Chuck E… So Addictive: Voice Music Editor in His Second rockcritics.com Interview
By Steven Ward (March 2002)
Rock critic Chuck Eddy. Love or hate?
Let us count the ways…
- I love Chuck Eddy because his writing changed my life.
- I hate Chuck Eddy because now I spend way too much productive time reading and thinking about rock criticism (as opposed to, you know, listening to music).
- I love Chuck Eddy because his record reviews have more ideas and interesting takes on the music and what it sounds like than any other critic I have ever read.
- I hate Chuck Eddy because he lists Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop album in his book, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, but does not list Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast (or anything at all by Iron Maiden) in his book.
- I love Chuck Eddy because only Chuck could include Teena Marie and Sonic Youth in a book about heavy metal albums and get away with it.
- I hate Chuck Eddy because he once rejected a piece of shit Pantera CD review I sent to him on spec for the Village Voice.
- I love Chuck Eddy because he once rejected a piece of shit Pantera CD review I sent to him on spec for the Village Voice. (Thanks, Chuck.)
- I hate Chuck Eddy because he thinks no one cares or gives a fuck about the new Kiss Box set, and therefore, it doesn’t deserve coverage in the Village Voice.
- I love Chuck Eddy because I would never have listened to a Kix album if it was not for the fact that he wrote about them as if they were the greatest rock band ever.
- I hate Chuck Eddy because sometimes he’s full of shit and he can come off like an egomaniac.
- I love Chuck Eddy because he’s a good enough writer that sometimes he even makes sense when he’s full of shit and so he has every right to act like an egomaniac.
- Most of all, I love and hate Chuck Eddy because, well, because he’s Chuck Eddy. So there. Read on and decide for yourself…
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Steven: Why did you want to be the Music Editor of the Voice? Did it have something to do with steady work vs. freelancing?
Chuck: I think that was probably the biggest thing. I mean, as a freelance writer, I found–and I was writing for just about every music magazine around, you know, Spin,Rolling Stone, and a lot of the alternative weeklies around the country, in addition to the Voice–and you know, other places I can’t think of right off the top of my head. But I really kind of hit a salary ceiling. I never–it’s not like my salary was climbing at all, and I’ve got three kids, and I was basically offered a job at the Voice that would’ve paid, well, basically, close to three times what I was getting as a freelance writer. Maybe that’s not mathematically correct, but somewhere in there. So it was that, and probably to a certain extent I thought that I was spinning my wheels as a writer, and I had thought about applying for an editorship years ago, it just wasn’t really feasible in my life. But I guess that’s the main thing. Money, and also a change of pace to see whether I could do it. I’ve always felt–at times that I liked it and at times that I haven’t liked it–I always felt a certain kind of attachment to the Voice music section. It’s almost like I can’t really imagine–though maybe I’ll eat my words some day–it’s hard for me to imagine any other editorship that I would’ve been anywhere near as interested in, including Spin or Rolling Stone or L.A. Weekly or the Boston Phoenix or whatever. I don’t know, maybe ifCreem came back from the dead, you know what I mean? But I mean, short of that, the Voice is certainly the place that I wanna be working.
Steven: Was it a hard adjustment? I mean, you spent years and years as a freelancer, always being forced to cope with editors, and now all of a sudden you’re the editor and you’re working with a bunch of freelancers.
Chuck: Well, I mean it was a hard adjustment in other ways, too. I moved to New York from Philadelphia, which is where my kids live. So I had to adjust to that. I had to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t writing anymore, or writing very very little. I literally wrote hundreds of articles a year.
Steven: You’re writing hardly anything now.
Chuck: There were people who actually said that they didn’t think that I had the, oh, the personality to be an editor, you know? There’s probably certain people who thought I was a little bit of a hothead at times as a writer dealing with editors. But–I don’t know, it’s not something that I knew would work, but it’s something that I think I fell into pretty well, and it’s not like once I started working with freelance writers that it was problematic.
Steven: Was it weird adjusting to the Voice job in the sense that you’ve never seemed like a typical ‘New York Rock Critic Establishment’ kind of guy? Your own voice has always seemed kind of outside that…
Chuck: Yeah. That’s what I would have guessed. And I was really kind of scared–not frightened, but nervous–when I came here. I really considered whether I would fit in. Oddly enough…I had this idea in my head that this city was filled with pretentious phonies, okay? And the ‘Rock Critic Establishment,’ which I may or may not be a part of…It’s not like I hang out with editors at Rolling Stone.
Steven: You mean you don’t go drinking with Joe Levy?
Chuck: I had the idea that the Rock Critic Establishment I perceived in my mind, were some of the biggest pretentious phonies here. But oddly enough, I kind of fit in New York better than any place I’ve ever lived in my life. For whatever reasons. And the reason may be that I’m as pretentious and as phony as anyone here–that’s not inconceivable! Maybe I’m just in denial. It’s not like I spend time out drinking with the editors of Spin or Rolling Stone. I really don’t. At all. There are certain writers I will go out with or go to shows with. But I’m not sure if I’m….I don’t know. Maybe I get invited to more press events or whatever. Places where there’s an open bar or something. More so than when I was a freelance writer or whatever. Maybe there are people who I know by face that I would not have known by face three years ago. I don’t feel like I’m more part of the Rock Critic Establishment now than before I got here.
Steven: Did being a freelance writer help you in being an Editor? Did you find yourself going, you know, as a freelancer I had to deal with so much of this crap…
Chuck: Oh, I think absolutely, but I had good editors and I had bad editors as a freelancer. I think the thing is, I definitely identified with what writers go through. I did it for 15 years. So I think I know when editing is bullshit, and I’ve definitely had editors who did bullshit editing–it was a control thing, it had nothing at all to do with improving writing, it had to do with the editors asserting power or trying to make you conform to, you know, the timid voice of whatever their publication was. And I think as someone who wrote for so long, I probably am naturally sensitive to that. Hopefully I won’t become less sensitive to it–I’ve been an editor now for three years–but I know what writers go through.
On the other hand, as somebody who wrote for so long, I probably ask a lot out of writers, when they’re making pitches and stuff like that, because I know what I did, and I know how hard I worked to get assignments, and I expect writers to do the same. I mean, I expect to be convinced that something is worth covering and that somebody has something to say about it. I have hundreds of writers now…in a given year, I don’t know, you’d have to go back and look at the three years I’ve been there, but I would say I have somewhere between 100 and 200 writers to choose from, and a lot of them pitch the same things, and I only have a certain amount of space to fill every week, and it’s pretty small. So I can afford to be selective. I think, again–I don’t know if this is because I’m a writer or because I’m me–but I can kind of see through bullshit. You know? It sounds like I’m bragging, but I think the fact that I wrote for so long probably helps.
Steven: How did you sell yourself to Christgau for the job?
Chuck: Well, Christgau doesn’t do the hiring.
Steven: Well, with whoever does the hiring, was it based more on how you worked at the Voice as a freelancer, or did it have more to do with some preconceived idea of the section you presented?
Chuck: It wasn’t really like I was trying to sell myself that much. What happened was, I had finished doing an article for Eric Weisbard and he mentioned that the next piece I do, someone else would be Music Editor. I said, “Oh, you’re leaving?” I had no idea. And he’s like, “You didn’t know that?” And I said, “Of course, I didn’t know that.” I’m way out of the loop on those things. I’m just this writer in Philadelphia. It’s not like I talk to that many people who would even know. I wound up sending a resume–and Eric actually discouraged me, if I remember–but I sent a resume to Doug Simmons and I wound up being interviewed by him, and a lot of people applied for the position but I don’t think I had a resume ready at the time. I threw it–pieced it–together then and there, and Doug mentioned to me that he wanted a proposal on how I would change the section, or if I would change it. Obviously, I’d spent enough time over the years whining about what I didn’t like about the Village Voice music section, so a proposal was not that hard to accomplish. So I did that and honestly, I can’t remember what I wrote in the letter. I think I said I wanted there to be more humor and less, you know, use of the word “deconstruction.” [Laughs]
Steven: Maybe wider genres to be covered?
Chuck: I don’t know. It’s not like the genre coverage was not wide. I can’t remember if that was an issue or not. I don’t know if it’s wider now than when Eric was here. I can’t say that for a fact. It’s not like Eric was opposed to covering pop stuff. I guess they liked the proposal I wrote–I guess they liked other things. I have a journalism degree and most music critics don’t. It would be pure conjecture for me to tell you why they hired me. Probably because, maybe, they wanted someone to shake things up a little bit. My sensibilities are probably at odds to what the last few music editors…Maybe they were looking for that. Maybe they liked the fact that I was not a New Yorker. Maybe they liked that I would have settled for less money than the people I was up against. I’m not kidding–I think that’s conceivable. If I was up against people from Spin andRolling Stone, maybe they asked for more money.
Steven: Do you have any idea who you were up against for the job?
