to New York anyway, because live theatre was so vital here, and it generally seemed like a good place to be if you wanted to be a writer. Then I got started at Record World and Rolling Stone, and I had a career. So I put the dream of writing for the theatre on hold, for about 25 years. Now I have a chance to fulfill the dream and to do something for a man who meant so much to me, even before I met him, and whose music has enriched so many lives.
Steven: Your wonderful book on Carl Perkins–Go Cat Go!–began when you interviewed him for Rolling Stone. Are you happy with the way the book turned out and what effect did Carl Perkins’ music have on your life?
David: I’m proud of Go, Cat, Go! I won’t go into all the goals I had set for myself in that book, but one thing I wanted to do and did accomplish was to restore the Perkins brothers to Carl’s history. The music press has pretty much treated Jay and Clayton Perkins as secondary players or afterthoughts in the Carl Perkins story, but in fact there might be no Carl Perkins story without them. Theirs was a complex relationship full of beauty and tragedy, conflict, unbelievable triumph and powerful love. There was no Carl Perkins the solo artist until his first record came out and he found himself top-billed on the label. Up to that moment it was a band, a very popular local band, called the Perkins Brothers Band. There was incredible synergy between the brothers and their drummer, W.S. Holland, and that’s why those Sun records are so amazing. Everyone talks about how astonishing it is that Sam Phillips had artists as great as Elvis and Carl, but he also had two great bands behind them. There were no incidental players in that drama–Scotty and Bill; Jay, Clayton, W.S.–those guys were major artists in their own right as instrumentalists.
One of the other things I wanted to do was to really highlight the extremely personal nature of Carl’s original songs. One reviewer criticized me for quoting so liberally from Carl’s lyrics, saying I did so as if I thought they were great poetry. If that reviewer had actually read the book, though, he would have understood that the lyric quotations generally fell into one of two categories: quotes to point out some uncommonly literate passages or ones revelatory of Carl’s sly wit; and quotes that revealed Carl’s inner life or opened a window into the world of the poor white southerner. My contention was, and is, that Carl was the most personal songwriter of his generation. I don’t know how many people buy that notion, but I do know Bob Dylan does, because he said so when I interviewed him for the book. He even pointed out that the vocabulary of the lyrics had fired his imagination in his formative years as a musician. And that’s good enough for me.
Speaking of lyrics and reviews, Greil Marcus dumped on Go, Cat, Go! in the latest edition of Mystery Train, saying it was marred by my intrusiveness as a writer. This coming from a guy who is nothing if not intrusive as a writer. It’s interesting to me that in the first edition ofMystery Train he barely acknowledged Carl, and now he comes around and says, in the end notes, that Carl made beautiful records for Sun. Then he makes reference to “Put Your Cat Clothes On” as being a song about “race envy,” citing as proof the lyric, “I dressed myself up to look like a guinea.” This is another example of Marcus constructing some bullshit theory that collapses completely in the face of the truth. The lyric is “I dressed myself up til I looked like a dilly / went downtown to pick up my female hillbilly.” All you have to do is listen to the song to hear the correct lyric–really, all you have to do is listen. But when you want to advance your bullshit theory you can’t afford to listen or, God forbid, to get in touch with the artist and ask him if that’s what the song is about. This is a guy, by the way, who wrote a few thousand words about Harmonica Frank Floyd, an artist who influenced exactly no one in his time or ours and never will influence anyone, and who doesn’t even fit the theme of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music–as well as Carl. But Marcus doesn’t know or understand anything about Carl Perkins, doesn’t understand much about any of the early rock ‘n’ roll artists; plus his mytho-poetic Elvis essay in Mystery Train is now irrelevant in light of Peter Guralnick’s well-researched, beautifully written two-volume Elvis biography. Marcus can kiss my ass.
Certainly there are a few things I would change if I could go back and do it all over, but those changes are minimal and, in the big picture, probably more important to me than to the reader. After the book was published Colin Escott was kind enough to call me and point out a couple of typos and a couple of factual inaccuracies that I was able to correct for the paperback edition. My one big regret is that I never could get Sam Phillips to grant me an interview. I tried and tried, but he would not talk. I know he knew I had found out about the lawsuit Carl brought against him in the early ‘70s, when he was found liable for unpaid royalties to Carl, and I can only theorize that he didn’t want to discuss the case. It certainly was a hidden chapter in the Sun story until Carl told me about it and I then spent a few days in the Memphis courthouse sorting through the case records. I would love to have had Sam’s side of the story, as well as his perceptions of the young Carl Perkins and the Perkins brothers.
