From the Archives: Barney Hoskyns (2001)

For what it’s worth, Rock’s Backpages — which now boasts “over 20,000 articles” — pretty much lived up to what I (rather extravagantly?) claimed for it back in 2001. I’ve taken out periodic subscriptions, usually in service of a specific music writing project, and have never been let down by the selection (the price has gone up also, of course, but that’s capitalism for you). I mean, there could be more stuff still — there could always be more stuff — and certain critics (and probably certain artists and/or genres) are under-represented, but the selection is fairly astonishing nevertheless. It’s far too easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of their index.

Hoskyns was the first of our interviews with British critics — the first, that is, in a not-even-remotely-comprehensive line of British critics. I’m glad my friend Gary Robertson, still the biggest and most knowledgeable fan of the Band I’ve ever met, agreed to do this with me. It’s a shame I never convinced him to do others.

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10,000 Reasons to Never Leave Home: Interview With Barney Hoskyns

By Scott Woods and Gary Robertson (February 2001) 

If you’re a fan of rock writing — and if you’re here, I assume you are — there’s no better place you can go to on the web than Rock’s Backpages, manna from heaven for the rock and roll fanatic. Currently,Rock’s Backpages has reprints of over 1,500 articles by many of your favourite writers about most of your favourite bands and genres, all in their original versions from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Later this year, for anyone who subscribes to the site, that number will increase to 10,000. Rock’s Backpages is the library you’ve (well, I’VE) always wanted to own, and the first sane case anyone’s ever made to throw out all those boxes of old rock mags cluttering up your apartment. Just the other day, for instance, I got to thinking about Black Flag, and how, as a late convert to their music, I’ve never read anything more than a couple sentences about them. Presto! RBP includes two superb, lengthy expositions on Black Flag, both from the peak (’81 / ’82) of their career.

One of those Black Flag profiles was written by Barney Hoskyns, the guiding light behind Rock’s Backpages and a damn fine (albeit far too modest) rock writer himself. Hoskyns’s books include:Waiting For the Sun, an exhaustive survey of the L.A. music scene and mindset; Say It One Time For the Broken Hearted, which is sub-titled “the Country Side of Southern Soul”; Lonely Planet Boy, described by the author as a “pop romance”; Glam!, an informative, witty, and personal account of boys with guitars who want to be your mother; and Across the Great Divide, about the Band.

My friend Gary Robertson is a huge fan of Barney’s Band book, so he asked him questions about that. I wanted to find out more about Rock’s Backpages, which I’m sure will keep me cooped up in cyber-space for years to come. Barney was kind enough to answer all of our questions by e-mail.

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Scott:   Start with a bit of pre-rock critic background info about yourself: where and when did you grow up? Do you have a memorable anecdote you can share about growing up in _____ ?

Barney:   I grew up and was schooled in London, though I spent many weekends and holidays in the East Anglian county of Suffolk. This is where I sat and dreamt about pop stars, my ear pinned to a tiny transistor radio. And where I bought my first single, “Brown Sugar.” Ten shillings handed tremblingly over the counter, and then hours of ecstasy and sonic immersion at home.

Britain was undergoing the teenage cataclysm of glam rock at this point. The first T. Rex singles and appearances on Top of the Pops were my pop baptism. From Bolan and Bowie and Slade via a brief dabbling in prog to the diverse mix of stuff on John Peel’s late night “Radio 1” show. Peel playing Geater Davis’ blood-curdling version of “For Your Precious Love” in 1974 had a lot to do with my later love of southern soul.

Scott:   What turned you into a rock critic?

Barney:   I backed into it through lacking the nous or self-belief to go for more conventional career paths. I wanted to write and I loved music, and the two things converged by default. What I really wanted to be was clever, and I wasn’t. In 1979, when I was at Oxford, I began work on a book called The Cult of Pop, about what “pop” meant and how it tied in with the whole aesthetic of narcissism and dandyism. The idea was good, the execution laughable.

While researching the book in New York in the summer, I was given an introduction to Davitt Sigerson, who was writing very cool and smart pieces about black dance music that I really liked. (Chic’s “Good Times” was the soundtrack of that summer.) He told me to contact Richard Williams, editor of Melody Maker, on my return to London. Richard had Ian Birch assign me some reviews. A year later, when I left Oxford, the incomplete Cult of Pop persuaded Phil McNeill at NME that I was worth taking a punt on.

