It’s the greatest beat in the world: Chicago Tribune Music Critic, Greg Kot
By Andrew Lapointe (June 2002)
Greg Kot is the pop music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a beat he’s covered for 12 years now. He entered the field through his love, not just of music, but of newspapers and journalism: the thought of working in the newsroom at a large daily appealed to him from a very young age. Kot is also Jim DeRogatis’s co-host on the rock and roll radio phone-in show, “Sound Opinions,” on WXRT-FM in Chicago (which you can now access online here).
I spoke with Kot recently about his love of newspapers and music writing, his thoughts on music writers like Lester Bangs and Robert Palmer, and about his own history as a journalist in the city that a lot of critics agree is one of the best places in the world to practise it.
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Andrew: Explain your start into journalism and criticism.
Greg: Well, journalism. I mean, that goes all the way back to eighth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Once I got into college, I pretty much focused on writing about music as something that I really loved, but I didn’t really think of it as a way to actually make money, I just wanted to do it. So, I started putting out a ‘zine, and also writing for a weekly. I went to college at Marquette University and started writing for a counterculture weekly, the Milwaukee Bugle American, up there, and also writing for the college paper and freelancing a bit. Basically, I was going to shows, writing reviews, writing think pieces, writing essays, and started putting out my ‘zine. As I got out of college, I got a job at a daily newspaper as a copy editor–pretty low-level copy editor–basically just as a way to pay bills. I was writing on the side, and the paper I was at, the Quad City Times in Davenport, Iowa, didn’t have a pop music columnist so I volunteered to do the job. And they let me do it: once a week, I was writing a pop music column for them. Two years later, I was hired at the Tribune; I was twenty-three years old, again as a copy editor. And again, didn’t see an opportunity to write a whole lot about pop music, because they had it pretty well covered, they had a very experienced writer as a pop music critic at that time, a woman by the name of Lynn Van Matre and she had been doing a very good job. I was just very happy to have a job at the Tribune, because I really do love newspapers and I love the journalism world in general, so it was a great experience just getting a job there. But I never really had designs on the pop critic job there.
I didn’t think it was really all that possible at that point but more and more I was going to shows while I was in Chicago, and still putting out my zine and still doing some writing on the side for other people, and starting writing a few things for Tribune. Eventually, I was going to shows and I wasn’t seeing them covered at the Triband I said, “I’ll be glad to cover this Hüsker Dü show or this Replacements shows or this Minutemen show for you guys.” And they started letting me do that, and Lynn eventually wanted out of the job, she wanted to move onto something else. I was already starting to write about pop music so they basically invited me to be the critic and I started there in 1990 as the full time rock critic and I’ve been there ever since.
Andrew: When you were in school, did you consider a different career or was it always about working for a newspaper?
Greg: It was always about working for a newspaper. I loved reading newspapers when I was a kid, I was just absolutely awe struck by the thought of working at a big daily. I toured the Tribune and the Sun-Times when I was a kid and things like that. I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but I visited there a lot and I just liked the feel of a newsroom and I read journalists all my life and read books about journalism. The whole Watergate era was really inspiring, young journalism students were pretty psyched up about that whole era and I was certainly one of them. God, that Watergate movie–the name escapes me–that movie that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman made.
Andrew: All The President’s Men.
Greg: Yeah, I mean a whole freshmen class of journalism students watched that movie as a re-run in a movie theater in Milwaukee and we all came out of there thinking we were going to change the world by being journalists. It was that kind of feeling. Working for a newspaper and writing about music at the same time, they were parallel paths, and eventually they intersected, so I sort of got the best of both worlds.
Andrew: So you’ve been interested in news as well, and not just rock writing?
Greg: Yeah, I’ve played a lot of different roles at a newspaper, I’ve taken photographs, I’ve edited copy, I’ve put headlines on stories, when Mike Royko first came over to the Tribune from the Sun-Times, I edited his column and put the headlines on it, and I made decisions at the Quad City Times about what stories were going to go on the front page and I assigned stories in the Tribune to writers in the feature section. I was an investigative reporter in college and worked as an intern covering city hall in a small Midwestern town. I’ve covered the late night police beat. I’ve probably been through just about every department in a newspaper you could think of in the course of 20 odd years. Basically, the last 10 or 12 years have been exclusively devoted to covering popular music but I was doing many other duties at a newspaper before that.
Andrew: And, you’ve also written for Rolling Stone?
Greg: Yeah. I started writing for them about ’92, and I’ve been writing for them pretty regularly every since.
