A Spontaneous Explosion of Personality: Jim DeRogatis
By Andrew Lapointe (March 2002)
Rock critic Jim DeRogatis is the author of Kaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Rock from the ’60s to the ’90s, and Let it Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs. He’s also written for Penthouse, Spin, Guitar World, Salon.com, and spent eight disheartening months of his life at Rolling Stone. However, he considers his current position as music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times to be his best job.
In a recent telephone interview, Jim expressed his thoughts and opinions about the music industry, Napster, Lester Bangs, and what he thinks is the best definition of rock ‘n’ roll.
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Andrew: What do you think is the origin of rock journalism?
Jim: Well, you know, I traced it out pretty much in Let It Blurt. The thing at this point is that it’s become a career path–perhaps not the most respectable career path in the world, but a career path nonetheless–and what’s easy to forget is that through the first 10 years of rock ‘n’ roll’s history, there was no serious criticism or journalism about it. Rock sprung up in the mid ’50s, and it wasn’t until 1966 or ’67 that anyone seriously began to criticize this music and to write about it with journalistic standards and critical standards. There were only fan magazines with pictures and reprinting the lyrics of songs, and really no serious writing about it. It wasn’t until Paul Williams and Crawdaddy! in ’66–with Richard Meltzer contributing to that, as well as Jon Landau–that any serious writing about rock ‘n’ roll music started to happen. And [Jann] Wenner had some knowledge of that and ripped it off. I mean, he saw that model and Rolling Stone kind of sprang from that. Basically all rock journalism springs from that model of Crawdaddy!, and its editor, Paul Williams, deserves a lot more credit.
But for 10 years, the music existed in a complete vacuum, and then for almost 10 years–a little less than 10 years, from 66′ until the early ’70s–it was people doing it because they had this burning desire to write about the music, this passion to write about the music. There wasn’t any money and nobody took it very seriously and the only places publishing things were either what today would be called fanzines, which is how Crawdaddy! started or Greg Shaw’s Bomp! magazine, or small, small alternative rags that hardly paid anything, which is how Rolling Stone started. And Creem, which was a magazine that I obviously spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about and researching because of the Bangs book. And it wasn’t until the mid ’70s when magazines started to pay money that it started to be possible to be a rock critic as a career path. That’s sort of where Almost Famous picks up, when the young Cameron Crowe approaches Lester Bangs. That’s when it had started as a path you could follow to fame and fortune, relatively speaking. But when Lester started down that path and when a lot his peers–Richard Meltzer or Nick Tosches–started down that path, it was just out of the desire to write about this music that they loved, and they had things to say about it that they just HAD to get off their chests.
Andrew: So, in your mind, define what good rock ‘n’ roll is.
Jim: I remember being 17 years old and sitting there and asking Lester that question. And I write about it in Let It Blurt, and I have the interview I did with Lester up online, and he paused for a really long time, and I remember that surprised me. I mean, it seemed to me that he would have had that answer on a cue card, you know, on an auto-pilot tape ready to play whenever anybody asked him. But he paused for a really long time and it took a long time to answer it, and finally he said something, and I think it’s the best definition of rock ‘n’ roll I’ve ever heard, and that’s: “Rock ‘n’ roll is something that makes you feel alive.” Now, I think that that is really broad and you could stop and say, “That doesn’t mean hardly anything!” I mean, any great piece of art, a painting, or a piece of classical music, or a sunset, can make you feel alive. Even if you’re talking about it in extra-musical terms, I think you could look at rock as being a certain attitude, and still it’s very wide-ranging–I mean it could go from Nirvana to Van Morrison, Public Enemy to the Flaming Lips, and what do any of those things have in common? But you kind of know it when you hear it, when you encounter it. I think it’s a sort of an uncensored outpouring of emotion.
The part that Lester said, something that makes you feel alive, I think as I’ve narrowed it down in my own critical career, I’ve come to think of it as a spontaneous explosion of personality. It’s not something that you need to go to Juilliard to study for 10 years in order to be able to play it, it’s just this serendipitous outpouring of your soul into this music on stage or on album. And I think that some people have enough personality to make one great 2-½ minute single-“Louie Louie” is a great single and the Kingsmen never really did anything else and it doesn’t matter because that’s brilliant and that’s as good as rock ‘n’ roll gets. But the Rolling Stones had an incredible 10 or 15-year run, from the beginning through Some Girls in 1978, of just amazing rock ‘n’ roll music, and obviously they had a lot more personality to pour into those grooves! But you know, it really doesn’t matter, they’re both brilliant and they’re both great rock ‘n’ roll and I think they both come from the same place.
Andrew: Define bad rock ‘n’ roll.