Scott:   Do you remember what your first published piece was?

Barney:   An omnibus review of two Gladys Knight & the Pips compilations for Melody Maker. The headline was “Spinster of Soul”, which I don’t suppose would have made Gladys very happy. For NME it was a live review of Adam & the Ants, who were about to break big. I’m pleased to say I predicted imminent superstardom for the lad.

Scott:   What are some of the rock mags you’ve written for, and which ones you have enjoyed writing for the most?

Barney:   I’ve written for Melody MakerNMERolling StoneSpinMojo, and others. I’ve probably most enjoyed writing big pieces for Mojo, because I could really get my teeth into them. But I enjoyed being paid by Rolling Stone more…a revenue stream that dried up after I dared to write an underwhelmed review of Pulp’s This Is Hardcore. They wanted a four-star review and called around other writers until they got one. Sorry, Nathan, but whatever happened to the concept of critical autonomy? I’ve subsequently read, of course, about the plight of Karen Schoemer re: Paul Simon’s You’re the One…Plus one thinks back to Jim DeRogatis getting fired over his negative Hootie review. It’s kind of disturbing.

Scott:   What are the qualities that a great editor must have? Any horror stores to relate about dealing with bad editors?

Barney:   I’ve had a few offhand, vaguely sadistic editors. Very few bother to make one feel at all valuable. Exceptions include my good friend Mat Snow at Mojo and the excellent Michael Hainey at GQ.

Scott:   What first sparked the idea for your site, Rock’s Backpages?

Barney:   Someone at Capitol in L.A. emailed to ask if I knew someone who could write notes for a Roy Harper anthology. I thought, wouldn’t it be good if I could go online and find 20 of the best pieces about Roy Harper and then I’d know who’d be best to do these notes? Then I thought, wouldn’t it be good if I could do that anyway?

Scott:   What are you trying to do on Rock’s Backpages and how are you going about doing it?

Barney:   We’re trying to build an online archive of music journalism and related content–a library of great profiles, interviews and reviews spanning the five decades from Elvis to, er, Travis. Plus there’s a weekly e-zine of features, news and reviews. In time we’ll add discographies and sessionographies, plus radio and audio/video streaming. The site is still in beta or soft-launch form.

Scott:   Is there some sort of selection process that occurs before material gets posted on your site?

Barney:   A piece has to be either a) well-written and incisive or b) historically valuable in terms of e.g. what the artist is saying in it. Preferably both.

Scott:   I understand that some time this year, there will be online subscriptions available for Rock’s Backpages What sort of access and privileges will a subscriber receive?

Barney:   Rock’s Backpages will be a subscription or “membership” site. A member will have unlimited access to the whole site, including a library with many thousands of pieces in it. There will also be bulletin boards and chat rooms, and special offers on albums, books, DVDs etc.

Scott:   What kind of response and interest have you had from writers whose work you’ve tried to include on the site?

Barney:   For the most part the response has been extremely encouraging. We have over 70 writers on board now, with at least another 30 who’ve indicated they want their work on Rock’s Backpages. One or two have been a bit precious and standoffish, which you expect.

Scott:   Do you see your site as something promoting the work of rock critics or is it really the information you’re pushing first and foremost?

Barney:   This is a commercial content site designed to make money both for us and for our writers. We certainly intend to promote our writers and to encourage people to, for example, buy books they’ve written. In fact, a sideline Backpages venture will be the print-on-demand reissuing of great out-of-print music books.

Scott:   Who’s your all-time favourite rock critic and why?

Barney:   My favourite all-time rock critic is an unimaginable hybrid of Lester Bangs, Robert Palmer, Richard Williams, Simon Reynolds, Richard Cook, Lenny Kaye, Glenn O’Brien, Carol Cooper, David Fricke, Gina Arnold, Gerri Hirshey, Nelson George, Byron Coley, David Toop, Steven Wells and about 40 others I don’t have room to list.

Scott:   What do you think are the main (if any) differences between British and American rock critics?

