Man On the Moon: An Interview With Tom Moon
By Steven Ward (August 2001)
Former professional musician Tom Moon, currently the pop music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, started his career in rock journalism because he was anxious to hear a new Steely Dan album. The year was 1980, the album was Gaucho, and Moon, then a freshman studying saxophone at the University of Miami, was about to embark upon a career of writing reviews.
After a stint at his college newspaper, Moon began writing about music for the Miami Herald, while playing off and on with musicians like jazzman Maynard Ferguson. As a writer, Moon’s perspective on professional musicians is unique: he was one before he picked up a pen.
Like New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles, Moon’s name constantly comes up when other critics talk about their favorite music writers. rockcritics.com decided to find out what all the fuss was about, so we promptly sent Moon a questionnaire. The 40-year-old critic talks in detail about our favorite topic.
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Steven: You are the pop critic of one of the largest daily newspapers in the country, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and you are a frequent freelance reviewer for Rolling Stone. Do you feel like you have power and influence with your position at the paper?
Tom: I’m not in it for power and influence. And if I was, the daily newspaper racket wouldn’t be the place: We’re pretty low on the overall food chain–it’s much more important for an act to crack MTV than get some kind of (often short and ultimately inconsequential) mention in our pages. I’m not sure that the people who buy CDs and are avid consumers of pop culture media take their cues from newspaper critics. Because it’s a general interest publication, we often look hopelessly un-hip to savvy music heads simply because we have to cover the Willa Fords of the world. And the Neil Diamonds.
My goal is more to shine a bit of light on those artists who are not turning up all over the increasingly crowded media matrix, to advocate for stuff that is compelling musically. And when a Destiny’s Child record comes around, talk about it in a semi-intelligent and non-condescending way, to give both those who love and hate them a sense of what’s happening on the record.
Steven: And since the paper job is one that I would assume is so demanding and time consuming, why do you continue to write for magazines like Rolling Stone?
Tom: I have learned a ton from my editors at the newspaper, particularly Linda Hasert, with whom I’ve worked for the last ten years. She’s a really sharp eye who makes everything she touches better. At the same time, she’s the first to admit she’s not a music person. A while ago, I figured if I was ever going to get any better at this writing thing, I would need to work with a bunch of different kinds of editors–particularly people who were listening to all kinds of music. Anthony DeCurtis was one of the first people I encountered at Rolling Stone, and his approach remains an inspiration: He’s into checking out all kinds of stuff, very open minded. I’ve tried to emulate that: Somebody will have an assignment on an act I don’t know much about or isn’t my taste, and I’ll do it just to learn something. Right now there’s so much coming out all the time that I actually like it when someone can yank me away from the five records I have to hear for the paper and push me toward the one that I maybe wouldn’t find otherwise.
Steven: You write feature stories, CD reviews, concert reviews and do some music reporting at the paper. Do you prefer one of those tasks to the others?
Tom: For me it’s about a mix. I get cranky if I’m writing reviews of records and shows for too long without talking to people who are engaged in making music. Newspaper work means juggling many assignments at once, and that can be synergistic: You hear something in a record you’re reviewing that suggests an approach to profiling some entirely different artist.
Steven: How and when did you decide that you wanted to write about pop or rock music for a living, and did you find it hard to break into the business?
Tom: I went to University of Miami School of Music to study saxophone, improvisation, etc. My freshman year there, I was broke and heard that the campus paper would pay for record reviews. My ulterior motive in 1980 was to hear Steely Dan’s Gaucho as soon as possible. I remember not getting an advance, but writing about that–it might not have been my first piece, but it was one of them.
After that year I stopped writing–I was playing in Latin bands in Miami and was too busy. Then after college I made my living playing professionally–everything from weddings to shows (Peter Allen, the Fifth Dimension) to cruise ships. I spent nearly a year playing with Maynard Ferguson, and some time on the road with a rock band from Greenville South Carolina. It was probably when the rock band, Freeze Warning, was stuck without a gig for a week in Owensboro Kentucky that I began thinking seriously about doing something else. When I got back to Miami I wrote a bunch of letters to people at the Miami Herald, complaining about their music coverage. After several rounds I was invited to go review a jazz show–not for publication, just as an audition. Did that for about a month, and they then asked me to start freelancing. This was very lucky, I learned later: I had no formal journalism training and no prior newspaper experience, prerequisites for work at paper of the Herald‘s size. The folks there (particularly a former Rolling Stone editor named Jane Karr) were incredibly patient with me–I don’t want to think about what my copy looked like when they got it. As a result of their willingness to go out on a limb, I had a much easier time “breaking in” than most people do today. I’m not sure I agree with those basic newspaper requirements–several years of hard news experience as a minimum–because there are a lot of folks out there with deep knowledge of the arts who paid those dues in different form. It seems the papers might benefit from being a tad less rigid…
Steven: Tell me about your rockcrit influences. What were your favorite rock magazines to read while growing up and what rock critics and music writers were your favorites and why.
