The Rev. Charles M. Young calms down, grows up, and sings the joys of middle-age
By Steven Ward (February 2001)
Back in the mid and late ’70s, Charles M. Young–known then as The Rev. Charles M. Young–roamed the halls of Rolling Stone magazine like a starving lion let outside of his empty cage. A Midwesterner who landed his dream job at rock’s (arguably) most important publication, Young’s gonzo take on music and musicians was less Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer and more Joseph Heller–dark, sardonic and ironic. After starting off covering New York City’s Bowery punk bands at CBGBs in 1975, Young wound up writing lively features on pop culture icons like John Belushi near the end of rock’s most decadent decade. When he left Rolling Stone for Musician in the ’80s, his writing remained witty and intelligent but showed a growth and maturity lacking at Jann Wenner’s publishing empire.
Back in 1992, Young was sweet-talked back into writing for Wenner. He’s interviewed MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, U.S. historian Howard Zinn, and Ralph Nader for Rolling Stone. Young’s last major music feature — on the Butthole Surfers–was published in Rolling Stone in 1996. For Wenner’s Men’s Journal, Young has more recently written features about an extreme snowboarding tournament in Alaska, the psychology of losing, Zen meditation and the joy of middle-aged guitar playing.
Young is still writing about subjects that move him. Even though music and the people who make it don’t hold the same allure for Young, life’s other foibles provide him with enough material to fill thousands of magazine pages.
During this recent e-mail interview with Young, he talks about what punk music is today or even if it exists anymore, editors, the current state of rock criticism, and why he’s now happy writing about a different kind of celebrity–real people facing real-life problems.
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Steven: I still see your by-line in Playboy (where it’s been for years), and it occasionally crops up in Jann Wenner’s Men’s Journal. Besides those outlets, what have you been up to since Musician folded?
Charles: Two album reviews in Playboy every month. One or two reviews irregularly in an Atlantic Monthly advertising section called “What’s Coming Up” in the Arts. That’s it for music writing. I’m more of a generalist now. Am currently writing a strange essay about sloth for Men’s Journal. I prefer subject matter where I can pursue the political/philosophical/psychological overtones. Music and music journalism doesn’t give me much of a charge anymore.
Steven: Do you miss writing long features about bands in the splashy way you were able to do that in Rolling Stone and Musician?
Charles: Yes and no. I think those features had a certain vitality to them because I always felt I had something to learn from the musicians I was talking to, that they understood something about life that I didn’t. Now that I’m undeniably middle-aged (50), I’m looking elsewhere for wisdom. As a writer, I was grateful for the let-it-all-hang-out ethos of rock & roll. You couldn’t ask for more colorful characters. I had massive fun, and I learned a lot about how to quote people, what was fair and not fair.
Rolling Stone and Musician gave me a lot of freedom. Any publication that would have given me more freedom would have given me less access to the people I wanted to write about and less money.
In 1999 I had a column for about six months at Allmusic.com until my editor, Bob Doerschuk, got fired. I had total freedom so long as I wrote about music, and I actually enjoyed the writing. It reminded me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place. But in general, I don’t yearn for the old days nor more music assignments. It’s physically painful for me to squelch my writing style to fit some editor’s idea of useful consumer advice. I hate rating records with numbers and stars and grades. I hate lists. And the older I get, the less I care what’s on MTV. I’d rather read a book.
Steven: Tell me about your background. Where your grew up and where you went to college etc?
Charles: I was born in 1951 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where my father was minister of the First Presbyterian Church. My earliest memory of rock & roll is my older sister Lois dressing me up like Elvis and handing me a broom as a prop guitar. I sang “Hound Dog” which was my favorite song, so I was one of the first Elvis impersonators at the age of five or six.
We moved to Madison in 1963. Though getting uprooted was quite traumatic at the time, I’m glad it happened. Madison was a great place to spend the sixties. Wonderful bookstores, wonderful record stores, big anti-war movement. Everything was dangerous and alive. I go back there periodically to play old Yardbirds songs with my high school band.
I went to Macalester College from 1969-73. Majored in English. They let me say what I wanted in the newspaper, which was brave of them. I cringe when I read my old stuff, but what better time to be sophomoric than when you’re a sophomore?
I got my master’s degree in journalism from Columbia in 1975. I learned how to write a 5000-word article there, which is a rare skill.
Steven: I remember reading that Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 had a big impact on you. When did you decide that you wanted to write for a living?
Charles: In grade school, I had my heart set on becoming an admiral in the Navy, probably because there was a guy in my father’s church who had been the captain of a destroyer during World War II and I dug his uniform. My parents had the good sense to take me to the Naval Academy in Annapolis one summer vacation, and I was horrified watching the midshipmen marching around. Reading about military discipline and seeing it are two different experiences, and it just killed the romance of war for me, just in time for the sixties. At 13, I started thinking about being a writer, with occasional interludes of wanting to be a musician or a psychologist. Now I fantasize about driving a cab. I despise the publishing business.
Almost everything I wrote in high school turned into a satire, even when I was trying to write seriously. It was just how I saw the world. I idolized Jonathan Swift, Diogenes the Cynic, Joseph Heller and any musician with an attitude (the Fugs, for example). Pretty much anyone who made me laugh was my hero. I liked the idea of being feared for my wit, which probably means I was a flaming asshole.
Steven: What rock mags did you like to read before turning professional and what rock critics and writers influenced you?
