Some Smiles With Miles: Milo Miles in Conversation
By Steven Ward (September 2001)
If you have read rock criticism consistently during the last two decades, odds are, you have a read a piece by Milo Miles. Or maybe you have heard him on NPR. Either way, Miles leaves an impression–the man knows his stuff.
For instance, I don’t know shit about Afropop except for the kernels I scoop up from the occasional Robert Christgau piece I might stumble upon in theVillage Voice, or in one of his books.
Last month, while checking the Voice online, I see a headline–“Senior Superheroes.” It’s by Milo Miles. The lede mentions African pop, so I start reading.
Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
“When Ghana’s E.T. Mensah brought highlife music to Nigeria in the early 1950s, he set off a mania. Highlife’s electric guitars excited as much as its translated Cuban rhythms and jazzified arrangements, and the style’s cosmopolitan concept clinched the seduction: ‘highlife’ was the name fans who couldn’t afford to get in bestowed on the music of barroom swells.”
Soon after reading, I get on Yahoo and start punching in “highlife” in the search box and I start looking for Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe CDs at Amazon.Com.
The best rock critics can educate and make you want to find music based solely on their powerful writing. In this regard, Miles, a former music editor at the Boston Phoenix, is one of the masters.
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Steven: I’ve been doing some research on your byline and you seem to be the consummate freelancer. I’ve come up with the Village Voice, The New York Times, Salon.Com, NPR (Fresh Air with Terry Gross), L.A. Weekly, Spin and Rolling Stone. Am I leaving any publication out? Tell us what the life of a freelancer is like and is it as hard as many writers make it out to be?
Milo: Should mention that I’ve spent half my professional years as a full-time editor, first for the Boston Phoenix and later for the on-line music store/magazine Rock.com.
For significant publications, you missed the Boston Globe–daily and magazine–San Francisco Examiner‘s “Image” magazine,Newsday, ReQuest (long ago when it was worth reading), the late, lamented 7 Days, CD Review, the first couple issues of the revivedVanity Fair way back when, NY Rocker and Subway News (see below), a few I’ve forgotten at the moment and, yes folks, PopTop. Who imagined that buttrag mag had so many future notables contributing to it?
As to freelance writing, if you are not part of the scarce elite who get hitched to the slick-magazine gravy train you better be part of a two-income couple, as I am, if you want to get by at all. The biggest problem with freelancing is that too many people who do it don’t have any skill and should give it up tomorrow. If you can imagine doing absolutely anything other than writing about the arts, you should. I, unfortunately, don’t have any choice. I was branded with the “C”-for-critic letter at birth. It’s not scarlet. Kind of a washed-out orange tone, actually.
Steven: Do you remember when and where your first piece of music journalism was published? How did you first get interested in pursuing rock criticism as a career?
Milo: In 1976 after I graduated from the University of Montana in Missoula, I published a profile of a local band named Blind Boy Bug and a year later a review of the Ramones’ Leave Home in the leftist alternative weekly called The Borrowed Times, which is where I first saw the term “politically correct” used. (They were quite in favor of it.) I said that Leave Home was a thrill all the way, a judgment I never regretted for a moment.
I had read Creem and the Village Voice obsessively since 1970. I offered to hawk Voice subscriptions as a college frosh, but was too disorganized to follow up on the pitch. Rolling Stone already seemed too sane and they couldn’t appreciate Led Zeppelin OR the Velvet Underground. Although I had no idea how brief the period would be, at that time rock writing offered some of the escape of rock playing–you could make it outside the system and speak to hordes of people, if you were damned lucky. It’s impossible to convey nowadays how goofy a career choice pop writing was before 1977. Like it or not, punk was music that demanded commentary and the rise of mere professionalism was not far behind.
My pre-professional rock-write memories start with the only rejection letter I ever thought was worth a shit. In 1974, Lester Bangs sent me a note from Creem (with Crumb’s “Boy Howdy” logo and everything) saying that although he had wanted to run my review of the New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon he had been overruled by Dave Marsh because Bob Christgau wanted to write about it. I forgave them both, later. But it did delay my professional debut for two years. I was astonished that, when I first talked to Bangs in person six years afterwards, he remembered more about the Dolls review than I did–whole lines, even. And of course, like the even more deranged slob I was 25 years ago, I misplaced the rejection letter in one of my frequent moves.
