A meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy interview with Dave Marsh
By Scott Woods (February 2001)
I recently called rock critic Dave Marsh — one of the founders of Creem (and more recently, Rock and Rap Confidential), former editor at Rolling Stone, author of a dozen or so bestselling rock tomes (including The Heart of Rock and Soul, his personal run-down of the 1,001 greatest singles of all-time), and the man who first paired (in print, anyway) the words “punk” and “rock” — at his home in Connecticut to find out why he bothers to still do what he does, to pin him down on his “disco perplex,” to bend his ear on Napster, Springsteen, anything else I could think of. I’d planned on chatting for less than an hour, but we went on for double that (and I’m sure we could’ve doubled that). During the interview, I was serenaded with all sorts of kooky records playing in the background, from O-Town to Vitamin C to some girlie-country thing to what sounded like a cheap Woody Guthrie imitation (unless it was actually Guthrie; highly possible given the no-fi acoustics of my phone receiver).
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Scott: As one of the few people who’s consistently written rock criticism for over 30 years, I’m curious to know what your primary motivation to continue to write about it is.
Dave: I guess if that was a question you thought of very much you wouldn’t…I mean, there was never a…
Scott: I guess what I’m getting at is…
Dave: I don’t mean it’s not a good question, I don’t have a good answer. [laughs] Tell me what you were getting at.
Scott: I guess that when you look at old issues of Creem and that sort of thing–or if you read some of the other interviews on this site–there just seems to be a lot of people from that period [the early ’70s] who don’t seem to be doing it any more.
Dave: Some of them are dead, so I guess the first reason is I’m still alive. [laughs] You know? And the second reason is, what’s there to do that’s better? I don’t know–my lack of need for responsibility is very helpful here.
Scott: Well what made you want to be a writer in the first place?
Dave: What made me want to be a writer was being a reader. And what made me want to write about this stuff, which might be what you mean by that question, is listening to the music and deciding that, well, I’m living in a world at that point in my life where it’s invisible in culture–much more invisible than it is now. And back then, a show like “Roseanne” was inconceivable. You could have “The Life of Riley” that completely ridiculed working people, or for that matter “The Honeymooners”, right? But something that sort of seemed to come out of that culture and express that culture’s values at some marginal level–that didn’t exist, except that it existed in music. So, it was like, I was invited to that party; I wasn’t invited to the other party.
Scott: How would you define the role of the critic?
Dave: I don’t think that there is a role. I think different people do it different ways.
Scott: How do you define your job?
Dave: What I think I’m doing–which I guess is how I define the job–is I think I’m still doing that thing, of trying to look at this thing, the music thing, and how it expresses things for people who don’t have any other means of public expression. Which can be applicable to Eminem, it can be applicable, in a funny way, to Sting, it can be applicable certainly to dozens of performers around the world who–I don’t know, hundreds, thousands, millions. And the other thing I’m trying to do, I’m trying to write from the point of view of an informed and intelligent and at this stage I would guess it’s fair to say ‘expert’ audience member. I’m not trying to write from the point of view of a musician, I’m not trying to write from the point of view of a record industry insider, that’s not what I do. So those are the two things I’m doing, that I can see.
Scott: What are you listening to in the background?
Dave: You know something, the record player is in the other room, and it just changed itself. I was listening to the third or fourth disc of that Stax compilation, the one that’s live [The Stax Story]. Hang on second…[Music increases in volume.]
Scott: Is that an old girl group thing?
Dave: Well, whatever this is I’m not going to be listening to it much longer!
Scott: So, aside from the obvious fact that there’s a lot more rock criticism nowadays–it just keeps growing exponentially–how do you think rock criticism as a genre has changed since its early days?
Dave: Well, it’s changed in so many different ways that it would be hard to nail down one. To me, the first thing that comes to mind is, one of the things you can say about it, amazingly enough, is that it’s better. And it’s better simply because people are better informed, people have a little better idea of what they’re doing. I think the standard of craft is considerably better. And then, you know, you can go to the other side and talk about why it’s worse, and it’s worse because the whole thing as a project has had its spirits dampened considerably by events, by the rampant kind of–well, even that’s a contradiction, because on one level, the most obvious thing to think is, from the point of view of aesthetics, is that there’s too many records made, too much music, whatever. But that’s really a bizarre thought. And I think what it is is that there IS an over-production of the commodity, but the fact that so many people are making music of one kind or another and that virtually all of it has some relationship to this rock/r&b thing in terms of coming from that rhythmic basis if nothing else–that’s a pretty remarkable thing, it seems to me. So I am a little weary–I don’t think it’s such a good idea to say, well, that’s too much.
So, you’ve got your hack work, but you always had your hack work. You always had the teen magazines, and there are even gradations in that. I don’t mean to stand here and put down my friends who edited teen magazines, like Gloria Stavers at 16 and Danny Fields at Date Book and Paul Nelson at Hullabaloo, because they did great stuff that helped inspire me. But there was always crap out there, and in a society organized the way this one is, there always will be. I don’t even know how you would measure it out and try to figure out whether percentage-wise it’s gone quote-unquote up or down. My instinct is that there are more people trying to do serious work now than there were in 1969 when I started at Creem. Quite a lot more, percentage-wise.
Scott: I would agree with that, and I thought one of the assumptions made in Let It Blurt is that rock criticism has gone downhill since Lester Bangs died, and I’m a little uneasy with what I thought WAS an assumption.