Chuck: I don’t wanna get into that. I mean, I think I know a couple of the people, but there’s no point in…
Steven: What preconceived idea of a section did you have, and have you been able to accomplish that?
Chuck: I don’t know how much of a preconceived idea I had of the section. It’s not like, “Oh my God, I’m going to go in there and tear things up.” There are writers I really like who I think deserve to be in the section. And I think they wound up in there. In as much as they wanted to do the work: some did and some did not. There’s probably some people who I wished would have done more in the last couple of years. I don’t know if I expanded the genres but I like to think that I expanded the voices. There was a certain amount of academic detachment in the writing in the music section. I think it was–it took itself really, really, really seriously in a way that sometimes works but often doesn’t. [Laughs] So I think I affected that balance. Maybe, I mean three years ago…so much has changed in music in the last three years it’s hard for me to remember what I didn’t like about the coverage. Maybe there were writers who I thought should be in the section that weren’t. Honestly, the new writers that I’ve brought in are mostly people who I never even heard of three years ago. It’s not like in three years I wanted to discover Tony Green, Kelefa Sanneh, or Nick Catucci or Amy Phillips and have them in the section. I had never heard of them. I’m always hearing from new writers and I’m happy with what the section is now.
Steven: As Music Editor, have you had to kill many articles, and do you normally give the writers a chance to do re-writes?
Chuck: Usually I give the writer a chance to do a re-write but honestly, I don’t kill that many. I have killed some. If it’s an assigned piece–a couple of times I’ve offered them a chance to do a re-write and they haven’t done one, in which case I wind up just filing a kill fee or whatever. Some people have done a re-write or two and it still didn’t work so I had to kill the piece. Maybe once or twice, it’s conceivable that I didn’t give them a chance to a re-write, but it just seems fair. I was a writer for a long time. Maybe there’s a piece that’s so timely that a re-write would not make sense. Some pieces, though, have run at a third of the length that I assigned them at!
Steven: From your experience, do editors at Spin and Rolling Stone put writers through anything like the process of editing that you and Christgau put them through at theVoice?
Chuck: I don’t know. I have no idea what they do now.
Steven: I’m talking about when you were there, writing for those magazines…
Chuck: I did line edits over the phone with Rolling Stone and Spin reviews. I don’t know if they were the same kinds of edits as Voice reviews. I was asked to re-write certain parts. Yeah. The answer, as far as I know, is they do. And I remember doing that.
Steven: But the process was different, maybe not as specific or detailed.
Chuck: I wouldn’t say that. Some. They were line edits. I’m not saying they were always right. Some editors were right sometimes, and some were wrong, maybe all the time. They would zero in or lines and say change this or cut this. There were other places I think didn’t do that, but Rolling Stone and Spin did.
Steven: I’m pretty sure your first piece of professional music journalism was published in the Voice. There’s a story about this–you were in the army in Germany and you wrote a letter to Robert Christgau. Tell me about that story and how that parlayed into assignments.
Chuck: Basically, I had started voting in the Voice music critics poll, I think senior year in college, and I can’t remember how I got a ballot. I think that Bob, in one of his “Pazz & Jop” essays, had said, you know, people always feel like they’ve been knighted when they’re asked to vote in the “Pazz & Jop” poll. I don’t know if it’s still like that or not, but he said, go ahead, knight yourself, if you’re writing about music regularly; you know, send us a note and we’ll send you a ballot. And I can’t remember if I–I think I must have sent him a letter in the mail, and he started sending me a ballot, because I was writing–my senior year in college I was reviewing a lot of records for my college paper.
And so I probably voted that year, and then a couple subsequent years. At any rate, I got my journalism degree on an Army ROTC scholarship, so when I graduated college I owed the Army four years as an Officer. So I went to Signal Officer Basic Course in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and then went to Germany, and…I kept reading music criticism. I think I was subscribing to the Voice, and probably Creem, and I think I even got the Boston Phoenix–weeks late ’cause I was in Germany. The third year I voted in the Voicepoll–actually I probably, now that I think about it, wasn’t really eligible. I was probably eligible in my senior year in college because I was reviewing records, but once I went into the Army I wasn’t reviewing records. But I’d get the ballot every year and I’d vote anyway!
So, the third year I voted I attached to my ballot–and with no intention at all of it getting printed; it was more like me letting off steam–an 11-page letter about the state of music and about music criticism, and Bob printed a good chunk of it, quoted me in the essay, and printed my list. But actually, before that, I got a check in the mail from theVillage Voice, I was in Germany, and I was like, what is this check for?! It never occurred to me that any of it would be printed for publication, more like I was just writing a letter because it was in me, maybe I was letting off steam because I was doing Army stuff all week.
And of course I felt pretty elated about that, you know. And Bob, I think, got a hold of my mom in Michigan, maybe by calling Information or something, and asked me to start writing. And the first thing I actually wrote for him was a review of Bad Religion’s Into the Unknown, I think it’s called, which is like the one album they still don’t have in print ’cause it sounds like ’70s music. [laughs] It’s probably their one really good album. Then I started writing fairly regularly for the Voice–I reviewed Too Tough to Die by the Ramones, I wrote about John Anderson, blah blah blah, Done With Mirrors by Aerosmith, and talked about how Aerosmith were rap music before rap music existed, and Rick Rubin read that article, and he got Aerosmith together with Run-D.M.C., supposedly after reading that article.
So I wrote all kinds of stuff in the next three years when I was in the Army, both in Germany and in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and by the time I got out of the Army I assumed I would go work for some suburban paper in Michigan, you know, doing journalism stuff, but I was getting calls from Rolling Stone, and I guess Spin–I don’t know. I did a heavy metal roundup for the Voice, and I think yeah, magazines called me asking me to write about heavy metal records. I mean, maybe I pursued it a little bit, but as I remember, mostly it was them contacting me, so by the time I got out of the Army I just sort of fell into freelancing full-time.
Steven: So you didn’t pitch much? Or was it a combination of both?
Chuck: I think it was a combination. I guess they would see things I’d written in the Voice. I think what was kind of my ace-in-the-hole was that there weren’t that many people writing about heavy metal, so I kind of got pigeonholed, and this is really pre-Metallica/Jane’s Addiction/Faith No More–when heavy metal really kind of became okaywith critics–and for some reason I was perceived as this guy who could write about metal, and I guess make it interesting.
Steven: Were you writing much about disco music or soul during this time?
Chuck: I was writing about everything. I mean, that’s why it was kind of odd to get pigeonholed. I reviewed a Nile Rodgers album for the Voice…I was probably more hard rock, but I was doing late ’80s indie stuff on Homestead and SST and Touch and Go–you know,boy indie music, loud guitar indie rock. I’d have to go back and find what was the first soul or disco record I wrote about, but it wasn’t like I was just writing about the one thing. So when you ask me if I was writing about that stuff early on, I don’t know, maybe in the very first year or two not as much, but I was listening to it. In the first Top 10 the Voice printed by me, I voted for Al Green and Nile Rodgers and ESG–but I was also listening to a lot of rap music. I started listening to rap music in 1981–“Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”…I bought Funky 4 + 1 “That’s the Joint” the year it came out, based on reviews I had read in the Voice. So I don’t know why the perception would be that that was something I eventually delved into. I mean, I think I was pigeonholed to a certain extent early on as being this–well, I probably pushed the pigeonhole to a certain extent–but of being this white, male, heterosexual guy from the Midwest, who, you know, grew up on Ted Nugent or Aerosmith records, which I kind of was, to a certain extent, but I was also a new waver, and I had heard dance music all my life, but I think it was more like they needed someone to write about that stuff, so I was The Guy. I wasn’t listening exclusively to that, or even more than other stuff–does that answer the question?
Steven: Yeah, and certainly you had no problem with that, because you were a freelancer trying to get music writing, so if that’s how they want to see it…
Chuck: Absolutely, and what really helps a freelancer is to find a niche, and I found a niche pretty early on. But to define me by that niche seems, especially after…18 years later, when people still define me by that niche–that’s bizarre!
Steven: I personally don’t understand this, but you’ve always been compared to Lester Bangs, but when you actually read your stuff, it’s much much more like Christgau–that to me seems like the much bigger influence than Lester Bangs. So why do you think people always compare your writing to Lester Bangs?
Chuck: I don’t know–I mean, do people still?
Steven: Well, I mean, this is when you were writing–you’re hardly writing anymore.
Chuck: I think that there’s probably a certain kind of character I created, you know…
Steven: Does it bother you?
Chuck: I don’t care–no, I’m flattered by it, why would it bother me? I mean, I read more Christgau than Bangs early on, and it wasn’t until later–it’s not like I grew up reading rock criticism. I started reading rock magazines when I started writing about rock music. So it wasn’t like in high school I was reading Circus or Creem. The big turning point was Bob’s 1978 “Pazz & Jop” essay, “The Triumph of the New Wave.” I was probably as fascinated by the math–that there were people sending in these lists and giving points to the records, all these records I’d never heard of–as I was by what he wrote, though I did find what he wrote really intriguing. But I don’t know that my style is much like Bob’s, either. I don’t think I particularly write like Bob or Lester.