Andrew: What’s the difference in writing for a magazine like Rolling Stone as opposed to writing for theTribune?
Greg: The biggest difference for me is that I actually have a bit more freedom at the Tribune. I can write about pretty much anything I want at the Trib and I pretty much create my own agenda, and write about the things that I feel are important and if there’s something that doesn’t strike my fancy, I don’t have to write about it. At Rolling Stone, I’m not the one making decisions obviously and when I really want to do a story, you have to go through quite a longer process to get editors there to approve it. I found that the editors I’ve worked with there, particularly Jason Fine and Nathan Brackett, are open to a lot of things but, their space is pretty limited in terms of how much music they can cover from issue to issue. Everything is a fight for space, and I think that’s the key difference for me at Rolling Stone, it’s a fairly limited number of words you have when you cover something there–not that it’s unlimited at the Tribune, but if I feel something’s really important at the Tribune, I can write about it at length and that’s not necessarily going to be the case at Rolling Stone, that’s up to the editors at RS and that’s certainly their prerogative to decide what they think is important. You know, I wouldn’t trade my newspaper job for anything because I’ve got as good a job as any music writer in the country in terms of having leeway into writing about stuff I want to write about.
Andrew: You also do “Sound Opinions,” the radio show.
Greg: Yeah, I do a radio show with Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times, and we’re three-and-a-half years into it. And we both did radio shows before separately, but I find the combination of personalities fortuitous for radio, there’s a sort of a yin-yang thing going on in terms of the kind of things we like.
Andrew: What do you think the difference is between you two as critics?
Greg: Well, Jim is a provocateur, he’s a great critic but his approach to criticism is completely different to mine. He’s is definitely a guy who likes to stir things up; I like to stir things up, too, but just in terms of the kind of approach, the kind of language I use, the way I put stuff, I’d say I have a little wider pallet in terms of the kind of music that I like. Jim is a little more specific in the kind of music he really, really likes. So, if anything, I’m pushing him to broaden his horizons in terms of the kind of music he’ll listen to, or he’ll even want to talk about on a radio show. And Jim’s always berating me about my tastes. He’ll say, “How could you listen to this middle aged singer/songwriter crap?” And I’ll have to explain to him who Jimmie Dale Gilmore is, or why Lucinda Williams is worth listening to. So, those are the kinds of debates that we have and I think that makes for good radio when you’ve got two opposing viewpoints like that.
Andrew: And you two kind of do your own format right? You’re not limited to one thing?
Greg: Oh yeah totally, you can listen to it on SoundOpinions.net if you want to. You can check it out. But it’s comparable to what we do in our newspapers, we have a two hour window of opportunity at a major commercial rock station to do pretty much whatever we want, which is pretty rare today in the commercial radio business. I mean, for what I know about the inside of commercial radio, commercial radio stations do not work that way–the employees basically doing whatever they want for two hours–but that’s essentially what we have, and fortunately we have a program director who trusts our judgment and so far leaves us alone. So it’s been a great opportunity to play the music we like and to talk about the kind of music we like and also to criticize a lot of the bands that commercial radio plays today. It’s amazing to be on a station that plays Dave Matthews all day long and then criticize Dave Matthews at night. And not in a gratuitous, childish way, but giving reasons why Matthews isn’t working for either one of us, and then have listeners phone in to tell us that we’re full of crap.
One thing I like about criticism and I like about the radio show is that we actually do have a dialogue with our readers and our listeners and it’s one of the main reasons I do what I do. The main reason a critic does what he does, at least from my standpoint, is to start a dialogue. You’re not the last word on the subject, or the greatest word or the most important word, you are hopefully the first word in what is going to be an ongoing discussion about music, and hopefully your writing is provocative and insightful enough that it’s going to start that kind of discussion. And the radio show is an extension of that, ’cause it puts us in even closer touch with the listeners or with the readers. I don’t know how other critics operate, but to me, that whole communication between me and the reader is really one of the main reasons I do what I do.
Andrew: How did you get into radio, through journalism?
Greg: I don’t have a great deal of interest in radio per se as a medium. I admire the people who do it, but I didn’t really see it as something I was particularly going to do. But, I did always fantasize about being a guy who could come on the radio and play whatever he liked and thought, “Man I have the greatest radio station in the world, at least for me and my two friends.” And this radio show is just an opportunity to sort of do that. The program director liked the idea of having the two critics in town on a show where they talk about the stuff that they write in the paper–loosely modeled against a Siskel & Ebert model, another Chicago-generated critics’ show, which basically talked about movies; we’re essentially talking about music with the added element of an actual dialogue with the listeners. The one thing we’ve always emphasized about the show is that we wanted to have phones and we wanted to have people talking to us. WXRT had never taken live-on-the-air calls before, but that was critical for us, and getting the Program Director to agree to that was the main reason we went ahead and decided to do the show. That and the fact that he was willing to give us two hours on the air, and he basically said, “No holds barred until I change my mind.” And basically, he hasn’t changed his mind.