Dave: Well, you know, Jim’s got his own particular take on it. Jim’s a lot more–he comes out of that kind of punk-alt rock perfectionist thing, which is a group of people who tend to see the world in very politicized terms, in terms of the office politics of things, and miss the big political picture. [laughs] In terms of the social structure of politics. And I think when you look at it from that point of view, it would appear–I have to be careful what I say here because it’s not what I think, and it’s so fucking easy to caricature it [laughs], and I have a real talent for that, I think–but from my own point of view, that kind of angry, cynical… there was this writer I used to work with in Boston named James Isaacs, I think he does public radio or something up there, and his thing used to be, “Nothing ain’t no good no more.” Well, you know, if I felt that way I wouldn’t even be here; I’d just check out, that’s easy to do. It isn’t even expensive any more. There are great drugs! I mean, what could that Darvon that Lester took–not that I think Lester killed himself, that’s a bad joke. But really, one of the things that this society we live in provides us is: you don’t have to stick around if you think it all sucks, you don’t have to be here. And I’m not encouraging anyone to leave, it’s just, you know, if that’s how you feel, then check yourself out. And how I feel is, I’m glad to be here.
Scott: Were you pleased with the Bangs biography? Did you feel it was an accurate portrayal of both Bangs and the whole world ofCreem and all that?
Dave: I would say in terms of the place where Lester and my world intersected–which is at Creem –I’d say it’s about 3/4, which is above the average by a little bit. There are things in there that I told Jim weren’t true, and quite logically explained to him that it was impossible, for instance, that I had ever gone out on this night of bar-hopping with Lester and Handsome Dick Manitoba, for the very simple reason that I never go bar-hopping in my life with anybody. It’s not something I do. [laughs]
Scott: I actually re-read that passage today, and he made it sound like you couldn’t handle it or something, and that was the last they saw of you…
Dave: Well I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to handle it–that’s one of the reasons why I don’t do it. And the other reason I wouldn’t have been able to handle it is that unlike those people, I’m not an alcoholic. In short, I had no reason to handle it. I had a whole other kind of life, and it was certainly… you know, here’s what I think. I think Jim meant well 100% of the time. I think he had a theory and I think there are lots of parts of the theory that are correct, but my interest in that book–I have not sat down and read that book from beginning to end for a bunch of different reasons including the fact that I’m working on something very far afield from it, and also because I think I would find it very painful. Not because of how I feel about Lester–I mean, not because of any negative feelings I have about Lester–but because I miss the smelly old bastard. But I did read the stuff about Creem, so all my comments are only about Creem and whatever other places, like that Dick Manitoba thing… like, he’s got that whole story about me leaving Pine Knob. The only way you can get out of Pine Knob is by automobile, otherwise you have to walk. I didn’t have a driver’s license, and the nearest person I knew to Pine Knob is my mother who lives about ten miles away. I guarantee you I would remember a ten mile walk in the middle of the night. And I told it to Jim just like that: It didn’t happen, and this is why it didn’t happen, this is why it couldn’t have happened. But like I said, he’s got a theory and he stuck to it.
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
Scott: Through various things that you’ve been involved in, such as some anti-censorship campaigns, you’ve come to know and probably befriend a lot of musicians, and you’re obviously pretty close to Springsteen, and I think you’ve been stupidly criticized for that–it’s not like you’re not qualified to write a book about him; that’s just an old argument and a stupid one. But what I am curious to know is, is it difficult for you to separate your personal relations from your professional obligations? Have you ever panned any records made by your friends, and what was their response?
Dave: [laughs] Yeah, it’s happened, you know, I mean, Peter Wolf didn’t speak to me once for about a year-and-a-half. The last time I saw Roger Daltrey was in an elevator at about 8:00 in the morning, and I think if I hadn’t been standing with a friend of mine who happened to be black and at least as big as his bodyguard, I’d still have a lump on my head. So, yeah. It’s funny because I have this contradictory reputation on the one hand for being this kind of acerbic, trouble-making, fire-starting, invective-brandishing bully–tough guy, whatever. And on the other hand, being this callow sap for celebrities. Well, you know [laughs], both are wrong. Because nobody’s that simple. And really, one reason why people didn’t like the Springsteen books–those who didn’t like them–was because that’s the point of the Springsteen books. Not only does celebrity not make you happy, it also doesn’t mean that you have to be sad, or a sad case. It doesn’t predetermine anything. And, like I said, people have got theories and they stick to them, and boy, did that fly in the face of a lot of what people… that’s what people–it isn’t that I’m close to Bruce, which I am, what it is is that I didn’t think that he became a rat when he became successful, because he didn’t become a rat when he became successful. He didn’t even become–life became more complicated in some ways, and simpler in others. That’s what happens, that’s what all the stories are about, that’s what the Who story’s about with an unhappy ending. And really, I went from the Who book into the second Bruce book to get the taste of the ending of the Who book out of my mouth, it’s as simple as that.
This thing was coming up, I knew it was going to be an extraordinary thing. Bruce is not only my friend, he’s also somebody in whom I have a lot of confidence, and I thought there was a story there. I had no idea I was going to drag Ronald Reagan into it in quite such a direct way, but you know, I could see a story shaping up there that I wanted to tell, and I thought I really needed, after the Who book, and Keith and the reformed band and Cincinnati and all of it, I just said, I need to tell a true story with a happy ending, where I am gonna be…You know, listen, I’m working on a Marvin Gaye biography, my daughter gets cancer and dies, I spit the bit on the Marvin Gaye book for the simple reason that I couldn’t go through…another one of those. And in a strange way, the Marvin story was another one of those. So some of it is how I internalize this stuff, and nobody has to know that–unless they ask–but I do think that in terms of the ideology of the whole thing, what I do is, where I stand, is not, you know–I stand in the place where I think Jann Wenner’s full of shit, I think Thomas Frank is full of shit. [laughs] I just think that they’re both wrong! And it’s not this great giddy thing to become a rock star, and it ain’t always good, and people who become successful aren’t always good–including some of the ones who are the most celebrated for being good–but then on the other end of it isn’t always bad. And you’re not trapped.
