Rock Criticism as Brain Surgery: Deborah Frost Looks Back
By Steven Ward (June 2002)
Musician/songwriter Deborah Frost took a little break in the early ’70s from a gig with an all-girl band that lasted until the early ’90s. The drummer of Flaming Youth started writing about rock music for just about every music publication in existence, including the Village Voice and Record, where she wrote some of her best and most memorable pieces. Today, Frost and her husband, former Blue Oyster Cult drummer Albert Bouchard, lead the eclectic pop-rock band, the Brain Surgeons. During the following e-mail interview, Frost looks back and fills in the gap of her 20-year break from playing music, and remembers her career as a rock journalist.
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Steven: Today, you are on the other side of rock journalism. Instead of interviewing people about the music they make, writers are interviewing you about the music you make with your band, The Brain Surgeons. Is that experience weird for you?
Deborah: Well, you’re talking to someone who’s had a lot of weird experiences, starting with literally almost being born in a theater–the City Center in NYC during Cyrano de Bergerac with Jose Ferrer. I was probably already a critic! So being interviewed doesn’t quite qualify as weird in my lexicon. The reality is that I came to writing about music from making it, not the other way around. But also, doing things like interviews–from any side of the microphone–always seemed like an ordinary everyday thing for people to do, because I grew up with someone I was pretty close to and called Grandpa Larry, interviewing most of the leading figures of the world every week on the television show he invented, Meet the Press. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t what everybody or their relatives did. But more specifically, as I’ve always said when I’ve been asked this question–and I’ve been asked it a lot–when I began writing about music, it was just an outgrowth of my writing other things and my total passion for making music and thinking about it. There didn’t seem to be this incredible division between those who do it and those who write about it. Or at least I was so young and so naive that I was not aware of it.
One of the funny things, for instance, for me, about Almost Famous, was the us vs. them vibe that the fake Lester basically exists to instruct the Cameron character about. That was not my sense at all when I started writing–and I was about as young as Cameron. It’s funny, a lot of people who’d really grown away from the music and stuff I once tried to subject them to (and that’s putting it very nicely) got in touch for the first time in years after that film–they said it reminded them so much of me. I never thought Cameron and I had much in common as writers then–although I have a lot of respect for him personally and professionally now–but that character was very familiar, clutching a little copy of Creem as if it were the Holy Grail. That really was me. As was the whole experience of being much younger, and being more mature intellectually than emotionally–the whole sense of wonder and total dislocation–that was really my experience, too, although as a girl, my take and some of what I was subjected to was a little different.
But people began attempting to write seriously about rock at a moment when I became totally obsessed by it, and felt that this music was the avenue for me, to express what I felt and what I thought in ways that previous literary traditions and art forms–particularly those that belonged more exclusively to white European patriarchies–did not. Little did I know that the whole enterprise would, if it hadn’t already, become even more sexist, racist, corrupt and stupid than most, if not all, its predecessors. But what did I know? And in some ways I just had no choice. I was totally obsessed by music and the promise it held for me, that it was a new way to communicate and break down the roles of sex and class and race that people had previously been forced into. But at first, when people were writing about rock, it offered a new frontier, something that seemed to belong exclusively to them–and they seemed to be as excited about music as I was. So I just picked up the first issues of Rolling Stone, and discovered the Village Voice in my school library, actually, and it began to open up a whole new world. My whole feeling about it was just–wow. Pure and simple. I thought Robert Christgau was as important as Mick Jagger. Now I find them both equally ridiculous and rather pathetic creatures. But there are much worthier causes to which to devote my compassion. Or anyone else’s, for that matter.
But I never thought that I would not be some kind of writer, from the moment I taught myself how to read at three. I would just read and read and read–Shakespeare, the Bible, I would read the dictionary just for fun–and not only in English–and by the time I entered school I was also always surrounded by great music as well as art. My mother plays the piano, and is pretty involved with classical music. Our first apartment was next door to a prestigious music school and the classes would kind of vibrate through the walls. This is just something that surrounded me. But as I grew older, I was also determined to distance myself from my parents’ values. And I was very precocious and was skipped ahead so that I was two years younger than my classmates. This probably pushed me much further into my own little world. But I knew I didn’t fit in and I hated feeling that I had to fake it, because fitting in seems so important at certain repugnant junctures in any adolescent life. Even when I went to Harvard I not only didn’t know basic math, because I wasn’t there when they originally did it, there were many simple life skills I just did not develop. No, this is not as great a tragedy as being interrupted by the Nazis or Khmer-Rouge, but it really had a lot to do with the kind of artist I became and the person I’m still evolving into.
As for contemporary writers, I always thought it was perfectly normal that people like John Updike both wrote and wrote about writing. Even restaurant critics are supposed to be able to cook. It was only after I really got serious about being a rock critic that I realized that as a group rock critics are probably second only to sports critics as utter buffoons. But as a group, sports writers are forced to be better, more entertaining writers as well as have some basic grasp of facts. There are no minimal standards for rock writers. Of course, minimal standards are no defense against mediocrity–just look at any bureaucracy or Board of Ed. But at one point, rock criticism was an avenue for original characters who weren’t interested in fitting into any previous mold. Maybe the problem now is that it’s become a legitimate career and attracts the same dreary careerists who otherwise would have been equally dull cogs in some other machine. You don’t even have to write in English–although I think that was one of the most exciting things for me, the opportunity to invent language and form, too. That’s what I find most valuable about rap, hip hop–that’s really where I relate to it most, because in many other respects, it’s lost the connection to the soul and blues that’s at the bottom of everything I love and care about most. And no, I’m not toeing that lame, overplayed Frank Zappa line–you know, to the effect that writing about rock is as stupid as dancing about architecture. Zappa, as well as every idiot who’s ever quoted that, betrays far more ignorance than cleverness here. There’s plenty of good dancing about architecture–Balanchine, anyone? In fact, I can think of a lot of reasons why someone might want to dance about architecture, or other things that can’t be expressed within more traditional terms or boundaries.