But in the end I feel deep down that I did right by my subject, didn’t flinch from telling the unflattering truth about certain periods of his life any more than Carl flinched from revealing those episodes, and got the full story out and placed in the proper historical context. I have a lot of beautiful memories about the four years I spent on Go, Cat, Go!, and 100 hours of Carl on tape telling his life story. I have memories of leisurely drives around Jackson and Bemis with Carl after our interview sessions, with Carl pointing out places where he had played as a young man, or just shooting the bull with each other. Catfish dinners with Carl and his wife at Suede’s Restaurant. A trip we made together to Tiptonville, Tennessee, where Carl was born, and some great stories he told along the way about his colorful grandfather and some of the unsavory characters in and around his hometown. There was so much common ground between us it was almost scary, or at least made it seem preordained that I would be the one to write Carl’s biography. He had even recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” on my seventh birthday, December 19, 1955. What are the odds that I would wind up writing the life story of someone whose signature record was cut on my birthday, and whose music had had such a profound impact on the way I look at the world? That Memphis, the city where I was supposed to have been born, would become the spiritual center of the universe for me? Sometimes after my interview sessions with Carl, on days when we had covered some intensely personal subject–I remember a tough session when we talked for three hours about Jay’s decline and death and both wound up with tears running down our cheeks–instead of driving back to Nashville I would head west, to Memphis, and sit out on the banks of the Mississippi in the dead of night, alone, listening to the water lapping at the shore, reflecting on the journey that had brought me to this place and trying to figure it all out. Needless to say, when I got word that Carl had died, it was a rough, rough time for me. So many memories.
Steven: What music magazines do you read today and do you have any favorite music writers or critics being published today?
David: Really the only magazine I read in any depth is Rolling Stone. I don’t find the personal stories of today’s rock artists very compelling, and others I’m just fed up with. To me U2 is an utter embarrassment–a bunch of patronizing, power-hungry airheads with an inflated sense of their own importance, and music as bloated as their egos. How much do I want to read about those clowns? And if anyone thinks Bono really had much to do with getting Third World debt dismissed, they just don’t understand how the world works. I agree with “The Daily Show”’s Lewis Black about Bono: “How does an overblown pop star wearing the world’s ugliest glasses get an audience with the head of the U.N. when I can’t even get a bank teller to pay attention to me?”
That said, I do try to pick up Spin regularly and see what Alan Light’s up to, because any magazine he writes for or edits is better for his presence. And I try to keep up with No Depression and Country Music magazines and the Journal of Country Music, because those publications write about music that means something to me, and are generally well-written and well-researched.
Writers? Obviously, since I hired him once, I like Anthony DeCurtis. Of the young writers at Rolling Stone, I think Anthony Bozza has a lot going for him; Greg Kot, who’s at the Chicago Tribune but contributes to Rolling Stone, is always interesting when he gets room to advance some ideas, as in a lead review; I like where Toure comes from as a writer. At the New York Times I find Ben Ratliff’s takes on things informed and interesting; Jon Pareles is reliable on most subjects, but not so convincing when he writes about blues. For my money Stephen Holden, who writes more about movies now, has no peer as a judge of classic pop music. At the Daily News, David Hinckley is always on top of his game, and he covers music that others ignore, such as doo-wop. Jim Farber has always been one of my favorites too. Billy Altman, who writes online and for Newsday and occasionally for the Times, and wrote a terrific biography of Robert Benchley, is as good as anyone out there. On the west coast, my favorite by far is Derk Richardson, who writes for the Bay Guardian and has a local radio show on an Oakland station. Derk covers a staggering array of music and writes about it all in a stylish, informed manner.
I’ll tell you who I really miss as a music writer: Deborah Frost. She’s now married to Albert Bouchard, the Blue Oyster Cult drummer, and they have a son, Ace, and a band, the Brain Surgeons. Deborah got fed up with the whole rock-crit game a few years ago and has pretty much bowed out to concentrate on raising her son and her band. When Deborah was really on, no one could touch her. I don’t know how much interest she has in commenting on the contemporary scene, but I guarantee whatever she would have to say would be provocative. I still talk to her on the phone and correspond via e-mail with her, so I know she hasn’t lost her edge. If I were a music editor today, I would pay any price to get her involved in my publication.
Steven: Were you ever a fan of Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer and that type of rock writing?