That whole kind of po-mo thing that Frank represents, I guess–which I think, actually, Jim DeRogatis in some ways falls into–is this notion that if you become involved in certain things that are bigger than a fly speck, you’ve sold out to the system. But you haven’t sold out to the system because there’s only one system and all of us live within it. Some of us are working to change what the system is, and some of us are working to keep things the same, and some of us are visibly engaged in denying that any change is possible, which to me is the post-modernist project. But that was always very far afield from the Creem project, and the Creem project–I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I’m pretty sure that this is still true for Jaan Uhelszki, and for me and her alone–but for me, the Creem project was about having this culture that gave people like us a voice, and using it, and not making too many assumptions based on that about what was worthy and unworthy. You know, sometimes trash is trash, and it’s hard for some of the people who’ve discovered that trash is sometimes art to get around that. It’s like, okay, you’ve learned to hit the curve ball, now we’re going to throw you the slider. [laughs] And it’s interesting to me because the signal characteristic of the sort of defeatist po-mo mob is that they’re very well educated, and yet, they have this need to see things in this very extreme terms, and the human dimension, and the muddled and tainted dimension–it’s as if things can exist un-tainted. And you know, really, they can’t. The Replacements can’t. the Clash couldn’t. I’m trying to think of other things that really tried to be un-tainted. Bruce couldn’t. Everybody walks around with some part of both things… the worst people you can think of are tainted by stuff that’s great. Look at Ahmet Ertegun. Here’s a guy who virtually made destitute any number of people who I both know personally and revere as artists, right? And yet, at the same time he also made this music that, as much as any single, non-performer, he made this thing happen. So it’s just, it’s a messy world, as Rodney Crowell once said.
Scott: Are you happy to take credit for coining the phrase ‘punk rock’?
Dave: Well, happier every year! It’s funny because a bunch of different people, even Bob Christgau, called me up and said, Legs McNeil says in his book [Please Kill Me] that he coined the term. And I said, well, he didn’t. This is when it happened–in my ? Mark and the Mysterians “Looney Tunes” column. And Legs McNeil was still, you know, learning how to lift his tone-arm at that point. And that’s just true. Now, he has some need, I guess, to write me out of the story. I mean, hey, being able to write that much oral history about the MC5 and Detroit and not mention my name? That takes a very skillful and dishonest person. What was impressive to me about it was the skill, because I already was aware of the dishonesty.
Scott: You may have partly answered this question already, but in regards to the punk rock that did emerge in the late seventies, you were a little more skeptical about it than many of your contemporaries at the time…
Dave: I don’t like movements in music and in the arts. I don’t trust them very much. I like social movements. And what punk was in the United States, as a social movement, was not clear to me, and the parts of it that were clear to me I didn’t like from the git. From the git, I was aware that Lester had wound up in the White Noise Supremacists. I always saw that. And part of how I saw that was that’s how Iheard it, and by that I mean, the drumming and the bass lines–with the exception of the Clash bass lines which were very, very good, and some of the Sex Pistols–but for the most part in that music the rhythm is atrophied. That wasn’t very interesting to me. And to me, one of the cycles in these musics is that they’re kind of invented by outcasts of one kind or another: black people, poor people, Southern people, you know, English working class people, whatever. And much nuance gets obliterated in the taking over because, well, you can look at it in different ways.
For instance, Brian Wilson just had a lot more education than the guys who were doing the doo-wop records, and he knew some things about harmony that many of them didn’t know. I’m not sure he ever actually made a record that was any more harmonically sophisticated than a Platters record or a Flamingos record, but with the run of doo-wop records, sure. You get into bluegrass music, bluegrass music becomes an instrumental music even though it’s basically, before the college kids get involved, a platform for voices. Well, the kids can’t sing. The Charles River Valley Boys and those various groups–they can’t sing like the Stanley Brothers or the Butch Mountain Boys or Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. They can’t do that! So, they reinvent it and it becomes this kind of Jerry Garcia/David Grisman thing. Something is lost. And I think that if you move from Johnny Thunders to Richard Hell you’re doing another version of that. I just think you are. And I think that there was something going on in the music of, let’s say, the MC5, the Dolls, the Sex Pistols, that is not going on in most other punk music. That’s a gross way to put it, and it’s unfair to all kinds of people–it’s unfair to Pete Shelley–but as a general thing, that was what was happening. And it also meant ignoring–I’m not gonna give up liking Bootsy Collins. For that matter, I’m not gonna give up liking Jackson Browne! If the price of this is becoming musically narrower, I’d never have noted yes for that. Even with the MC5, which seems like the narrowest possible thing, you go look at those early issues of Creem, we’re writing about Charles Mingus, we’re writing about Ray Charles, we’re writing about all kinds of things… [laughs] Let me put it this way, we’re writing about all kinds of things that are much more sophisticated than anything that we know to say about them. But there isn’t a blanket–I’m not the one who wrote James Taylor must die [“James Taylor Marked For Death,” Lester Bangs]. I didn’t like James Taylor very much, but I’m not the one who wrote James Taylor must die, that was somebody else. And so, if you’re weary of that, then you’re weary of the whole thing. Do I think that what happened in punk was important? Yeah, it was important. I don’t know that it was any more important than disco.
Scott: I was going to ask you about disco.
Dave: In the long run do I think punk was more important than disco? I think in the long run the way that punks who survived as musicians mainly sustained themselves by taking ideas from funk and disco. I think that answers the question right there. And do I think that the revolution in white rock ‘n’ roll, or in part of white rock ‘n’ roll, that happened in England and was stillborn in the United States with punk, approaches the significance of the rise of rap music? That’s a silly idea. It seems to be the idea that has animated much of rock criticism for the last 20 years, but it’s an absurd idea, I mean, it’s just ludicrous.
Scott: It seems like your own feelings about disco at the time were kind of complicated.
