A rousing interview of self-affirmation with John Mendelssohn, King of L.A.
By Steven Ward (March 2001)
Although no one has written a biography about him, portrayed him in a movie, or released a collection of his rock writing, John Mendelssohn’s name comes up at this site almost as frequently as Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer. That’s because the guy was one of the first and most important rock critics, and an influence to be reckoned with. There was a time when Mendelssohn trashed Led Zeppelin in the pages of Rolling Stone, dressed liked Rod Stewart, and fronted a band–Christopher Milk–that received as many good reviews as bad ones. Today, Mendelssohn is still writing songs and singing with a voice that he wishes were very much better. He makes his living in graphic design, but he still writes–fiction instead of rock criticism.
Here, Mendelssohn speaks his mind on Meltzer and Bangs, Jim DeRogatis’s Bangs biography, what rock writers he imitated, his favorite records, and how he feels about his inclusion in the rockwrite category of wild boys known as “The Noise Boys.”
Steven: What is the legendary John Mendelssohn up to these days? What have you been doing in the last few years?
John: Professionally, Website and graphic design. Surviving long bouts of nearly fatal depression. Trying, often not successfully, to maintain a relationship with my teenage daughter Brigitte, whom I adore. Starting a succession of Pythonesque sketch comedy troupes to perform material I’ve written. Writing a thematically linked short story collection called The Total Babe and Other Wine Country Yarns that a big posh Boston-based agent is presently shopping to publishers. Writing other fiction and screenplays in which no one seemed to have much interest. Working on my own music. Breaking up with my girlfriend/fiancée of 12 years and starting a new relationship. Deteriorating physically at a terrifying rate.
Steven: Do you miss writing about rock and roll?
John: Very much, and never more than when I hear something like Ron Sexsmith’s Other Songs, which I love as much as I’ve ever loved an album. Of course, it isn’t just writing about rock that I miss, but magazine writing in general. A few years ago I wanted to write about my love for Mad TV, for instance, but could find no takers.
Steven: “The Noise Boys” were a group of rockcrits from the early ‘70s dubbed such by James Wolcott. Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches were part of that group, but so were you.
John: No, I wasn’t! Not for a minute! Different coasts. Different, you know, aesthetics. Different personal habits. Different everything! This Wolcott fellow calls ’em Noise Boys? I call ’em the Bukowski Wannabe School, and I say to hell with ’em. Which isn’t to imply that I wasn’t occasionally awed by the work of the first- and third-named personages.
Steven: Do you feel like your past rockwrite work has not been as celebrated as much as those guys.
John: As my daughter might have put it a couple of years back, well, duh.
Steven: The Lester bio, and the recent collections by Meltzer and Tosches have all garnered much media attention lately. Do you chalk it all up to that?
John: I find the recent deification of Mr. Bangs absolutely incomprehensible. He was capable of being spectacularly funny. Far, far more often, I found him insufferably masturbatory, an infant playing with his own feces. I’m sorry, but I can’t for the life of me see why people prefer him to someone like the all-but-forgotten Rick Johnson, who had a comparably antic style.
Steven: Ever think about releasing your own collection of rock writing?
John: I have long thought that the stuff I wrote for Creem in the mid-80s would make an interesting book. Unfortunately, publishers have no comparable thoughts.
Steven: In Jim DeRogatis’ Lester bio, he says you were the “odd man out and the most disliked by the others” in reference to the “Noise Boys.” Do you agree with that and what did you think of DeRogatis’ book and his portrayal of you in it?
John: In view of my distaste for them, I wasn’t troubled to learn that they disliked me, though Mr. Meltzer is the only one who ever expressed it to my face, and then passive-aggressively. He invited himself over to my home with Mr. Tom Nolan, an early writer-about-rock whose work I found breathtaking, but whose personality I wouldn’t have fucked with your dick. They were both sloppy drunk and suffering from colds or allergies or something. Mr. Meltzer made a point of dropping soggy facial tissue all over my apartment. Take that, running dog lackey of The Industry!
Mr. DeRogatis is, in my experience, a backstabbing scumbag. He phoned me out of the blue to interview me for the book. I put aside things I was working on and tried to be both cordial and helpful. Two years hence, apparently for the purpose of justifying Lester’s alleged animus toward me, I discovered that he’d deliberately distorted what I’d told him. During our conversation, I recounted, in a clearly apologetic tone, having been a power-mad little twerp in my days of greatest influence. In the book, he makes it appear that I was reveling in what I’d gotten away with! I find this unconscionable.