Jim: I think bad rock ‘n’ roll is anything that lacks that soul or where that personality is somehow censored or tailored or filtered through something that’s less than honest, less than immediate, less than passionate, less than soulful. That’s not authentic. You know, there’s this bugaboo of authenticity in critical discourse. And your egghead critics get all hung up on authenticity, pro or con, and that goes back to the blues, the 85-year-old black blues guy sitting on the porch picking his guitar being the “real deal.” Never mind that he’s got a Cadillac and he’s married to a 22-year-old white girl! We think of Nirvana as being authentic because [Kurt] Cobain was a lower middle class kid from Aberdeen, the middle of nowhere, and he was poor and hungry and slept under a bridge, blah blah blah. On the other side, the Strokes are not authentic because they’re rich kids who grew up on the upper East Side of New York. All of that’s bullshit, I don’t think any of that matters. I mean Chuck D. made great rock ‘n’ roll; he was a middle class kid who went to college on Long Island. He’s been one of the best expressions of black rage in this country that we’ve ever heard. It’s not hypocritical of Him; it’s not hypocritical of Ice Cube to have been expressing what it was like to be a gangster on the streets of L.A. if he really wasn’t. I don’t think that that’s authentic, but I do think you can sense an authentic personality, an authentic expression of passion and soul. I think that that’s true of the Strokes–I mean, I listen to the Strokes and I hear them having something to say, and it has nothing to do with where they’re from, who they are or how they grew up, it’s something to do with them giving me a slice of their personality–their soul if you will–in an uncensored manner as directly as possible.
And you can certainly play roles in rock ‘n’ roll, you can adopt personas, as Lou Reed has or Iggy Pop or arguably Kurt Cobain–I think he was a guy who wore a lot of different hats. And that’s not what I’m talking about. But I mean when you pick up the guitar and approach that microphone, are you filtering this in some way? Are pretending to be something you aren’t? Or are you slicing open a vein and letting it flow? And I’m completely willing to admit that that’s 100% subjective! I may hear the Strokes as the most genuine expression of rock ‘n’ roll spirit that I heard last year, and you may think that I’ve completely been had! I don’t think that my opinion is necessarily any better than yours or any better than some cab driver out there on Michigan Ave. in Chicago, as far as judging whether this music moves me emotionally. Now, I do think that I know a lot more about rock history and I’ve interviewed far more people than you or the cab driver has. All that stuff–my musical knowledge is greater, I’ve made records, I’ve toured in bands, I’m in a band now, and I play the drums. All that stuff, I have over you, perhaps. I have a lot more experience–I have a lot more records!
But as far as whether this piece of music moves me emotionally, I never look down on anybody else’s opinion. If a 14 year old girl comes to me and can make the case about some Britney Spears song moving her to tears, or making her life better, filling her with joy, if she honestly feels that emotion, then God bless her! I mean, that’s what all of us are trying to find in life, those reasons for living, those pieces of art that make our life better, that connect with us. I think that’s wonderful, as long as she can make the case. But if she’s just buying that Britney Spears record because it’s the hip new sound that’s been sold to her, along with her Abercrombie & Fitch clothing and her Sony PlayStation and her Starbucks, then that’s a horrible con, and it’s as bad as being raped. I just think that’s horrible.
Andrew: So what attracted you to magazines like Creem in the beginning when you were younger?
Jim: I never started reading Creem until well after Lester’s heyday. I came to Creem much later. And still, it had this irreverent attitude; it didn’t take anything too seriously, especially not itself, or the musicians, even when it was clearly a musician that the editors and the writers worshipped. It was never super-serious or sanctimonious, it was never trying to sell me anything, it was as snotty and loud and fun and liberating and scary and exciting and sexy as the music itself. And that’s what I think good rock writing should be, I think it should have the same spirit as the music that it’s purporting to cover.
Andrew: Was rock journalism something that was popular to kids your age at the time?
Jim: No, I think it’s only ever been something that geeky kids who have no life are drawn to! [laughs] That was certainly me. I think that it’s always been something for the kid who feels like he’s sort of outside. And I guess that’s another common denominator in a lot of the great rock ‘n’ roll that I love. It doesn’t have to be, but I often find that it’s music that’s made by people who are unique individuals and feel like they don’t fit into the mainstream, that they’re sort of standing outside looking in. And sometimes that can go over the top and it can be kind of obnoxious, like Billy Corgan–you know, like, “Nobody loved me and now I’m cool, so fuck you!” That kind of attitude, I don’t always like that but, but I do feel that rock is often music made by people who feel that they’re square pegs in a round hole, and I think those are the kind of people who tend to read about it, too. I remember talking to Kurt Cobain about Lester Bangs and Creem magazine and both resonated with him as well. He was a kid who felt like he didn’t fit in Aberdeen, everybody was running around playing sports and shooting guns–that wasn’t him, and in rock ‘n’ roll he found a community that was an alternative, that would accept people who were different. And he found that through great writing, whether it was people like Lester Bangs or the fanzines of his day. That’s how he connected with people who were like him.