Dave: My feelings about everything at ALL times is pretty complicated. [laughs] Here’s what happened. I wrote a piece about some of the r&b vocal groups that had been desperately trying to make disco–Archie Bell & the Drells. And Vince Aletti wrote a brilliant rejoinder to it in the Voice, which totally changed my mind about what was going on. And really–I think I may have called Vince and apologized. [laughs] I remember doing something like that. And then of course the other thing that happened was that horrible pogrom at the Detroit Tigers / Chicago White Sox game with those racist disc jockeys. Then I think the other thing was–it’s in The Heart of Rock and Soul–I went to Yankee stadium before opening day, must’ve been ’78 or ’79, the year of the Reggie Bar, I think it was. And Reggie Jackson’s doing batting practise and he’s hitting ball after ball… hang on a second, I gotta get my dog. [Calls dog into the room.] He’s hitting ball after ball into the right field stands, and while this is happening the record that’s playing at full volume over the Yankee Stadium loudspeakers is “Disco Inferno.” Well, you know, I argue with lots of things, but I do not argue with my ears.
And when you hear–disco music is a music that–and house is like that and some of the techno and stuff that’s derived from techno–is that you have to hear it in the right context or you can’t get it. I remember Arthur Baker being astonished, because I’m not a clubgoer and I like the first house records that he played for me. And I liked them because I understood the ostinato piano figures as being basically a sped-up version of Chicago blues, which they are. But that was a fluke. In general, you’re going to have an experience that snaps you out of your context and INto the context of that music. I can hear free jazz very easily–not to say that I understand it or write about it well, but I hear it, take pleasure in it, and have some concept of what’s going on because of all those Sun Ra / MC5 shows, it’s as simple as that. I have been in that world long enough to know, right? And sometimes that’s truer than other times. Early reggae you didn’t need that, or at least I didn’t, because you could rely on some parts of your r&b thing to get you through. Dancehall, you’re gonna have to work harder, it’s as simple as that.
Scott: You wrote a lengthy piece in the late ’70s–it’s in Fortunate Son–about pop music in the movies, the piece about The Buddy Holly Story…
Dave: Yeah, the thing I did for, one of the movie magazines–Film Comment.
Scott: I’m just wondering if there’s any recent movies in which you were, say, astounded at the way pop music was used. There have been a lot of music-dominated movies recently.
Dave: [pause] The way that the rock & roll scene is portrayed in Cameron’s movie, Almost Famous is tremendously accurate, emotionally, and even down to–people can say what they want to say about those characters, but I knew people like that, particularly the women, who to me are what that picture’s about, which is about nurture at various levels, and it’s more about the women than it is the men–to me. So, no, the picture that comes to mind is, believe it or not, Crouching Dragon because it in some way… A friend, my co-editor atRock and Rap Confidential, Lee Ballinger said–he described it to me as a hip-hop movie, but without the music, and that’s right. It was astounding how they didn’t use pop music. [laughs] It was astounding that they could avoid it. But I don’t think… We know certain things about music, now. Right? Science is beginning to tell us things about music, and one thing it’s telling us is that music seems to be the art that’s most deeply imbedded in humans. That in fact it pre-exists humans, that there are no human societies that are without the art of music. That there was music before there was cave painting, there was music probably, it now seems, there’s a fairly good chance that there was music before there was fire–controlled fire, cooking. [pause] That’s pretty amazing. And yet, primates are visual animals. I still think that music videos and music in the movies are basically tails wagging dogs.
Scott: Does High Fidelity fit into that? [pause] Did you see High Fidelity?
Dave: High Fidelity‘s like the tip of the tail wagging the tail that wags the dog. [laughs] You know? High Fidelity was like, I used to know those people; Almost Famous was like, I used to BE those people. And I liked High Fidelity quite a lot. And I thought it got to a couple of things that are worth getting to, including Marvin Gaye. That thing at the end, I mean, whatever my doubts may have been, that resolved them. Especially–I saw it later on Pay Per View on TV, and I realized well, actually, he doesn’t sing the song [“Let’s Get It On”] particularly well. And at that moment, at least the first time I saw it, he could’ve been Marvin Gaye. And that’s a truth about music that, with the utter demise of Top 40 radio, or any kind of music radio, which somebody who’s not a fanatic can listen to–take it for granted that all pop music fans under 17 are fanatics–that’s a truth that… where can you be surprised any more? I’m not really gonna be surprised on Napster because Napster requires a volitional act to find the thing. One of the reasons why I probably still DO this stuff is the possibility for surprise. Even if that means listening to all twelve discs of the Carter Family box set on Bear Family. And the one thing I got out of it, aside from stuff I already kind of knew, the one shock of surprise I got was hearing them sing “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in an arrangement NOT terribly far from Elvis’s, which had never been released before. And, you know, you also have to at that point, you have to go think about what would Peter Guralnick make of this? How inauthentic of the Carter Family to sing an Al Jolson song–that’s what he thought about Elvis. So, that was like my great, oddball discovery, but that’s everyday, or you’re looking for that everyday. *I* am. So I’m not an alcoholic, but I am a junkie for that.
Scott: Can you single out your all-time favorite musical moment in a movie?
Dave: There’s that unbelievable moment in American Hot Wax where Alan Freed plays “There Goes My Baby,” that’s an unforgettable one, just absolutely a killer. But I don’t–that’s not how I relate to the stuff, I relate to the stuff as sound. I don’t relate to it as lyrics, I don’t relate to it as score and composition, I relate to it as sound. So my visual memory of music has as much to do with watching Atlantic and Motown map labels spin around on a turntable, or album covers or something, but it isn’t movies. But it ain’t mainly visual. Visual memory of music for me is the exact spot I was standing in the first time I heard “96 Tears”–that I remember!
Scott: Do you still place as much emphasis in your own life on singles–as opposed to albums? Because you kind of make an argument inThe Heart of Rock and Soul, uhh, for singles, I guess.
Dave: [pause] It’d be like valuing horses and still driving the car. There aren’t so many horses around any more.