Barney:   You can write about rock in Britain with no perceptible prose skills and no real appreciation of music. There are so many more outlets in Britain that basically anyone can get their foot in a door somewhere. In America, the competition is far more intense. You really have to deliver the goods.

Scott:   Despite your subject matter–you seem fascinated by American subjects–do you think your own style of writing is distinctively ‘British’? If so, how? (Perhaps this question is redundant after the last one.)

Barney:   I think there may be “British” elements in there, but since I don’t have a “voice” in the sense that a Bangs or a Meltzer or a Julie Burchill have “voices” I don’t think it’s really an issue.

Scott:   If you had to hone a lifetime’s work down in order to answer a silly question such as this, what would you say is your primary concern as a writer, either stylistically or subject-wise?

Barney:   To help to reveal the hidden beauty and complexity of life, specifically as manifested in music. To communicate the many emotions music has stirred in me and bang the drum for neglected musical geniuses.

Scott:   Of the music books you’ve written–Waiting For the SunGlam!, and Across the Great Divide–which one was the most difficult to finish and why?

Barney:   My “pop romance” The Lonely Planet Boy was a pure act of will–getting up every morning at 5.30 am and heaving myself forward sentence by sentence. But as an exercise in organization and connection, Waiting For the Sun was a Herculean undertaking and something I could never contemplate doing again…unless I was paid proper money for doing it, which one never is as a writer of music books.

Scott:   Glam! is one of the very few books in existence on that much-maligned genre. Do you think the genre is much maligned still? Was it hard to interest a publisher in that subject?

Barney:   Actually, I didn’t have to interest any publisher–for once. If it had been a self-generated book I’d have written a much longer one. The story of Glam! is that Todd Haynes, director of Velvet Goldmine, suggested a kind of “primer” to accompany that endearing if rather confused film. Faber in London was publishing Todd’s screenplay and thought such a primer a good idea. The downside was I had six weeks to condense my teeny-bop memories and my 15 or so interviews into a “book”. Is glam rock maligned? I think Velvet Goldmine proved it’s become terrifically chic, albeit in a kitsch way.

Scott:   What do you think is glam’s most lasting or most interesting contribution to pop music?

Barney:   It was a foretaste of punk rock, shaking up the complacent dinosaur rock scene, but it was couched in the form of a plastic teenage revolution. It was all about masks and artifice, which is of course far healthier than the wholesome oatmeal navel-gazing of all those wretched denim singer-songwriters. Isn’t it? Well, of course, I like some of the navel-gazers too.

Scott:   I’m going to hand this interview over to my friend Gary who wants to ask you some questions about Across the Great Divide, your Band book, but I’m curious whether or not you see any contradiction in having written widely acclaimed books about both the Band and glam rock, two almost diametrically-opposed phenomena?

Barney:   I don’t believe in taking ideological/aesthetic stands as a critic. I’m very pluralistic in my tastes, and maybe sometimes self-contradictory. Life’s too short for me to say: I’m nailing my colours to the glam rock mast and therefore I can never admit to liking “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I believe one should shift identities as one consumes different sorts of music…just as part of me belongs in the city and the other part lives in the country. Why does it have to be one or the other?

Gary:   Were there any interviews you wished you had got for the book?

Barney:   You could say that! Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson would have been nice, for a start. Levon was writing his own book (This Wheel’s On Fire), so he and Stephen Davis conspired to bully Rick and Garth into not talking to me. Some time later, I interviewed Rick a couple of times, and then finally Levon himself, in a profile forRolling Stone that got canned because Levon said too many mean things about Jann Wenner’s pal Robbie Robertson. You could add Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese to the wish list. I’d love to update the book and include the interview material I subsequently got from Levon, Rick and others.

Gary:   Was it strange writing a biography only to discover that someone in the group was writing an autobiography?

Barney:   Not so much strange as galling–for the reasons outlined above. But then when all the smoke had blown over, I thought Levon’s book pretty much sucked as a believable account of what happened to those five dudes.

Gary:   Any big surprises about the Band while doing research?

Barney:   Just how fucked-up and rock-star they were behind the shy farmer facade. But I should have seen that coming.