David: I always read Lester’s reviews, always read whatever Meltzer was publishing, and of the two I preferred Meltzer. But their styles were theirs, and too many music writers tried to be Lester and embarrassed themselves and the editors who published them. I don’t recall too many writers trying to out-Meltzer Meltzer, maybe because he called on so many abstruse philosophical concepts it was daunting and forbidding to Meltzer wannabes. Lester’s style was more colloquial and more street, so he had many imitators, because the voice seemed so accessible. Of course it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. I admired each one’s individual voice, but their approach and mine were different. As an editor, you want people like Lester and Meltzer in your mix, for the distinctive voices they bring to the party, but you don’t want their acolytes.
Steven: You were the writer who handled the ‘50s era of rock for the last published Rolling Stone Album Guide. Is that your favorite period of rock music and if so, why?
David: It is, along with music before my time. Let me point out that I did some 400 entries for the third edition of the Album Guide–I’ve worked on all three editions, and we’re getting ready to start the fourth in the next month or so–and the time frame on those ran from the turn of the century–Jelly Roll Morton being the earliest–to contemporary country, and included not only early rock ‘n’ roll, but also traditional jazz–Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, among others–early traditional country, gospel, doo-wop, early R&B, classic American pop, blues and some ‘60s pop-rock, such as Lesley Gore and Connie Francis.
Why is the ‘50s era my favorite period of rock music? For one very personal reason, it’s the music of my childhood, and it brings back a lot of good memories–more good than bad. But it was also when the music was new and everything was so exciting because the rules were still being made up. And everyone was admitted to the party–the radio stations I listened to in Tulsa when I was a kid would play Elvis, Fats, Carl Perkins, Patsy Cline, Tony Bennett, Bob Wills, Rosemary Clooney–there was no segregating the audience or the music, it was all in the same pot, or on the same playlist. Plus, check out that list of artists–the music was amazing, the artists were amazing. Even when these artists were a bit off their game, their records were still better than a lot of what you hear today.
I’m as crazy about ‘60s music as I am about the ‘50s or earlier, but I haven’t had much opportunity to write about it. I seem to be in that ‘50s-and-earlier niche, which is okay. There aren’t many music writers still active who remember what a Chuck Berry recorded sound like when it was brand new, or an Elvis record, or know what it was like to experience that rock ‘n’ roll culture in its nascent stage. I bring those memories and that experience to my writing about all the various forms of music that were under the rock ‘n’ roll umbrella in the ‘50s, rather than some bullshit rock-crit theorizing about the philosophical implications of the music. That music is about heart, and feelings, and a lot of other things having to do with our emotional makeup as human beings; and yes, there is some class-consciousness at work in some of those songs, there’s some social commentary, sometimes covert, sometimes overt, but if you dismiss the human element at the expense of the philosophical, you’re ignoring the music’s appeal. As a writer you need to explain why people found this music alluring, and the reason for that has everything to do with how it made their lives richer, and very little to do with the extra-musical associations critics advance. Which is not to say I am not moved on every level by Percy Mayfield’s powerful “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” a wrenching love song that also happens to be a gutsy and powerful protest against racial prejudice by an artist who was a significant player in his day.
And no, I’m not ignoring the sensual nature of the music and how that affected young listeners. What it had in that department that is almost completely absent today is a sense of romance. I heard a song coming out of a boombox the other day, don’t know the title or the artist, but a lyric of it went, “I love you, girl/I really love you, girl/I wanna fuck you, girl/get down on your knees and suck me, girl.” How eloquent. I’m not a fan of these pre-fab boy bands, but I understand their appeal: they’re providing something kids, obviously, and especially young girls, can’t get from male rock and rap artists, and that’s romance. I mean dreamy, sweet, soft romantic songs. The Backstreet Boys aren’t my cup of tea, but I get it. I’m older so I prefer the Flamingos, the Drifters, Sam Cooke, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford and etcetera.
Steven: What music are you still listening to that holds up from the old days and what new music is making you believe in the power of rock and roll?
David: All the music I listened to in my early childhood sounds as fresh and vital to me now as it did when I discovered it that summer in Alabama. I would still rather listen to Elvis and Carl or the Soul Stirrers or Joe Turner or Bob Wills than anyone else. There are no female vocalists in rock who mean to me what Dinah Washington did, or Sarah Vaughan, or Mahalia Jackson, or Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Julie London, or the cool pop girls like Lesley Gore and Brenda Lee. Christina Aguilera and Britney aren’t even in the same league with these artists, all of whom could really sing, for starters.