Scott: Do you mean specifically Top 40?
Dave: Well, a single is a different thing now. It’s not, or often as not, it’s not a commodity in the same way that it was when–you know, I caught just the last moment of–that book [The Heart of Rock and Soul got written at the last moment practically that it could’ve been written, and then everything kind of blew apart for reasons of formatics and reason of record business economics and broadcast formatics, and a million things blew it apart, right? But to me I guess the thing is–it tends to be that the records that I have high regard for will tend to have a song or two or three that–particularly the rock records–that will just galvanize them for me. This Everclear record was that with that, whatever it’s called, Songs From An American Movie. That for me is, like, totally, like, a smash. Not whatever the single is–which I think is “AM Radio”–but this other thing. So that galvanic response is still there. I don’t think–it’s not laid out in such a simple fashion any longer. I am neurologically incapable of listening to music radio in the United States. It’s like, I would just get out of the car and either kill myself, or beat somebody up. [laughs] It’s literally true that I almost never listen to music radio.
And yet, it’s funny, because just the other day I actually switched over from AM to FM, which I hardly ever do, but everything I had in the car was boring–everything on AM was boring. And I was kinds dancing around the dial, and I found some Supremes record followed by a Bobby Womack record, and then I dialed into one of the college stations and they were doing something interesting with some singer-songwriters who I think are interesting right now, and then I just got out of the car and I was just confused–it was like, “you mean you can actually do this again?” Then I thought, oh God, more information, and who needs more information in [pause] Babylon?
Scott: Okay, I just want to get your thoughts about a few genres and artists–forgive me if you’ve written about some of this stuff in Rock and Rap Confidential recently. Curious to know what you think of D’Angelo, and some others who I place in that same vein–Erykah Badu, Jill Scott.
Dave: Well, I think that’s a place where you really notice the decline in vocals and vocal harmonies–at least I do. D’Angelo in particular strikes me as doing, or trying to do, for instance, Sly Stone’s act and not quite getting it. I was pretty disappointed by that record [Voodoo. I… I love R. Kelly, though, ’cause R. Kelly’s doing the Marvin Gaye thing and really getting a lot of things right, I think. So I don’t know where you would put the boundaries on it, but for me the person that’s really doing it is Kelly.
Scott: Yeah. I’m in 100% agreement with you.
Dave: You know, the D’Angelo thing is–it’s cold! But people tend to like, right now, some very cold–some music that strikes me as very cold and brittle.
Scott: I find that that music sometimes kind of comes with a little bit of an agenda, that people–the sort of rootsy, I don’t know…
Dave: Well, I think that, I would go you one better and say–I would go all the way to Macy Gray and say that. I’m not of the opinion that, outside of hip-hop there’s a whole lot of great r&b being made right now. I just don’t think that there is. I think that there are things, and I think that there are things in gospel music in particular that may bode well for popular music depending on who sells out, and when. [laughs] People can talk about Erykah Badu and Me’shell Ndegeocello, or, I used to call her Me’shell Unpronounceable–I used to call her Unspellable / Unpronounceable actually. Maybe even Unlistenable–I don’t like her much. Those kind of people–if you’re going to listen to that music, let alone some tuneless, really out-of-key fingernails-on-the-blackboard type like Lauryn Hill, then what you really oughta do is you gotta deal with how good people like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey are, because they’re better at it.
Dave: It’s as simple as that. The material may not be always as good, but I tell you something: You give Erykah Badu–who actually I’ve come to like some–you give her, or Jill Scott, or any of those people the same song as Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston will beat them over the head with it and leave them in the gutter, bloody. There are some other people–there’s TLC, who I like a lot, En Vogue, Mary J. Blige–there are people around doing things that I find interesting, but in the end, when I want a contemporary black vocal music thing, I always listen to a hip-hop record, and these days that would start with Outkast. Or Eminem.
Scott: Any recent teen pop stuff that you like?
Dave: I like this new Backstreet Boys single, “The Call”?
Scott: I don’t think I’ve heard that.
Dave: They sent me the single, and I kind of played it and went, ahh, it’s got a good beginning, and then it sort of drifts off, and then I heard the ending of it on the radio today and I thought, that’s really quite good. And I guess what it is is it’s probably too long, like most records are right now. But I loved New Edition, I found New Kids on the Block much more tolerable than most people did. I like that Maurice Starr thing anyway. So, I kind of–I was soft on New Kids on the Block. I’m trying to think if there’s anybody else…
Scott: Britney? Christina Aguilera sort of stuff, or…
Dave: Mmm, I haven’t heard anything by those people that I admired much, I don’t know. This is changing so rapidly there’s 15-year old kids I know, who, when they were 14 or 12, were listening to what we’re talking about, and are now listening to Ben Harper. There’s a whole RANGE of teen things that I don’t like very much, although I’ll tell you that Ben Harper is one of the more exciting acts that I’ve seen live in the last ten years.
Scott: You wrote a lengthy piece in Mojo a few years back on Oasis…
Dave: Was that piece long? [laughs] The concert was long, it was interminable.
Scott: I think that piece was done around the time of the Morning Glory album…
Dave: This is what I know about that piece. It was the first time in England, I was told, that anybody had said ‘No’ to the little brats. And I found that quite amusing. I don’t hate their records; being in the same room with those guys, you know… that one guy has John Lennon pretensions, let me tell you something, that guy, watching Neil or Nigel or whatever the fuck his name is up there on stage–not Liam, Liam’s just a garden variety, if he had the nerve he’d turn into that kid from the Pogues–but the other one, the poseur, he ain’t Jimmy Page, forget about John Lennon!
Scott: Well I gathered from the piece that you actually like their music quite a bit.
Dave: Oh I DO like it, I like the records, but one of the things that history has taught us–or it should’ve–is that people who make good records don’t always, or even often, also make good shows. The show I saw was just atrocious, and it was fundamentally disrespectful to, even contemptuous of, their audience, which I found–I was insulted, I was part of the audience, I was insulted.