Gary:   Did you get any reactions from any of the principals after the book came out?

Barney:   Not directly, but my name was mud around Bearsville. Bizarrely, when I came to interview Levon for Rolling Stone in, I guess, 1998, he never alluded to my book once, either because he was blanking the matter in order to get himself into Stone, or because he genuinely didn’t know who I was. He was incredibly warm and hospitable, as it happened. But I still think his hatred for Robertson is detrimental to his health.

Gary:   Anything you left out of the book that you’d care to share with the readers of

Barney:   Nothing vital, but obviously it could do with updating. The sight of Danko, hideously overweight and stumbling around Woodstock, should probably go in there. People would say, “don’t speak ill of the dead,” but I personally think that if more people had applied Tough Love to old Rick he might still be with us.

Gary:   The new release package for the recent Band re-issues stated that you would be supplying liner notes. It was Rob Bowman–what gives?

Barney:   I wrote a complete set of notes for the albums–and was paid well for my troubles, thank God–and then that immensely vain control freak Robertson, who’d taken exception to my portrayal of him in Divide, decided he didn’t want me involved. He cost Capitol thousands of dollars by binning my pretty decent notes and hauling in his dutiful servant Rob Bowman to trot out the old mundanities.

Gary:   How do you feel about the reissues? How about the plethora of Basement Tapes songs that were listed as “outtakes”? (And don’t even get me started on “Bessie Smith,” which was identified as an outtake from Cahoots.)

Barney:   It’s a scam, though Cheryl Pawelski at Capitol did her best under difficult circumstances. The absurd misidentification of “Bessie Smith” as a Cahoots outtake–stubbornly held on to by Robertson–was one of the points of contention that led to my notes being dumped.

Gary:   Did you get caught up in the feud between Levon and Robbie? You remain fairly impartial in the book–any thoughts you’d care to share? (Maybe Levon and Mike Love should write some songs together and set the record straight once and for all?)

Barney:   I didn’t “caught up”, as such. The way I view it, neither Levon nor Robbie was half the musical force he’d been once they went their separate ways–and that goes for The Band as a whole. Something happened when those five gentlemen came together, and it was destroyed when Robertson left.

Gary:   You write eloquently about the vibe of ‘America’ that Robbie captured so nicely in part because of his distant (i.e., Canadian) perspective. You yourself are English. There’s got to be a good question there somewhere, I’m just not bright enough to think it right now…

Barney:   For me, as for Elvis Costello (whom I interviewed for Divide), The Band were like a beautiful, beguiling postcard from 19th century America. They were a big part of the reason why I fell in love with America in the first place–with the sense of place and its mysteries, with Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America.” Call me a sentimental booby, but to me The Band is the sound of pre-industrial America’s musical soul.

Gary:   After listening to the solo output of the guys in the Band, and after watching Godfather III, and after listening to the later albums by any once-great (the Stones and Chuck Berry come to mind), I often wonder about the art of capturing lightning in a bottle. Do they know what happened? Do they genuinely think (as they often say) that their more recent work compares? I don’t expect you to have the answer, or even understand the question–it’s Robbie Burns day and I am drunk–but you clearly crawled right into the Band for this book, and they are such a fantastic example of this all-too-common phenomenon…any thoughts?

Barney:   I don’t think they do know what happened, and if you press them on it they get very uncomfortable. I think they know that something inexplicable occurred during a period when they were at their musical prime and just hitting the vein of inspiration week after week after week…until it was all tapped out.

[ Scott interjects]    In regards to that last question, do you think rock critics face a similar problem, or are they somehow immune to this? (You know, because they don’t necessarily have to “live the life” so to speak.)

Barney:   I honestly don’t think you can compare the scribblings of most “rock crits” (with all due respect to your site, and to Rock’s Backpages too!) to the business of musical inspiration. Didn’t Claude Levi-Strauss call the gift of melody “the greatest mystery known to man”?

Gary:   Ronnie Hawkins gave valuable interviews. He’s a big liar. How does one handle that?

Barney:   Oh, Ronnie talks tall, but is he a liar per se? There’s more emotional truth in his reminiscences of the Hawks days than there is in much of the writing about groups like The Band.

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