Andrew: You said that you and Jim DeRogatis have different tastes. Would you say you have the same influences in writing?
Greg: Well, Jim’s probably the premier Lester Bangs expert in the country–or one of them, that’s for sure. I certainly don’t claim to have that sort of expertise in Lester Bangs, nor do I feel that I’m being particularly influenced by Lester Bangs. I respect Bangs, but I never read him much growing up and I never really thought of his writing as all that insightful. There was a few things of his that I really, really liked; the one thing that really sticks out in my head was a piece he did for Musician magazine on the fusion of jazz and the punk worlds, especially in the Lower East Side New York scene. I thought that was a really well done piece. I liked those kinds of pieces, I did not like so much the sort of gratuitous name-calling interviews with Lou Reed. I thought that was just showboating. It’s great that he was embarrassing a rock star because rock stars deserve to be embarrassed occasionally. But after a while, I thought this was just as much about Bangs as it was about Reed. I guess that’s kind of the point. But that sort of first person writer at the forefront kind of story never appealed to me, because I’m coming out of a journalism background– rule number one of journalism is the writer is never the story. Lester Bangs had a big enough personality that he could be the story, but I never saw myself in that way and I always aspired to have a different sort of approach to it, if I ever were to write about rock ‘n’ roll.
Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train was a big influence. The light bulb goes on in your head, and you realize you can use writing about rock as a platform for writing about a whole bunch of other things, bringing a whole bunch of other things into the party. And I was always interested in other art forms and talking about other things in addition to music, and sort of bringing that all into the spectrum of your writing. That book convinced me that writing about music was the way to go, that music was going to be my subject as a writer. And the other writers I grew up admiring were obviously the pros that have been around for a long time like Christgau and Dave Marsh– people like that I have great respect for, but one guy who never really gets mentioned a lot but was a great music writer was the late Robert Palmer. He preceded [Jon] Pareles as the New York Times music critic, but I always thought that his writing was terrific. One of the reasons I thought it was terrific is because he actually wrote about the music, he illuminated the music and I just thought that was just a real service to the readers, the fact that he could write about music so eloquently and describe it in such a way that the readers could actually hear the music for themselves and make up their own mind about if they liked it–even if Palmer didn’t particularly like it. I thought that was the model I really wanted to follow and that’s the kind of writing I aspire to do–really descriptive writing about the music itself. One of the hardest things you can do is write about music. I don’t think it’s easily done, I don’t think it can easily be described, but that’s the thing I strive to do, to describe music in a way that’s going to help my readers understand it better and maybe make up their own minds about whether or not they’re going to like it, irregardless of what I think about it.
Andrew: Yeah, the thing about rock critics is that a lot of them strive to have their own individual voice. Do you feel you have you own individual voice that people identify with? Like, when they think of your writing, they think of Greg Kot?
Greg: I don’t know, I hope so; by now I’ve developed a style that I feel comfortable in. Though I don’t want to get too comfortable because one of the things I ask myself every week or every other week is, why are you doing this? And I try to make sure I’m doing it for the right reasons, because writing and writing about music is not something you should be doing as a job. You better love what you’re doing because your writing’s going to start to suck and I don’t ever want to suck, I want to get out of this job before I start to suck. And I do think I’ve developed a voice and I’ve become more comfortable in getting away from some of those earlier notions that I said to you about the writers not being part of the story. I think the writer is part of the story, to a degree, and it’s important to know who the writer is. I didn’t like the idea of having my picture on my column for a while, because I thought, again, I’m not the story, the music is the story. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, hey, it was cool to have people identify with the person behind the by-line. I think that’s key–that’s really crucial. And I do think that people who’ve read my stuff over the years have a sense of what I’m about and they do arguably use me as a gage against their own tastes. I think as a critic, that’s all you can ask for. You’re not going to be “right” all the time, you’re not going to have everyone agree with you all the time, but people should have a sense of reliability about you in terms of, I get what this guy’s about, I understand where he’s coming from. And hopefully I have that, because I’ve become a little bit more fearless in terms of being able to put myself into the story; not that every sentence begins with “I” or it’s all about me, but just in terms of the way I express things. And–it’s really hard for me to get more specific, I guess you’d just have to read the writing, there’s plenty of it out there. Eventually, the voice comes through, but what I do guard against is that I’m not going to be the one swinging a hammer saying, “Listen to me! My opinion is more important than anyone else’s.” That kind of writing really bugs me, and again, there are a few guys who can do it really well, but I’m not one of them.