Scott: Does all that stuff ruin their music for you?
Dave: No, they went and made a couple more records and did that themselves. [laughs] I mean, generally speaking, this is an odd thing about me. I’ve had very intense friendships with people whose music I can’t stand. I mean, I was very close to Harry Chapin. And Harry and I just agreed that we didn’t agree about the quality of his music. And I miss him. He was a really good friend. It was funny, there was a record store about a block from my house, and I went down there to get something one day, this was in the summertime, and one of the clerks who knew me said, “Oh well, did you hear that Harry Chapin just died in a car accident out on Long Island? I’m sure that’s a great day in rock criticism for you,” or something. Totally legitimate thing for him to say. And I literally ran out of the store to go home and find out, could this be true?
So there’s that. And then, on the other side, there’s–after the Albert Goldman book [Elvis came out I wrote something about it in the end-of-the-year issue in Rolling Stone, and Jerry Schilling, a Memphis Mafia guy who I’ve known for a while, he called me up and he said, “You’re very upset by this, I want you to know one thing: You and Elvis would’ve really liked one another.” I’m not so sure. That ain’t all on Elvis, obviously. But it don’t make no nevermind, because it’s very very rare that you go to meet somebody whose music you admire who’s as great as whatever conversation you’ve been having with them in your head for the past however long you’ve been listening to them, right? And I remember Patti Smith told me this about meeting Bob Dylan. I asked her what that was like, and she said she wasn’t sure what it was like because of this conversation that had been going on that he hadn’t been privy to. Or some great Patti way of explaining that–this is around the time of the Rolling thunder tour. And I thought, that’s a very valuable thing to know, and it applies all the time. I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that I like the guys in the Who, you know, Bruce is my friend, Sam Moore from Sam and Dave is my friend. Smokey Robinson has always been a fantastic person to spend time with. These are people who I admire immensely, and to have that click on both levels–that’s a fantastic thing. But I don’t ask it, and I don’t…Peter Wolf of J. Geils is another person I should mention, and Jackson Browne, probably, are two more that I’ll feel bad if I don’t throw in there, and Steve Earle. But, you know, they’re separate experiences. Listening to Sting is not having dinner with Sting. Which [laughs]–dinner is always great, listening is a little more of an up and down experience! I mean, I think I probably like it better than many of my colleagues do, but, you know, there are times when it goes over the top for me quite a bit.
Scott: One other person I wanted to ask you about was Beck.
Dave: [pause] Well, what about Beck? The Jeff Beck group changed my life! In so many positive ways! I mean, fantastic–one of the greatest rock bands I ever saw!
Scott: [laughs] Okay, I like that answer, we’ll leave it at that.
Dave: Beck is, Beck is…
Scott: I mean, he’s doing some neat things…
Dave: Beck is doing absolutely nothing that black people haven’t done before and better. And even that stuff, that he did fairly well, he only did on his first [major label] record [Mellow Gold]–the other records are, you know, are we gonna seriously sit around and compare this guy and the art of oral montage to… forget about black people, compare his art of oral montage to Frank Zappa?! Compare it to the people who made the Public Enemy records? Are you gonna compare Beck to Dr. Dre?! ‘Cause that’s what you’re starting to do when you’re starting to deal in that area, and it’s just, it’s silly.
Scott: Not to mention the country blues artists, Charley Patton…
Dave: Well, the country blues artists, what he’s doing is, he’s not playing country blues music, he’s playing country blues records, and that’s a separate thing! And what it is, is–it’s like Ry Cooder with the Buena Vista Social Club. You can like that record as much as you want to like that record; if you think that it has something to do with Cuban music, you’re wrong. And anybody who knows much about Cuban music will be happy to tell you why you’re wrong. I don’t think anybody who listens to Charley Patton on a regular basis sees Beck as an heir of Charley Patton, do they? It’s all people who don’t listen to Charley Patton who say that. It’s like, people who listen to jump blues records–when the “swing” thing, the jitterbug thing was happening and they called it swing, it was like–and this happens over and over and over again–and people said, what do you think about it, and I said, I think if I went over and picked out any of the 15 or 20 Louis Jordan discs I’ve got you’d be embarrassed you asked the question. And it’s similar, people ask me what I think about these English kids and the so-called ‘electronica’ stuff, and the answer to that is, go listen to Derrick May’s “Innovator” record and tell me–or Kevin Saunderson’s double disc greatest hits, which is fantastic–and then we’ll have the discussion. But I mean, do I like Moby? Yeah, I like Moby, Moby’s a different thing than that, to me. To me, Moby is actually some strange kind of visionary, who I undoubtedly would hate on sight. But–I’m not a vegetarian.
Share the Files: After Napster
Scott: One of the Top Five lists on RockCritics.com is “Five Reasons Why You Should Or Shouldn’t Download Music From Napster.” It didn’t actually get much response, but I did want to read you one guy’s response…
Scott: It goes: “Because how the hell else could I have gotten my girlfriend her Christmas present this year (which, by the way, I’m still not done with): Dave Marsh’s entire list of the 1001 best singles of all time from The Heart of Rock & Soul? Hardest song to find: Skipworth & Turner, ‘Can’t Give Her Up (12″ Mix).'” That was Michelangelo Matos.
Dave: Another guy I know, Dean Fiorre, from Connecticut, has just finished getting all 1,001. And Skipworth & Turner was hard for him too he said. The one that was hard–he gave me a list just today–and it was also hard for me–was “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band. Which I actually had to find on one of those bootleg breakbeats albums they sold to DJs. There’s this record store called Downstairs Up that had, like, singles. One end of it was doo-wop store; and in the other end it was the hottest place for DJs to come and buy the new dance records, and they would also buy their breakbeat compilations. [laughs] Musical paradise! Late ’80s. So, yeah, well, that is great!