I think one of the things that was so exciting about rock was that it broke down so many barriers–from language, form, and technology–to the class and color lines of those who make and appreciate it. Although having recently weeded out my record collection, I know that the “old days” were not necessarily better. There was a lot of unnecessary dreck. But there was also Sgt. Pepper–or so it seemed, practically every week. Discovery and invention were celebrated and valued more than product and repetition. Unfortunately, this is what happens when you distill anything down to the so-called “science” of business and branding research demanded by the same giant corporations that view their record labels as not terribly different from their crappy blockbuster-churning movie studios, TV networks, or book publishing divisions. Unfortunately, rock writing has become even more boring right now than its formulaic and predictable subject. I don’t know if that was always the case–there was a point where the irreverence of a Creem, say, was rather refreshing. Maybe the worst thing is that it’s also become standard operating procedure to imitate someone like Lester Bangs without ever really understanding him. Then again, when Lenny Kravitz, who’s maybe just a more dedicated craftsman than Billy Squier, is revered as the new Jimi Hendrix, what do you expect?
Maybe a bigger problem is that as rock became more mass market, there are even fewer people who understand how to read, much less write about rock. It’s only funny to me because this is a time when writing about television seems to get legitimate respect in most mainstream publications. And you have Jann Wenner fretting that he’s losing market share to Entertainment Weekly. But maybe that says it all–my reasons for writing about rock, my reasons for writing, period, had nothing to do with the reasons that something like Entertainment Weekly exists. Although I actually wrote a lot for Entertainment Weekly— I was surprised when I was going through a major reorganization of my life, basically, and I found all of these pieces I’d simply forgotten about ever doing. And I was even more surprised that so many of them made me laugh instead of wince, and some of them were not only incredibly entertaining, but actually insightful. And I sort of missed reading someone like myself writing these kinds of things. But I didn’t really miss doing it. The point is that I was churning this stuff out around the clock for every one of these rags–I was perhaps as successful as anyone could possibly be, I was making as much money as anyone will ever do, and I was even having some fun besides, flying here, there, being able to sit next to a Paul McCartney and having him whisper the answers to anything I’d really ever wanted to know right in my ear. It was pretty glamorous, and someone else would always pick up the tab. I had achieved everything I’d ever wanted to when I was just a little kid, really, setting out to do this–over the years, I had developed some very specific goals even though for the greater part of at least one decade I was crazed out of my mind on some combination of mood-altering substance, given that the rock business might be the rare profession where drinking and drugs were–and still are–perfectly legitimate preoccupations. It would be like playing golf in other circles–or going to strip clubs with your colleagues or clients. It’s just part of the deal. But that’s a whole other story.
But I began to hate it and I began to really hate myself for doing it. I couldn’t stand the kind of people I had to work for or what they were trying to sell. That’s not why I was so passionate about music or writing or anything in the first place. And rock writing has become largely celebrity puff pieces about commodities, basically tied to whatever is being advertised, although publications still do the hokey-pokey, pretending that advertising is distinct from editorial. And yet, you can’t help notice that the size of an ad-which, even in such a hoity-toity institution as the Times, occasionally runs directly opposite from the “article”–has a pretty direct relationship to the corresponding feature. Do you buy any American publication at this point in time just to read the rock writing? I don’t. And most of the people who appreciate these commodities–who fill the seats at a Michael Jackson or Britney Spears or Madonna concert are not interested in reading about it. Sports fans may want to know the score or what went on in the locker room even if they saw the game.
(But I think you ask me some of these things later on. I apologize if I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll probably be really sorry you said I could answer in as many words as I wanted. Didn’t anyone tell you I don’t know how to tell a story? I only finish a sentence on pain of deadline–or worse. Then again, I guess it’s also the way I can tell what kind of person my listener is–if they are only interested in cutting to the chase, or whether they want to go along for the ride.)
Personally, I’ve always been, and still am, really more interested in the ride. But I spend a lot of time now travelling around the country-well, I always spent a lot of time travelling around–even if now I’m in a van more than a limo or Motel 6 instead of the Four Seasons. But y’know, the reality is I didn’t get into music for the perks. A lot of the things that seem to be really important to a lot of other people have just become even less and less important to me. Part of that is being married to someone who is even less materialistic. Albert is and always has been totally devoted to trying to create something worthwhile and share the gifts he has been blessed with and after being together this long, I think we’ve really come to some understanding of what really matters to us both. I’d like to not go entirely bankrupt doing it, but you know, if a particular lifestyle were what mattered to him, he never would have left Blue Öyster Cult when they were doing arenas and, you know, to paraphrase the oft-quoted Joni Mitchell line just one more time, feeding the star-maker machinery. But as we travel around, doing our band, the Brain Surgeons, in our modest little way, we meet and talk to lots of people around the country. Which is of course the rewarding thing–’cause the travel part, as everybody knows, can be a drag even when you’re in the private jet. But then you miss what we really get off on right now, which is doing what most people never get to do, which is to really experience and appreciate our country in a unique way and put on a show, too…
But there are actually a surprising number of people who do still care about music, who are just mystified about what’s happened to not only music, but to writing about it, as well as radio. The people who have jobs in the industry are far more interested in holding on to them than expressing an individual vision. And so many of the writers I encounter, particularly those who once saw themselves as some kind of punk rockers or rebels, who now have staff jobs at their local daily, are really terrified to take a wrong step, that if they cover something other than Britney Spears or whoever is at the local stadium in their sections, their editors and publishers will make them pay. At least they have some sort of minimal union protection. But there’s very little incentive to stick one’s neck out, never mind pursue your own vision. Until the other shoe bomber dropped, dailies around the country were busily creating endless new sections devoted almost entirely to the latest coffee makers and plump sofas and hand held thingymadoos.