Steven: Well, I can see more of a correlation to Christgau than to Lester Bangs.
Chuck: I think what people have called my “gonzo” side, which probably shows up more in Stairway to Hell–I think it’s my fucking-around side. And I will let my writing do things that Christgau would not let his writing do, like go off on tangents. Bob’s writing really tends to stay within a box, when he’s writing about something, whereas I would take off from a point and go in different directions. And I think there was probably a certain kind of energy to it, or humor to it, that people associated with Bangs, and I think also, you know, I’m from Detroit, I like hard rock, I probably, you know–I don’t know, there was probably a certain vulgarity to my writing, I mean there are things I had in common with Bangs, but initially Christgau was more of an influence, though I don’t know that my writing is more like one of them than the other one. I don’t particularly think it’s like either, though on the other hand it doesn’t confound me that people would see some commonality.
Steven: Well, when you were reading the Voice back then, what other writers come to mind that were writing pieces that said something to you?
Chuck: I don’t know, there were individual pieces here and there, stuff by Ken Tucker, Michael Freedberg, Greg Tate–those are off the top of my head. Or Davitt Sigerson writing about the Gap Band or the Bellamy Brothers–pretty mainstream stuff, I…
Steven: For the Voice he wrote that?
Chuck: I think so. Freedberg’s stuff was probably more in the Phoenix, writing about Italo-disco stuff, or just disco in general. To what extent they were influences, I don’t know. I mean, I saw Meltzer pieces in the ’80s, and of course Bangs. But the Christgau stuff I really liked was the “Consumer Guide.” I really liked the idea of, you know, these concise little reviews. Which is another thing I probably have in common with him. The way Stairway to Hell is written–the voice is probably not Christgau-like, but the formis Christgau-like. These kind of little pocket-size reviews. Stairway‘s run a little longer, probably an average of 250 words each, as opposed to a “Consumer Guide” thing, which might run closer to 100. But I mean, I think that was definitely an influence; Bob’s love of math was probably an influence, oddly enough! I’d always been fascinated with math as a kid.
Steven: And baseball statistics, too…
Chuck: Yeah, I was a baseball fan in a lot of ways because of statistics, and knowing which team somebody was on–I loved the idea of categorizing, there’s just something…I mean, it’s geeky, it’s totally geeky, but somehow, that’s how my mind works, and that’s really a theme in The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll–I mean, it’s the theme. But it’s also a theme of Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock, the idea of taking what music is out there and dividing it into genres in other ways than how genres are usually divided.
Steven: Yeah–like ‘amputee rock’ and…
Chuck: Yeah. I think a lot of them are silly, but I think I probably wound up saying things about the music–or I hope I did–through the back door. I think there’s a sense of play there. I think the sense of play in my writing has more in common with some previous critics than other previous critics, for whatever reason, I don’t know.
Steven: Okay. So is the ‘metal writer’ tag unfair?
Chuck: Well, Stairway to Hell happened, because…Okay, I had done metal roundups in various places. I initially did one in the Voice, like in ’84…it seems like maybeRolling Stone maybe asked me to do one in ’85 or so, and I never did it–or maybe I did it and it got killed–I can’t remember. I think I was just in the Army and too busy, and I never pulled it off. But, at any rate, a couple years down the line I was asked to write the guide to heavy metal by Harmony Books. And what they wanted me to do was an encyclopedia of heavy metal, where I would go back and listen to every Scorpions record, every Judas Priest record, every Iron Maiden record, every Motley Crue record, and grade them–sort of like those Rolling Stone Record Guides?
Steven: Or Martin Popoff’s book that came out later.
Chuck: Yeah, maybe like that, whatever, but you know, I would like have an essay on Iron Maiden, and on top of it I would rate all the albums with stars or letter grades or whatever.
Steven: Did you talk them out of that?
Chuck: No, what I suggested–I would not have been capable of it. I didn’t own any Iron Maiden or Scorpions or Judas Priest records, I’ve barely listened to any now! I still don’t know if I’ve listened to an Iron Maiden album all the way through, ever in my life, and I don’t know if I ever will. I’m told the first couple ones with their first singer are good–I don’t know. But it would’ve been way too much work, in the sense that–for one thing it would’ve been an expense, ’cause I would’ve had to go out and buy all these records. So what I suggested is, why don’t I just pick out my 500 favorite heavy metal records? And what that allowed me to do was to define heavy metal how I wanted to define it. You know, as a kind of music with loud guitars or whatever. Because the idea of this prescribed definition for the genre didn’t interest me anyway, it had nothing to do with how I think about music, and with what I’d been doing with music since I started writing about it. So, I just went through my record collection, you know, and pulled out everything that would fit, and a lot of Stairway to Hell was based on condensed versions of reviews I had written when the records came out. But anybody who’s seenStairway to Hell knows that it’s hardly a heavy metal book in any constricted definition of the term. If anything, why, when Stairway to Hell came out I wasn’t pigeonholed as an indie rock fan?–’cause there’s as much indie rock in that book as there is anything else…there’s five Sonic Youth albums!
Steven: Did anyone get mad because of that?
Chuck: Of course.
Steven: Did the publishers say, Sonic Youth? Teena Marie? This guy’s not writing about metal!
Chuck: No, because they liked my writing, but of course people have gotten mad over the years. If you go to Amazon.com, there’s really funny reviews, saying, you know, it has nothing to do with heavy metal…
Steven: It’s still in print, right?
Chuck: No, it’s been remaindered, I think. I think both books have. But depending on what your definition of heavy metal is, maybe it does have nothing to do with heavy metal, I don’t know–it has to do with heavy metal as how I define it. No, the book company liked it, they didn’t give me a problem with that. But at any rate, yeah, if you look at the cover–both editions–I mean, it looks like a heavy metal book. So yeah, that’s part of the reason why I was pigeonholed. But I mean, if I had been asked to do a guide to, like, 500 country records or funk records or bubblegum records or electronic records, I would’ve done that, and it would’ve been just as fun, and it would probably have been just as good a book. I mean, maybe or maybe not–I probably couldn’t do 500 singer-songwriter records.
Steven: Even today, at an advanced age, does the tag bother you?
Chuck: It doesn’t affect me that much anymore. Toward the end of my–why do I say “toward the end” of my freelance career? I could freelance again–it would bother me whenever a Scorpions album came out, or a Judas Priest album came out, and I would get calls from Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, asking me to write about it, as if I was some kind of expert on the Scorpions! And I remember I actually reviewed a Scorpions album, for Entertainment Weekly, and I probably gave it a C+ or B-, and I thought it had one really good song on it. That bothered me. But probably what bothered me more is what they wouldn’t ask me to write about, that the people weren’t asking me to write about Liz Phair records or Hole records or Beck records, you know? Which I never really understood–it just seemed really kind of simplistic, the way editors made assignments. On the other hand, maybe I filled a hole, maybe it’s just that they thought other people couldn’t write about this stuff. For all I know, I was perceived as a mediocre writer, but at least someone who can write about this stuff. I don’t know! Once in a while I’ll get a call from some upstart magazine saying, you know, we’ve decided we should have a review of the new Journey album–you’re the person who should write about it! And a couple times I’ve gotten pissed off. I’m like, why the fuck are you calling me about new Journey album?! Because I liked “Don’t Stop Believing” once? It’s really idiotic that after 18 years people still perceive my writing that way. I attribute that to the laziness of editors.
Steven: And as an editor now you certainly don’t pigeonhole writers…
Chuck: I’m sure I do! [laughs] I’m sure there are writers I do the exact same thing with, but I am open–if Simon Reynolds pitched me a Bruce Springsteen album, God, I’d probably go for it in a second. Hi Simon! You know. I had Greg Tate write about Bruce Springsteen the year before last. I’m more open to…actually, the vast majority of pieces in the Voice are ones that were pitched to me by writers. Like, if a new Cornershop album is coming out, or a new Eminem, I might have to think about, hmm, who would be really good to write about Eminem, or who would be really good to write about Cornershop? I ran a Drive By Truckers lead review recently, and I’m like, who would be really good to write about this? And it’s just like, wait a minute, it’s a concept album about Alabama, I should get Don Allred because he’s the same age as those guys and he grew up there. There are times when it will occur to me that X-person would be really good to write about it, but I don’t know that genre comes into it that much. There are certain records that have to be reviewed, and I try to think of who would write the most interesting thing about it…
Steven: So, for instance, George Smith, writing about Yes, is that something–he must’ve pitched that, certainly you didn’t…
Chuck: George Smith has probably been published almost as much as anybody in the section the last couple of years, and he’s made almost no pitches; almost every single one of his pieces is sent to me on spec.