Steven: Do you think your writing was similar to Bangs and Meltzer’s stuff and what did you think of those two guys personally and professionally?
John: I think if we had anything in common, it was irreverence, but I suspect that they found me insufficiently irreverent. Certainly our tone was extremely different. I enjoyed affecting a sort of patrician hauteur while they often pretended to be Joe Sixpack. I would far sooner be compared to Mr. Tosches than either of the other two, as he was by far the best writer of the three.
My dear friend Mr. Richard Riegel and I have an ongoing debate about these guys’ deliberate loutishness. Mr. Meltzer in particular seemed to believe that disrupting record company parties with outrageous drunken displays of infantilism was somehow heroic, the only moral response to The Industry’s avarice. Fair enough, but why’d you go to the party in the first place?. Call me old-fashioned, but I find peeing in the punchbowl after stuffing yourself on free canapés a little hypocritical.
Steven: In retrospect, what do you think of the music of your old group Christopher Milk?
John: I find it embarrassing, and no one more to blame than myself. The others could play a bit, and the guitarist was capable of real brilliance, though he was forever overextending himself. I should never have allowed myself to be talked into being lead singer. The group as a whole–if not the rhythm section–would have been (marginally) better off if I’d remained the (woefully deficient) drummer.
Steven: Do you think rock critics have any business making music?
John: No, I believe that people who love music enough to write about it ought to be forcibly restrained if they try to purchase musical instruments.
To cease to be sarcastic, I learned the hard way that you can’t really do both simultaneously. I’d ravage somebody in print one week and the next week we’d be opening for them at the Whisky. Their bodyguards would beat me senseless just before I went on stage. My performance would suffer.
Steven: Nik Cohn was a huge rock writing influence on you. What was it about his writing that you connected to?
John: He was screamingly funny, with apparently absolute confidence in his own taste. And once he’d dismissed you, you stayed dismissed, boy. My own star began to rise very quickly after I perfected my imitation of him.
Steven: What other music writers did you like in the beginning and later during the 70s?
John: Robert Hilburn, Richard Riegel, and the June Taylor Dancers..
Steven: How did you get into the rock criticism business and how did you end up in the pages of Rolling Stone?
John: I’d originally started writing sheerly out of boredom, loneliness, and my hatred of The Doors. Rolling Stone ran a little ad that invited people to send things in. I sent something in–my Led Zeppelin I review. Next stop: wealth ‘n’ fame!
Steven: Lester Bangs used to change his mind all the time about records he once slammed. You destroyed Led Zeppelin in the pages ofRolling Stone when writing about their 1968 debut.
John: 1969. And I didn’t destroy it. My review was very sober and boring. It was a miracle that Rolling Stone printed it, especially in view of its having already been published in my college newspaper. It was Led Zeppelin II I “destroyed.”
Steven: Do you still feel that way about that album?
John: Certainly not. I hate it much more confidently than I did at the time. All that infernal screeching! All that showing off on the guitar! All those interminable versions of Joan Baez songs! And not a trace of the things I adore–melody, vocal harmony, expressive musicianship, and intelligence, or at least wit.
The only record I’ve ever changed my mind about was The Stooges’ debut, which I came to love a few weeks after dismissing it in the L.A. Times as crapola.
Steven: How did the whole “King of L.A.” tag and the dressing up like a rock star thing evolve?
John: Mr. Bud Scoppa, himself a critic of vast renown and impeccable tan, confided sometime around 1992 that when he’d moved to L.A. a couple of decades before, he’d thought of me as the King of L.A. I was duly amused, and used it as the title of a chapter in my autobiography.
I began dressing up like a rock star as soon as I was old enough to buy my own clothing. As a 17-year-old senior at Santa Monica High School, I bought myself a pair of Thom McAn Beatle boots and a plush velour turtleneck that inspired some of my classmates to question my heterosexuality. In fact, it was my heterosexuality that inspired me to dress like the musicians I idolized.
Steven: After your time at Rolling Stone, you wrote for Creem. What was it like writing for Creem magazine all those years and when you think back, what is your take on Creem?
John: Early in my career, I was flabbergasted by my own success, as I didn’t think I could write at all (an impression I have since corroborated!), had no idea what I was talking about, and didn’t even have the courage of my convictions. I did my best writing about rock 18 years later for Creem, especially after realizing that my editors would allow me to do just about anything I wanted. (What I wanted mostly was to shame groups like Motley Crue, which I regard, along with Kiss, as the worst in the history of the music, off the face of the planet.) Creem had far fewer and less attentive readers, though, and in that sense writing for it was far less satisfying. I’d very much enjoyed being famous, you see.