Still, I can’t help but think about Robert Palmer rolling over in his grave or urn or wherever–it’s very weird that even while there may be possibilities for greater and more interesting discussion in mainstream publications, the rock music writing in particular seems to be more minimal and formulaic than ever. I could say I just skim through any paper for any basketball scores I might care about, but actually I hear them on the radio before I even wake up. Meanwhile, the people–the children, really–who consume the bottom-line mass market stuff–whether it’s Britney or the Stones or Puddle of today’s whatever that plays the stadiums and is dutifully covered in turn, are not necessarily interested in thinking, never mind reading, about it. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? When you travel around and read a lot of local papers, you see that only the rare exception doesn’t look as if it’s coming from the same sanitized wire service. Of course, much of the time it is. Maybe it’s the same thing that’s happened to radio in this country, to bookstores, independent film theaters, you name it. It’s very difficult for any Mom & Pop operation to compete with the muscle of a chain. And people, even if they are loyal to a particular vendor, many people, given the transience of American life in general, are probably more dedicated to McDonalds than a local diner or shop at the mall Gaps rather than the haberdasher in the town square who outfitted their parents for the prom. And the mall is the same wherever you go–Atlanta, Chicago, White Plains–it’s all just like “home.” And home is some new condo or cookie cutter development with all the microwave fixins’ instead of some funky place with its own history and creaky joints. But it’s a matter of taste. You’re not going to have a new relatively prosperous class of consumers without breeding them to some kind of uniformity. Otherwise, why bother “branding”? Uck, I hate that even more than using “impact” as a verb. But if we’re lucky, that trend is probably already on the way out. Even the alternative papers have all been gobbled up by the same corporation. You can understand how it makes sense in terms of selling ads nationally. And I think as Americans, particularly at this time, it’s important to have some kind of common reference points and experience, which has been a problem since the 13 colonies started organizing against George III. And for a lot of reasons, we may have come closer now than at almost any other point in our history, but in the name of progress, and in particular, economic growth, a lot has been destroyed.
Steven: In the days before you became a rock critic, you were in a band as a drummer, I think. Flaming Youth? Or something like that. When did you decide you wanted to write about music, and where and when was your first piece of rock journalism published?
Deborah: Yes, immediately before I became a rock critic, I was the drummer in what was really the first all-female hard rock band in New York, maybe the country. Because, believe me, I had searched them all out… And we lived with Allen Ginsberg and had played the same circuit as the Dolls and early Kiss, and were just a little much way too soon. But I’d already probably lived out more of my own fantasies than most people do or maybe even have in a lifetime. I was living in my own apartment by the time I was 16. I was working in the theater and my parents forced me to just go to the high school graduation, which I really resented. I would have dropped out of high school but I wasn’t old enough. Eventually, this all caught up with me–I can’t believe I was doing what I was doing when I was this young, because essentially I didn’t know what I was doing, and it’s basically a miracle that I survived any of it. At first, music was just another facet of my general show biz aspirations. It’s funny, a lot of my neighbors are actors, and the other day one of them whose father I remember as a big deal on Broadway when I was growing up, was just humming the melody of one of the more obscure songs from an old show to her baby in the elevator and I just started singing along. It just took me back to a very different point in my life, when I would twirl around the living room, wishing I was one of the Von Trapps.
But when I heard the Beatles–and I’ve written a little about this before–all I thought was, I want to do that. It didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t. I was 10. And what was weird about it was how different my response was to the other girls in my grade. All they thought about was which Beatle they thought was the cutest, who would make the most ideal boyfriend. I thought that was bizarre. I immediately got a little guitar and I wanted to get a band together with some girls, and they just thought I was insane, so maybe I stopped mentioning it. I had only one friend who would even indulge me. Her mother took us to see A Hard Day’s Night. Actually, she might have been the one to have the guitar first. She had older siblings, it could have belonged to one of them. I forced my younger brothers, who didn’t really have any interest in music, to get guitars and I’d try to have little bands with their friends. We might have done one gig–on the playground, using a short-wave radio for one of the guitar amps. I think we used to plug the mike into a Wollensak. I was very into the Beatles, the Stones, most of the English Invasion stuff that came along, as well as Motown. This was something I shared with the people who worked for my family. I remember getting really upset when my mother fired a live-in housekeeper from Detroit who turned out to have a drinking problem. I had spent hours listening to music with her and getting the inside scoop on artists like the Vandellas, who came from the same projects. I remember tearfully pleading with my mother to let her stay. “Very nice, dear, but she nearly drowned your sister.” “Who cares about my sister, Mom, she knows Martha !”