Steven: What were your favorite rock magazines from the ’70s and what rock critics influenced you as a writer?
Milo: Ehh–a problem with the usual discussion of rock writing is that everybody keeps it in the family circle. To break out a bit, my influences include: Arthur Rimbaud, because he was the first to show how a teenager could rattle history with his ear and his voice.
Louis-Ferdinand Celine, because he made not giving a fuck about anything sound like such a passionate, fulfilling anti-adventure and because I believe he’s locked in a small room for all eternity with Franz Kafka–a fate both of them would accept as typical behavior from the broken God they perceived.
The British fantasists T. H. White and Lord Dunsany, because they taught me that dreamers could be tough and precise.
Horror oddball H. P. Lovecraft, because he proved that an almost unknown pulp writer who was ostensibly an utter loser could seep all across the world’s imagination, given enough time. And because he could make you think for a split second that a gigantic amoeba with 14 eyes and thousands of poison claws was just inside the wall next to you.
Comic-book giants Carl Barks and Jack Kirby, because they showed me what clueless grownups called junk could be divine.
B. Traven, for setting the standard on what politically aware novels could accomplish and for writing “Macario,” just about the only authentic death you can read on the page these days.
Sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, because he was so paranoid he saw modern paranoia coming before it got here.
The late poet Richard Hugo, because he taught me how to write against my will, told me I was a critic and I believed it, and because he forced me to admit that poetry was language and sound, not sense.
And then, some straight music-writer inspirations:
Kit Rachlis, my first editor at the Boston Phoenix, who taught me what he had learned about editing from Bob Christgau, the best, and added the special insight that most editors are sadists and most writers are masochists. (By the way, the one person he cited as a rare sadist writer has been interviewed on this site.)
Ellen Willis, because she’s still the most socially revolutionary and culturally astute feminist thinker out there. In New Yorker pieces, she alerted me to a delightful, ultra-obscure record by Five Dollar Shoes; turned the even more remote San Francisco band Eyes into the group I’d most like to hear but never have (Willis made them more exciting than any mortals could be). And she taught me one of the fundamentals of rock and roll: the good bands know that “a .45 is more dangerous than bad karma.”
Ann Powers is Willis’s great inheritor and I feel closer to her because she likes girly diaries and seems less intellectually carnivorous.
Bob Christgau and Dave Marsh articulated the potential strength of popular music better than anyone else, and to this day I agree with Bob about albums more frequently than any other critic.
Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick have written the only rock books I’m sure will be in print 50 years from now. Not only that, people will still be learning from them and talking about their ideas. Both of them are dead on about Elvis, you know, with all the contradictions that implies.
Jon Pareles is as smart as six reviewers put together–nobody has done a rock encyclopedia as thorough and consistent as the original one he did for Rolling Stone. I read him constantly and he’s a big reason I write for the NY Times.
The masterfully tactful and humane Joe Levy and Ann Powers were dream editors at the Village Voice–I’m particularly proud of pieces they let me do on the New Music Seminar, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Rosanne Cash, John Prine and “stoner rock” before anybody had ever used that term. Joe has one of the most difficult high-profile music mag jobs as music editor at Rolling Stone, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing it as well at this late date.
The original Creem was a mind-shaper, of course, also PUNK (unmatched humor) and NY Rocker and Boston’s finest, Subway News, put out by Doug Simmons, now a big muckety-muck at the Village Voice, but who only equaled his expertise as a fanzine editor with his outstanding column about being a cab driver called “The Hack,” done for the Boston Phoenix. He also gave me this nugget: “No rock movement is any good once more than 10,000 people know about it.” A point always worth debating.
The Brit Contingent have delivered books I adore like Simon Frith’s Sound Effects and Performing Rites, Charles Shaar Murray’sCrosstown Traffic, Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, and Simon Reynolds’ Generation Ecstasy, among others.