Andrew: Why did Lester believe the notion that rock was dead?
Jim: Well, I think that in ’73 and ’74, it was becoming obvious that rock had been seriously co-opted by the corporations, that it would become a big business and it had lost a lot of its spirit. It was the era where that was happening for the first time. It was a huge impact to Lester to see the Rolling Stones, when they toured for the first time after Altamont and supporting Exile on Main Street, which is a great album. But suddenly there were crowds and crowds of hangers-on whose only job was to keep the Stones separated from the fans, and here was this cult of celebrity invading rock ‘n’ roll, where the people on stage really thought they were better than the people in the audience. And I think that hadn’t been the case in the ’60s. I mean, rock wasn’t big enough for that to actually be the case before. And you know, suddenly it started to become the case, it started to become all very professional, and the danger of that is that suddenly its going to become mere entertainment. Going to a rock show is going to be not much different than going to see the Ice Capades. I think that was a harsh realization for Lester, and he hated that notion. But that doesn’t mean that that’s the only way it is. I think that you can see a genuine sense of community in rock at lots of different points in its history. A certain scene explodes, and before the vultures of the music industry descend, things can be pretty utopian. I mean, certainly it felt that way in Seattle in 1989, or in New York in 1974 or ’75, or in London in ’76, or in the early hip-hop or rave or indie-rock or alternative scenes. I’ve seen it several times myself, and it really comes down to when there’s no fake, arbitrary walls thrown up between the audience and the performers, because all great rockers try and break down those barriers. But when the fame, the fortune, and the celebrity start to become more important than that ideal of community, that’s when rock ‘n’ roll starts to lose something.
Andrew: There seems to be something about meeting infamous writers or performers like Lester Bangs, and despite their reputations as egotistical SOBs, they turn out to be kind and easygoing like that.
Jim: I would disavow yourself of that notion pretty quickly! Because one of the first things you learn when you start to do interviews with a lot of people whose music you admire is that often times people who make great music are really horrible people. Sometimes people who are the nicest people don’t make music that’s particularly exciting at all. Don’t ever think that just because you like somebody’s music, you’ll like them as a person. I have to say that Lester Bangs was on a short list of rare exceptions of people whose work I really, really admired and who turned out to be wonderful human beings. That’s been the exception, not the rule.
Andrew: But what I mean is that, just people like Lester, who has this reputation as an SOB, and when you meet him it’s different from what you hear.
Jim: Well, it depends on whose doing the defining, you know? If you ask certain people in the New York media establishment about Jim DeRogatis, they’ll tell you I’m an opinionated asshole who just loves to piss people off, that I’m arrogant, I’m obnoxious, I’m a prick, and I’m really mean to people. And what they’re saying is that I’m mean to phonies like them who are all about politics and not about good music or good journalism. And I’ve certainly had my run-ins with those people. I think people who would have described Lester as a prick often were trying to sell him something that he didn’t want to buy. Also, with Lester it was kind of complicated. He was an alcoholic, he had some severe problems emotionally, he was a drug addict, and I think there were times when he was raging out of control and he was a raging asshole. I know myself, I suffer from a little foot-in-mouth disease, and sometimes I say stupid things, but never really from a position of malice. If I’m trying to say something nasty to somebody, I generally say it to their face in a public forum and all in the interest of having a debate. I think that if we don’t care enough about this music to argue about it, then why the hell have we devoted our lives to it? That’s my approach, and one of the things that broke my heart when I was at Rolling Stone for eight months is that I’m supposed to be at the top of my game at this magazine, the pinnacle of music journalism, I’m the deputy music editor, and I could never get anybody involved in a good fight about music, or even a conversation!
Andrew: It wasn’t really about that? They didn’t give a shit about the music?
Jim: It wasn’t about that at all, it was about climbing some career ladder. I’ll never forget, late on a Friday afternoon, we were the only two people in the office. David Fricke had that Husker Du live album that came out a couple of years ago, and he was playing it in the office, and I ran out and said, “OH MY GOD! HUSKER DU I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I SAW THEM LIVE…THEY’RE THE GREATEST BAND EVER!!!” And he just looked at me and he didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word, and to myself, I just said, “O.K., fuck you!” And I’ll never forget the guy with the red hand cart going through the aisles, stopping at everybody’s office, and handing them cash for the piles of CDs! These guys were selling these discs that they had never even listened to, and they didn’t even leave the office to do it. Talk about not giving a shit about the music!