Steven: Oh really?
Chuck: Yeah. He’s had one or two…actually, I told him I wanted him to write about Crack the Sky, but he’s never done it. Maybe a couple of the pieces he’s done–a couple of the sidebars–have been specifically assignments, but I would say 95% of them are just–and he’s the only writer who does it–he just sends me stuff out of the blue, on spec. I mean, there’s other spec pieces I’ve printed, but he’s by far, he’s the one who the highest percentage is on spec. If I print it I print it, if I don’t–you know, there’s stuff I’ve never printed that he’s sent in. The thing is, he’s really smart in the sense that he’s canny: he writes these little sidebar things, and I’ll have that hole to fill, you know what I mean? Where I can fit a 300-word piece, and I’ll just happen to have one of his on hand that I find really entertaining. But it’s not like, oh my gosh, I have to find someone to write about the new Yes album, I know, I’ll call up George Smith! I don’t really give a fuck! Honestly, if someone pitched me the new Yes album, I’d be like, fuck you!
Steven: Right, I was shocked to see it in the section.
Chuck: He writes these really entertaining 300-400 words, but it wasn’t a pitch. But I mean, the idea of someone pitching me a Yes album, I’d be like, nobody cares about Yes, but the article’s already written, it’s already entertaining, you know? So, he’s smart, because the vast majority I’ve run by him–if somebody pitched it to me, I would not assign. He pitched to me–I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this–he pitched to me the Kiss box set, and I was like, no, I’m not interested in the Kiss box set. BUT, if he had sent me–or maybe somebody else–in fact, a couple other people pitched me the Kiss box set, and I could care less–I mean, I couldn’t care less, just like I couldn’t care less about most box sets by bands who have been written about to death over the years, especially really minor bands like Kiss–BUT if he just sent me something on spec, it’s conceivable that one week I’d have room for it!
Steven: It seems like that would be easier than trying to pitch…
Chuck: There have definitely been times when he’s tried to pitch me stuff, and I’ve turned him down.
Steven: What about writers on the other side of the spectrum, a guy like, for instance, Milo Miles, doing the African stuff. I mean, is he pitching that kind of stuff, or is it, “Here’s a good African CD, I’ve got to call Milo.”
Chuck: I think I called him about Rachid Taha, I decided that we really needed a Rachid Taha piece, and it occurred to me that he’s written really well about Algerian rai before, and he might be interested, so I know I asked him that. The blues piece I believe he pitched to me. Oddly enough, Milo’s stuff, we always seem to end up running it during a week I’m on vacation, so I think I’ve only edited him once. I mean, I’ve only printed him, like, maybe five or six pieces, but I think that all but one of them has been edited by Bob–I think I edited the African one.
Steven: Do you edit Christgau’s music stuff?
Chuck: Yeah, almost all of it.
Steven: You do?
Chuck: Yeah, I edit both the “Rock & Roll &” column and the “Consumer Guide.”
Steven: Was the first time you did that–I’m sure you’re used to it now–but the first time, was that kind of a surreal experience?
Chuck: Sure, I mean it’s a little bit intimidating, you know, because you really look up to this person, and part of me was like, how could I possibly improve Bob Christgau’s writing? So, I don’t know if “surreal” is the right word…but I was nervous, especially because he was my first editor. But I don’t know, I think we’ve developed a rapport, it seems to work pretty well.
Steven: No problems there, it’s just business?
Chuck: It’s, you know, it’s the job: the Music Editor edits him. And I’ve edited, I think, three “Pazz & Jop” essays so far. And I’ll make suggestions, but–I don’t know, it seems to work.
Steven: Accidental Evolution, your second book, it started out somehow as a book about Def Leppard’s Hysteria album. How did that transformation come about?
Chuck: Well, it was sort of a book about Def Leppard’s Hysteria album. It was originally called The Accidental Evolution of Rock’n’Roll Through the Eyes of Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and the idea was to go off on all these different tangents, but each chapter would start–I would start talking about a song on Hysteria, and I would see where it took me. I was contracted to do that, right after Stairway came out. By the time I turned it in, it was probably twice as long as what finally wound up coming out a few years later. Both of my editors at Crown/Harmony had left. One of them had left the publishing industry entirely, and one of them had left to edit text books. At any rate, the people who were at Harmony had no idea what the fuck to do with it, and at least in part because nobody cared about Def Leppard anymore. You know, you’re talking a couple years after Nirvana or whenever. It probably didn’t make a whole lot of sense when I was contracted to do it; it made way less sense a couple years later. [laughs] So I think I shopped the manuscript around otherwise, and eventually, I guess, when Da Capo agreed to publish it, I think that–I can’t remember whether it was my idea or their idea that the Def Leppard theme would be eliminated, and it would just be this kind of thematic, you know–this thing with chapters! Def Leppard are still probably in there–if you look in the index, I think they get as many mentions as anybody except, oddly enough, Bob Dylan. Why have I never been pigeonholed as a Bob Dylan critic? I have no idea.
Steven: I don’t know…
Chuck: So if you count the index, Def Leppard and Dylan have the most, and those are remnants from the original part of the book. It’s not even like–I don’t know, for some reason Hysteria struck me as this neat frame–it probably could’ve been any album, but at the time it seemed like this frame that I could go off on a lot of directions.
Steven: I love this picture and caption: “For 15 years, Kix were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.”
Chuck: Oh yeah, yeah. I might still believe that. I mean, they definitely weren’t the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in 1987, which is one of those 15 years, ’cause that’s the yearAppetite For Destruction came out, but overall, yeah, I think they’re probably my favorite from that time period–if I had to pick out a rock band who made records that I consistently enjoy…Although it’s been a while since I’ve put a Kix record on. I think I played “911”–I can’t remember which album it’s from–I had a heavy metal radio show onVillage Voice Radio called “Stairway to Hell,” for about seven months last year, and I think I played the Kix song “911” a little bit after 9/11.
Steven: Did anyone from that band ever get in touch with you?
Chuck: Well, I interviewed them once. I interviewed them for the Voice. I did a piece, I think it was when they still had “Rock & Roll Quarterly,” and I took a manuscript of the book, and I showed it to them, with I think four of their albums in the Top 50, and they seemed to think it was a joke. Like I had put it together just for them or something!
Steven: I can imagine that. When they saw that they were in the Top 5…
Chuck: I think they have two albums in the Top 10, and four in the Top 50, and then, in the second edition of the book, the ’90s edition, they have two others pretty high up–is it two?–at least one more…
Steven: Yeah, I was just curious what their reaction to that was.
Chuck: They were amused. I think the thing with Kix, even though they apparently really had fun writing those songs and performing, I don’t think–it was almost like, they didn’t think in terms of it being Art, I guess, in any way. And I’m not saying that, oh, that’s why they’re great, ’cause a lot of people who do think in terms of art probably make great records too, but I think it was just like, why would anybody care about us?! And obviously they took pride in their craft–in their rhythm, in their sense of humor, and in their singing–but it wasn’t the type of pride that it ever occurred to them would be translated into record reviews. Although someone actually reviewed the first or second Kix album in the Voice. I think that might be–is that how I found out about them? Someone–it could have been Sigerson, or it could have been Considine–reviewed, I think, the first Kix album and Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No together in ’81 or something like that, I guess for Bob. So it wasn’t like I was the very first person who wrote about them. Considine seems to like them in retrospect. There was a later edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide where he gave a couple of the albums four stars.
Kix are something–aside from the fact that they sound like a combination of AC/DC and the Cars, which is custom-made for me–they’re one kind of a band I like in that they come out of a genre that doesn’t think of itself as art, but at the same time they’re obviously very meticulous about the craft that they put into it; they’re eccentric within a non-eccentric genre, if that makes any sense. And obviously, one of the things I like, whether you’re talking about disco or bubblegum or country or metal–and other people don’t like, for whatever reasons–one of the things the music can do that I’m drawn to is eccentricity within a sphere or a kind of music that’s not normally considered eccentric. For some reason I seem to think that that makes the eccentricity more believable or more fun or whatever. And Kix are a really good example of that.
Steven: I ask every writer I interview–the first time you were published in Rolling Stone, did that mean anything to you? And do you remember who you wrote about…
Steven: When it was published, and who edited it. And did it mean anything to you, like, Wow, this is Rolling Stone!
Chuck: I don’t remember off the top of my head what my first Rolling Stone review would’ve been. God, you’ve asked me a couple questions, like what was my first soul or r&b review–I wonder if my phone will stretch into the room where I have my filing cabinets? I don’t think it does, but…
Steven: Do you remember who was editing the record reviews section at the time, what editor you worked for at Rolling Stone?