Jazz writers Bob Blumenthal (the most deserving Grammy winner since Bonnie Raitt), and Francis Davis, who, without making any fuss about it, makes you appreciate him as a superb humanist as well as a top-flight critic in any field.
The late writer Mark Moses for a torrent of insights about music –especially classic soul–and for the most pleasant editing experiences I’ll ever have. He would bring in a piece, it felt like we would yak about music and words and tell jokes for an hour, and an excellent critical article would come out the other end. I’d give anything to experience those ’80s sessions with him again.
Steven: You are able to write about a wide range of music. Besides rock music, you write about world, roots/Americana, jazz and even classical music. You even write book reviews. There are not many rockcrits who write about such a variety. How important is it to be able to cover the gamut versus specializing in one genre?
Milo: (I talk about my mysterious classical criticism below.)
In fact, I also regularly write about comics/graphic novels, animation, science fiction and popular science with a specialty in insects and dinosaurs (thought about becoming a biologist, but couldn’t hack the math). The enemies of good popular music commentary have been identified on this site over and over: ignorance of history (more of a problem every year, natch), bad editors who mentor even worse editors and writers, the smothering ascendance of mere careerism in pop criticism. But the two most insidious enemies are more internalized. Hermetic specialization in some sub-substyle of music is one; the other is its ugly, slouchy cousin, bone-deep distrust of popular art itself. Ken Tucker and Jon Pareles did particularly good jobs of explaining the evils of specialization, so I’d refer readers to their interviews. But I do have my rant about dislike of pop itself. With tongue in cheek, I blame the Velvet Underground for this repulsive phenomenon. The Velvets were famously commercial duds during their time together and while other now-revered bands like the Who were also slow starters, Lou & Crew had a whole sound as well as a sensibility ahead of their time. If you were a Velvets crazy in, say, 1973, you could feel some of the evangelical fire that drove the original fans of rock and R&B. You knew your tomorrow was coming.
From my perspective anyway, the whole point was that the Velvets (and Iggy and the NY Dolls etc.) should become huge popular successes–they should become pop stars because only huge pop phenoms really riffled the texture of the times. The Beatles would have meant little as a cult band. Trouble was, just a decade later, after the spurt of punk and the rise of “indie cred,” the whole idea was to be zealous about bands you were sure would never become popular. Dave Marsh has talked endlessly about the stupid post-punk idea that selling zillions means, ipso facto, selling out. I don’t think it’ s a reason to knock punk as music, but it is a dumb idea and he’s right that it was lurking in there somewhere with the rest of Kurt Cobain’s army of angsts.
Nowadays it’s dogma for everybody but the most naive music fans that no profoundly good pop has ever been popular (I’m exaggerating, but not much). I once did a piece that examined the outline of every Number One hit in Billboard from 1955 to 1985 and it is true that for a period of about 1964 to middle 1967 the best pop being made was also, by and large, the most popular. And of course, wondrous tunes continue to be huge hits every so often. (Yeah, yeah, we’re in a pretty dry spell right now.) This is just anathema to many folks. One fashionable escape riff is to claim boomers suck and their music has dated to hell so those classic hits were really sellout garbage. Aside from the ever-more-tedious repetition of generation gap resentments, I say this is what folks get for listening to the radio. Their pathetic, passive howl: “This crap you’re spoonfeeding me is so terrible. I’m super pissed off you’re not spoonfeeding me better crap.” Turn the damn thing off and make your own soundtrack. I understand all about the former role of radio in pop, but it is waaaay over. I haven’t listened to anything other than the occasional hour of alternative college stations (and NPR for professional reasons) for about 15 years and I defy anybody to tell me what harm it did my soul. There are hip-hop shows that are plainly exceptions to the drabscape, but I don’t live near any of them I know about. So what’s the problem with just tending your own little sub-sub-subgenre garden? Other than the evils of overspecialization Tucker and Pareles articulated, anti-pop attitudes sadden my heart because they make the music into just another elitist/academic pursuit like high art. “Us refined and instructed types are the only ones who appreciate this nectar” was the message I got from hack humanities teachers my whole student life. Popular rock ‘n’ soul shot that sentiment into Swiss cheese–the sound was nectar and every slob and slobette could appreciate it. Not any more. I hope this makes halfway clear why I think something potent has been lost with the dominance of anti-pop.