Charles: For most of the sixties there was no serious journalism about rock, which probably helped build the mystique. What you didn’t know, you imagined while staring at album covers. When I was in junior high and high school, I could go to the supermarket and buy Tiger Beat or 16 and read questionnaires filled out by Dino, Desi & Billy. Or I could go down to State Street and buy an underground newspaper with passionately propounded opinions about music and very little information. Time and Life would occasionally run features written by critics with a decidedly non-Baby Boom sensibility.
In college I discovered Rolling Stone, which was just coming into its own. It had real information about musicians who had changed my life, and it covered the whole counterculture with exhilarating literary freedom. I wanted to be a Rolling Stone writer more than anything, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me to write about music. I saw myself more in the tradition of Hunter Thompson and David Felton. Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer didn’t fully register on me until I got to New York.
Steven: Tell me how you first started writing for Rolling Stone?
Charles: Just before I graduated from Columbia in 1975, I entered Rolling Stone‘s first annual college journalism contest. When they got around to judging it a year later, I won, and that got my foot in the door. Chet Flippo gave me an assignment to do a short article on the Ramones, then I got hired to write “Random Notes.” Once I was on staff, I pushed to write features all the time. They put my by-line on the cover a lot, and my head got a little bloated.
In the year between j-school and RS, I wrote quite a bit for Crawdaddy in the Peter Knobler regime. I met Timothy White there and we’ve been friends ever since. The meticulous effort he puts into his research has always been an inspiration. He really believes in journalism, not just airing out your empty opinions.
Steven: What was your take on Robert Draper’s history of Rolling Stone? Did he accurately portray you and life in general at the magazine?
Charles: Winston Churchill once said that he knew history would treat him kindly because he was going to write it. Since I had no desire to write the history of RS, I figured the next best thing was to be kind to the historian. I told him my story as best I could, and I thought he treated me fairly and sympathetically. The magazine, too. The book was quite therapeutic for me.
Steven: The early punk bands that played at CBGBs was your first beat at Rolling Stone. Do you think punk music still exists today and do you listen to it and what bands would you Desiree as punk?
Charles: Punk is a word with a lot of connotation and very little definition. There’s a subculture out there that wants to claim it, and more power to them. Off the top of my head, I like the Black Halos and the Drop Kick Murphys. I’m sure there are more good bands than that. I just haven’t been paying much attention. My ears got crunched in the early years, and I hate ear plugs, so I don’t go to clubs much. That’s where you get the true punk experience. I think Jeff Bale’s Hit List is a good magazine, even though I often disagree with the politics.
Steven: Whatever happened to the book you were writing about the Butthole Surfers?
Charles: I signed a contract to write it in a year. When I needed more time, they cancelled on me. I’ve never been able to meet deadlines. I’m hoping to finish it this year on my own, and sell it elsewhere. I love the band, and they should have an album coming out in the summer or fall, so it would be a good time to sell the book again. Most of the writers I know are in despair about the state of publishing, with good reason.
Steven: How did you get involved with Musician magazine and did you enjoy writing for it and your short time as the mag’s executive editor?
Charles: I went into exile from Rolling Stone at the end of 1980. I spent the next two years being depressed, unwilling to write, poor and drunk. Timothy White suggested I give the editor of Musician, Vic Garbarini, a call. I didn’t think anyone even remembered who I was, but Vic had read my stuff in RS and was eager to have me do what I do in Musician. My first assignment was a cover story on Tom Petty in 1983, and it got me back into a groove. Vic has been a great friend ever since. He’s one of maybe three people that I can stand discussing music with. For a few years there, Musician was the best music magazine in the world, and that was Vic’s doing. There were a lot of talented writers in that mag, writers who really cared about music, and the artists responded. Mark Rowland, Rafi Zabor, J.D. Considine and Chip Stern come to mind. I thought Bill Flanagan (Vic’s successor) was a sharp reporter and editor whose taste got a little narrow by the late eighties. He and Mark are doing important work at VH-1 now.
The Executive Editor slot was not a good fit for me. I only lasted nine months in ’92 and ’93 before I resigned. The best I can say for the experience is they gave me dental insurance and I got my teeth fixed. The magazine was having horrendous political problems at all levels and was heading into eclipse.
Steven: Do you read rock mags today? And if so, which ones are your favorites and are there any younger writers or critics that impress you?
Charles: Very little, and I’m not competent to comment. No doubt there are good writers out there, and good musicians. The problem is music itself. I suspect that rock & roll is now where jazz was in the early seventies. Its cultural resonance is spent. The last great, important band was Nirvana. The forms will remain, the fans will gradually dwindle, the history is important, the juice went elsewhere. Maybe I’m wrong. Rock has demonstrated great powers of renewal in the past.
Steven: Were you a big fan of the Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer gonzo style of rock writing and how do you view that style today?
Charles: Yeah, at Rolling Stone Paul Nelson and I used to talk about how brilliant and funny they were, how they were the rightful successors to the New Journalism thing in the late sixties. I think we were correct in our artistic assessment, but naive about literary politics.
Steven: Many in the biz think rock criticism is in a sorry state today. Consumer-driven, horribly written crap, some say. Do you agree with that?
Charles: Yes, but don’t blame the writers. Corporate capitalism has a dreadful, homogenizing effect. Most editors edit like a dog pisses–not to improve the fire hydrant but to mark their territory.
Steven: Can you tell us about any future writing projects you are going to be involved in?
Charles: I’m going to finish that Butthole Surfer book. I have a couple other ideas that I don’t want to describe.
Steven: If Greil Marcus was putting together a new version of his Stranded collection today and he asked you to contribute an essay, what CD would you bring on a desert island and why?
Charles: I wouldn’t go to a desert island. I already have enough ocean in my ears.