Chuck: No, I don’t remember. [laughs] That’s so bad! Whoever it was, I’m sure they’re a wonderful person! At that place and Spin, it always seemed like there was a lot of turnover, and I honestly can’t…I do remember my first lead review, would’ve been–is it my only lead review in Rolling Stone?–actually, no, I think I did one on the Offspring later–I think I only had two lead reviews in Rolling Stone, and the first one was Super Hits of the Seventies, the Rhino compilation, and I think I did the Offspring later. But my first review…I can’t remember!
Steven: Well, let me ask you this, did it mean anything to you because it was Rolling Stone, or was it just another music magazine?
Chuck: I never put Rolling Stone on any kind of pedestal. I mean, honestly, Steven, so much of it happened so fast, that even Creeem, which I had much more of an emotional attachment to than Rolling Stone–I can’t even say that I went, “Oh my God, I’m in Creem.” When I was first published in the Village Voice it meant a lot to me. The other ones were almost like these dominoes, just falling, but it wasn’t like–I mean, it sounds cynical–it made me happy–but it wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I’m in Rolling Stone!” But again, it’s not like I was a kid who grew up reading Rolling Stone or who even grew up reading Creem. I basically discovered these magazines as I was starting to write.
Steven: This might be a stupid question, but how did a heavy metal writer like you avoid the teen metal fan mags like Circus and Hit Parader? And what did you think of those magazines?
Chuck: Well, a) I wasn’t a heavy metal writer. And b) I don’t even know that they would’ve had me. I mean, Creem, I liked more–I don’t know if they paid more–I was living in Michigan, so Creem was geographically closer to me, but I didn’t really know that much about Hit Parader or those other metal magazines. I have been printed–I think in Rip! once, but usually it’s stuff I’d done–usually if I got printed in those magazines it was pieces I’d done for somebody else that got killed, so I just sort of sent them around. I had a Motorhead thing that ended up running in Rip!, an interview with Lemmy. But, I don’t know–it wasn’t like I was aiming for those magazines, and I think that–I honestly don’t even know that much about those. My daughter now buys–who’s 12–I went back to Philly last weekend, and she bought an issue of Metal Edge. It didn’t seem that good, but she bought Terrorizer out of England which seemed really cool. They had their Top 50 metal albums of the year, and–this is another tangent, but, umm, humor me–and it was a pretty cool Top 50 ’cause not only did it have Radiohead and Nick Cave as two of the best 50 metal albums of the year, it had three underground hip-hop albums: Cannibal Ox, Techno Animal, and 2nd Gen. Not to mention a lot of pretty cool-sounding gothic stuff. I’m kind of into the Scandinavian gothic stuff, but stuff that I’d never heard of, along with, like, the Slayer album, the Tool album, or whatever. And so, it was interesting to me because their definition of heavy metal was probably almost as wide as the Stairway to Hell definition. And it’s the first metal magazine I’ve seen since–although Kerrang! might be that way, I don’t really see Kerrang!–it was one of the first metal mags I’ve seen since Creem Metal that I’ve seen–and it’s not like I look at metal magazines, so I could be completely wrong–that allowed itself to use that wide a definition. And it had Top 10s by people–you were allowed to vote for singles too–and one person voted for Moldy Peaches, one person voted for the Strokes, one person voted for “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child, one person voted for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” by Eve and Gwen Stefani. So at any rate, my daughter’s buying heavy metal magazines now, and she’s a big Kittie fan. I don’t know what that has to do with the question!
Steven: Well, it was just about teen metal mags.
Chuck: I don’t know, I never had that much interest in them and they never had that much interest in me. Which was good, because the feeling was mutual!
Steven: You wrote for Creem in the ’90s–and before that, of course–and in the early ’90s you wrote a cover story…
Chuck: About Def Leppard.
Chuck: Yeah, you know it’s funny, I think you said that you really liked that piece–I don’t think it’s all that great a piece. And maybe it is good, but I’m kind of embarrassed about it, ’cause I’m writing about this Def Leppard album that is really bad. [laughs] What is it called, Adrenalize or something?
Steven: Yes, Adrenalize. That’s one of my favorite pieces by you.
Chuck: I don’t remember it being a very good album, and it’s weird because it’s one of those deals that you have to do as a freelance rock critic, where you really liked the previous album [laugh], so, you–okay, I’m gonna interview this band! And I didn’t particularly like that record.
Steven: Well, you wrote about it like you liked it…
Chuck: But, I might have found interesting things to say about it…
Steven: You did…
Chuck: But as I remember, it’s kind of a lame record.
Steven: Well, what happened is, I read that article and then I backtracked to Stairway to Hell. I think that was the article where I discovered your stuff.
Chuck: See, I also find it–I mean, I’m flattered by that–but I also find it interesting because I just consider that whole era of Creem like this really…I mean, it wasn’t even the real Creem. Once they moved out to L.A.–and I think I was doing maybe a monthly singles column, and occasional record reviews, I don’t think I did a whole lot of features, but it’s just like…for one thing, that’s probably the worst era of my writing. It’s all so like…I mean, the early ’90s, I think my writing is probably kind of lame during those years. I think I was probably fishing both for places to write and things to write about. I mean, that’s probably the closest I came, and apparently this happens to a lot of rock critics when they’re around 30. I think I was feeling pretty burned out, and I think if I had gotten out of it, that’s when I would have done it. And it seems to be the age where a lot of people, a lot of rock critics, do get out of it. But any rate, that has nothing to do with the article, and I’m glad you liked the article…
Steven: That’s how I discovered you.
Chuck: But it’s kind of funny, it just, it looks ugly, and, it’s like–I wrote it for the fake Creem! But anyway, I’m glad that you liked it.
Steven: Writing for Creem–not in the ’90s, but before that–was there some kind of history there for you?
Chuck: Oh, it definitely had a history. And I mean, when I say I can’t remember jumping up and down the first time I wrote for them–which I might be wrong, maybe I just don’t remember jumping up and down–I definitely, at least until it left Birmingham [Michigan], and when it lookedlike the old Creem, before it moved to L.A. and turned into that bigger tabloid piece of shit, I definitely felt part of the history. And I would seek out, when I could find them, those old Creems. And probably in some ways I was consciously molding my style off not any one particular writer, but just the writing style of that old Creem. And what’s weird is that in the late ’80s–it might actually apply more to Creem Metal than to Creemitself–was that you had these people who could write about music and were so knowledgeable, but at the same time they wouldn’t really take it that seriously, they kind of knew that it was a joke. And it wasn’t like, look at us, we’re making a joke, ha ha, aren’t you impressed, that kind of smug thing that you get in Spin, which is just fucking despicable! I mean, there is such a difference between the kind of humor in Creem and, you know, the forced kind of humor that Spin would attempt. But it was loose, and it was funny, and there were real individual stylists, and I don’t just mean the big names, but I mean people like Gregg Turner or Richard Riegel or Rick Johnson, who were just fucking brilliant! I mean, they were unbelievably funny, and unbelievably smart. And they had unbelievably individual voices. And it’s really the only time I think that happened in the course of rock criticism. And it wasn’t just in the ’70s; I think that probably from the ’70s through to the time they went bankrupt in Michigan, there really was that feeling there. And I’m not saying it was a feeling in the offices, it was a feeling in the magazine. That’s the only time–I mean, outside the Village Voice music section, which is different–but it’s the only time I really felt part of something bigger, and it probably helped my writing in a lot of ways. Writing for Rolling Stone and Spin never made my writing better; it never motivated me. In Creem, you just want to be as good as those other guys. You wanted to be as smart as them, you want to be as funny as them. So yeah. And I mean, the captions were funny…
Frank Kogan has explained–and I don’t know whether this makes sense or not–that, what happened to rock criticism–he might be totally full of shit as far as this point goes–but, that at first it was something that came out of rock and then it turned into something that came out of journalism. And Creem may have been the high point of, like–although the metal magazines probably still do it, and probably certain teen magazines, or whatever–it’s like…Creem came out of rock. I’m not wording that right, and maybe Frank worded it better, but the magazine did what the music did, and that’s such a fucking cliche, but…just the letters section in Creem was so smart and so funny. My guess is that there will never be another music magazine like that, but maybe there will–and maybe there is one, maybe it’s online or somewhere, I don’t know.
Steven: Of all the editors you’ve worked for over the years, does one stand out as teaching you something invaluable, and if so, which one?
Chuck: Yeah, there’s ones that stand out for me in ways that…I would never fucking do that as an editor! Probably the editors that taught me most were the really bad ones and I’m not gonna say who they were. You know, the ones who would always insist on there being a “nut graph” for a piece, or would randomly rearrange your paragraphs, or stick words like–you know, meaningless words like “nu metal” in articles, you know? Or, you know, when you’re talking to them on the phone it completely sounds like they’re doing something else. [laughs] But, I mean Christgau’s a great editor. Christgau is, I mean, he is almost a scarily good editor, in the sense that he can really see through bullshit. I mean, he knows…and what’s weird is that he seems to be able to do this with all different types of writers–writers who write like him, and writers who write nothing like him. He’s really sympathetic with their voice–he makes you do your voice better.