Tom: I read Rolling Stone avidly in high school–the era of Kurt Loder, Anthony DeCurtis, etc. I learned tons reading David Fricke–those longer pieces he and Chuck Young did for Musician magazine were tremendous blends of reporting and analysis. Musician was, for a long time, very much an influence: I liked the fact that the writers were knowledgeable about the rudiments of music as well as the history. I grew up outside of DC, and one of my first encounters with impassioned music writing was reading Richard Harrington in the Unicorn Times and later the Washington Post. Here was incredibly descriptive writing that was clear and concise, and just full of respect. He just led you right to the record store without screaming or doing anything fancy. At the same time I was reading rock mags I also began to check jazz criticism–particularly Whitney Balliett, who is for me one of the titans, a master of making the little details signify something you might otherwise miss. His accounts of live music, which are collected in several volumes, remain an inspiration. Later I got into Gary Giddins at the Voice–another giant, a craftsman whose sentences are phrased perfectly–as well as Christgau and Greil Marcus, who could make you care about something you never considered before. You asked about the past but how about the present: We’re very lucky right now to have folks doing really creative writing about music all over the place. I’m thinking particularly of the New York Times writers, Ann Powers, Neil Strauss, Ben Ratliff and Jon Pareles, and also Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune. If we can’t get better reading these insightful, provocative voices, there’s no helping us.
Steven: Many people deride the writing in Rolling Stone magazine. Why do you think that is? I assume you don’t agree.
Tom: Don’t assume anything. I’m not going to be so brazen/foolhardy/arrogant as to try and diagnose Rolling Stone–it is its own world, and like anything that endures a long time it has gone through its evolutionary peaks and valleys. There’s a tricky balancing act at work in the music section there: This is a magazine that is trying to cover hip-hop and current pop culture while remaining a source of information to the classic rock record buyers. There are probably a million reasons people bemoan the content now, and to that chorus I’d just add one tiny writer’s lament, about the length of the record reviews. It may be possible to communicate what’s important about a record in 250 words–previously the length of the “short” reviews–but I’m not sure it’s possible to give readers anything consequential, much less useful, in 150 words, the current length. I know all the bromides about the challenges of writing short, and I agree that it’s good discipline. But at the same time I’m not proud of all those mini-reviews I’ve contributed to RS–and I blame myself, not the format. We struggle with the same thing at the paper: The need to cover all the important works is often at odds with the finite space available. We know what loses out–the cool under-the-radar records, the oddball thing you stumble on…
Steven: Please do me a favor: Could you read the last interview at the site with online critic glenn mcdonald? I’m curious what a high-profile critic like you thinks about Glenn’s DIY approach and his view on the state of rock criticism.
Tom: First of all, I really like his writing, the way he thinks and the passion in what he’s doing. That for me is the acid test: I turned 40 this year (the age the critic John Milward warned would begin the “mid-rock crisis” years) and people kept saying to me “How can you still do this job, be around kids at shows?” I never thought about it, but it’s what drives Glenn (and myself and lots of other critics) to the store to buy stuff: That belief that somewhere out there is a three minute song that can and should rearrange the dusty furniture in your brain. That’s just a very common trait among people who care about music, not just so-called professional critics, and it is what drives the whole train. That quality of passion is especially important right now, when the labels are working mainly to generate hits rather than career artists. Music needs all the champions it can get, working in all kinds of fields. As Michelle Shocked likes to say “Music is too important to be left to the professionals.” That goes for listening and creating.
Steven: How do you feel about the Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer school of gonzo rock writing and do you see a place for that style in today’s rock criticism?
Tom: I came late to that stuff. I didn’t really experience it in its cultural moment. I think that some of those more extravagant writing devices might be passe now, but the thing that gets me the most about both of those guys is (sorry to overuse the cliched phrase) the sense of passion, the feeling that they’re using everything at their disposal to advocate for what is good and ridicule what is not. That sense of attitude/outrage, and even more basic than that the sense that the material they’re addressing matters, is essential to all criticism. This is where current media culture does consumers no service at all: Everything is calm, considered, responsible, informed by the best academic experts and designed to serve as a consumer guide. Too often that makes meaningless prattle. We’ve trained people to look for the star rating or letter grade and read right over whatever analysis might be lurking in the text. We have the glib/snide school of criticism and the confessional here’s-why-this-matters-to-me school of criticism and for me it’s two sides of the same narcissistic coin. We’re so living in an age when our own responses as consumers matter more than anything. and as critics we forget that we take those responses to the grave. The work we’re supposedly addressing, the music and film and prose, should live beyond us. The work matters so much more than any ego-driven critic’s snarky response to it. And the Internet, with its instant polls and User Reviews, has just amplified the opinion mill without adding much of consequence to the discussion. In the immortal words of Amazon: “Was this review helpful to you?” Please.