There were several wonderful writers, but I always wished that Creem‘s art direction had been very much better. (I’ve always believed that for an act to be ultra-deluxe, it need not only sound terrific, but look terrific too, as Elvis and The Beatles and the early Who all did.) Creemalways looked woefully amateurish. It was my wonderful taste in graphic design, we pause to note, that led to my becoming a graphic designer in the 90s.
Steven: What possessed you to write your autobiography–I, Caramba (Confessions of An Antkiller)?
John: Rhino offered me money. (Unfortunately, once I’d written it, they essentially took the position that I hadn’t. The week Rolling Stonegave it a very good review, for instance, you couldn’t buy a copy anywhere in San Francisco, a fairly large American city.)
Steven: The Kinks were a band that moved you when you were younger. Do they still move you?
John: All the stuff I loved then I continue to love, from Face to Face up to and including half of Lola vs. Powerman, still gives me great pleasure. I believe that Ray Davies went off his game in around 1971 and has never been remotely the same. It always perplexed me that I was so closely linked to The Kinks, as I was a much, much bigger fan of the Who, at least through Tommy.
Steven: Are there any newer bands in rock that make you feel like The Kinks once did?
John: Not necessarily “bands.” Over the years, I have adored selected works by the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, the Cocteau Twins, Innocence Mission, the Ocean Blue, Bruce Springsteen, Squeeze, Talk Talk, Graham Parker, Crowded House, and the sublime Sexsmith, among many, many others that I’m having trouble remembering because so many brain cells have deserted me without so much as a fare-thee-well. I regard Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life” as the perfect pop record and Lorraine Ellison’s “Stay With Me” as the vocal performance in comparison to which all others pale.
Steven: Do you read rock journalism today and if so, what mags and writers do you like?
John: I don’t pay much attention. It’s far easier to tell you a rock writer I rather enjoy detesting–Ms. Gina Arnold, whose work has always struck me as a remarkable meeting of completely unfounded self-assurance and glaring incompetence. I believe her to be the worst critic of anything in the English language.
Steven: Tell me about your e-zine Ned.
John: Just what it says. A collection of unpublished or murdered-by-editors magazine pieces that I couldn’t bear to just let die in peace, along with some satirical writing that I’m proud of.
Steven: What’s up next for John Mendelssohn?
John: It is my pleasure and privilege at the moment to be ghostwriting the memoirs of London’s pre-eminent dominatrix, Mistress Chloe. They will be published next spring in the UK, to which I might relocate if Mr. Barney Hoskyns offers me the use of one of his multiple guest bedrooms. .
Steven: You have not written rock criticism in 14 years. You have been creating music though since that time. Please tell us about your new music and the songs you have written lately?
John: I’ve never really stopped composing for long, and honestly believe that my songs stack up against just about anybody’s. The problem being that, while I write beautiful melodies and thoughtful, provocative lyrics and inventive orchestrations, I still can’t sing. Sometimes I think I’d be much better off being interestingly awful like Billy Corgan or Tom Waits. As it is, I’m just off key enough to be excruciating. But I’ve never been able to establish a successful working relationship with a singer, I suppose because a part of me can’t bear to relinquish the spotlight.
For the past 18 months I’ve been working on an album that I thought for a long time I’d call Rousing Anthems of Self-Affirmation, but which I’ll probably now entitle Between Breath and Suffocation, from a song I composed on Christmas Day, 2000. I didn’t so much as hear my daughter’s voice all day, and that would have sent me into an emotional tailspin that I’m not sure I’d have survived if I hadn’t decided instead to devote all my energy to trying o create something beautiful. And thus was born “Life’s Dare,” the song for which I hope to be remembered. It’s taken me my whole life to this point to repudiate cynicism and to realize the truth of the things I say in the song. A couple of sample verses:
Once I thought desolation was romantic and sort of cool
Suffering for one’s art and all of that. God, was I a fool
Any day you can nearly die laughing or curl up and ache with despair
I choose the former. I accept life’s dare.
The water gets murky sometimes but I still can refuse to drown
Gazing into the mirror I can stare my accuser down
You don’t get all the days you’ve spent pouting refunded as you approach death
Between breath and suffocation I choose breath
Choose breath, dear reader. Misery is, as the Brits say, naff.