Scott: Okay, well let me ask you a question about Napster, you’re obviously very pro-Napster…
Dave: I’m not pro-Napster. I’m pro-file sharing. I’m not pro-Napster. Napster’s now part of BMG, I’m anti-Napster, in that respect. If you think that the money that BMG takes in from your Napster subscription is going to people who make music, that would be a demented thought.
Scott: Okay, well, I was going to ask you as a follow-up question anyway, because I’m a bit confused about it–I’m not really sure what’s happening with Napster in terms of the BMG affiliation or takeover. What’s the scoop with that?
Dave: They’re gonna take the money. They’re gonna charge you money for what you’ve been getting for free, except that you won’t have access to as much music if you pay them the money because they’ll only have music that’s licensed to them, and what they do with the money is an open question only if you think that suddenly record companies are going to start dealing with artists fairly rather than contractually. So, you know, bye-bye Napster and I ain’t gonna miss ya! Something else will come up. They can’t stop this–look, the FCC and the big broadcasters think they stopped it, right? There’s been a pirate radio movement in this country for the past 15 years, and finally, David Kennard at the FCC just decided that the way to deal with this is we may as well license the low power stations because then we can have some hope of controlling them. It wasn’t gonna work, and what it did instead was flush out what the National Association of Broadcasters, how much power they really wield, and determined they are NOT to let you hear anything except the nonsense and evil that they spew. And this is going to be similar. They’re gonna think that people are going to go and pay them, I don’t know, five dollars a week, ten dollars a month, whatever it comes down to, to go and download just the stuff that they have, and then pay another similar fee to somebody else to download just the stuff that they have, and then they’re not going to be able to do the things with it that they’ve been doing with it, like playing it for their friends who are living in Papa New Guinea, which can only be done by transferring the file to another computer since you’re in Tacoma, right? And they think that’s gonna work–that’s not gonna work! It’s not going to work! It’s not going to happen. It may very well be that while it’s not working, and before the society adjusts and accepts that every time your synapses hum a tune record companies are not entitled to get paid–’cause that’s my ultimate theory, that they want to put a chip in your head, and every time you remember a song they’ll charge you for it.
You know, people are gonna go to jail. There’s no doubt in my mind; I could go to jail! I could go to jail for conspiracy or advocacy or something. But people are gonna, people are gonna go to jail. There’s already–there’s one kid who’s been convicted of a felony, there’s this other kid out in I think Oklahoma or Kansas who’s being brought up on charges now. This is a very serious thing.
Scott: Well, let me take the question down to its most basic level: Is music something that people should pay for?
Dave: That’s not the most basic question. The most basic question is: how are musicians going to eat and be sheltered and have health care and be taken care of in terms of their material needs. And that question can only be answered when you start to answer it for everybody else. And, yes, those needs must be taken care of–for everyone. And until that question is joined, it’s irrelevant whether people should pay for music. I don’t know whether people should pay for music or whether people should pay for donuts. All I know is there is a human need to eat. There is a human need to hear music. If you make it, or try to make it, so that only people who have money can eat or listen to music, or make music, and distribute it–’cause it’s all part of the same thing, it’s a verb not a noun, as Christopher Small said: “Musicing”–then you’re criminalizing people for basic human needs. That’s not a good idea; that’s a really bad idea. And that is, however, what is happening. What is happening is–I mean, this is even before you get to the question of, when you pay the money to BMG what happens to the money? Does it go to this family that was involved with Hitler? Does it go to some group of shareholders that we don’t know who they are? Does it go to a bunch of record executives who, by and large, hate music, or would appear to? Or does it go to the people who make the music. and if it doesn’t go to the people who make the music why should anybody care whether it gets paid for? In the end, I don’t care whether the Sony building is there in the morning; if it isn’t, something else will replace it.
Scott: But the artist has to get some royalties from somewhere, or is…
Dave: That’s not the way the system is set up now. The way the system is set up now is the “creator” of the work is the copyright owner, and the copyright owner in the vast, vast majority of cases, I’d say, in recorded music–more than 90% of cases; a lot more–is a corporation, which, even if it has an underlying contract requiring it to pay royalties is very likely not paying them, and even if it is paying them it’s probably not paying them based on an accurate count. Nobody gets to audit at the pressing plant. Nobody in the history of recorded music has ever been allowed to audit at the point of production, which means that all audits are inherently flawed. It’s like the IRS just saying, okay, well if you give me all your W2s I’ll take it for granted, with every single human being in the United States, that you had no other income. The IRS will not DO that. The reason the IRS will not do that is because the IRS is not stupid. [laughs] So that’s even if you’re Madonna. Even if you’re Michael Jackson and supposedly has a 50/50 deal: you don’t know how many records were pressed. Because believe me, if Sony had caved on that with Michael, or if Time-Warner had caved on that with Madonna, there would be major repercussions in the sense that a lot of artists would now be auditing at the pressing plant. They won’t let you do it. Can you think of a reason other than self-initiated piracy that they won’t let you do it? You should go pass out a questionnaire sometime at the gates of a record pressing plant, see what kind of phone calls you get. They’re terrified if you’re a union organizer, and more terrified if you want to know about working conditions from a journalistic point of view.
So, the question isn’t whether people should pay money for music; the question is whether the present setup is rational, and the answer is, no it isn’t. And the further question is, should we set up a whole bunch of systems in the name of protecting creative people that enshrine, more or less permanently, the present setup, and the answer is no we should not! And listen, my wife works in the record industry. My family’s income mainly isn’t from rock criticism, right? I said I didn’t care whether the Sony building wasn’t there, right? All human beings have a right to eat and shelter and transportation and health care and all of those things, and that includes Tommy Mottola and Ahmet Ertegun and everybody. Everybody. So, I didn’t say I hope the people who run Sony aren’t there tomorrow, I hope they are there. Some of them actually love music–actually, Tommy would be one–and I hope they are able to spend their whole life working with what they love. I feel very privileged that I’ve been able to do it. On the other hand, this is a whole separate question than that. Part of the answer is as long as the social setup remains this complex, yes, you’re going to pay for music. But it may very well be that most of the people who are asking that question think that they are getting network TV for free. [laughs] Or that they get radio broadcasts for free: not in America they don’t! And actually, even if it weren’t an advertising system then they’d be directly paying taxes for it, so nobody gets ANYthing for free.