But there were a couple of people I went to school with who were pretty talented like Marc Shulman, who’s played since with everybody from Suzanne Vega to Jewel. He was amazing by the time he was about 12. I would hang around with him and the guys in his band. His older brother, Jay, who was a serious cellist but was the lead singer of one of the hot high school bands, called the Offbeats, might have been an even bigger influence. I was their opening act at the 8th grade dance, singing some Malvina Reynolds number with my little acoustic guitar before they did their Stones’ covers. He hired Steven Tyler’s band for the senior prom. There were a couple of other boys who were not as gifted but were much bigger hustlers and have had more commercial success. My uncle was involved in a film company around that time, and I used to beg him to send me his Variety every week, even at summer camp. I couldn’t understand why this was of absolutely no interest to the other girls in the bunk. I would memorize the grosses–this was a time when this was really the only source for this box office info–which is all hysterical to me now that I have no interest in who’s the biggest or what most appeals to the masses. But then, I simply hungered for knowledge.
At the same time, I also loved other kinds of magazines–the old Life, for instance. The images were just so powerful. I used to come home for lunch in elementary school and on Wednesdays, when Life came, I would just rush home to pore over it. I remember, for instance, the photos of the In Cold Blood killers–the images as well as the words; these all had a tremendous effect on me.
In California, a family friend who had some music publishing connection put us up at the Landmark Motel, where Janis Joplin eventually OD’d (she probably got tired of waiting for a towel–the place had been going downhill ever since Eddie Fisher rode out his divorce from Debbie Reynolds there). I loved it. The Chambers Brothers left their cut-off jean bottoms in my closet (the maid service was kind of lacking) and other bands who made one major label album before dropping off the face of the earth were all throwing each other and everything else into the pool day and night. I guess this is why being on the road with rock bands has always seemed so normal to me–this is what I was observing when I was 11 or 12, before I even went to high school. He drove me in his T Bird to a recording session where these teenagers, who he kept saying were going to have to get cleaned up before they went to get their working papers to play in the local clubs, were making their first record. And we basically agreed that although the lookalike siblings who fronted the band were kind of talented–the older one grabbed some mallets on a whim and did a spontaneous vibe solo they decided to keep–the material just wouldn’t make it. And we were right–it wasn’t until Hourglass’s drummer became the producer, and they dropped the unconvincing psychedelia and mined their blues roots that I saw the Allman Brothers again and so did the rest of the world.
During my senior year of high school, I was able to get out of being in a regular English class by sitting down one lunch hour, smoking a joint and writing something I thought was a play. Really, it was an imitation of most of the things I had ever read or seen. One day, when they were holding auditions for Hair, which turned out to be for dancers (and I have long had a serious choreography defect–something to do with an inability to distinguish between left and right) I scribbled a magic marker title, and left it with the eyebrow-raised receptionist for Joseph Papp. Several months later, he ushered me past the John Wilkes Booth descendant who was his secretary before replacing his second-to-last wife, and told me I was the voice of my generation. Voice of my generation? Then I thought, well, what the fuck do I do now? That really has a lot to do with how I eventually became a rock critic. But first I wimped out and went to Harvard. I was 17 years old and didn’t have a clue how to write a play or do anything really, but I was too embarrassed to tell anybody. And what happened just as soon as I got there, was that the day after Halloween, my father came to town and wanted to borrow my car, which was really the car he bought for me, and I didn’t bother answering the phone again, and he went in his salesman’s car and some person who was driving in a stupid way on the other side of Route 128 by Waltham came over the highway divider and killed them all.
At the moment that it happened I was actually trying to write a review of The French Connection for The Harvard Independent, which the director William Friedkin had come and personally screened for us. Maybe that’s why I didn’t answer the phone, because I had this incredibly important deadline and I was having a hard time organizing my little thoughts. Or maybe that wasn’t him calling, it was just someone trying to tell me he was dead. It doesn’t matter, I replayed that scene over and over for years, trying to make it come out in some other way. Sitting at my desk trying to write was really how to torture myself with it. Maybe that’s why I immediately zeroed in on people like Courtney Love or Eddie Vedder before other people really picked up on them. Instinctually, I knew they were working out something similarly traumatic. It’s like radar. Courtney Love actually interests me more now in terms of her grandmother, Paula Fox, and her mother than any of her music or lawsuits. Paula Fox wrote Desperate Characters, didn’t she, where someone is stricken by this foreboding cat before the child she gave up for adoption, Courtney’s mother, finally found her. And the way that these three generations have repeated certain patterns, with alcoholic men and with their own daughters, really fascinates me. That’s a book I’d like to write right there.
My life changed in that split second of someone being in the wrong place at the right time. And as a result, a lot of other terrible things happened to my family that were very difficult for us all, and me, especially, to deal with. The rug of my previous reality had just been ripped right out from under me. Kids often think they kill their parents, but I did feel pretty directly responsible. Now I understand more about trauma–as do a lot of people, but this was actually just before the real studies of it began. You read about people at the World Trade Center, tough cops, hardened professionals, who keep reliving that moment when if they had just done something different, could have saved their partner or best friend or whatever.