Andrew: So you see a lot of concerts, and you review a lot of concerts–explain that aspect of the job. I mean, you see a lot of good shows you see a lot of bad shows.
Greg: I write about 300 stories a year–300 by-lines a year, and I don’t know, I probably see 200 sets of music a year–250 sets. Sometimes, you’ll be at an all day festival and you’ll see about seven or eight bands–I’m including that in the whole package. I don’t know, what exactly are you asking me?
Andrew: Well, how do you feel about going to concerts. Like, sometimes you have to go see stuff you don’t necessarily want to go see, right? How do you feel about going to so many concerts and seeing good acts and seeing bad acts, like as opposed to just going to the concerts of the bands you really love.
Greg: Well, again, if I had an attitude where I thought it would be a bad show and it’s a bad act and I don’t like it, then that would be a pretty piss-poor reason to keep doing my job. If I’ve got that kind of attitude about it, then I might as well let somebody else do it. I go into every show thinking, I’m going to have a good time and I’m going to be surprised and hopefully, I’m going to be blown away–maybe I’ll see the best show I’ve ever seen tonight, and I don’t care who it is, whether it’s Britney Spears or The Flaming Lips, which are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the kind of stuff that I like. But I genuinely go into a Britney Spears show thinking, “You know what? I may not particularly like this, but I’m going to have a good time because I’m going to be here observing this thing, and then there’s going to be lots of stuff to write about.” And I’m excited about the prospect of writing about it and hopefully writing about it in a way that could make people think about this subject in a different way then they have before.
I’m excited about ideas; I’m excited about why 7 million people buy a Matchbox 20 album. I may not be excited about the Matchbox 20 album itself, but I am excited about writing about it from the standpoint of, why is this music speaking to so many people? And going to see the show, going to see the phenomenon, and how this band works, and how this band interacts with the audience, and what the audience is getting out of it. As a writer I’m excited about that. I don’t necessarily have to love each piece of music I review or each band I see to love my job or love going to a show. So, that’s the way I approach it, and as a result I go out with a pretty positive attitude, no matter who it is. As soon as I lose that, I’m quitting.
Andrew: So, if you do decide to just quit this, would you go back to the more general journalism, like news? Like a different approach?
Greg: Well, I don’t think I could go back to news writing. I really love criticism, I really love music, I wouldn’t mind writing about jazz at some point, I really love jazz, I’ve written about it before, and I wouldn’t mind getting back into it again. But, I have to tell to tell you right now, that writing about pop music is the greatest beat in the world. Especially, if you’re at all interested in culture, because there’s no other art form that tells us more about ourselves, more immediately than pop music. It’s an exciting beat. The key to writing about pop music is you can do it for as long as you want, as long as you remain curious about our world and curious about music–and I am curious! I like the new stuff, I like learning about it. The one thing about writing about pop music, is that you never stop learning. It’s almost like a weekly education in something new, whether it’s a new style of music, a new artist, a new approach, or an issue that’s going on in our society. As a journalist, what could be more exciting about that? To me, going back to write about city hall–that’s pretty dull by comparison. So, that’s what I like about it. The flip side is that it’s a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week. You don’t get too many days off. You’ve got to be married to an understanding wife and have an understanding family. I’d say that’s the price you pay doing this job, but, like I said I still feel that it’s the best job in the world, and my biggest dilemma right now is figuring, okay, if I’m going to do something after this, what would it be? It’s going to be tough to come up with something.
Andrew: Do you feel that you have to follow up with something else?
Greg: I don’t feel I have to, I just feel like you’re always thinking what’s the next move going to be and right now I’m really happy where I’m at. I’ve gone through a couple permutations where there have been other offers to do other jobs in different cities, and it turns out I’m really glad I’ve ended up exactly where I am. I’m doing exciting work for a great newspaper, and I don’t have that grass is always greener kind of attitude, I’ve kind of realized that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. And at some point, I won’t feel that way and you’re always thinking in the back of your mind you want to have something in reserve that you think, okay, this is something I want to do. But, I would say that next thing hasn’t come up yet, I haven’t seen that and maybe when I see that developing, maybe that’s when it I’ll go for it. But right now, I realize I’m still doing what I think is good work and I’m still learning a lot and as long as I can say that, I’d love to keep doing it.