Scott: Okay, talk a little bit about editors. I want to know who’s the best editor you ever worked for–at a magazine.
Dave: Well, three or four people come to mind. Let me just sort of take a little moment here because I don’t want to leave anybody out. I’ll give you a handful of people that I’ve learned a tremendous amount from in terms of their line editing–you know, their actual editing of text –the assignment part is a whole other thing, and a much thornier issue. People who come to mind are Bob Christgau, Marianne Partridge, Jann Wenner, and Barbara Downey–now Barbara Landau.
Scott: What makes a really good editor?
Dave: Well this is what I try to do; this is my theory about it, and different people deal with this in different ways and I would not say that all of the people, with the exception of Christgau, and maybe Marianne on a good day–this is not what Barbara and Jon [Landau] and half of Marianne were after–but what I’m after and what I think Bob’s always after, and what I think even Jann’s sometimes after is to take something that a writer has done and make sure that the writer has gotten the most out of that that they can. Barbara Nellis, my editor atPlayboy, I should also not fail to mention because she can be very good… It’s to make sure that the writer is saying as clearly and effectively and, hmmm, whatever that x-factor is, let’s say entertainingly, grippingly, however you want to put it, as possible what it is they have to say. There are other things–and this happens a lot at Rolling Stone, where it was sort of like, there were other agendas about what people wanted said, or what people wanted not said, and that to me is a hallmark of… you can’t call it bad editing, to me that’s just an approach I don’t think very much of. It’s both the most dreadful process and the greatest one.
Scott: So Christgau’s one of the great editors…
Dave: Oh Christgau’s great, I mean, fantastic. Tremendous insight into what you’re trying to say, really good ideas about what you might do, he’ll spot holes in your thinking–his sense of other people’s language is not nearly so–at least when I worked with him, which is a long time ago–not nearly so insular as his own writing has become, or at least as I think it’s become. No, he’s a fantastic editor, just an absolutely fantastic editor.
Scott: Okay, but you do have–I’m not looking for you to slag some of your contemporaries or whatever, but you obviously have some problems with Christgau. You did that piece on the Pazz & Jop poll a few years ago.
Dave: Oh I have tremendous problems. I think I basically–first of all, I think he hates rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t even think he makes much of a secret about it. If you actually look at his reviews, he doesn’t like rock bands. He said some miserably–I can’t think of a better way to put it but bigoted things about, for instance, the heavy metal audience. And I think he’s promoted a fairly self-aggrandizing idea of what rock criticism oughta be. So, yeah, I disagree with all those things, and there’s no reason to make a secret of it. And he carries on, and I carry on, and it doesn’t make much difference to the clock ticking.
Scott: One last question, it’s kind of a pretentious one. Obviously I know you hated Clinton, and I’m sure you’re probably happy that he’s out of there, so I’m just wondering if you think that an administration as conservative as Bush’s will have any effect on pop music over the next four years–or what kind of effect will it have?
Dave: Well, in this country, all any government, as presently constituted, can do by getting involved in any way, shape, or form with culture, is harm it. Either by narrowing its ideas–its range of ideas–or by actively stepping in to repress it, and I would expect that Ashcroft will clamp down, particularly since he seems to be, you know, the poster boy for sexual repression. I would expect him to clamp down as hard as he knows how on all parts of the entertainment industry that he finds to be involved in sexual expression, and I would expect that to include the parts of rock that intersect with the porn industry, because I think the porn industry will come very very quickly under a real shelling from this administration–that would be my guess. It is a guess.
If there was anything good about the Clinton administration’s relationship to the arts, and there wasn’t much, it was that after the Sister Souljah crisis, and when Clinton wasn’t in need of some much weaker individual to kick, they pretty much let it alone. But, the thing you have to remember is, it wasn’t going to be Al Gore/Joe Lieberman’s approach–hell, I don’t think it would’ve been Ralph Nader’s approach, and I was on Ralph’s committee [laughs]–but the Gore/Lieberman people I think would’ve been worse, in effect, because they were clearly theocrats as much as Ashcroft and Bush are. That was made very explicit at the beginning of the campaign–they were totally intolerant of the entertainment industry and what people who don’t agree with the government have to say. They’ve been very clear about that. So, really, in the end, I think that the biggest difference is that people will fight Ashcroft and Bush, and they wouldn’t have fought Gore and Lieberman–they would’ve just let them do whatever they wanted, and you would’ve had to shut up because otherwise… you might get Bush! Well now you got Bush, deal with it.
But I also don’t think that–it’s like trying to stop file-sharing. You’re not gonna be able to stop the adult movie industry, you’re not gonna be able to stop Marilyn Manson–and if you do, something just like him, only more extreme, will pop up–you’re not gonna be able to get rid of Eminem, and ditto if you do. When people say you can’t legislate morality, what that means isn’t that you can’t pass laws against morality, it means that the laws don’t work. So they can do whatever they want to do, but that’s an area that the government can’t win. They can make things very difficult for certain people, and in my opinion they will, but I would be surprised if they were able to achieve very much. But, you know, fear will do. And certainly the spectacle of seeing all these performers, particularly in popular music, race off for the Democratic God Squad and do all that work for them, that was so putrid I’m lucky I survived this election just on a nausea level alone. And the good thing is, Tipper Gore in private life–I like that. Let her go raise more children badly if she must.