Harvard was a particularly terrible and impersonal place to be–it’s only recently, when people have been killing their roommates that anyone there has even bothered to pay attention to what’s going on with the undergraduates. It’s a place you don’t get to if you’re going to sink instead of swim, only the strong survive, yadda yadda. If someone stumbles, who cares, it just helps reduce the competition. And for me, it was really complicated by the fact that it all happened there–my father was going to come and see me later. And I hadn’t really wanted him to, because I was going through the typical adolescent thing. Who knows if it would have been resolved eventually–I didn’t get the chance to find out. So I also felt that even if I hadn’t caused the accident, I had wanted it to happen. And when I inconsiderately left my mother alone a month later sitting on a porch and someone tried to mug her and broke her neck, well, it was not pleasant. And really the only thing that offered any respite at all from the incessant pain was turning up my record player and pounding on a set of drums I immediately went out and got with the check my uncle gave me so I wouldn’t have to worry about my immediate expenses–because when someone dies as my father did, their bank account is frozen. You can imagine how popular I became in the dorm. But my suitemates miraculously managed to survive–one to get a Pulitzer, another to become an ambassador. We all had a big laugh at the 25th. But I was pretty miserable.
Steven: You wrote for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. What other music publications did you write for during your career, and were you a career freelancer or did you work as a full-time staffer anywhere?
Deborah: As I always tell people, I wrote for any and every magazine at first. All I wanted to do was write–and that’s what a lot of us did. I remember meeting Jon Pareles at Paul’s Mall in Boston at some jazz show. He had just graduated from Yale and was living with his mother in the suburbs, and I said, basically, “Oh you have a pencil! Do you want to be a critic too?” Because what normal person scribbles away during a show? I mean, I always find it funny when fans try to post their “reviews” after a Brain Surgeons show–but it could be any show. And these are not stupid or uneducated people, but they rarely, if ever, get the songs or the order or the instrumentation right because it never occurred to them to take notes. Not that writing anything down at the scene has ever helped many so-called professionals get anything right, but maybe that is the one thing, maybe the only thing, that really distinguishes them from the amateur. The critic brings a pencil. A fan doesn’t think of it. Although the hardcore usually have a sharpie, but that’s another issue.
Anyway, I was just so thrilled to meet anyone who seemed to share my interests, weird as they were. Jon at the time was writing for a little folded piece or two of rag-paper that was given away at record stores, Poptop. So was Don Shewey. You didn’t get paid. You didn’t even get to keep the record–only if the publisher didn’t want it. Jon told me he was really interested in trying to find and interview a musician named John Payne, who’d just put out a jazz album locally, after playing with Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. No problem, I said. His sister was my roommate. Actually, I’d only been persuaded to kick out the person I was living with and let her move in because he’d also played on Fanny Hill and that was the height of my obsession with Fanny. But that’s another story. What was the original question? Oh, where I wrote. I think my first piece was in Circus, because the editor had come to see us in Flaming Youth and ended up coming back to Allen’s and hanging out. And she, who had greater literary aspirations and was sort of embarrassed to be working for this ridiculous teen boy mag, was sort of amazed that I not only knew what it was, but I loved it. I was so into hard rock and bands like Zeppelin and Mott the Hoople. That was the music we emulated in Flaming Youth, even if it came out sounding more like female Dolls because we didn’t really know what we were doing. I didn’t know that this music and this magazine wasn’t really supposed to appeal to me. I did think it was funny that the shots were always from the crotch up, the fly would be more in focus than the guy’s face. It took me about 20 years to figure it out. But when I walked out of the band, I had nothing to do and they wouldn’t give me a job at Sam Ash, something else I thought would be incredibly exciting, you know, being around guitars all day, because they didn’t have female salespeople. And I called up the editor of Circus, who told me that being a rock critic was incredibly hard and she had so many people already doing it that I shouldn’t hold my breath. And then she called me back practically the next day, because not one of those people was willing to go up to Capitol Records and eat an egg salad sandwich and talk on the phone to Brewer and Shipley, who were already one toke over their one hit, and I was.
And I just kept going, figuring that if I paid my dues with the Uriah Heeps, I’d get to do something worthwhile. They would really have me do everything no one else wanted, like Angel and Rush. They had a basic formula you had to fit everything into, so no matter how ridiculous, I saw it all as a learning experience. I had to try to be creative and essentially just amuse myself, while dealing with some fairly inane material. And I went on from there. I guess what really appealed to me, as I began writing for weeklies like the Real Paper and Boston Phoenix, was the even more immediate gratification. I’d write something, and there it would be on the newsstand. It would confirm that I was really there, because sometimes I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t have to send things off into a dark unknown or wait for a boss or committee to approve or negotiate a deal or wear a dress or work with grown-ups. I got very busy very quickly, and it didn’t occur to me to do anything but freelance. I was writing because I didn’t want a regular job. And the people I knew were actors or musicians or poets–they went from one gig or project to another. It wasn’t until much, much later–like when the tuition at my son’s elementary school got up to $20,000, which is more than most rock writers will ever make–that I began to realize what most people never question, that having a steady paycheck is not necessarily such a terrible thing.
But I really thrived on the freedom, as well as always perching on the precipice. That’s really what drove me. And I turned down other opportunities, which in hindsight seems pretty stupid. But I liked being not stuck in any one place. But I think there was also a large period of my life, due to my earlier experiences, that I was no more capable of making any kind of commitment to any one job than I was to any one person. And I thought I loved rushing fromPeople one minute crosstown to Rolling Stone the next. I was always juggling a huge number of assignments, but I thrived on the constant movement and, really, the total chaos. One day I looked at a newsstand and thought, I bet there’s not a single person who’s in as many publications here as me–there was probably one week when I was in everything from Elle to Spin to Rolling Stone, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, and Muscle & Fitness. And did anyone give a flying fig? Of course not. My bags were always packed. I didn’t have a home. I was on the road for one magazine one minute and someone else the next.