Steven: Although you freelance now, you once held the position of music editor of the Boston Phoenix. When was that, how long did you do that, and what was the experience like? Also, do you prefer freelancing to a full-time staff position at a publication?
Milo: I was music editor at the Boston Phoenix from 1982 until 1989, a period that I not surprisingly regard as a golden era of arts coverage at the paper. And, though this is not the standard line, I think the ’80s produced the best proportions of volume to quality in pop music writing to date. There’s probably as much or slightly more thoughtful, readable stuff out there now, but there is surely an oceanload more of pandering dreck. The ’80s were the time between the rise of professionalism, when pop writing became a normal if disreputable part of journalism, and the triumph of commodification, when pop writing became no more and no less liberated than, say, movie writing. Just for morbid fun, let’s stay it was the period from the death of Bob Marley to the death of Cobain.
There was still some sense that the inmates should be allowed to run the asylum and that rock and soul fanatics could tell what was coming over the horizon. I made a conscious decision to maintain and extend previous music editor Kit Rachlis’ strict standards and wide range. We would hit every high point in every style we could (folk was the hardest category to fill with consistently insightful writing); we would ignore or slam turkeys from the major stars (and cheer worthy big sellers), and we would cram in as much instructive pop history as possible. Remember, back then a reissue like James Brown Live at the Apollo was an unprecedented milestone. Many great things were flat out-of-print, baby.
Joyce Millman (now of Salon.com) Mark Moses (the New Yorker‘s first pop music writer after Ellen Willis and the only one so far incisive enough to follow her; he died from AIDS complications in 1989), Peter Guralnick, James Hunter, Howard Hampton, “Iron Mike” Freedberg, jazz masters Bob Blumenthal and Francis Davis and classical ace Lloyd Schwartz were the core. Folks like Dave Marsh, Ron Wynn, Howard Litwack, Banning Eyre, Chuck Eddy, Timothy Ryback, Gerard Cosloy, Tim Riley and Michael Bloom (“Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”–the definitive disillusioned-Zappaphile piece) made key, prophetic contributions. And I think all of them could write like angels and think like devils when the stars were right and the air was still.
On the good weeks, we were the best music section in the country. Scrappier than Stone. Smarter than Spin. Edging out the Voiceenough times to keep me happy. Things I wrote that history has been kind to: a piece praising the Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, the Minutemen’s The Punch Line, and the Wipers’ Youth of America as work from bands who would endure; early and obsessive praise of R.E.M.; dedicated coverage of hip-hop and Afropop. I wrote a piece for a special issue about “Wither the Avant-Garde” that said hip-hop was the true avant-garde music because it had a prayer of becoming as hugely popular as it has and the experimental rock set wanted to crucify me. I did neglect the noisemakers’ future potential, but I was still basically right. History has not been kind to my unimpressed response to Madonna, but she remains the kind of icon-star I have a hard time loving rather than appreciating from a distance. I’ll take Chrisse Hynde, Deborah Harry, Oumou Sangare. Wrote about Bruce Springsteen at least a couple times more than I wanted to, but remain convinced that if we must have mainstream ultramegasuperstars, he’s way more nourishing than most. Was a lotta fun, kids. Too quirky and not profit-minded enough to survive, I guess. Saw the writing on the wall when the paper ran a piece I had never assigned about an unimportant local band. Back into your straightjackets, you lunatic bums.
Steven: Do you think it’s important for rock critics to listen to jazz and classical music and to read jazz and classical music criticism? How do you find, for instance, rock criticism different from classical music criticism?
Milo: There must be this high-cultured doppleganger of mine wandering around who writes classical music criticism that the controllers of the Matrix prevent me from seeing. I’ve done maybe two tiny classical pieces in 20 years. You should interview my friend Lloyd Schwartz, the rockin’-est Pulitzer-Prize-winning classical critic in the world (he’s a fan of the movie Re-Animator). For the record, I think an understanding of the basics of music theory and notation as well as an overview of Western classical history will help any pop writer. This information gives you another way to talk about tunes and performers–a significant way, but simply one among many.
