Covering the Dirty, Nasty, Offensive, and (Occasionally) Stupid: Metal Critic Don Kaye
By Steven Ward (October 2001)
Heavy Metal. It’s a music genre most music critics won’t take seriously. Worse than deriding most of it, heavy metal is still often ignored by the mainstream music press unless record sales are so enormous a magazine like Rolling Stone is forced to acknowledge it. So it’s always been the job of more fan-orientated mags — Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Edge — to give headbangers thorough coverage.
Don Kaye is one of the better writers covering the ghetto of heavy metal in fanmags, which he’s been doing since the late ’80s. During the following e-mail interview, the Kerrang! and Metal Edgewriter talks about his beat, how “nu metal’ stacks up to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, and freelancing in New York.
Steven Ward: It seems like I see your name in a ton of magazines. Which music magazines do you currently write for, and do you have a full-time gig or do you walk the tough road of a full-time freelancer?
Don Kaye: I currently write primarily for Guitar World, Revolver, Kerrang! (U.K.), Metal Edge, and Request, as well as film magazines like Fangoria, Shivers (U.K.), and Schwann DVD Advance. The number is down a bit from the last couple of years because of other job responsibilities and the dot-com crash, which killed a lot of music sites that hired people like me for “content,” which is a word I despise.
In the past, I have contributed to print outlets like Creem, Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Mania, Metal Maniacs, Rock Scene, Alternative Press, Burn (Japan), Rock Hard(Germany), and many others, as well as webzines like Allstar, Launch, MTV.com, VH1.com, DrDrew.com, and several others in that forum as well.
I have only been a full-time freelancer once, during the period of 1997-2000, and even then I was lucky enough to have a part-time consulting gig with the company I now work for full-time, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it. It’s very tough to be a full-time freelancer in New York, unless you write for outlets like Vanity Fair and other high-end magazines. I never thought of myself in that league, so frankly the magazines I work for (and have worked for in the past) are not high-paying enough to make a full-time living here. At one point during the period I mentioned above, I was probably doing well enough that I could have gotten by in a small town somewhere, but New York? Forget it.
So I’ve almost always had full-time jobs, although they’ve been in the music business as well, so there’s always been a level of convenience with that.
Steven Ward: Tell me about the circumstances surrounding how you ended up writing about metal music for a living and do you remember where and when your first piece of professional piece of rock journalism was published?
Don Kaye: Second question first. My first professional piece of rock journalism–meaning the first one I actually got paid for–was published in March of 1986 in a magazine called Aardschok America. Aardschok was a big deal in Europe and they tried to launch a U.S. edition, but it folded after two or three issues. However, I did get paid $200 for an article I wrote, although ironically, I can’t remember what the story was! Unfortunately, I don’t have access to all my files at this moment to look it up.
As for how I ended up writing about metal, it sort of flowed naturally from my personal interests. I was always into the music since I was a little kid, and when I got to college (Brooklyn College, 1983-87), I started doing a metal music program on the tiny AM station there. I also got involved in the tape-trading underground at that time, which is where bands like Metallica and Mercyful Fate and Slayer first came to prominence through the circulation of their demos by underground metal fans. I also began circulating tapes of my show, and soon got asked to contribute to some fanzines, including Kick-Ass Monthly, which was one of the leading metal fanzines at that time. Next was Hard Rocks, a spinoff of a weekly NY/NJ music paper called the Aquarian. With the clips I gathered from those, I approached Kerrang! and started writing for them. Kerrang!was THE metal bible at the time, so that was my first big-time writing gig, and it led to many others. I sort of became one of Kerrang!‘s leading authorities (along with the late, brilliant Paul Miller) on the underground speed/thrash scene, and many other mags needed someone to cover that stuff as well.
Steven Ward: What about your formative years as a fan of rock criticism. What were your favorite rock mags to read when you were growing up and what rockcrits and writers were your favorite to read and which ones influenced you as a music writer?
Don Kaye: Circus and Creem were the two main magazines I read when I was a kid. I didn’t always understand Creem at first, but came to appreciate the style as I got older. Some of the writers I admired at that time were Lester Bangs, Paul Nelson, Robert Duncan, Billy Altman…again, as a youngster, some of their stuff went over my head at first, but I loved their passion and freedom and, especially with Lester, that sense of abandon that captured the spirit of rock and roll.
I also have to admit that there was a magazine for a while called Rock Scene (not the one I wrote for later) that was a black and white, almost all-photo zine. It had lots of pictures of bands playing live and horsing around backstage, and all those photos of that lifestyle were so intriguing and thrilling to me. I wanted to get near that, and be a part of it.
Steven Ward: You write primarily about metal. Do you think mainstream music magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin ignore the genre and why do you think that is?
Don Kaye: Mainstream magazines have traditionally ignored metal until it becomes too big for them to keep doing that, but even when they do cover it, it’s always with this sort of condescending air–as if to say, well, this music is really beneath us, but we’ll take a look at it anyway. Spin has always had that attitude. Rolling Stone has done its best to ignore metal for years, but I understand that they’re putting Slipknot on the cover now. However, no one has any illusions that Rolling Stone is anything but garbage these days. The only reason Slipknot is on that cover is because Jann Wenner sees it as selling magazines, the same way he sees half-naked pictures of Britney Spears or N’Sync as serving the same purpose.
But mainstream publications generally ignore metal for the same reason as, say, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame: in their view, it’s this dirty, nasty, offensive, stupid, bastard child of rock music that they’d rather not have to deal with!
Steven Ward: I’m curious about what you think of Chuck Eddy’s metal writing in the ’80s, and a guy like Martin Popoff who is still writing intelligent and irreverent metal stuff today?
Don Kaye: Chuck Eddy was a huge influence on me during that time, and we used to talk quite a lot back in those days as well. I really admired a lot of his coverage of metal, and he introduced me to several great bands, primarily among them White Zombie. I haven’t read as much of Martin’s stuff, but what I’ve seen has always been well-written and, as you said, quite intelligent.
Steven Ward: You have written for both American and British metal magazines. How do you think U.S. mags like Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Edge and Metal Maniacscompare with Kerrang! and Metal Hammer?
Don Kaye: Well, I’ve only written for Kerrang!, but I imagine that some of the same things can apply to Metal Hammer. However, one thing that no single U.S. magazine, nor Metal Hammer, can or has ever been able to match is Kerrang!‘s newsworthiness. By virtue of being weekly, they have the most up-to-date news coverage and reviews of any metal mag. The only things that beat them are daily newspapers and the various news Web sites.
As for other differences, there’s a more personal style to the writing in the British magazines–some of the writers in Kerrang! used to be well-known for using half an article to detail what they did the day of the interview, how much they had drunk the night before, etc.–and there also seems to be more of a relationship between the writers and the readers. For example, I really don’t think that readers of U.S. magazines pay very much attention to who the writers are, whereas in England, they do, and have very specific opinions about the writers’ work. So in the U.K., someone like me has his “fans,” so to speak, and his “detractors.” The writers themselves are sort of personalities over there. It can be fun simply because you know that people are reading and taking a stand, whether they agree with your opinions or not. Whereas in the U.S., sometimes you feel like the work is just sort of disappearing into this vast media vacuum!
Steven Ward: You write for the brand new U.S. metal magazine Revolver. The magazine, so far, seems like a pretty literate take on the genre. Does the magazine’s existence excite you, and do you wish others would crop up on the scene?
Don Kaye: The magazine does excite me because I feel that an elaborate, high-end metal magazine that can compete with the Spins and Alternative Presses of the world is long overdue. The genre needs a magazine that can be taken seriously outside the hardcore fan base, although it’s vitally important that they relate to and enjoy it as well. Many, many metal mags in the past have suffered from tunnelvision or isolationism or some of the other bad qualities associated with metal, not to mention just plain lousy writing and design. I think there’s a feeling among some publishers that they can throw any piece of shit out there with Metallica on the cover and it will sell (and sometimes they’re right).
So I think the approach that Harris Publications, and editors Brad Tolinski and Tom Beaujour, are taking with Revolver could be the right one. I’m not crazy about everything I’ve seen in the mag so far, but I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there. As for whether there’s room for more magazines in that vein, that’s based purely on how well metal itself is doing at the moment. But if they did crop up, I’d probably try to write for them!
Steven Ward: What music magazines do you read today and are there any particular writers out there today who move you?
Don Kaye: I guess because I work in the business, I really don’t read music magazines. I have been reading Revolver‘s first two issues, and I do sometimes read Kerrang!. But when I’m relaxing and not working, the last thing I want to do is read something work-related! Unfortunately, that’s a side effect of being a rock journalist, at least for me.
I will read an individual interview that interests me, even just standing at a rack in a bookstore, rather than pick up an entire publication.
As for writers, I like to read the New York Times people: Jon Pareles and Ann Powers. I think David Fricke still manages to do some really good interviews despite being stuck in the heap of garbage that is Rolling Stone. I’ve seen other good stuff here and there, but I guess I’m just as guilty as any other American reader of not always remembering who wrote a particular article!
Steven Ward: What is your take on the Lester Bangs/Richard Meltzer gonzo school of rockwriting?
Don Kaye: As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate Lester Bangs when I was a little kid first reading Creem, but I gradually was able to understand him and now consider him a god. A lot of people have embraced the Lester legend in recent years, but his writing has been a part of my life–sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground–for more than two decades. I didn’t read as much of Meltzer, but what I have seen I’ve liked as well, plus I was a huge fan of the lyrics he wrote for Blue Oyster Cult, one of my all-time favorite bands. I think those guys were, for all their faults, amazingly creative and passionate guys who really cared about rock music and writing–which is something you see all too little of these days.
Steven Ward: Are there any rock interviews that stand out for you as your favorites and why?
Don Kaye: God, I hate to sound like a schmuck, but my mind always blanks out at questions like these. It’s a little more difficult now because I don’t have some old magazines or books nearby at the moment to leaf through. Wait a minute, now that I think about it, the interviews that Lester Bangs did with Lou Reed, which are reprinted inPsychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, are pretty great!
I just did one of my best interviews recently. It was Iggy Pop. He’s one of my rock and roll heroes and a genuine legend, plus a nice, intelligent, funny, and articulate guy to boot. A real pleasure to talk with, and he’s got great opinions and stories to share.
Some of the best interviews I’ve done have been with personal heroes who turned out to be really nice people. I was a huge Judas Priest fan and have had many great interviews with Rob Halford and the other members of the band over the years. The guys from Black Sabbath have been tremendous too. I was also a huge Soundgarden fan and found both Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil to be tremendous interviews.
One interview that always stands out in my mind is Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies. He has this tough, punk rock image, but during our interview he began to talk about his younger brother, who, if memory serves, was mentally handicapped, and at one point, Muir began to cry. It was a moment I’ll never forget, because I immediately saw a completely different and very human side to this musician that I had never seen before. It didn’t feel exploitative or anything like that. The best interviews are the ones where you achieve a real chemistry with the subject and learn something about them that you never knew before.
Steven Ward: In the late ’80s/early ’90s there was a syndicated metal radio show called “Metalshop” (I remember the intro–“MMMMMMMMetalshopppppp!”) Anyway, how did you get connected to the show, what did you do and what ever happened to it?
Don Kaye: Good memory, man! I got connected to “Metalshop” through a good friend named Gene Khoury, who went to the Donington Monsters Of Rock festival in the summer of ’87 and met up with Mark Snider, then the writer and producer of the show. Mark mentioned casually that he was possibly looking for a co-writer and associate producer, and when Gene came home, he immediately told me to get in touch with Mark because of my writing and college radio experience. I called Mark, interviewed with him, but then the job got put on the back burner for a few months. In the meantime, I took a job doing publicity for Noise Records, but in March of ’88, Mark called me back–the position was open again. This time I got it, and worked on “Metalshop” for the next six years. I was associate producer for the first year, and then wrote and produced the show by myself for five years after that when Mark left. I think I ended up writing and producing somewhere around 300 shows, as well as doing about seventy-five percent of the interviews. The host was Charlie Kendall, one of the great rock radio voices.
“Metalshop” was great for its time because we played a lot of music that rock radio didn’t normally play. That way when kids called up the stations looking for Metallica or Megadeth, before they became mainstream acts, the station could say, “Well, listen to ‘Metalshop’ on Fridays, that’s where we’ve got all the metal you could want.” Unfortunately, the nature of syndicated radio gradually changed during the early Nineties, and after a very successful run of probably about eleven years, “Metalshop” went away. But many people remember it fondly, and I had a blast doing it. I got to meet and interview a lot of my all-time favorite metal musicians and basically created my own audio magazine every week!
Steven Ward: What is your take on all this Korn and Slipknot-type “Nu metal”? Does it stand up to Led Zep, Deep Purple and Judas Priest?
Don Kaye: Well, for one thing, I think the phrase “nu-metal,” even though I’ve used it myself, is virtually meaningless at this point. It’s just a blanket term for all the bands that have emerged in the last five years. But the thing is that none of the bands who are the cream of this crop–Korn, System Of A Down, Slipknot–sound like each other, except in the sense that all metal bands share loud, distorted guitars, etc. Does Static-X sound like Limp Bizkit? Not at all. One is a slickly packaged rap/metal train wreck, the other is more or less a knockoff of White Zombie and Ministry. Yet you’ll find them both in any article about “nu-metal.”
But if you’re going to look at the latest generation of bands in an overview sense, there’s a lot of issues going on. Like every other music cycle–and in the last ten to thirteen years, we’ve had the thrash cycle, the funk-metal cycle, the grunge/alternative cycle, the punk cycle, and now the “nu-metal” cycle–there’s always a handful of bands that come out and do something new, a few of them break out and become huge, and then the labels–and many of the musicians–try to cash in with a never-ending procession of increasingly weaker copycat bands, each successive wave more diluted and generic than the last. That’s what we’re seeing right now. I’m getting records that are nothing more than bland, corporate “product” that just rehash the musical and lyrical themes of the “nu-metal” bands that came before them. And they all look alike: piercings, dyed hair, tattoos up the arms, wife beaters, sweatpants, etc., etc.
Korn is a great band. System Of A Down is an awesome act–one of the most original metal bands of the last ten years. Slipknot are amazing at what they do. But a lot of the bands that have followed in their wake have nothing to say, either lyrically or musically. The lyrics are especially loathsome in that they just push this sort of pointless nihilism and hatred. There’s not even a hint of subtlety or flair in what they’re doing, it’s all lines like “you worthless piece of shit” repeated over and over. A lot of this hatred is directed toward women and family members, and I have to say that none of it sounds particularly credible. Did every single person in the world have a fucked-up childhood?
With the rap-metal stuff, again, some of it is credible and original, but most of it is suburban white kids trying their best to sound ghetto. It’s fake, cynical, and sometimes even laughable, but a lot of it makes for just poor music. And to top it off, so much of the music is created on computer programs like Pro-Tools. There’s no way that any of these bands could go into a studio, play live, and create a masterpiece in three or four days, like Black Sabbath did with Paranoid.
It’s tough to say things like this, because you’re automatically accused of being old and out of touch. But that’s bullshit. There are great albums being made right now by bands like System and Machine Head. Slipknot’s Iowa is awesome. I am 36 years old but fully capable of appreciating new, brutally heavy music that’s good. The difference is that I’m also old enough to remember when the standards of art and entertainment were higher than they are now. The whole culture has been dumbed down, not just music. If you say that The Godfather was a better movie than Pearl Harbor, does anyone accuse you of being out of touch? Now, it’s true that rock music is oriented toward the young, but there is no doubt that there are practically no heavy bands today who can stand up to the likes of Zeppelin, Priest, and Sabbath. Those bands had their bad albums and weak moments too, but will Limp Bizkit or Puddle Of Mudd or Slaves On Dope produce a body of work that will stand the test of time like those artists did? I doubt it. Even some of the A&R executives I know, whose job is to find the damn bands, privately admit that they think most of what they sign is shit and they’re only doing it for the quick buck.
Steven Ward: What advice would you give to young writers who want to make a living as rock critics?
Don Kaye: I’m tempted to say don’t do it, of course, but I would never really say that. My first advice would be to make sure you have alternate means of income; things can get very lean. Or if you want to write full-time, be prepared to write as much as possible–to the point of burnout–and live very cheaply just to make ends meet.
More importantly, don’t ever let the music biz compromise your thoughts, your words, or your opinions. That’s getting harder and harder to do, since more and more magazines read more like extensions of the record company publicity departments than real magazines featuring honest appraisal and criticism. Magazines and writers are less and less inclined to take a position, especially when the labels threaten to withhold the interview for the big cover story if they see a writeup they don’t like.
Don’t fall into the Almost Famous syndrome either. You are not there, as a rock journalist, to be a friend to the stars. You can be friendly with them to a certain point, but if they deliver a bum album, or make news in a negative way, it’s not your job to shill for them. It’s your job to tell it like it is. I know one journalist who once ran a highly respected magazine, but turned out to be more concerned with losing his relationship with a certain band than printing a story about them that was truthful but damaging. Fuck that.
You are writing for the readers. They may go out and spend hard-earned money based on your opinion (at least we like to think so, although the truth is probably more depressing, ha ha), so it’s your task to give them the most honest and undiluted opinion you can. Contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not easy to write bad reviews, nor is it enjoyable, but it’s a part of the job. Be objective, be passionate, be knowledgeable about your subject, be joyful when you can (I don’t think it’s necessary or good to slap a coat of irony over everything), but most importantly, be honest to yourself and your readers.
Steven Ward: Desert Island Disc–what would it be and why?
Don Kaye: Jeez, just one disc?? Sorry, I’m gonna pick three:
- Iggy And The Stooges–Raw Power
- Blue Oyster Cult–Secret Treaties
- The Beatles–1967-1970