I also really liked throwing myself entirely into someone else’s world–whether it was John Cougar or PJ Harvey or Robert Plant–you suck it all in and spit it all out and go on to the next one. I realize now that it was just an attempt to compensate for a lot of other emptiness. But it’s part of what made my pieces so great–I didn’t simply write them, I lived them. Probably much, much too intensely. Especially for the poor people who had to edit me. It was rarely–if ever–a picnic. But everything was this real struggle–I really thought that if I didn’t come up with some incredible breakthrough or revelation, I would have to jump off a bridge. Or something. I didn’t know how to do it any other way.
Steven: When you were growing up and first started to read rockcrit stuff, what were your favorite magazines and what rock critics were your favorites? Also, was any writer–rock or otherwise–a particular influence on you?
Deborah: Did I answer this already? I was very influenced by the Village Voice–it wasn’t only the music writing, it was the seemingly new personal journalism. Everything about the Voice appealed to me. But I was probably as influenced by the perspective and point of view represented and expressed by the photographs of Fred McDarrah and Sylvia Plachy and the art of Stan Mack as any individual rock critic. Their work still resonates for me. There was probably a point when I thought Bob Christgau not only had something to say but was worth reading. There was a point when there was a lot of terrific writing in the Voice–or so I thought. The late ’70s, maybe the very early ’80s, may have been they heyday of rock writing there. Any given week, the section would be amazing. It was kind of like the unique Fillmore bills–you’d have Santana, the Byrds, Blue Oyster Cult, Mahavishnu, nobody thought anything of it. That’s just the way it was. You’d be edified and entertained and exposed to something different all at once.
There were a lot of people who had an impact upon me. But I was probably more influenced by someone like Pauline Kael than Greil Marcus. I was taken with Ellen Willis, particularly when she wrote for the New Yorker, but reading her much later, something I wrote about in some obscure literary journal, I realized how little it had to do with music. Of course, she realized it too and moved on. Lester Bangs may have had the most individual influence on me–as a writer. As a person, he kind of repulsed me, which was sort of a problem when this woman, actually my first editor, tried to get rid of him by fobbing him off on me. But what can I say? I’ve always been more attracted to model types than fat slobby guys. Maybe that’s my own weakness. But he’s probably the rock critic who individually had the most influence on me. It’s probably also why my writing doesn’t appeal to some people.
Steven: I remember an outstanding piece (it may have been a cover) you did for the Village Voice in the ’80s about heavy metal and heavy metal culture. Was that the music genre editors tagged you with, and if so, were you comfortable focusing on HM?
Deborah: It was a cover, and it actually had a very interesting life of its own–it really began as a feature about Mötley Crüe for People, which never happened because after I got to L.A., they wouldn’t cooperate and be photographed. And that was sort of the rule then at People–there had to be pictures of you at home or there was no story. They were even going to use somebody they approved of, like Neal Preston, and he would call me up and tell me to meet him at some address that didn’t exist and I remember ending up at some police station on some weird mountain and going through high tech maps with the officers on duty. It was just one of the more bizarre run-arounds of my career. But during this period, I also ended up hanging out in London while I was there for something else–maybe it was McCartney–with Lita Ford and Lemmy. It was sort of on my own time–and who else was there–the guy who was in that one-hit group with his stepfather–Randy California, who drowned a little while after. I can’t believe I’m having these senior moments, where I have to search for these people’s names–but it’s really been a long strange trip. I don’t think what went on with Randy California even made it into the first draft of that piece. But I remember riding around with him in an English taxi going to some after hours place–anyway, it’s not really important. Just one more footnote to another funny night on the road. I wrote the piece a year before it appeared. For all I know, it may still hold the record for being the longest piece in overset in Voice history. And it’s been anthologized in at least one book, although without the photos, which really contributed to it.
But I had all of these different experiences, some of which I couldn’t use elsewhere–like the publicists for this very Spinal Tap-ish group kept begging me to come to L’Amour, and just to get them to stop bugging me, I did, and all of that ended up in White Noise, which then came out the week that Vince Neil killed Razzle, who was one of the people I hung out with in London and then Mötley Crüe made me their target in subsequent interviews in heavy metal magazines in an attempt to divert attention from what really happened, which was that Vince Neil got drunk and accidentally killed his buddy and seriously injured some other people. I think it’s still a pretty great piece, but for me it was also very wrapped up with what was going on with the various characters at the Voice at the time. In many ways, it marked the end of a particular era at the Voice. There was a lot of personal drama–it’s probably much more professional now–although I’m sure it isn’t nearly as much fun. But as for the heavy metal aspect, to me, it was much more pulsing and alive than the whiney singer-songwriter crap that these corduroyed, pinstriped rock critics would tap their Weejuns to and rhapsodize on and on about. Actually, one would rhapsodize and the rest would all join in. I was never interested in joining the rockcrit or any other kind of establishment. I just wanted to express myself and do my thing. These people really get excited about their little year end lists, and what’s best, and lining up their little soldiers and allies who agree with them as if it justifies not only their weeny opinions but their entire existence. Every year, they get more and more into it, and making more of an institution of it all. That’s so oppressive and really old-fashioned, in the ancient tradition of the “academy” and all that garbage, as if the dictates are being issued from the Vatican on high. This is not my impulse at all. I’d say, get rid of it, do something new instead of repeating the same old dreary foofarah. It’s never been what any kind of art or rock is or should be about.
Steven: Did you find it hard breaking into the male-dominated field of rockwrite when you started, or easy because there were not as many women writing about rock and roll.? (Although you did have Ellen Willis, Lillian Roxon, and Lisa Robinson…)
Deborah: Well, these people that you name were not what I would necessarily now describe as serious rock writers, although I think Ellen Willis is certainly a serious thinker as well as writer. Lillian Roxon was a kind of cheerleader, and I think Lisa Robinson has taken that role on. She would be the first to admit she’s not a critic. She’s a gossip columnist, like Liz Smith, although Liz Smith is probably more in the pocket of the celebrities she publicizes. There’s no pretense of it being anything other than purely PR-generated. News it isn’t. But yes, it was hard because I was so young and naive I didn’t realize that it was simply assumed that if you weren’t someone’s sister, and even if you were, you were generally expected to be someone’s girlfriend. Other than when I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys team I was playing on at summer camp in 1963 against the local Little League on Cape Cod, I didn’t really experience such outrageous sexism, and in numerous cases, sheer simple harassment, until I was dumb enough to want to become a rock writer. It probably would have been better for my career if I’d just given in to it, but that was not me. But no, it wasn’t as bad as having to go to the back of a bus or drink from a different water fountain every day of your life. All kinds of women have been subjected to far worse indignities throughout time and the world. I think I helped open a lot of doors for other people, most of whom simply take it, like everything else, for granted. Of course, if there are more women doing it now, it’s for the same reasons there are more women becoming rabbis–it’s a low paying job and they’re willing to settle for far less than many men. Men have figured out they have more and better options.
Steven: What magazines and editors were your favorites to write for?
Deborah: You know, that’s really a funny question. I wrote for some legendary and/or prestigious publications that were not necessarily great to write or work for. And I had to deal, at various points, with some people who have elbowed their way to various kinds of success, who were just shmucks on every level. There were some really incompetent, not particularly bright, essentially illiterate editors who were much nicer people than some I still have pretty strong love/hate relationships with. There were a lot of people I just told to fuck off because that was the mood I was in. There were a lot of people I could have resolved things with in a much more mature, never mind more professional or simply decent, way. I think I really thought I had to be a real punk every minute and also for a long, very long time, I was angry about a lot of things that I’m just beginning to understand now, and I probably took it out on anyone who got near me. Maybe it’s a testament to my talent that people would put up with any of this shit. Or maybe they thought the piece would be worth it. I remember an editor once saying to me, “You make me look good.”
When I really think about it, I learned something from every experience, even working with people who were not especially smart or capable in any realm. And there were places, for instance, Rolling Stone…There was nothing nice about it when I was there, but I felt I had to grit my teeth and bear it, because how could you call yourself a rock critic if you didn’t write for Rolling Stone? And there were various situations that I found quite demeaning just getting there that I won’t go into now, but I was determined to conduct myself in an ethical, dignified (although I admit that is a kind of funny word to apply to myself, and I do) way. And anyone who has been there knows the kind of atmosphere it can be and the ways people have often been humiliated, but one incident in particular really sums up the whole vibe for me at the time. At the time, I guess I’d written a bunch of things for Rolling Stone, although I might have been doing more for the Record. This was at the point when they both existed, but Jann was going to make the Record into the music magazine, and Rolling Stone was going to be more about Hollywood or politics or whatever he was into at the moment. But I was writing pretty regularly there, and I was working on a book about ZZ Top for Rolling Stone Press, which gets resurrected every so often whenever Jann senses a deal for himself and shuttered just as frequently when it starts costing him money.
I’m just trying to remember what I was doing in a particular office at the end of a certain hall all day. And I was finding it harder and harder to work, even with the door closed, because this hysterical noise and laughter was just emanating from, I guess it was the then-music editor’s office. So finally, I went to see what the commotion was about and most of the staff–although not Jann, he was probably away, which is why all the mice were playing so riotously–was in this office. And they were literally rolling on the floor, clutching their sides, laughing at a tape that was playing. It was a recording of some poor person, who sounded somewhat mentally challenged, if not outright retarded, singing a cappella to a Prince song–I think it was “When Doves Cry.” It was like hearing somebody listening to the radio or wearing headphones sing obliviously and tunelessly at the top of their lungs. Apparently this tape had been sent to the A&R department of Prince’s record label, with the singer querying about the possibility of obtaining his own deal based on the cassette in question. This was the source of such tremendous amusement. Never mind how it ended up in the office of Rolling Stone, where it could make the assembled feel so tremendously superior by merely giving a listen. It made me literally want to throw up. I really wanted to ask each one of these smug bozos to get up and see if he or, in the rare instance, she, could sing any better. But I had to get out of there just for some air.
But I was fortunate enough to work with other people who were smart and insightful and would not necessarily derive enormous pleasure from making fun of cripples. I think Joe Levy was one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with, at the Voice, or anywhere else. He’s smart, even for a Yale man, and he was always all about pulling the best out of the piece, rather than putting his own little territorial pissings over it. That really became a problem with Bob [Christgau], and some of the people who emulated him. Paul Nelson was a great editor in his day, although he had some other issues. David McGee was one of the most conscientious editors as well as a true gentleman, something I can’t say about most editors. Joe Levy was a rare exception–of everyone I may have given a hard time, I feel guiltiest about Joe. He didn’t deserve it. Barbara O’Dair is a very smart editor. Now there’s someone Christgau told wasn’t good enough to write criticism in his section. He would get off on these ridiculous power trips. But maybe there was a purpose–anyone with any real ability would be forced to get a real life, not to mention, make a real career, for her or himself. Holly George-Warren was someone I developed a lot of respect for, although I didn’t work with her in a magazine context. I think Anthony DeCurtis was a good editor, although we didn’t really have that much interaction. I don’t remember even discussing any changes with him, if he indeed made them. Jay Lovinger, who I worked for at People, was one of the great editors anywhere, although his style was so low key I don’t think I appreciated him enough at the time. I think I’ve told him since. It’s funny, I was in the sandbox when my son was starting kindergarten and a man came up and asked when I’d given up rock&roll. I hadn’t, but I think I had changed my outfit for that particular occasion.
