Flaubert On the Off Days: Interview with Fred Schruers
By Steven Ward (September 2001)
From an early stint at Circus, through a tenure at Rolling Stone magazine that spanned from the late ’70s to the early ’90s, then to Entertainment Weekly and Premiere in the ’90s and beyond, Fred Schruers has spent the last three decades chronicling the lives of musicians and actors.
Whether covering Bob Marley’s funeral in Jamaica or taking a side trip to profile Navy SEALs in Men’s Journal, Schruers has a prose style that dazzles and informs with equal amounts intelligence and passion.
During the following e-mail interview, Schruers, currently a senior editor at Premiere, talks about his days at Circus and Rolling Stone; he also (bravely) defends the celebrity profile–something he mastered a long time ago.
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Steven: Around the beginning of 2001, you became a Senior Editor at Premiere magazine. How do you like the job so far and what is it exactly that you do as a Senior Editor?
Fred: Premiere is a very writer-friendly place; through all vicissitudes, there’s a real camaraderie and a sense of mission. Via e-mail and the weekly speaker-phone calls between the New York and L.A. offices (I’m at the L.A. bureau) there are pretty fervent debates over which films to invest pages in, with the usual art vs. commerce parameters.
What exactly do I do as a Senior Editor? That’s the very question you hope your boss isn’t asking. In fact, it’s mostly a writing job, taking on my share of covers and large features, hunting up more heavily reported stories on the business side, and being part of the squad when we do three-plus months of extensive interviewing for the annual “Power Issue.” The bulk of that burden is on the L.A. office, and we then divvy up the writing chores for the issue.
I try to live up to the Editor designation by getting in the debates over what stories we might cover, doing the occasional read of a piece covering something I have some expertise in, and kibitzing on my fellow writers’ drafts when asked. Sometimes I even put on the sports coat that tends to hang uselessly behind my door and go off to a meeting.
Steven: Let’s go back a long time. Tell me about the circumstances surrounding how you decided that you were going to write for a living and how did music journalism come into play?
Fred: My folks have a picture of the little four-eyed imp that was me sprawled on a couch reading with literally dozens of magazines scattered around. I think getting my mitts on James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and soon thereafter Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, plus a heavy dose of Dickens my grandmother had recommended, gave me the idea that language could capture (and in their case, if not mine) enoble all that surrounds us. More to the point of this web site, in 1967 I read a striking essay on the Doors’ first album by Richard Goldstein in the great old Herald Tribune Magazine (Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe were in that mix, too). I was a kid who had quite literally put his hands on the little beige A.M. radio that played the Beatles’ first U.S. single and listened to it all agape. To realize that someone like me, without portfolio, could write about this music was intoxicating, if a little scary.
Steven: What were your favorite rock magazines before you started to write about music? Which ones did you like to read in the ’70s after you started? And what rock critics and music writers influenced your writing or had some kind of impact on you?
Fred: It was a real smorgasbord. I repeatedly devoured the earliest Crawdaddy! issues with R. Meltzer pieces like “The Occupational Hazards of Self-Conception,” saw Creem as this powerful but somehow alien hotbed of rude, unpretentious energy, liked the broadsheet feel that Fusion had, thoughtRolling Stone was too handsomely uptown (though loved that there was someone named Chet Flippo, later to be a mentor, with that droll, distinctive voice of his). It says nothing against the New Yorker‘s very lucid Ellen Willis that the New Yorker pieces I turned to first were Whitney Baillet’s great profiles of jazz artists. When it came time to write profiles I tried to learn from the way he would let the people who had been in the room at key moments carry the narrative in their own words.
Steven: Somewhere around 1977 you were writing for Circus magazine. Were you a full time staffer there and if so, what was it like to write forCircus and to work for editor-in-chief Gerry Rothberg? Also, it seems like Circus was like the Triple A farm club for Rolling Stone, where you worked soon after. Writers like you, Kurt Loder, David Fricke and Daisann McLane left Circus to work for Rolling Stone all around the same time.
Fred: My great friend John Swenson, who I don’t see enough of these days, had steered me to the legendary Paul Nelson. Paul was a clarion moral voice, without preachiness, and just being around him kept you honest. (Footnote: I had some clips from the Boston Phoenix, where I’d apprenticed for the wonderfully warm and cerebral Ben Gerson. At a typical must-see gig in Boston those days you’d find him, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, Janet Maslin, Ken Emerson, and a guy named Jon Kriedl, who’d I’d have to guess was the model for Jeff Goldbum’s hilarious portrait of a sly-dog rock critic inBetween the Lines, a.k.a. Head Over Heels.) Anyhow, Circus needed a staff writer. I was hired by Robert Smith (later an exec at Epic and Geffen), who told me to get an answering machine and taught me everything from caption writing to where to find the best Danish pastry in midtown. Circus was the right name for the place in those days–I recall interviewing Warren Zevon on the phone while a publicist friend who’d come down from the Chrysalis office upstairs wrapped duct tape around my head. Gerry was fine–I owe him a lot for hiring me and presiding over that fine bunch of colleagues you mention. How can you complain about a job that sends you to England on a Ramones tour? Robert had told me I’d be at Rolling Stone in six months, and I laughed, but it was actually four.