The female artists who connect with me are country women. Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, Wynonna, Alison Moorer, Pam Tillis, Carlene Carter, Tish Hinojosa, Kathy Mattea, Dolly–whose The Grass Is Blue was as good an album as any artist released last year–Matraca Berg, Emmylou, Loretta Lynn–I know I’m leaving somebody important out here, but to me these women make mincemeat of the female rockers, as artists and as women. Shelby Lynne pretty much torched the field with I Am Shelby Lynne. I miss Dusty Springfield so much, but Shelby laid some of that Dusty soul on me with that album, and it sounded right. Jessica Andrews is country’s teen female phenom. I can’t say she’s won me over completely, but as an artist she has so much more going for her than Christina and Britney that it’s not even worth debating the point. She hasn’t sold albums in Christina-Britney quantities, but she’s a far more interesting artist–I’ll even go out on a limb and predict she’ll be making interesting music long after Christina and Britney are playing oldies shows or starring in bad sitcoms.
I don’t know if anything makes me believe in the power of rock ‘n’ roll to do anything but sell fashion and rude behavior anymore. I see bands on MTV playing at fashion shows, with models on the runway, and wonder why anyone takes these groups seriously. The Wallflowers do strike a responsive chord with me, though, and Elliott Smith is a first-rate songwriter. I would still rather listen to Bruce Springsteen than almost any other artist. I saw Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes last week at B.B. King’s, and it was the greatest, rocking show, with so much soul, so much heart. But over the past decade or so, bands I’ve really liked have broken up almost before they got their footing. I loved this British pop band Tallulah Gosh, but I think they actually had broken up by the time their first album was released. I was a big fan of the Gin Blossoms; never could understand why my friends in the press savaged that band. At least Uncle Tupelo split into two very good bands, so there was some continuity there for fans of the original configuration. The bands and artists that resonate with me are mostly in the country or alt-country fields, and there are some promising blues artists around, such as Monster Mike Welch, who was overlooked in all the fuss over Kenny Wayne Sheppard and Jonny Lang. Susan Tedeschi gets a lot of good press, but I don’t hear a lot going on there. The North Mississippi All-Stars are giants in my book.
I wish I could be more optimistic about rock, but there’s more bad than good about it right now. I cannot for the life of me figure out why a mediocrity like Lenny Kravitz is so popular. I find this baffling. Blink 182, Limp Bizkit–are you kidding me? These guys are pathetic. I wonder if anyone shares my sinking feeling that Bob Dylan may have been right when he told Newsweek a couple of years ago that in ten years’ time all these bands that are popular now will be obliterated from memory–no one will even remember them or their music. All of my brethren in the press who inveigh against Nashville and mainstream country music ought to wake up. I could study a country chart right now and find, in the upper reaches, the Dixie Chicks, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Brad Paisley, and Alan Jackson, and tell you honestly I would rather spend time with those artists’ albums than with those by any band or artist on the rock chart. Hell, Porter Wagoner and especially Hank Thompson released albums last year that have more heart and soul than almost anything on the rock chart right now. If I want a spiritual experience, I’ll listen to Jimmie Dale Gilmore rather than those U2 blowhards.
On the other hand, maybe you could say that if I’m finding nothing to hang my hat on in contemporary rock, then maybe the bands are doing their job and really speaking to their generation in language they understand, rather than conforming to standards my generation–their parents–wants them to meet. I think there is some validity to the idea that a writer my age has no business passing judgement on 20-something rockers whose concerns and life experiences are a lot different and in most cases not as deep or as broad as mine. Doc Pomus expressed how I feel in one of the last interviews I did with him. He was commenting on how the feelings he wrote about at age 63–“problems with women, problems with finances, problems with just trying to figure out who you are, and mostly trying to get through the night”–are the same feelings young people feel, “but I think they haven’t lived the years in this world to experience a lot of those things to the depth, and the feelings aren’t as extended as they are with older people. I’m operating with a wide, wide range of experience.” That’s why I feel kind of disconnected from today’s mainstream music. I probably didn’t hear Jo Stafford sing “You Belong To Me” until 1956 or so–it was a huge hit for her in 1952, when I was four years old–but that record brought tears to my eyes when I was a kid. I understood the feelings she was communicating, and me only a child and her a mature woman. But its humanity connected; it told of a world I longed for. “It was coming from somewhere we wanted to go,” as Bob Dylan said to me of Carl Perkins’s songs. I listen to Eminem’s second album, and I hear an artless piece of shit, and wonder why anyone calls this punk a genius. A genius at what, pray tell? Sub-literate lyrics? Celebrating intolerance and brutality? What? I can’t relate. So I think it’s safe to say I’ll never be the editor of a rock magazine again, but I will continue to find wisdom, guidance, comfort, romance and spiritual uplift in the music I love, from my time and before. All in all, life is beautiful.
One thought on “From the Archives: David McGee (2001)”
I am trying to contact David since a message was delivered he wishes to discuss childhood experiences