Steven: Yeah that’s what everybody says…
Chuck: And he will really be able to single out lines, he’ll be like, “Chuck, you know that that’s a cliche.” And I think he’s the only editor who’s ever been really able to see through my shit like that. I mean, I think that his opinions–I know he wasn’t a fan of Stairway to Hell, and I think he’s really wrong not to be a fan of Stairway to Hell. I think that he doesn’t like when writing goes off in tangents, the way my writing does in Stairway to Hell, except that in Stairway to Hell it works. And Stairway to Hell would be far worse, far stiffer, far blander, and say far less about music, if it didn’t go off on tangents. So, he couldn’t have edited Stairway to Hell; he would’ve been a bad editor forStairway to Hell. For the Voice, he was a great editor. And a lot of my writing in the Voice would not have been as good if he had not edited it. I mean, he stands out. There were other people who were definitely good, too, but he stands out.
Steven: Does Frank Kogan still publish Why Music Sucks?
Chuck: Umm, not as far as I know. I don’t know. I mean, it seems like one came out last year or something, or the year before, but I think it was old stuff and I think it took him forever to put it out. I mean, I don’t know ’cause I wouldn’t have time to write for it if he did.
Steven: How did you become aware of Frank’s magazine, and what about it did you love so much?
Chuck: Umm, oh God, you’re kind of going back.
Steven: Yeah, I know, but it was a fanzine that you used to write for…
Chuck: Yeah, no, I really liked that and I really liked Radio On, Phil Dellio’s thing, and…oh God, I haven’t really thought about it that much lately. I don’t know whether I was aware of Frank’s writing through stuff he had done in the Voice [in the mid ’80s]. But, I don’t know…Why Music Sucks and Radio On are the two fanzines that I know of that came closest to pulling off what Creem pulled off, in that it was like the writers were having a conversation with each other, and they really spurred themselves–they spurred each other to be better writers, to be more humorous, to be smarter, and it was just like a great fucking group of people! I mean, you had–honestly, probably the best people who were writing about music during those periods were writing for those two fanzines. And they were writing way better–I include myself in this–for those fanzines than they were for the professional ‘zines.
Steven: Are you talking about people like Arsenio Orteza…
Chuck: No, I’m talking about people like Rob Sheffield. I mean, Arsenio, I don’t know if he ever wrote that much for professional magazines outside of the Christian version of National Lampoon. [laughs] I’m kind of–I don’t know, maybe I’m giving him shit, or the Louisiana Entertainer or whatever…
Steven: Oh the Times of Acadiana–he writes for the Times.
Chuck: I don’t know, who else was in those places? Jack Thompson and Michael Freedberg and Sheffield…
Steven: Chris Cook?
Chuck: I mean, a lot of those people weren’t really professional critics. I mean, Chris Cook and Liz Armstrong and Arsenio Orteza and Don Allred and Phil Dellio…I mean, some of them were and some of them weren’t. And some of them I can’t really remember if they were, but…Sara Sherr–I’d have to pull out the issues. Plus Mary Gaitskill sometimes and Luc Sante–Now I’m talking about people who I’m intimidated about editing! They’re just–they’re way beyond being music critics. Those are great writers who happen to write about music once in a while–you know, Gaitskill and Sante. Those magazines worked as a conversation in the way Creem did, although it’s a really tiny–a real fractional version of Creem. I think Kogan said once that if Teena Marie was the Empire State Building, Sophie B. Hawkins was an ant standing next to the Empire State Building, but she was a really great ant. And probably if Creem was the Empire State Building, Why Music Sucks and Radio On were like ants standing next to it–they were Sophie B. Hawkins. But they were better than anything else at the time, and I mean, it’s a shame that they didn’t get bigger…and what was really cool was that there were probably writers who were really bad in them too [laughs], but somehow the bad writers made it better too; it really was the-whole-was-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts kinda thing.
Maybe they were really insular–I don’t know, I don’t read them that way, but maybe Creem was really insular at the time too. Maybe Creem was insular in a way that Rolling Stone or Spin aren’t–I don’t know. I don’t believe that it was, but maybe if Creem–or to a greater extent Why Music Sucks or Radio On–had a limitation, maybe it was a really closed conversation. I don’t think it was: I think people wrote in those magazines how people talk in a bar about music, or over dinner, or in the hallway. And I don’t think that people in Rolling Stone or Spin, or even the Village Voice do talk that way. I mean, sometimes they do, and probably more in the Voice than in Rolling Stone or Spin. I would hope more in the Village Voice since I’ve taken over as Editor. But, they [R.O. and WMS] gave you the freedom to fuck around, and I don’t see why people shouldn’tfuck around when they’re writing about music. It’s how people talk about music, you know. It’s like the gravity or the importance of a quarrel in a bar, or an argument on a playground. I don’t mean a fist fight…
Steven: No, I know what you’re saying.
Chuck: It gives it that intensity and that’s what makes the music important–not some air of self-importance or whatever.
Steven: You touched on this earlier, but how many CD review pitches do you get a week? And as an editor, are you on the lookout for new writers, new voices?
Chuck: That’s two different questions. I get tons. I’ll get e-mails…I don’t know, in a given week? If someone sends me an e-mail and they pitch me four different records, does that count as four or does it count as one? Or if they want to review two together? I get, I don’t know, somewhere between 20 and 50, maybe.
Steven: Does it bother you that you get so many?
Chuck: Of course not. I mean, is it a lot of work? Yeah! But, no, I like getting them, and I’ll tell writers to send me clips–I wanna be familiar with somebody’s writing before I give them an assignment, and I tell them, when you send me a pitch, you need to prove to me two things: a) that the music you want to write about deserves to be covered; and b) that you can cover it better than anybody else in the world, that you can, you know, make me more interested in it, that you have more interesting things to say about it. And writers will make mistakes on both counts, you know what I mean? And I don’t like when I get a pitch where it’s just a list: “I want to write about the new M2M album, and…” you know, whatever, although writers I’m more familiar with I’m more open to that.
Steven: Well, the younger writers, they don’t know how to make a pitch.
Chuck: Especially with new writers, it really doesn’t give me anything to go on. The more familiar I am with the writer’s work, the more they can get away with just saying…I mean, Joshua Clover can call me up and say, “I want to write about the new Creed record,” and I’m not gonna be like, well, what do you have to say about the new Creed record, Joshua? Since, boy, I know Joshua would have really interesting things to say about the Creed record. RJ Smith can call me up and say, “I want to write about the new Eminem record or the new DJ Shadow record,” you know, and I know he’s gonna come up with a good piece. Whereas with new writers, or writers who aren’t on the level of RJ Smith or Joshua Clover, whether they’re new or not, I’m gonna make them prove it. And there’s probably writers who think I’m an asshole for doing that, but the thing is, I have a really limited amount of space, there are things that have to be covered because they are important, and, especially for marginal records, I have nothing else to go on. And I have to weigh the different possibilities–I want my section to be as good as it possibly can be. And there are certain–that means that I can’t assign everything to everybody. And if somebody is not a great writer, I’m gonna be really picky, and I’m probably gonna shoot down nine out of every ten pitches–or maybe ten out of every ten pitches. And there is no other way I can do my job that I know of.
Steven: Do you have any favorite rock magazines that you read today?
Steven: What are you reading, music journalism-wise?
Chuck: I mean, I barely have time to read the Times, you know, in the morning. Honestly–and this is gonna sound really haughty–I probably read more music criticism in the Times than anywhere else except the Voice these days. Since I live in New York and since I get it delivered. And honestly, I didn’t even get a subscription to the Times until after September 11! But, look, I have a pile of books that I’m more interested in. I’ll tell you my stack of books that I want to read, that I’m more interested in than keeping up with music magazines, although I’m really easily diverted, like when my daughter Coco brought home Terrorizer, I knew that I should be reading the Times, but [laughs] I was drawn to reading all these gothic metal reviews. But okay, I have: this book called The Testosterone Advantage Plan, which I got through Men’s Health, which I subscribe to (I had to subscribe to something since my daughter was selling subscriptions for school!); I’ve got a book called Sports Talk by a guy named Alan Eisenstock, The Good Cook’s Book of Mustard by Michele Anna Jordan, Miles to Go, which is a Miles Davis biography by Chris Murphy–a lot of these I just bring home from work; Whose Detroit?, which is a history of Detroit, the Labor movement and stuff, by Heather Ann Thompson…is this really boring?
Steven: No, it’s interesting.
Chuck: Umm, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe by J. Richard Gott…I won’t tell you the authors anymore. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media in the Post-war Suburbs, a novel called All Families are Psychotics by Douglas Copland, A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, which is a novel, it could be bad, I don’t know, about hitch-hiking. Another novel, which is supposed to be the distaff version of High Fidelity, it’s called To Be Someone. And my girlfriend just gave me for Valentine’s Day, Ramiro Burr’s Billboard’s Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music. So, it’s just like–when would I havetime? I guess I’ll read Rolling Stone and Spin because I get them in the mail–actually, my subscription ran out and I really need to get it back going. I really prefer readingBillboard.
Chuck: Yeah, I find it kind of interesting, plus it’s stuff I don’t really know about, you know, like the music industry, and I feel like I have to get more industry reporting in theVoice, by the way, it just seems like there’s a lot going on lately. I would rather read Billboard than Rolling Stone or Spin or almost any music magazine, which doesn’t mean the writing is better, it’s just that it’s kind of telling me stuff I don’t already know, whereas Spin and Rolling Stone really aren’t gonna tell me stuff I don’t already know. But when I do get a copy of those, or Entertainment Weekly, I’ll look and see what the lead review is, and I’ll glance through to see what they review because it has someinfluence on me. I’ll be like, “Oh! They gave the Joey Ramone album a lead review, they gave the Casey Chambers album a lead review. That never occurred to me that people would think of that as important.” Those are two examples.
Steven: Plus you’ve got guys like Pareles and Christgau who do the occasional record review for Rolling Stone.
Chuck: I don’t really read their stuff in Rolling Stone. I mean, I’ll read Sheffield in Rolling Stone. And actually, the two writers, Sheffield, and now, Kelefa Sanneh–who I think is great. He’s about 25, he went to Harvard, he did some hip-hop stuff for me. I think the last things he probably did were Dungeon Family and Outkast‘s greatest hits, he did Wu-Tang and Jay-Z. He’s done a few pieces for me. But he was hired by the Times when Ann Powers left a couple months ago–those two, just because I really wish they had more time to write for me, I’ll read their stuff. I mean, Sheffield’s column in Rolling Stone, I assume it’s still going on…
Steven: “PopEye”? I think so…
Chuck: If I’m waiting in an airport, I’ll be like, oh look, Christgau reviewed these Arabic records in Rolling Stone, and I’ll look at it, but usually it’s stuff I heard him talk about for the last four months anyway! Like, I thought it was cool that he did the Arabic roundup in Rolling Stone, but a lot of that stuff had kinda been in the “Consumer Guide” already, so, you know…
Steven: Do you have the time to, or do you want to write a third book? Any plans for one?
Chuck: Do I want to, in theory? Yeah. Do I have the time? Right now, no. Do I know what it would be? No. Would I love having a third book on the shelves? Yes. Do I have the energy or the income to be able to write a third book? Probably not. Even as a freelance writer, I made less money the two years I wrote my books than in years I didn’t write my books, ’cause I had to stop writing otherwise. If someone gave me a really huge advance, where I could take a couple years sabbatical from the Voice, to write my memoirs or to write the Great American Novel…[laughs] I mean, if someone gave me a lot of money to write a version of Stairway to Hell about, say, electronica, I think that would be really fun. You know, I lived in Germany for three years, I’m from Detroit, I know the history of techno. I do, man! I could write reviews of the 500 greatest techno albums, and it’d be, honestly, you wanna know what? It’d be better–I could write a better techno book than anyone else. And if someone thinks that’s arrogant or full of shit, whatever. I could write a better guide to techno records than anybody else alive, I believe. BUT, I don’t know that I’ll ever do it, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be paid to do it. And I don’t know when I would find time. I mean, I’ve written exactly one actual long article in the three years at the Voice—5,000 words on Kid Rock and Eminem, because it was Detroit-oriented.
I did the singles column for a while, which I still plan to do again. In fact, I woke up this morning, I have this like pile of singles, and, okay, I gotta listen to these. I have notes on about 20 singles, it’s just a matter of sitting down at a typewriter and doing it. I’m at the office so much during the week, working on other people’s writing–I write these little show previews, like 10 or 12 of those a week, they’re in the middle of the paper–but it’s like, and I have my kids every other weekend, and I have a girlfriend, and it’s a matter of finding time to do it. Because I’m sitting at a keyboard–and these are all excuses, okay, I need to get these out in the air because the people want to know–but I’m sitting at a desk with a keyboard for hours and hours and hours every day, it’s really hard for me to come home and do it, or to sit down on a weekend and do it. I got in a pretty good groove of doing that singles column, which is easier than writing long pieces ’cause I can kind of do it piecemeal, but then the Village Voice radio station started, and I became the Music Director, and started doing a regular show–that ended up taking a lot of time. September 11 happened, and I started putting together a benefit album that comes out in April, which I get a Producer credit for, and that took up a lot of time. I can put in a plug for it: it’s called Love Songs to New York. That’s why I’m doing this interview! Basically, we put ads in all the Voice-related papers and got thousands of entries from unknowns and stars and stuff, and I went through all of them–Douglas Wolk actually did a piece on the entries as a lead review a few weeks ago. My point is, between that and the radio station, I kind of got out of my groove doing the singles column, because in the time I would’ve worked on the singles column I wound up working on those two projects.
Steven: You miss the writing, huh?
Chuck: I absolutely miss writing, but apparently, I don’t miss it enough to be doing it. Which is–I’m kind of mad at myself, but I just haven’t been motivated. I mean, part of what motivated me as a freelance writer was that I had to do it for a salary. And obviously, if I write any articles on top of my editing I get paid for them, so I should be motivated the same way, but it’s a matter of finding time to do it. And I miss it, I miss doing it, I miss seeing my name in print, I miss my opinions being out there, but I’m a fuckup, what can I say?
Steven: What was your take on the year 2000, the so-called “year of the rock critic”? You had rockcritics.com, you had the Bangs biography, you had the movie High Fidelity…
Chuck: It really seemed like a self-aggrandizing thing, and I don’t give a shit about it. I mean, you know, whatever. But Almost Famous came out…
Steven: Yeah, Lester Bangs on the silver screen…
Chuck: And Meltzer’s book…I don’t know, it seems like almost coincidental that all those things happened at the same time, and I don’t know. I mean, I have nothing against any of those things. There are things I dislike about Almost Famous or things I dislike about DeRogatis’s book, there are things I dislike about Meltzer’s book or Tosches’ book, there are things I dislike about rockcritics.com, there are things I love about all of them, you know, but do I think they add up to anything? Not really.
Steven: Just coincidence?
Chuck: I mean, maybe if you’re a rock critic who cares about it being the year of the rock critic, but for anyone else, I don’t know. I guess it makes maybe the “profession” more visible to other people if there’s a character in a movie, and I think there’s another one coming out where the main character’s a rock critic. I forget what it is…maybe I’m wrong. And High Fidelity came out, which has the second or third best scene about ordering records on your shelf, or the best scene about that since Diner, or whatever. And of course I could go off on a spiel, but it didn’t really affect my life. Unless you’re a rock critic who really wants to pat yourself on the back or you care about it being a respected profession–although what’s kind of good about it is that it wasn’t a respected profession, or not what was good about it, but maybe one thing that was good about it. I don’t have a take on it. I guess I’m not even convinced it happened.
Chuck: No more than I’m convinced that 1991 was the “year that punk broke.” Rock critics, probably like a lot of other writers, want to create some stupid headline for what the year was–that’s their business–but for me it just seems like an over-simplification, and why someone would want to be drawn into doing that, I don’t understand.
Steven: Any advice you’d give youngsters who want to become professional rock critics?
Chuck: Umm, I don’t know. Don’t. The thing is, there’s more competition now than there ever has been. We sent out 1,100 “Pazz & Jop” ballots in December, I think we had 622 people vote, and there’s more people writing about music now than there ever has been. I’m really kind of out of touch with how much people get paid for Web sites and dot coms and whatever you call ’em, but I’m under the impression–and this is a really obvious thing–that a lot of those went bust and people who were making money on them two years ago aren’t now. Freelancing in general, with a lot of magazines in general going under, this is not a really good time to be a freelancer…
Steven: Some people don’t even get paid!
Chuck: I’m a little bit out of touch with that, but that’s certainly something I pick up both from writers and from what I read. But I don’t know, there’s more competition than ever, but if you love it and you’re good at it, by all means, try, I guess.
Steven: Just don’t send your pitches to me!
Chuck: Don’t send your pitches to me if you suck! If you’re great, send your pitches to me, send me clips. You know, people have always asked me, how do I go about becoming a rock critic? And I’m the last fucking person to ask, ’cause with me it was a complete accident, it honestly was. I mean, go to journalism school on an Army scholarship, join the Army, write an 11-page letter to the Music Editor of the Village Voice–who happens to be me now!–figure out what music no one else is writing about–preferably by people with really stupid haircuts…I don’t know! It was all an accident. I mean, there were a series of accidents, but I don’t know how you do it. Oddly enough, as someone who wound up with this job, which I think is probably a pretty envied job among rock critics, and I’m really glad I have it, and I love it, I really do love it, though it can sometimes be a pain in different ways–I was never particularly ambitious. It was never like, boy, someday I’m gonna be the Editor of the Village Voice, or even, someday I’m gonna be published in the Voice or Rolling Stone. I never said any of those things. If anything, I was really un-ambitious. And I fell through the right rabbit holes or something.