Steven: There was (is) a web site called Sound Stone and you were the music editor for a time. There was a popular feature at the site called “Ask Milo” where people could ask you random music questions and you would respond. How did that come about and did you enjoy it?
Milo: Hey, interaction with the visitors was a watchword of e-commerce, remember? Fellow editor Brett Milano and I were chatterboxes of the first water about music subjects and so it was a natural. For all three years the site lasted I enjoyed it enormously, far more than I expected, and would do it again in a second. The primary kick was that the questions people sent in proved that many, many folks were smarter about music and hungrier for knowledge about it than the conventional wisdom suggests. Where can I find birdcall records? What’s the connection between Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles? Where did the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” come from, any way? What was Freddie Mercury’s background? Just what in hell DOES “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” mean?
The only questions I found tiresome were “What’s the name of this song? The lyrics go something like…” because I’ve always been strangely bad at that game. And, I guess, because the answer holds little general interest. Incidentally, SoundStone.com becameRock.com, which continues as site with music information, though I have no connection with it any more.
Steven: You have been a music critic for NPR since 1989. That’s a different kind of music writing, isn’t it? How do you approach radio versus newspapers and magazines?
Milo: Radio scripts are done in an idealized version of your conversational voice, which doesn’t work on the page. You get all the advantages of inflection nuances and all the disadvantages of non-repeatability. Seems people miss vital information no matter how many times you say it over in a piece that goes by just once. Best of all, you don’t have to describe how music sounds: you can freakin’ play an example of it and keep going.
I met Terry Gross through her now-husband Francis Davis back in the early 1980s. She is one of my heroes. You will never encounter a harder-working person with a more active mind. Talking with her is a joy and yes, she asks you those laser-sharp questions, too. Here’s my other key on-air experience and why I got out of commercial radio. About 25 years ago, I did an all-night show at a station right in downtown Missoula, MT. It was supposed to be plain C&W but the station’s library was a field of cornball so I brought in my own sides and went into blues and folk and bluegrass. (The Holy Modal Rounders’ Have Moicy! was a favorite.) So anyway, without warning one morning around 6:30, the big boss–not the Idaho owner, but his head honcho above the station manager–waddles in smoking a dolomite cigar, sits me down after my set, announces that there was been a reported theft of cash from a desk and would I consent to a lie detector test about it? Totally innocent but smelling witch hunt, I was gone in a week. The program director who hired me was gone two weeks after that, and I never looked back. They soon switched to pre-taped-DJ shows.
Steven: You write a lot about Afropop for the Village Voice now. Is that your favorite genre of music? What bands out there now move you like certain bands might have when you were a teenager or does music affect you in a different way today?
Milo: Yow, these are two completely different questions. I started writing a lot about Afropop, which is really many genres of music, back in 1981 for the usual reason–almost nobody was covering a bunch of performers and albums I loved. I write a lot about Afropop today because publications ask me to, or they accept my pitches for stories because there are still few people covering it. As to favorite genre…I’ve bought every King Sunny Ade LP, for example, I’ve ever seen (about 40), but even as a whole Afropop has given me no more pleasure than blues, rock, soul, funk, reggae. It’s up there, though.
My response to pop music has always been weird. I would call it compulsive but sustainable. Even when I was in high school I thought all but a couple of my peers had dorky attitudes toward rock ‘n’ soul ‘n’ country ‘n’ blues. They cared too much but in a shallow way–“these folks are gonna get disappointed with this stuff,” since they couldn’t tell the difference between the Osmonds and Elvis. Of course, there were guys who thought Dylan was supreme but just walled him off in a sacred sanctuary. Anyway, I could read lit for six hours every day and listen to music for six more and there wasn’t anybody around like that. Every day I still get up ready to find something that will plaster my brains like stalactites to the ceiling, as Lester said, and that’s always struck me as a more grown-up passion than the supposedly “adult” attitude that there’s no new waves under the sine.
Steven: Do you read rock magazines today and what music writers are your favorites that are currently out there?