Steven: How did you land the “Random Notes” writing gig at Rolling Stone? And what it was like to be in the RS offices back in those days?
Fred: Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Reverend Charles M. Young. (By the way, he wrote my favorite interjection ever in Rolling Stone–“Well, you can all take a big bite out of my ass”, in defense of Kiss–but that’s another story). He’d been doing “Randoms” for about a year, wanted to graduate out, and gave the job to a nice guy who burnt out immediately and ran off to sea. True story. In some desperation, Music Editor Peter Herbst, who’s now an exec at Hachette Fillipacchi, where I work, hired me. Jann Wenner sent my first set of “Randoms” back with quite a bit of ink cross-hatchings and, in 18-point handwriting with three exclamation points and five underlines, “TOO MUCH PUNK!!!” The truth is, he was a great boss. Whip-smart, tough, but ever supportive of actual journalism and of his slightly rebellious wards. He could come in and see a big pile of busted vinyl on top of a mound of shattered plaster–with five wine corks taped to the pillar above–and just laugh. Though he did once disallow a bar tab I had with two late lamented Pretenders in Santa Barbara; $75 bought a lot of drinks in those days.
Steven: In Robert Draper’s book, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, Draper wrote that you used to tease Dave Marsh by dangling from a window ledge 23 stories up when he walked by. Is that story true?
Fred: Yeah, but some people preferred the handstand on the balustrade on 28. The very capable Draper took me out to dinner to make sure he could tell the tale and not be sued. You had to understand that Dave, who was a dear pal and mentor, was so afraid of heights he refused a windowed office. He wouldn’t even glance at the window in the lobby, so I crawled out there when he went to the men’s roo and I wedged my feet into a course of bricks so I could say his name and pop my hands up in the air when he came through the door. He took one look and he was l, in a sort of half-crouching, turning-away, silly-walk kind of thing. It was done out of fondness. I owe Dave a lot for his early support.
Steven: Was Rolling Stone responsible for you making the transition from writing about music to writing about movies and actors, or were you always interested in covering both?
Fred: I was certainly interested in film, but RS covered it mostly through Jonathon Cott’s big, brooding, admirable interviews with auteurs. Barbara Downey, who was a top editor and also Mrs. Landau, suggested I do a piece on a film called Breaking Away, and pretty soon thanks to her I had a sideline in movies–things like Alex Cox’s wacky production of Walker, which took me to Nicaragua during the Sandinista ascendancy. On the plane down were two guys from the completion bond company, looking to shut him down. That was just a row of crazy nights on the terrace with Joe Strummer, Ed Harris, a whole gang.
Steven: Besides Circus and Rolling Stone, you wrote about music for Crawdaddy!, Musician, the New York Daily News, and the Washington Post. Was this all freelancing and what is the freelancing life like compared to working full-time for a magazine or newspaper?
Fred: Those were freelance gigs. You meet people and they hook you up at the next place, so Jon Pareles went from Crawdaddy! to using me at theVillage Voice, and either he or Chuck Young introduced me to Vic Garbarini at Musician, who was succeeded by the wonderfully funny and literate Bill Flanagan. I wrote a Who history for Bill at VH1 not long ago. When Harriet Fier went from running Rolling Stone to the Washington Post, I did a row of directors for her–Scorsese, DePalma, Milos Forman, and others–but also covered Bob Marley’s funeral in Jamaica for her as well as for Rolling Stone. Life as a free-lancer lets you jump on things–a trip to India, Brazil, Cuba, etc.–but the magazine accounting departments just seem to get slower and slower, so the phrase that your mortgage keeps whispering in your ear is “automatic deposit”, which means a staff job. The other thing staff jobs bring you is first pick of the stories.
Steven: In the last few years you have written many celebrity profiles for Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly more than music stuff. Do you write about music today in any capacity or is that part of your past?
Fred: My first two pieces for Entertainment Weekly were a history of the making of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and an N’Sync cover. I was faintly embarrassed at the latter assignment, but it was my day to pitch. That was last year, and this year Robert Christgau, no less, is calling them “quite wonderful” in Rolling Stone, so go figure. I did Melissa Etheridge and Jackson Browne for Us in recent years (yeah, I’ve been remanded to the aging folk-rocker division), did Aimee Mann for Elle, and in fact, I’m keeping an eye out for more music stories these days.
Steven: Since you have written many celebrity profiles, I want to ask about the constant criticism thrown at writers of such profiles. Many say it’s all fluff and PR crap. The recent Tom Junod-penned Michael Stipe profile in Esquire was fictionalized as some sort of reaction to the so-called predictable celebrity profile. What’s your reaction to the criticism?
Fred: At the risk of sounding staid, and with respect to the very accomplished Tom Junod, I would have rather seen him use his skills to go spelunking into Stipe’s cryptic body of songwriting work.
Nobody is being handcuffed to radiators and made to read this stuff. Let the people who abhor this system–and I’m as unhappy as anybody with the manipulations that an entrenched PR hierachy tries to enforce on the press–go read their Flaubert, like I do on my off days. That said, everybody has his or her story to tell, even celebrities. My corny idea is that there’s a form of truth to be found across those lunch or saloon tables. The endless reiteration of “celebrity” as an epithet ignores the fact that these people we profile do in fact work for a living, whether with a guitar or a director, and I’m still interested in hearing how they go about it.
Steven: You have written two quickie fan bios–one on Blondie and one on the Kinks. Do you ever plan to write another book or collect your journalism in between hard covers?
Fred: The Blondie book was a true quickie, albeit with some generous cooperation from the band. The Kinks book was snuffed by the publisher and is still buried in my drawer (it’s referenced on a web site as if it were out, but don’t be deceived). Very possibly one day I’ll get an electronic version out there for the true believers. People have mentioned a collection to me, and if I found the right publisher I’d cook up a nice title like Kurt Loder’s Beefheart riff–Bat Chain Puller–and do it. But the likeliest book project from me will be a true crime story of some kind.
Steven: Out of all the music profiles and feature stories that you have written, which few stand out as your favorites and why?
Fred: I wrote an RS story about Elvis Costello, without his assent, on his ’79 tour, and that comes to mind. I talked to Elvis in early 2000 for a piece onFathers and Sons, and we discussed that crazy time. Some members of Bonnie Bramlett’s road troupe had wound him up, and he tried to out-redneck them. Knowing all we now know, and having talked to Elvis, I believe he did it satirically, probably drunkenly, and of course foolishly. But you’ll never convince me he’s an actual racist.
There were others I hugely enjoyed doing–an early U2 story for Musician, a Kinks piece for RS, my first RS cover with Ted Nugent–but the one that meant the most was a Bruce Springsteen cover pegged to the tour for The River. Years later I went out on the folk tour to talk to him again. He remains an inspiration.
Steven: What’s your opinion on Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer–the so called Gonzo school of rockcrit?
Fred: Lester was obviously brilliant, even when thoroughly mistaken as he was in panning Bob Marley’s Kaya in a lead RS album review. Meltzer for me was concrete poetry, with a nice unbderbelly of furtive meaningfulness. I like his collection Gulcher a lot–let’s face it, “A Fatal Jerkoff on the Moon” is a pretty irresistible title for an essay.
Steven: Do you read rock magazines today? What current rock critics do you like and what do you think of the state of rock criticism today?
Fred: This would require a really long-winded answer, so let me just say that I largely don’t (though I think Rolling Stone is still well-edited in that regard, Spin seems to have some fire in its belly, and I look forward to the Oxford American music issues). With some exceptions, I think rock criticism is just as impoverished as, by and large, the art form is. I’ve done mys stories with Master P, interviewed Suge Knight in jail, and there’s a lot of rap I find exciting, but mostly the solemnities of booshwah music critics writing about rap have to make you snicker.
Steven: What advice would you give young people today who want to write about rock music for a living?
Fred: Do what most of your predecessors, me included, largely did not do–get into the musical nuts and bolts and give us insight into the actual construction of songs and albums, and only then start dazzling us with your wordplay. As for where and how, just get assignments from anyplace that will have you and start slogging up the hill, using the last clip to get the next job.
Steven: It seems like a couple of years ago your name was still on the masthead at Rolling Stone as a “contributing editor.” I’ve always been curious about what the criteria is to have your name in that spot, or is it just Jann Wenner’s monthly whims or something?
Fred: I guess I had my name on there as long as anybody–though Charles Perry held the title for a while. It can be whimsical, or a reward for hard work, or any combination in between.
Steven: What is your favorite record and band of all time and why?
Fred: My favorite record would have to be anything with the ten best Otis Redding songs, with Robert Johnson knocking on the door. Album-wise, I think Kink Kontroversy takes the proverbial kake.