Steven: Chuck, I hope you’re not gonna pull an Alan Light on us; I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about.
Steven: Scott and I did this big long Q&A about what it’s like to be the Editor of Spin, and we put the interview up, and a week later: “I’ve stepped down from Spinmagazine.” He didn’t say a word!
Chuck: I thought you were gonna say he told you to pull the interview offline!
Steven: No, he just goes on and on about Spin, and how wonderful…
Chuck: Now you’re making me worried that I’m jinxed or something.
Steven: No, no, no, he’s the only person, but what was aggravating was that he didn’t tell us in any way, shape, or form that, hey, I’m about to leave Spin…
Chuck: I’m the exact opposite, I honestly can’t imagine what else I would do, you know? And if you asked me what I’m gonna be doing in five or ten years from now, it’s just like, I mean, if I went back to freelance writing I wouldn’t–I don’t know how I could do it. It’d be like taking, you know, a salary cut of tens of thousands of dollars. And I would rather be at the Voice than at any of the other alternative weeklies, or any of the music magazines–I get more autonomy here. It’s like a really dream gig. And maybe it’s just for lack of imagination, but I can’t figure out what else I would do. Now, other people have used it as a stepping stone to move to other places–to the New York Times or to Rolling Stone or whatever–or to bigger freelancing gigs–or to move upstairs within the Voice itself–but I don’t…maybe it’s even a psychological flaw, maybe it’s like one of many reasons I should be in therapy, but I don’t have those ambitions, you know? And it’s really hard for me–in any situation I’ve ever been in my life–to imagine myself in other situations. [laughs]
No–I have no plans to leave the Voice, cross my fingers.
Steven: We have this three-way phone conversation thing coming out with Jim DeRogatis–in addition to a regular interview. He critiques the site.
Chuck: Did he say you guys lack integrity? [Laughs]
Steven: No. He’s looking for more reportage and opinion…
Chuck: I agree with that. I think you should totally argue with me more!
Steven: He also has a problem with a lot of the people we’ve interviewed–guys like Gary Graff and Anthony DeCurtis.
Chuck: Well, my problem with it is why you guys are not interviewing Nick Catucci and Amy Phillips, who I think would make for really interesting interviews.
Steven: Well, you’re probably right; Scott and I have talked a bit about this.
Chuck: It’s like all these careerists. It’s like–my biggest problem with the Web site is it’s all interviews with U2 and Pink Floyd–I mean, who cares about U2 and Pink Floyd?
Steven: That’s the thing–I do! That’s my influence, not Scott’s. We agree with some of the criticisms, and hopefully we’ll make some changes. Anyway, this is actually the last question I have on my list.
Chuck: Aah, that was so fun. Okay. You didn’t ask me any pointed questions! [laughs]
Steven: Well, that’s true, maybe we’ll do that after, but, this question, now don’t say, “Well, I don’t think I’m the new Robert Christgau or Lester Bangs,” but, just as apremise that if you were the new Christgau or Bangs, back when you were at the height of your freelance career, who, if anybody, is the new Chuck Eddy out there today?
Chuck: I wouldn’t want to say…
Steven: And I don’t mean somebody who’s copying you…
Chuck: I know you knew I would say that I don’t think I ever was the new Christgau or Bangs, and as far as–whenever there’s writers who try to write like me, I find it reallyreally laughable. Look, I will tell you the young writers I really like, but I can’t just think about one. And oddly enough, I’ve been blessed to have a bunch of them as interns for me at the Voice. I mean, the three that come off the top of my…okay, well, Kelefa Sanneh, who’s at New York Times, is just fucking brilliant. He’s great, he was not an intern for me, and I think he can end up doing–whatever he wants to do he’ll end up doing. I think Nick Catucci’s really good, I think Christian Hoard is really good, Amy Phillips is really good. Those last three started out as interns for me at the Voice. Umm, Irin Carmon probably could–my guess is she probably won’t end up writing about music, it’ll just be like a side thing; I just found out she’s gonna be working at Newsweek this summer, she interviewed Elizabeth Wurtzel a few weeks ago, she’s in her freshman year at Harvard, she could be really good, but my guess is she won’t end up writing about music in the long run, although I’ll give her assignments when she wants them. But you know, I should look at who else voted in the Voice poll, but Nick and Christian and Amy are all really smart, really funny, really original writers, I think. Umm, hmm…supposedly Ally Kearney, her web stuff, is like really great, I haven’t seen that much of it. There could be people out there–Liz Armstrong could be really good, but she writes way better about herself than about music; I mean, she probably writes about herself as good as anybody, and oddly enough, a lot of girl rock critics–I mean, I wish guy rock critics…I mean, one of the reasons I was never the new Lester Bangs is I never wrote as good about myself as Lester did, and if there was a new Lester Bangs in the last 20 years, it probably was someone more like, umm–like, Sara Sherr and Amy Phillips and Lissa Townsend Rodgers all seem to write better about themselves than I ever did, and that’s one thing that Bangs could do. So maybe they were all the new Lester Bangs, you know?
Steven: Yeah, I know you don’t see yourself that way.
Chuck: Why was a woman not the new Lester Bangs? I don’t know. I could go into stuff like why are those female writers not taken as seriously…
Steven: I guess what I was just asking is who’s coming from an original and crazy place, just their own thing.
Chuck: Well, I’m a fan right now of Ramiro Burr, who’s 45 years old and writes about Mexican crossover music for just about every newspaper in lower Texas, he’s coming from his own place. You should look at his Top 10 in the “Pazz & Jop” poll, it’s like he has a bunch of Mexican albums that nobody ever heard of, and he also votes for Incubus, Creed, and Clint Black’s Greatest Hits! I mean, he’s coming from his own place. Maybe Nick and Christian and Amy, maybe they’re too tied up with what other rock critics like? I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing, they’re more in touch than if they were coming out of nowhere. I don’t know–those are the three people that come to mind, but I’m sure there’s other people that I’m not thinking of.
Steven: What about people like, I don’t know, George Smith probably isn’t young, but George Smith or Erik Davis?
Chuck: Erik Davis barely writes about music anymore. He wrote way more about music ten years ago. I don’t know. I mean, George is great for what he does, but I mean, I believe he’s in his mid 40s, and he…it’s also like–and this is nothing against George because I think what he does he does great…but it’s also possible to be too consciously out of touch with what everybody else does. I mean, George is good because he’s really funny, and he really does have a way with language that I’m kind of in awe of, but just because none of the records you like are what other rock critics like doesn’t make you good by definition.
Steven: You used to be accused of that!
Chuck: But I didn’t! See, that’s what’s bullshit, I never only liked what other rock critics didn’t like…
Steven: I know, I’m just saying…
Chuck: That’s how I was perceived, but by idiots! And also, with George, music-reviewing is just a sideline hobby to his primary career as a scientist who’s made a major name for himself by writing about computer virus myths and military technology and, especially in the wake of the anthrax scares last fall, chemical and biological warfare, but when it comes to music he mainly just writes about one thing, you know? And he writes great about that one thing, right? About a certain kind of guitar rock, but as far as somebody to be the “future” or whatever way you wanna put it, I would want them to be able to talk to me about bubblegum pop, techno, hip-hop, you know, emo, new no wave bands like Lightning Bolt from Providence and Brooklyn, you know? I mean, I would want them to be up on shit! I, I, I don’t know, this is the first time I’ve gotten a little pissed–the idea of you picking those two guys out just because…
Steven: I’m just throwing names out there…
Chuck: Their musical taste basically sounds like music did in 1975–that’s probably not as true of Erik–it’s just like, it seems a little odd. I mean, I love Mike Saunders’s stuff, too, but he’s not the future of anything.
Steven: Well, the question wasn’t about the future of anything, it was just, who out there today is–not copying you or heavily influenced by you–but like you in the sense that you came out of left field and had your own thing.
Steven: I have no idea who the future of rock criticism is, I don’t know…
Chuck: There are probably other people I don’t even know. There are “Pazz & Jop” ballots that look intriguing to me that I haven’t even gone back and read, from, you know, underground hip-hop guys in San Francisco who write for the web or whatever, or some guy in Chicago who actually thinks that Tortoise is the beginning of everything else. Yeah, scoff at it, but the thing is, people scoffed at me. Wanna know what? It’s probably someone who’s taste I would scoff at, somebody whose tastes are sodiametrically opposed to mine. It’s probably somebody who thinks that alt-soul is this amazing thing, you know what I mean? It’s probably not somebody who really likes teen pop and metal. I mean, I hope that their ears would be open to it, but if there is a new Chuck Eddy, I hope it’s somebody who writes nothing like me and their tastes have nothing to do with mine.