Milo: Giant Robot has some of the zaniness of the original rock pubs; Mojo, the Wire and Jazziz cover mutated sounds others ignore;Stone and Spin still surprise me with the smart, well-financed feature. Natasha Stovall and Peter Margasak are clear, vivid writers and penetrating thinkers who made outstanding contributions to Rock.com editorial in its heydays. I’m basically tired of wiseasses who are as mechanical about being “outrageous, confrontational, and controversial” as their hated enemies are about being defiant liberals. Too many people telling me to buy shit records for more reasons than I ever thought possible.
Steven: What do you think of the Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer gonzo approach to rock writing?
Milo: Tsk, tsk–always asking the same questions. Well, I knew Lester a tiny bit and will just go ahead and shamelessly reproduce my comments about him from the “Table Talk” chat thread at Salon:
I concur with those who note Lester was affirmative and upbeat, though he could be exasperating at the same time. He had gifted comic timing, which is hard to get across in anecdotes. For example, he was sitting with a band (the Dawgs? somebody like that) in the hellhole dressing room of the Rat punk club in Boston when a photographer came in for some candid snaps. “C’mon guys–good times! good times! Y’know–good times!” quipped Lester, grinning and jiggling like a lunatic. It was both a send-up of the happy hellion image of New Wave punk and an indirect insistence that, yeah, we are having fun here. You got both messages instantly.
He had a beer in his hand then. I hadn’t seen him without one for hours. It was late in the very long day he spent promoting the Blondie book to radio stations in Boston and Cambridge. Lester (like his fans) was very much a prisoner of the awful syndrome that settles on well-known, dissolute creative souls. Getting wasted with these folks and half hoping something outrageous would happen was part of the drill. The pathetic thing was that the little bunch of us (slightly) younger writers with him lacked the guts or the imagination to come up with anything else to do while he was around. Earlier, in the afternoon, after we had just stopped by the package store and settled in at an indie-magazine publisher’s house. Lester did reward our young-scalawag adoration.
Lester’s rape story came up without warning, and very little preamble. We were talking about feeling excluded as music geeks and writers and general teenage social losers. Lester mentioned that in the later 1960s, not long after he started living on his own in SoCal, he was stuck with a batch of roommates that he totally loathed. He was uncertain of himself, desperately afraid of seeming uncool and a ready target for torment. “We know why you like that Velvet Underground album, Lester, it’s ’cause yer a fag….” “No, no guys–it’s the violin–Cale’s got serious chops.”
Anyway, nearby in the rundown neighborhood was a biker bunch hangout and Lester would go over to score weed or whatever else might be available that appealed to him. One night the leather assholes dragged in a runaway teen girl and Lester witnessed a horrendous gang rape. His narration of the horror and helplessness he felt as the ordeal unfolded was incredibly vivid–suffocating. You felt trapped in the same seething room back then with him. Aside from a psycopath Viet Nam vet recounting his slow slaughter of his enemy/victims in the Mekong night, it was the most heart-stopping story I ever heard.
What seared deepest into Bangs was his hapless passivity. Aside from some terrified wisecracks, he sat riveted in the room for at least a couple hours, smoking joint after joint, and did nothing to stop the animalistic abuse in front of him. He never forgave himself. Wallowing in a slimepit of guilt afterwards, he resolved, after years of farting around, to become a writer: he would not be silent, but speak out to redeem the wretchedness, the falsity, the cruelty and empty promises of the world. That’s one source of his power and why he’s an erratic, unreliable critic–his work wasn’t exactly about making aesthetic judgments. The tale could have been embellished, even a fabrication for all I know. (It does have a fable-like resolution.) I believe Lester wrote a long letter to Greil Marcus recounting the same events and transformation. I don’t know whether or not it’s in Let It Blurt. I do know that no mere prose recounting could equal the right-between-the-eyes impact of hearing Lester tell the story.