Andrew: I read something on the net, where a co-worker called you “The hardest working man in show business.”
Andrew: What would you say to that?
Greg: Oh, well you know what? I’d have to say that any daily critic has a similar routine and I have a lot of respect for anybody who does this at a daily newspaper. Anybody who does this with any kind of pride in their work, they’re going to work very hard. So, I know what my colleagues go through, and I’m sure in their town they’re the hardest working guys too. I certainly don’t believe I’m the only guy who’s doing it that way. But I do work hard and it is a job where my average work week is 60-70 hours–that’s an average work week–and if I get a day off in a week, that’s a pretty big deal. I mean an entire day where I actually do not have to do anything related to music. But I’m in a trap, because I love what I do and I couldn’t imagine spending too many days without music. You’re talking about a major city, with a lot of music, and I’m basically the only full time guy at my paper that covers pop music, so I do feel a certain sense of pressure and there’s a level that you have to maintain if you’re writing for a paper this size and for an audience like this. There’s a certain standard that you have to maintain and I hold myself to it every week.
What do you think about music writing right now? Who are some writers you like?
Andrew: Well, I don’t know, it’s kind of hard because there’s lot of things about rock criticism that I like and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like. Like what you pointed out, the whole thing about the writer injecting himself into the story. I don’t really like that too much, the whole Lou Reed-Lester Bangs thing. I thought that got more personal than it should have been, you know?
Greg: Yeah, there you go. I’m with you, man. You know what gets lost in the equation all the time?
Greg: The reader.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s the frustrating part…
Greg: Some critics forget who they write for. They think they’re writing for the other critics, or they think they’re writing for the band, and with both approaches you might as well not even bother. I mean, one of the things about a newspaper is that you’re always reminded of who you’re writing for. You’re writing for this audience out there of people who are buying this thing everyday and they want to get something out of it. And if you want to keep the newspaper in business and if you want to keep people reading the thing, than you better give them some reason to pick it up everyday. I always think about being helpful, I want to be helpful with everything that I write about; it doesn’t mean it can’t be damning criticism, but it’s gotta help the reader to some new insight. I mean, I’ll tell you three things I think about when I’m writing a story, and if I can meet all three criteria, all perfectly, all three–then I’ve done something that day. And that’s that I want to be able to educate, illuminate some idea, preferably a new idea, something that hasn’t been broached before, and thirdly, entertain–you better be able to entertain the guy who’s picking up that paper, otherwise don’t even start. Turn the equation around, it’s not about the you, the writer, it’s about him or her the reader. Suddenly you have a different mindset when you start writing your story. There aren’t enough writers like that–Robert Palmer was a guy who wrote that way, and Ira Robbins is another guy who wrote that way, and there’s a ‘zine writer in New York, Jack Rabid, who writes a magazine called The Big Takeover, which is one of the best music publications in the country and it’s a ‘zine, it’s essentially a glorified ‘zine.
Andrew: I think the frustrating thing is how the critics feel that their opinions are stronger just because of their position.
Andrew: You know, that’s generally what I don’t like about it, I think about why I’m reading into this whole rock criticism thing, because there’s a lot I don’t like about it. You know, I just really love music and I put that together with my passion of writing and, you know, I got something.
Greg: Definitely. You know, if you could combine the two things you love the most that’s a pretty exciting way to go. But yeah, you’re right, the fact that there isn’t enough consideration for those kinds of things. I don’t know, you get into this initially because you want to turn people onto music. There’s music you love and you want to turn other people on to good music. Part and parcel with that, I really think that ideas are important. It’s important to give people ways of thinking about music that have not occurred to them before–maybe they didn’t look at this particular piece of music or a particular band in a certain way–and give them an another way of looking at something. I think those are all important things and that’s all about enhancing the listener’s appreciation of music. You know, writing can never be a substitute for the music itself, but it can deepen the appreciation for the music and it’s a worthwhile role to play in the whole cultural scheme of things, and if you focus on that sort of thing, people will come to value your writing, and come to value you as a critic, more so than the guy who’s always shouting, “I’ve got the answer, here’s my opinion, listen to me.” There’s got to be a bit of that in every critic but in general the whole Lester Bangs attitude has gone too far. There are too many critics who are enthralled with Bangs, the first person writing style, but don’t have the personality to pull it off. That’s my three cents worth.