Andrew: How did Bangs influence you? What impression did he make on you as a young writer?
Jim: Well, I never wanted to write like Lester. I knew that he had a very unique voice that came from being who he was. So the goal wasn’t to write like Lester, it was to uphold what I think were his more important core values. I got the sense when reading him that he was being 100% honest with me, that this guy would not lie to me, even when it was making him look bad. There are certain things he confesses in some of his pieces that are pretty embarrassing, that make him seem like less of a good person, and all of us have those things. Or he’ll admit that, “I first thought this about this record, but now I realize that I was completely wrong!” I think all of those things are part of his strength and evidence of his honesty–that he’s not trying to shill me this product, that’s he’s trying to tell this to me as straightly and as honestly as he possibly can. And that’s what I’ve tried to take from Lester and incorporate into my own style, my own voice. It probably took me a very long time; maybe some people think I don’t have my own voice even now!
But one of things that really bothers me is when I go to some of these rock critic gatherings like South By Southwest and I talk to people, I talk to my peers, I talk to other critics, the things that they say on panels and in the hallway are completely different from the things that they’ve written! Even when I’m inconsistent, I’m at least being consistent in my inconsistencies! The things that I’ll say to you, between us if we were having a beer at a bar, are the same things I’m going to write in my columns. And I think that that’s important. I feel I owe readers my unflinching honesty, and I think that every writer worth his or her salt has in their heads an ideal reader, the person on the other end who’s reading this, and you’re writing for them to some extent. And I think the reader who’s in my head is pretty much who I was when I was 17 and first reading rock writing myself. It’s this kid who’s obsessed by this and he’s got $20 in his wallet, and then, I would have been able to go to J&R Music World and buy four albums, but now, you’ve got $20 in your wallet you’re going be able to buy one CD! But that means everything, and that’s really important, and I’m not going to advise myself to spend that $20 on a piece of crap. I’m not going to sell myself a bill of goods.
Andrew: So you have to be more conscientious now?
Jim: As far as what?
Andrew: As far as what you choose as music and what you’re putting money towards?
Jim: Well, one of the things about being a rock critic is that you’ll never have to buy any records any more! But I think there is even more at stake today. One of the reasons that the major-label industry so fears Napster is that they know they won’t be able to “get” people anymore. I mean, every music fan that I’ve talked to who has been a devotee of Napster, when it was an album that they really loved, they wanted to go out and buy it even if they already downloaded it. They wanted all the art work, they wanted the lyrics, they wanted the real pressing. Very rarely did they NOT buy something; it was only the stuff they were lukewarm about or really turned out not to like, or they liked one song on an album. I think the real reason the industry fears the internet so much is that they know that they have to present quality music or people are not going to buy it! And rather than the simple solution–O.K., give us good music and we’ll pay for it!–they’d rather continue to sell us manufactured crap. As a result, they certainly don’t want us to be able to download it and sample it and hear it for free on Napster before we spend our money on it! They want to be able to con us.
Andrew: What is your next book about?
Jim: I am working on a book that’s a lot more personal, and which I tend to have a hard time synopsizing neatly, except to say that it’s sort of “Everything I know about life I learned by playing in rock bands,” though that’s certainly not the title (and it’s a sentence that won’t appear in the text). But essentially, the same basic impulse that had me writing about records in fanzines, and buying them obsessively, and playing them on college radio has always prompted me to make music as well–I always say I’m a drummer, not a musician–but I’ve made records and done tours and played in a ridiculous number of bands through the years, like 20 or more. Rock critics always get this thing–“You’re just a frustrated musician”–which is nonsense, because I’ve NEVER been frustrated, I’ve always enjoyed playing music, and not with any sort of career goals in mind, but just because I can’t imagine NOT playing music. And I suppose at heart this book will be the answer to the question, “Why?”
Andrew: What are you’re future career plans?
Jim: Whenever I see a question like that, it always comes as a bit of a surprise, because I’m like, “Oh, I guess I have a CAREER!” Which is not something I run around thinking about! But I consider the rock critic position at the Chicago Sun-Times to pretty much be the best job in the world, and I can’t imagine another city where I’d want to live. I do plenty of freelance work for some publications that I love and am proud to write for–Spin, Penthouse, Salon–and I am about to start a monthly column for Modern Drummer. I have a radio show with Greg Kot, “Sound Opinions,” the world’s only rock ‘n’ roll talk show, which airs every Tuesday from 10 to midnight on one of the Midwest’s best rock stations, WXRT-FM, and we’ve been doing that for three years, and have some pretty high hopes for syndicating it. (It’s also up on the web at http://www.soundopinions.net.) Basically, I’m doing exactly what I want to do already, and can’t see myself stopping any time soon. So how’s that for a plan?
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