From the Archives: Robert Duncan (2001)

Cum on Read The Noise: An Interview with former Creem writer, Robert Duncan

By Steven Ward (October 2001)

Rock critic Robert Duncan, a second generation Creem writer — he joined the magazine in the mid-’70s — is also the author of The Noise: Notes From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Era. Criminally out of print, The Noise is an exceptional study of ’70s rock and other cultural artifacts from the era — a book that devotes equal amounts of space to Mott the Hoople, Richard Nixon, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Oddly enough, Duncan was so dissatisfied with The Noise, he claims to have never even read the finished product!

Despite his “inexplicable urges to interview drunken midgets,” Duncan has more or less left behind the rock critic profession (though not music itself–see below) for good. Which is our loss, not his.

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Steven:    First of all, where are you living today and what are you doing?

Robert:   I live 23 miles outside San Francisco in a weird, hippie throwback of a town, pop. 7,500. We’re the last little ville before it all turns into dairy farms and state parks. Still, the downtown area has three seven-day-a-week music venues and a four-plex theater. When I moved here 17 years ago, it was the nearest place we could afford a house un-small enough to accommodate two kids, my wife’s art studio and my (literal) garage band. Three years ago we moved four blocks further to a place that has more than one bathroom and can accommodate the garage band’s burgeoning recording studio.

While I worry that I’ve so thoroughly adjusted to life outside of NYC (where I spent most of my life), it sure is purty here. And it sure is nice to have a little elbow room for all our various schemes and projects. About ten years ago I started writing songs and playing music again, and I’m now working on my third CD. My wife makes strange, tiny artworks. My daughter, who’s about to leave for college (in New York City, of course), puts out a fittingly intense poetry zine. And my son is a drum ‘n’ bass DJ, who at 14 already has a weekly gig in a nearby tavern and shares the studio with me and the band. In other words, music and writing persist.

By day, I’m the so-called creative director of a small advertising agency 4.5 miles away, that a partner and I started 10.5 years ago. We do print ads and TV spots for videogame companies and some of the remaining Internet music startups, among a motley assortment of others. It’s not where I imagined I’d be, but we’ve managed to create a company that takes absolutely nothing too seriously, except being funny. So, to my surprise and delight, it winds up being a lot of fun. And most of the time it pays more than Kenny the Record Guy (see below).

Steven:    When exactly did you leave the world of rock journalism behind and why did you do that?

Robert:   The world of rock journalism makes it sound a lot bigger, more varied and more lucrative than it was (maybe today you could actually make a living; probably not). After we had our first kid, I found it a lot harder to make a go of it on $35 reviews and selling promo records to a paranoiac named Kenny. So if I ever formally left the world of r.j., I’d have to say it was on account of my daughter. But, in fact, it was probably time to move on anyway. I was broke, bored and, having just spent three years trying to write my way out of a book contract (by actually writing a mess of a book called The Noise), burned out–although every once in a while I still get these inexplicable urges to interview drunken midgets.

Steven:    Tell me about your beginnings in the profession. Did you set out to become a rock writer and where did you first get published?

Robert:   I set out to become a rock star. I’d played in bands since I was 12, first as a guitar player and then, when I was the first guy in the band whose voice changed, as a singer. The bands eventually got to be pretty good (knowledgeable others tell me we were proto-punk, but I was generally too drunk to remember). But our original songs just didn’t cut it (like any bar band of the time, we played mostly covers). My own early songwriting attempts always seemed a little labored (in contrast, I hope, to my more recent songwriting efforts), but only slightly less so than my band mates’. The high point of my musical career–as well as my musical crossroads–came when Sam Andrews, former lead guitarist for Big Brother (Janis Joplin’s band, kids), invited me to be singer in his first post-Janis group. We had played together at the Cafe Bizarre in the Village one night and the dilemma was that I had always liked his playing (and was impressed by his fame), but didn’t like being dependent on him or anyone else for decent songs (because while I knew my old songs sucked, I was enough of a writer–and incipient rock critic, I guess–to know when other people’s songs sucked as well–which was most of the time). So at 21 I turned down my shot at stardom (I later got to know the drummer from Big Brother, who lives in my little hippie town of course, and he said, good thing, because Sam wound up going through some long, low years in the narcotic wilderness).

My new plan was to combine my vast knowledge of pop music with my writing aptitude (it was the one thing in school I was consistently good at) and get famous that way. And I had decided to move to California–specifically, this amazing town, spread out along these crazy narrow streets on the hills overlooking the bay, called Sausalito that my older brother had introduced me to a few years earlier. While looking for an apartment there, I ran into–almost literally–this brusque, burly guy with long, greasy black hair, black devil beard and black cowboy hat who looked like a Hell’s Angel. As I walked toward this place that had a big For Rent sign, biker boy, carrying a box, called out threateningly, “Hey, it’s already rented.” Still he let me look around (somehow I brought myself to ask), and I noticed he was wearing a press pass. Turned out he was Ed Ward, former reviews editor of Rolling Stone, now book review editor of San Francisco’s City magazine and contributing editor to Creem. I was too shy/proud/afraid to ask for an assignment on the spot, but at a party, my girlfriend did several weeks or months later. So my first published piece was a review of Thomas McGuane’s novel 92º in the Shade that ran in Ward’s book review section. My first “rock” piece was (I think) a brief interview with the banjoist Earl Scruggs, who was passing through SF. Anyway, through Ed (now a “rock historian” for NPR), I met John Morthland (another ex-Rolling Stone-r), who would later recommend me for a job as a copy assistant (gofer) at Creem.

Steven:    How did you become an editor at Creem, how long were you there, and what was that experience like?

Robert:   After nine glorious months in California and a couple of bleak ones back in NYC (don’t ask), John Morthland, who by then was serving as interim editor of Creem (I think this was in the immediate post-Marsh era), called to ask if I wanted to be editorial gofer. I arrived in Detroit days later in the middle of a cold, snowy night. Morthland and Bangs picked me up at the airport, and we went directly to Pasquale’s restaurant on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham (the suburb where the offices were now located), and got drunk. Repeat as necessary.

Or maybe just repeat, period. Because that’s what we did for most of the 15 months I was there. Get up late. Go to work. Go to Pasquale’s for this casserole thing on the menu called “Special Spaghetti,” as well as for multiple “bolos” of beer (I never did learn if the word bolo, defined evidently as a profoundly oversized goblet of beer, was a regionalism or Pasquale’s-specific), served up by a slightly older, increasingly attractive, endlessly patient (even occasionally amused) bottle blonde by the name of Wanda (who I heard a few years ago still works there). It continues: Order last call (bolos, of course) and have one of us (after Morthland left town, it was me, Lester and usually Air-Wreck Genheimer) peel out down Woodward to the big drugstore to get 12-packs for that night’s post-Pasquale’s celebration. I think that during this time we also did some writing.

I’m not sure how long I worked as gofer. It was a few months maybe. But I guess I showed I was capable of other things, and Lester decided I was OK and gave me an assignment or two, and then they brought in an outside editor, who soon bailed to return east, and then I think they promoted someone else, who bailed to return east–by which time, several more months later, I had inadvertently demonstrated a talent for editing and (albeit in a very unusual, incomplete, and inadvertent way) managing.

Basically, I was a terminal comedic exhibitionist, driven to get everyone around me to laugh at anything and everything, including most especially me. Which is apparently a pretty good way to run a so-called creative business. Lester once said I was the only person he’d met who was as funny as him (which gives you some insight into Lester). Anyway, publisher Barry Kramer took me out for a ride in the Cadillac and told me I was the best editor he’d had since Marsh and would I be the overall editor of Creem. I recognized that in Kramer’s offer there was something of a dis (possibly unintentional, probably subconscious) to Lester. More than that, there was something unworkable. Because while Barry and even Lester would say that Lester didn’t want to be editor, that it wasn’t his interest or forte, I felt that, as the heart and soul of the magazine, he should at least have the titular honor. And that he probably wanted it. So I went to him and said, how about you be editor and I be managing editor and you do what you want and I do everything else. Which meant Lester didn’t fight me (subtly or not so subtly) every step of the way like he did some of those other editors who wound up bailing for the coast.

Steven:    Were you very close to Lester Bangs in Detroit?

Robert:   Not at first. At first, he didn’t like me–though I didn’t really know it at the time. I thought that’s just the way the place was, a little cliquish. Later, he told me he had decided I was going to be “another [name deleted to protect the entirely innocent],” a former staffer who had evidently been some kind of yes-man (to whom, I’m not sure) or something. It was always unclear. I worked hard when I got there, and kept relatively quiet at first. But I had traveled all the way to Detroit under the impression that, even if it was Creem, it was a job, which I desperately needed at the time, not to mention a job in journalism–and covering rock ‘n’ roll. At the time, I sloughed off the social frost–and of course went on to become very close to Lester. But looking back, I think it revealed a petty side to him that hasn’t made it into the pop hagiography. I’m guessing that he didn’t like that I didn’t kiss his ass, that I wasn’t enough of a yes-man–to him (for a celebrity puncturer, he could be surprisingly vain about his own growing celebrity). But I had barely heard of Lester when I went to Creem.

So, like the rest of us, Lester could be an asshole. No big deal. Still, it was that kind of petty assholism that later in New York would make me quietly break off our friendship. But in between those times, we came to be great buddies and constant companions. In fact, once he had deemed me OK, he was nothing if not generous. He laughed at my jokes and pushed me to become a better writer. At the same time, I laughed at his and, in a different way, pushed him as a writer. Specifically, I asked to dig through unpublished manuscripts (e.g., “John Denver is God,” in its original 60-80-page methedrine form) in hopes of discovering overlooked gems (e.g., “John Denver is God” in its Creem-published form) and, ultimately, I challenged him to take his writing to the next level, which at the time I (and, to a lesser extent, he) defined as New York.

Steven:    You were the first Creem staffer to leave the magazine and head to New York City. I assume you wanted to freelance. Did that happen right away and was the transition easy?

Robert:   I left because I was a restless, confused 21-year-old who thought I was in some kind of serious relationship with a flaky girl in New York. Actually, the end of my time at Creem started when, catalyzed by said girlfriend, I went AWOL for ten days. When I returned from back east and Barry decided to hold my paycheck (an entirely reasonable reaction–although he was mainly just fucking with me), I stomped out. Drove to New York that night. I was a demanding little shit. Back in New York, my $500 Datsun died at the doorstep of the girlfriend, who informed me she didn’t want to continue the relationship anyway. Doh. But I did manage to pick up some freelance work right away–from really nice guys like Paul Nelson, who called me out of the blue, and Jean-Charles Costa–enough so I fantasized that it was possible to make a living.

Steven:    Who were your rock critic influences when you started out and tell me about your favorite rock magazines and writers from the ’70s?

Robert:   When I was a kid I used to read Rolling Stone and, growing up mostly in New York, the Village Voice and, for a time, the East Village Other and whatever other crazy hippie magazine there was. I also used to devour the “Arts and Leisure” section of the Sunday New York Times. And not just about music, I’d read about theater, film, dance, whatever. I was a kid who read the arts section as avidly as other kids read sports. In fact, I think I liked reading reviews of stuff better than the stuff itself. I’m still that way. A lot of what I know about the world, I’m afraid to say, is from reviews–although I seem to know a lot, down to about an inch deep. I was at this party once talking to a guy who turned out to be a physicist. I had read this review of a book about some obscure physics thing, and we were chatting and he suddenly said to me, surprised: “So you’re a physicist?” That’s what I mean.

As to Creem, I used to see it at this one newsstand down in the subway at Astor Place, and I thought it was this strangely Detroit-centric rag–Iggy, Iggy, Iggy, MC5, Iggy, Grand Funk(!). In addition to seeming a little hick, it seemed a little teenybopper. Yeah, from afar, I was unimpressed by Creem. My opinion changed when I started to write for it. As to specific writers, I’m not sure I had any favorites. None that I remember. In the early days, I thought Hunter Thompson was funny. Was he?

Steven:    Do you read rock journalism today and are there any newer rock writers that stand out for you?

Robert:   I devotedly read music stuff, still. In spite of the fact that I kind of hate it, I get Rolling Stone at home. My kid gets Spin, so I steal that. My other kid gets DJ Times and Mixer and a bunch of techno-related stuff, so I read those. I also read a bunch of technical mags (Mix and EQ), because I like gear and have a recording studio in my basement. In recent years, I’ve liked pieces by Jon Pareles in the NY Times. I read something last year about Fred Neil in Mojo that I really enjoyed (I think it was by ex-Creemster Ben Edmonds). In general, I don’t notice any great new writers (then again, I’m not really looking). I do notice that the average writer seems better than the average writer of yore–stylistically and, in particular, analytically. These guys tend to know their stuff (or maybe I no longer know MY stuff). And they tend to seem, you know, professional. Which impresses me–if it doesn’t thrill me.

Steven:    Your 1984 book, The Noise: Notes From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Era was an ambitious study of rock and roll’s effect on America culture. How did you get the idea for that book and were you satisfied with the way it came out?

Robert:   I wish I could blame the idea on drugs (it would seem credible). It actually came from a very vague feeling about the state of things that never became much more than a very vague feeling even in the 200-page explaining of it. Which is probably why I remain dissatisfied (to say the least) with the book. Actually, I’ve never read it cover to cover. Writing it was among the most painful (and protracted) experiences of my life. I was stuck in a contract that left me stuck in a vague concept, and I was getting crazier and broker by the minute. A death spiral that only ended when my editor said he was on his way to my apartment to take whatever the hell I had written away from me two years after it was originally due. Thank god he did. But then he got fired and the publisher who’d signed me retired and the company totally dicked me. Put that godawful cover on it and dropped it in a port-a-potty somewhere in order to satisfy their end of the bargain. So I’m bitter that it sucked (in my admittedly biased opinion), and I’m bitter that they didn’t help make it better–or at least sell it. And at the time I was too young and naive to do anything about it.

Steven:    In The Noise, you quote Abbie Hoffman when he says “Mick Jagger can sing all he wants about fighting in the streets; he’s gifted and outrageous. But he probably inspired more young people to become millionaires than to overthrow the system…” Do you believe that money and power is still a large chunk of what inspires people to become professional musicians today or is it worse now or better?

Robert:   What’s worse? What’s better? This music got started mainly because people wanted to get rich and famous and laid. Those guys in the ’50s (not to mention their predecessors in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s) weren’t out to make Art. This idea of pop music as art surfaced in the hippie era, with the Beatles. Sure, those old guys had a vision of what sounded cool to them (and maybe of what they thought would sound cool to others), and some struggled to maintain what we might call artistic integrity. But above all it was about entertaining audiences and being materially rewarded. Which is not to say that lots of it isn’t artistic, even great art. But that’s our backwards imposition. That wasn’t the plan–and it still isn’t for most bands today. Anyway, I think art is a lot better off when it doesn’t think of itself as such–certainly pop music art is better. I was in Chicago the other day in some cheesy, ’50s-themed diner, and this came on the loudspeaker: “They used to call me Speedo, but my real name is Mr. Earl.” Now that’s art–pretending to be trash.

Steven:    You were partially responsible for getting Lester to leave Detroit and come to New York. Can you describe how he became a different person in NYC or was there no difference.

Robert:   I think my leaving helped prod him to do something he’d always dreamed of. And when I told him there was an apartment available cheap ($200/month) on my floor in the funky Gum Joy building, that was the final impetus. At first, he seemed much the same old Lester, kind of goofy, kind of hick–all the more so in the context of hipster NY. “New York, just like I pictured it!” But at the same time, he thought of himself as some kind of conquering hero. He seemed to imagine that almost everybody he’d meet would’ve heard of him (although a surprising number had). Which in a way added to his hickness. So he was open and generous and ingenuous and gullible and an egomaniac all at once. His writing got more serious–he was definitely trying to take his game to the next level. Sometimes it seemed a little too serious–or too self-consciously so–to me. In general, I prefer the oldCreem stuff. Although his Elvis obit for the Voice is one of the best things he or any rock writer ever wrote, the ending especially.

Anyway, I think NY Lester was basically the same as Motown Lester, maybe a little more mellow, a little more serious, a little more nervous, a little less drunk–until his live-in girlfriend departed. At which point he cranked up the drinking and pills and scene-making, and the overbearingness and obnoxiousness got more pronounced, and the funny got less funny. It was some time in this period that he pissed me off with some callous comment about an ex-girlfriend, and I decided I’d had enough. He probably never even knew what he did. Beneath it all, we were really tight–which is part of the reason I felt hurt. Closer to the surface, I just didn’t trust him anymore. Practically speaking, he had become a giant pain in the ass. But mainly I found it all too hard to watch. I remember one time there was this serial killer going around NY carving up homeless guys and drunks. My wife and I came home to find Lester passed out on the sidewalk and dragged his 250 pounds into the safety of the vestibule. I told Morthland–who was probably Lester’s best buddy at that time–that I had carried Lester’s body in, but that if he didn’t stop drinking and drugging I fully expected to be carrying his body out sometime soon. I was hoping Morthland would do something. I don’t know why I didn’t. A few months later we were literally carrying Lester’s ashes down Fourteenth Street.

Steven:    I think you were the person who discovered Lester’s body because you guys lived in the same building (542 Sixth Avenue). Could you elaborate on that experience and was it something that shocked you or something you saw coming in some ways?