I thought I’d add some quick comments about Richard Meltzer’s essays on Bangs from A Whore Just Like the Rest. Sometimes (“Dead Men Don’t Deconstruct”) Meltzer simply seems to wish Bangs had shared more of his attitude toward music and culture (that’s why the late-period “humanist” Bangs offends him so–Borneo Jimmy ain’t gonna cave to no curdled milk of human kindness, nosuh). Or else, that he had gotten the job of assembling the posthumous anthology. Is wishing that your author friend at his blowing-dead-dogs worst was more represented in print an affectionate act or not? I have mixed feelings. Piety about St. Lester is a crime, repulsive. On the other hand, we don’t need his bared ass hanging over his memory forever, either.
One thing I do know–saying Bangs belongs with the dregs of Beat writers is flat-out ugly (“Another Superficial Piece about 176 Beatnik Books”). Meltzer’s retrospective is riddled with his busted relationships and Lester avoided becoming another one only by dying. Finally, Meltzer breaks past the tedious “if Lester had lived, would he have continued writing about rock or not” debate by posing a few fascinating questions: if Bangs had indeed given up pop commentary, what evidence is there he would have been any good at straighter writing? And if his straight writing had cost him his blessed-and-accursed notoriety, could he have dealt with it? And if so, how? If you look at Bangs’s work, you have to wonder.
Steven: What’s up for the future? Will you continue to write for The Village Voice semi-regularly? Also, how do you like working with editor Chuck Eddy, one of the great and original music writers?
Milo: All the gigs I have going now will continue for the foreseeable. There are a few internet and book projects on the burners that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. And, well, Bob Christgau has edited all but one of my recent pieces at the Voice. However, I edited Chuck Eddy many times in the ’80s. If Kit Rachlis and I weren’t the first to pick him up after Christgau, we were damned close. I still remember calling up his base in Germany when he was in the army and asking to speak with Chuck Eddy. The Drill Sergeant on the other end went “DO YOU MEAN CAPTAIN CHARLES EDDY?!?!” As for the incomparable Chuck himself, what can I say? He can write any Amstergoddamned thing he wants and I’ll read it.
Steven: Would you ever consider writing a rock book and what rock books are your favorites?
Milo: The popular music book I would love to write–as opposed to the one that somebody would publish properly or pay me enough for to make it worth my time–would be one of those coloring-outside-the-lines creations. In his recent anthology, Nick Tosches noted that what originally drew misfit writers to rock was that one could just leave the putative subject behind right away. Rock was the all-purpose excuse to speak the unspeakable any way you could get away with. There’s no market for this any more because nobody believes rock ‘n’ soul operate beyond the boundaries and the music that does operate beyond the boundaries has no literary toehold.
For example, I’d include a section called something like “Rock and Roll Pictures That Don’t Have Anything About Music in Them,” with items such as Peter Beard’s photo of a bodacious honey in a bikini standing in front of a dozen sweating Africans loading a trussed-up rhinoceros onto a truck, Eddie Adams’s “Murder of A Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief,” Eric Fischl’s painting “Bad Boy” and Richard Hamilton’s collage “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?”
Or an as-long-as-it-takes section about the thoughts of an old-fashioned DJ as he or she spins an hour’s worth of music and the point of view shifts from the present-time DJ to anyone else who has played the record on the air, or listened to it, or the performers as they made it, or the music exec who signed the contracts, or people who made it in a record-pressing plant, or who painted the cover–you get the idea.
Or just dwell on some cultish obscurity like Serpent Power or White Animals or Roy C. or Charles Brackeen and not pretend anything more than that they deserve to be heard. Give them their moment in that bright afternoon.
Rock books–the ones by the writers’ I mentioned already. Try some Afropop books, maybe. Banning Eyre’s In Griot Time, Janheinz Jahn’s Muntu, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.
Steven: If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only bring one CD with you, which one would it be and why?
Milo: I’m tempted to say: any one sharp enough to cut my throat, since life would not be worth living if you had only one CD to listen to.
But of course, this is really a question about how music can function as a life-support system. There are performers and collections that contain entire worlds I will always want to visit. Here’s the first 15 off the top of my (non-severed) head: James Brown, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, the Ramones, Hank Williams, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti, Ornette Coleman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Bach, The Sugarhill Records Story and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
Here’s some Milo Miles articles you can check out online: