Losin’ His Mind in Detroit Rock City: Gary Graff
By Steven Ward (January 2002)
Gary Graff first earned his reputation in the mid ’80s as the in-house music critic for the Detroit Free Press, a stint that terminated a decade later after he refused to cross a picket line. Since then, Graff has freelanced for a variety of sources, including the New York Times Features Syndicate, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Reuters wire service, Revolver, and Guitar World, where he pens a great column called ‘On the Record.’ That column is particularly worth noting because rock critics supposedly don’t belong in the pages of technical ‘zines like GW. But as Graff himself explains, “[Guitar World] does an intriguing job of straddling the line between being a player’s journal and a general music mag, and I think both parties are more the better for it.”
Graff is also the founding editor of MusicHound Rock, which is accurately subtitled “The Essential Album Guide” (more info here and here).
The Detroit native was kind enough to answer the following e-mail questions.
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Steven: Why rock journalism? Why did you want to make a living writing about rock and roll and was that your plan or did it all happen by accident?
Gary: I hated and struggled through ninth grade biology, which meant my mother’s desire for a nice, Jewish doctor in the family would never be realized. And I’m only half-joking. But I did get interested in music at a very early age, both as a player and a listener; I have a brother who’s 11 years older than me and was in high school during the mid and late ’60s, so I grew up on a steady diet of Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Doors, etc. I even developed a taste for the Al Kooper-led Blood, Sweat & Tears at an early age, and while my friends’ favorite songs were usually from the latest Disney movie or cartoon show, I favored “Born to Be Wild.” Once I started writing and began eyeballing a career in journalism, I hoped to combine the two interests and kept doing music on the side of whatever else I was doing, including sports, straight news and investigative reporting.
Steven: You’re a native of Pittsburgh and now live with your family in the Detroit suburbs. Where did you go to college, and is that where you started writing about rock?
Gary: I got a Bachelor of Journalism degree at the University of Missouri, but I started writing about music in earnest during high school–during the halcyon days of the mid `70s. I wasn’t quite Jeff Spicoli, but I can certainly relate to the gestalt of Dazed and Confused.
Steven: Do you remember where and when your first piece of rock criticism or writing was published?
Gary: The Taylor Allderdice Foreword, a monthly for which I also covered the girl’s basketball team (I’m no dummy) and was the ad director. Talk about singing…
Steven: What rock mags and critics were your favorites to read in your formative years, and why? Was any one rock writer a particular influence on you?
Gary: I remember that the first rock mag somebody gave me was a Hit Parader, circa 1971 or ’72, with stories about the Who and the Doors, post-Jim Morrison. I flitted between what was around at the time–Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, Crawdaddy. Rock mags back then seemed to have a broader orientation due to the more monolithic nature to the audience, and things hadn’t really started to segment yet. So the big decision as a reader was to go highbrow or low, serious or funny. I don’t know that any one writer exerted more influence than another, but you had some of the best–Ben Fong-Torres, Cameron Crowe, Dave Marsh, Ben Edmonds, Lester Bangs, all the usual subjects–really hitting their stride at that time. A little later on, Trouser Press was a particularly illuminating read–even if that does make Ira (Robbins) feel like a geezer. ;o)
Steven: You write for a bunch of newspapers, magazines and web publications. Do you think you could name them all?
Gary: Is this a test? Or an covert IRS audit? Gawd…The current lineup of regular/frequent outlets includes Reuters, the New York Times Features Syndicate, Guitar World, Revolver, the Oakland Press, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Launch/Launch Radio Networks, CDNow, occasional contributions toHits and BMI Music World…That enough? Dishes are extra, and I don’t do windows.
Steven: I read your stuff in Guitar World all the time. I think the magazine is the most underrated music magazine coming out of this country. Besides the technical/transcription stuff for guitarists, there are some amazing features written about classic rock and heavy metal artists that you can’t find anywhere else these days. Is that part of the attraction for you when it comes to writing for Guitar World?
Gary: Guitar World is a great publication with some really fine people who work and write for it, with a strong editorial vision, a real drive for excellence and a consistent hunger to improve, both commercially and qualitatively. It does an intriguing job of straddling the line between being a player’s journal and a general music mag, and I think both parties are more the better for it. It really does transcend the perceived limitations of an instrument-oriented publication and offers plenty of insight to those who don’t know their seven-strings from their 7-11s.
Steven: I would consider you a “classic rock” writer. Do you agree with that tag, is classic rock your favorite kind of music and what do you think of the amazing popularity of the classic rock radio format?
Gary: I don’t agree with the part about being a “classic rock writer”; the bulk of what I do is actually newer and younger–whatever we’re calling “alternative,” hip-hop, electronic, Americana. That said, I think I’m not as dismissive of classic rock as some of my peers; I still find a very human drama in musicians who are establishing rock ‘n’ roll as a lifelong career, much the same way country, blues and jazz artists have always been able to do. There are also a great number of readers who maintain loyalties to these bands–and it’s no longer surprising to see lots of young faces in that crowd. Is it all good? Of course not, but there’s some quality within the dreck. And, believe it or not, one of the best concerts I saw this year was the reunited Guess Who, which sounded great and played a set full of hits with real passion. It’s interesting, too, that our definitions of “classic rock” are constantly changing. At this point, after 20 years, is U2 a classic rock band? Is Motley Crue? Def Leppard? R.E.M.? Elvis Costello and the Clash? Ultimately, classic rock is yet another marketing and formatting term rather than a definition for a kind of music. But I think you can miss a lot of very good stories by writing off certain acts merely because of how long they’ve been around.
Steven: My favorite part of Guitar World is the column “On the Record.” You write that column 95 percent of the time. You talk to musicians and producers about the making of a particular classic rock album. Was that column your idea and do you have a favorite “On the Record” that you have done?
Gary: “On the Record” was around before I started doing the bulk of them, but retrospectives are always popular–VH1’s Behind the Music being perhaps the best case in point. It’s interesting that Rolling Stone began its Hall of Fame album series after GW started “On the Record.” At this point in rock’s evolution, it’s good to have these kinds of regular features or big, Mojo-like retrospective take-outs to not only serve the nostalgists but also to give younger fans a sense of history and perspective that will help guide them backwards from their current favorites.
Steven: From 1982-95, you were the music writer at the Detroit Free Press. Then during the big strike in `95 you would not cross the line and lost your job because of it. Can you talk a little bit about that and how ethics played a part in that?
Gary: It was a tough time but not a tough decision to make. The strike was right and just, and the Detroit dailies–the Detroit News went on strike, too–were trying to screw over loyal people, and not just writers, who had worked very hard to make them profitable, quality products. It was particularly appalling for the so-called liberal Free Press, which had even editorialized against the use of replacement workers and in favor of anti-replacement worker legislation, to employ such tactics on its employees. Interestingly, none of the on-staff music writers at either paper crossed the line; I really do believe there’s a kind of ethic and code implied in the best music–certainly an ideology that people need to stand beside and take care of each other–that I think we all subscribed to. How can you credibly cover this stuff if you’re willing to cross a picket line or take another person’s job?
Steven: You co-edited the outstanding MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. How did you get involved in that and what kind of satisfaction did you garner from the job?
Gary: MusicHound, both the Rock volume and the entire series, was very rewarding. I gave birth to the idea with the help of the folks at Visible Ink Press (the series has since been sold to Music Sales, Ltd.) early on in the strike. We wanted to create the kind of album guide that wasn’t really out there, that was not only factually accurate but that also guided readers through an artist or band’s catalog as an alternative to the myriad album-by-album books; my idea was for MusicHound to be something akin to a good record store clerk or that fellow shopper you meet while you’re looking through the racks and with whom you strike up a spontaneous conversation. The most rewarding part of it for me, besides having my own Dewey Decimal System number, was being able to work with a lot of writers who I like both personally and professionally, and to be able to pay them. Even though the nerve center for the books was here in Michigan, it still felt like a team effort, and in editing the entries I was really able to enrich my own bank of knowledge as well.
Steven: This is a quote from your introduction to the MusicHound album guide: “Most of all, rock has become a business, a lifestyle soundtrack that’s not so subtly exploited to sell product–and that includes far more than rock CDs. Every movie, every advertisement, every sporting event seems to draw on rock to set the tone and convey a message of freshness and vitality. That, in the end, seems to be the best definition of rock: a music that conveys a particular aura of potency. And that can be done with a voice, a guitar, a synthesizer, or the simple creation of a languid mood that sends you to a particular place of being.” I think you make a great point. Is that the definition of rock music to you or is it more complicated than that?
Gary: It’s not a bad start of a definition, but I think there’s more to it than that. Rock ‘n’ roll, to me, has and always will be about attitude, whether that’s “Be Bop a Lula” or “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or Bitches Brew or “Bawitdaba.” It’s gone from being just a tag for one particular kind of music to an umbrella term for all kinds of musics that are made with a similar kind of spirit, and under that umbrella we’ve sub-divided them into additional terms. There are some who would call everything “pop,” as in popular music; that’s a good point, but I still think rock conveys a different meaning and defines the spirit and attitude of the music in question.
Steven: What do you think about the state of rock journalism today? Is it worse than years gone by and what music magazines/music writers do you read and admire today?
Gary: Contrary to a lot of disingenuously popular opinion in our field, I don’t think rock journalism is in a bad place at all these days. There’s a lot of it–more than ever before–and that’s not necessarily a bad things. It opens the field up to a greater variety of ideas and perspectives, as well as opinions, and it means music is being covered in greater depth than it ever has before. It also means there are more opportunities for people who want to write about music to do it. I think the role of music journalists has changed over the years, more than many of us would like to admit. It’s now more about reportage than criticism or analysis. The “information society” has created a need for just that, information, and the demand is for reporting and disseminating news more than it is for insightful or concise reviewing. Ironically, I think the hole is there for a more detailed approach, as readers have so much access–especially via the Internet–to music news and can often get it as fast as, and sometimes faster than, the journalists do. You would think that would make more room for wit, perspective, personality and in-depth analysis, but I find that’s not been the case.
So we have a plethora of information about what’s happening and a relative paucity of explanation for what it all means, which I think writers of the “old school” find a bit hard to swallow. Then again, many of those colleagues have settled into comfortable, if not lucrative, niches, and I’m not sure that they relate as much to the ways of the world outside their bubbles. That’s not a dis, either; they’ve worked hard to establish those places for themselves, and more power to ’em. I don’t have any trouble finding things, or people, to read, although I must say I particularly enjoy the cheek and breadth of British publications such as Q and Mojo.
To name individual writers is tough, for fear of leaving anybody out, but I still find that Marsh’s rage and righteousness is often right, and the byline is usually enough to get me to read stories by Greg Kot, Dan Durchholz, Tom Moon, Steve Knopper, Jaan Uhelszki, David Fricke and, really, a whole host of others.
Steven: What is your desert island disc and why?
Gary: I hate this question; I know, so does everybody else. As much as I’d like to be hip and obscure, I think I’d go with Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run; it’s an album that’s always meant a lot to me on an emotional and personal level, and it really encapsulates the rock ‘n’ roll experience for me–its irreverence, its rebelliousness, its grandeur and its undying faith that there’s always something better on the other side. Whenever I take a road trip, I find it’s always the first thing I put in the CD player to set the proper mood. Plus, if you play it backwards it says…Oh, never mind.