Robert:   It didn’t shock me (see above) that Lester had died from his dangerous behavior. It seemed absolutely inevitable. I didn’t know until afterwards that he had gone on the wagon in the month or two prior to his death, but based on his past adventures in wagoneering, I would have still thought it inevitable. I remember when he quit drinking in Detroit. The plan was to eliminate beer (notably, the bottomless bolos we consumed nightly at Pasquale’s) and just drink a little wine–almost, Lester seemed to suggest, as a digestive. He ordered a carafe of white with dinner. Then he ordered another. Then another. By the end of his first night of not drinking he may have drunk more liquid and more alcohol by volume than on his most fervid drinking day. Lester was a maniac. And a hopeless drunk. And, perhaps most importantly, his genius as a writer and an appreciator of music was all wrapped up in the fact that he was certifiably, biochemically mad.

As to discovering the body, it happened like this: The landlord, a man about my age (28 at the time) who lived in the building and who actually seemed fond of the loud, crazy tenants on the top floor, knocked on my door. I think there’s something wrong with Lester, he said, and led me next door. Apparently, a woman visitor had discovered him or discovered that he wasn’t answering the door. She was there. My wife, Roni, came in. Lester was on his back on the couch, as if asleep. But his eyes were open. I felt for a pulse. I shook him. I yelled in his face. Somebody had called the paramedics. When they arrived, a minute or two later, I loudly insisted they shock him. They wouldn’t. I kept pushing. Finally, one of the ambulance guys turned on me, saying angrily, Look, we could maybe get a pulse, but he’s been gone too long. He’d be a vegetable, brain-dead. And that was it. A few minutes earlier Roni had heard him doing his patented stumble up the stairs. A few minutes earlier–10? 15? at the most, she guessed–he had been alive enough to climb five flights. Now he was nothing. Neither the paramedics or the cops recognized his name when we told them. And so Lester lay on the couch, as we had found him, uncovered, unceremonious, unknown, for hours, until the meat wagon arrived. The apartment smelled like death. But then Lester’s apartment had smelled like death for a long time. And I don’t mean that in a figurative sense. It was easy to see it coming. Impossible, I tell myself, to stop.

Steven:    Could you envision a music magazine today that was like the Creem of the ’70s and early ’80s?

Robert:   The music isn’t anywhere near as important to people in general as it was then. So that would be a limiting factor. Still, I’m not one to think those were the golden years, that never again will music be as good or even as culturally significant as it was in the [your decade here]. More golden years are yet to come, I’m convinced. Which means there will certainly be another Creem. Maybe it’ll be in another medium. A cable TV series. A web site. (Maybe there’s another Creem out there already.) And maybe I’ll be hanging with Lester in rock ‘n’ roll critic heaven when it arrives. But it’s coming, I’m sure.

Steven:    Can you tell me about your most memorable interview or journalism experience at Creem and why it was so important?

Robert:   In ’78 I got to spend three days on the bus with Springsteen and the E Street Band. First of all, Bruce was a great interview, thoughtful and forthcoming, and we got along famously. Second, the tour was going from Houston to New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi. Talk about flavor (and keep in mind that I’m not some carpetbagger; my family’s from the South, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid). Anyway, between those two circumstances, I put together the best story of my career to date. It got a lot of good reaction, earned me some attention (and work) from other magazines, and probably gave me the confidence (overconfidence?) to write longer, more sophisticated stories, and, ultimately, The Noise. Which, I suppose, is the black lining.

In other magic moments, I got to ride on a big, private jet (something like a 727) with Ron Wood and Keith Richards when they were doing that tour (circa ’79) as the New Barbarians. The whole front end of the plane was a lounge, with swivel chairs, tables, a bar and a proper British barman. And the limo actually drove onto the tarmac and deposited you at the base of the plane’s stairs. Now that’s Rock Star. That was also the day that, while using the phone in Keith or Woody’s hotel room (they were both there–Keith so drunk as to be quasi-psychedelic), I accidentally bulldozed an entire mound of white powder off a bedside table and onto, and into, a white shag rug. I’m not sure of its journalistic significance, but it sure was funny. Later.

Steven:    If you were stranded on a desert island, what CD would you bring with you if you could only bring one?

Robert:   I’d bring something brand new, a double or triple album of something I’d never heard before, by a band I’d never heard of before. Because, to me, nothing sucks more than the same old shit.

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