Steven: Can you tell me the names of all the publications your music writing has been published in?
Tom: I’ll try but I’ll probably forget some. The Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer (and the Knight-Ridder wire service); the New York Daily News’s Sundaymagazine (long gone); Rolling Stone; Spin; Esquire; GQ; Vibe; Details (the old one); Musician; Jazziz; Jazz Times; Us Weekly; Revolver; National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Steven: What advice would you give somebody trying to break into the rockcrit business?
Tom: First I’d say keep an open mind, and listen to as much as you can. The people mentioned above, the folks like Christgau and Pareles, are compelling precisely because they don’t specialize. I have a quote on my wall that says “The more you love music, the more music you love.” I believe that. Now there’s nothing wrong with having areas you like a lot and are comfortable in, but it seems like one of our missions as critics is to really try and get inside what we don’t like, to analyze stuff that we might, as listeners, just dismiss. And from a pure business standpoint, you want to have a few moves–if some editors come to you for hip-hop that’s great, but you can work more if you have other people who want your perspective on blues or electronica or whatever.
My other thing may be an outgrowth of my experience: I think it helps to understand a little bit about music. Not theory necessarily, but the way music works, what it’s like to play an instrument, to have a bad night, to play something that totally gets you off. For many of the people we cover, music is a lifelong pursuit and not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s like yoga in that way. Lots of critics get called “frustrated musicians” and I’m sure that applies in some cases, but I think that any direct interaction with music enhances your critical sensibility. Every time I pick up my horn or sit at the piano I encounter something new, and that orientation goes with me when I write. There’s so much to learn. I’m humbled by music daily. And this job is one where those learning experiences show up in the mail on a regular basis.
Steven: Tell me about your most memorable musician interview or story.
Tom: That would be Miles Davis. I have no idea why Columbia Records agreed to it–I don’t think I was yet on staff at the Herald–but one day in 1984 I found myself at his NY apartment. There was a Fender Rhodes in the living room giving off a nasty 60 hz hum, and a serious telescope on the balcony, which overlooked Central Park. His task for the day was to select a piece of his visual art to send to Los Angeles for the Olympic arts festival. Before I could ask a question we were sitting at his dining room table looking at his paintings, and he’s asking me and his handler at Columbia, Sandra DeCosta, what we like or don’t like. I had no idea how to respond to this–I hadn’t yet had the chance to converse enough to cultivate any trust, and didn’t want to piss him off before I had the chance to turn on the tape recorder. I have no idea what I said, but it wasn’t a disaster–we ended up talking for probably two hours. He was a real animated thinker–all you had to do to get him going was mention a Prince track or something, and he’d be off, rapping.
Steven: Could you comment on the recent accusations about Blender editors changing critic’s reviews and ratings. In general, how much of that kind of thing goes on in the freelance world, in your experience?
Tom: It definitely happens. For sound editorial reasons (the text doesn’t match the rating, etc.) and unseemly political/personal ones (the publisher is best friends with the manager, etc.), and it can be tricky for a freelancer in some remote place to get a clear sense of what’s going on. When I first had a rating changed at Rolling Stone, I was outraged–more because it was done without any conversation. Seems to me the honorable way for an editor to handle this is a simple heads-up conversation, which does usually happen. As for Blender, that was with the first issue of a startup. Let’s give folks the benefit of the doubt for a minute and chalk it up to growing pains.
Steven: Any chances of a book collection of reviews or articles? Or maybe a rock band bio?
Tom: Probably not. I think the rock book world is adequately served by the folks who now publish anthologies–we don’t need more takes on the same set of records, and re-purposing newspaper/magazine stuff for books may not be the best use of anyone’s time. I have a project percolating that might lead to a different sort of book somewhere down the line, but it seems premature to talk about. As for rock band bios, the one thing I like about the newspaper pace is that you finish with something and move on. I’m not sure I could devote a year to thinking deep thoughts about any single artist. We’ve all suffered with some rock books where it was clear that the author ran out of deep thoughts after six months…
Steven: The dreaded desert island disc question. Which CD would you bring on a desert island and why. Also, favorite band/album of all time?
Tom: My DIDs change by the day. Revolver sustained me recently. So did Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. And every time I hear Hendrix it’s a different jolt through my body–right now he’s the one musician who slays me the most, with Miles and Wayne Shorter and Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley and John Coltrane right behind.