There were other people who became good friends even though they might not have been great editors. Like Billy Altman at Creem, who was just a cool person. Billy was really pretty hands-off as an editor. I think I thought everyone should be like my meanest English teacher. I used to think it was just me, or that maybe I thought I deserved a particular kind of abuse, until I realized someone like Christgau terrorized everyone. There were certain huge fat guys who really seemed to enjoy this really sado-masochistic thing that went on between them. I guess people were just not getting enough jollies anywhere else in life–it’s truly bizarre when I think back to the scenes that went on, with the writer quaking in the little chair next to Christgau’s desk. You have to also realize that the way the offices were laid out–given what these alternative weeklies still publish, I guess I hesitate to call them “newsrooms”–but you have to realize that everyone could see and hear what went down. If you were humiliated, it was very publicly so. Kit Rachlis, who I did not always get along with for a variety of reasons, really forced me to do whatever I finally did anywhere. I was often more resentful than thankful for it. Doug Simmons probably still has his good points, although not everyone would agree with me. Overall, I’m probably proudest of what I was able to write for the Village Voice. That was really where I had the most freedom and opportunities and Maxwell Perkinses to do most of the kind of writing I’d always dreamed about and aspired to.
Steven: When and why did you give up a career in rock criticism?
Deborah: That’s hard to say. Did I really give it up or am I just on extended sabbatical? I could never understand why other people gave it up. I remember interviewing Chrissie Hynde, who didn’t even want to discuss it. Then I realized she really didn’t see herself as a rock critic, it was not something she was particularly proud of, just a way of getting where she really wanted to be. I think the same was true of Patti Smith. And you go back to her pieces, and even the best have no pretense about being anything other than personal, extemporaneous personal poetry, undisciplined riffing that splashes a mood and may spurt a lively, occasionally utterly unique image. It’s generally not an attempt to state a thesis, never mind write an essay, even one that breaks a few rules. But obviously, she eventually managed to get what she was after. And it worked. Maybe I had a more formal education…no matter how vigorously I’ve rejected it. But I became really serious about being a journalist and critic whose subject was rock who was just as legitimate as any other serious and original writer. I think something else that I did which not many people, male or female, have the technical expertise as both musicians and writers to do was to really try to get inside and explain the process of making rock music and records–which is what I still call them even if now they’re really CDs or files or whatever. You know what I mean? Most rock writers are people with literary aspirations who appreciate music but really don’t understand how to do it–or else they probably would. There are people who write for guitar mags who may have some more knowledge about how to tap like Eddie Van Halen but they have even less elegance or imagination when it comes to the English language. Of course, there are just as many great rock musicians who can’t really articulate what it is that they do.
Then again, have you ever tried to have a conversation with a soccer player? Playing music, especially rock music, is as much about small muscle skills. And particularly since MTV, it’s even more about athleticism. I guess I’ve said before that the epiphany for me was sitting in Giants Stadium working for some New York daily–I was really at the top of my game here–watching the audience watch Genesis on the enormous video screen–or maybe stream out to buy beer because Genesis was so fucking boring and it was clear that the audience would have appreciated showing a clip of their Michelob commercial more than this attempt to recreate their studio hits. And I thought, for this I’m paying a babysitter? I really wanted to leave, because I knew I could write the piece in my sleep and I knew that the paper didn’t care if I did or not, or if even the intern from the Sports Department phoned it in. It made absolutely no difference. And many times people have just made things up, you see the critic leave early. And they usually get the set list from the publicist or road manager because half the time the sound is so horrendous in these places that even if you loved the artist and knew his or her entire repertoire by heart you couldn’t figure out what the hell is echoing across the 50 yard line. But I had this image of me leaving early and the Pope parachuting in and the one time there was a real story, I’d miss it… It was hard to say no when the telephone rang because I really did work my ass off for years to make it happen, but I really couldn’t stand what the people on the other end were asking me to do, no matter how much they were willing to pay me for it.
Around the same time, I had a very intense interview with Henry Rollins, although I knew it was in many ways just his shtick. It always is. The end result was not even something I would rank among my great pieces, or masterpieces, as Joe would call them, although I would usually think he was just trying to be flattering. I think it was really a favor for a friend at BAM or something, the kind of thing I would do so I could convince myself I wasn’t doing everything just for the money or because it was a job. But Rollins was literally getting right in my face–just like one of his shows, only I was the only audience–and it went on for hours, with him alternately barking like a drill sergeant in your worst nightmare and then revealing some of the most intimate kinds of things that you probably don’t and wouldn’t want to know about one of your closest friends. And it touched a very raw nerve. It really brought up some very, very dark things that I had blocked out for a long, long time. And I really thought, what am I doing? I’m almost 40 years old. I was really pretty comfortable, but I was also very unhappy. It was very easy to keep doing what I was doing, in fact, that’s why I kept doing it as long as I did. But it really also kept me from doing what I needed to.
There were other aspects–that I had a child who really mattered a great deal to me, probably more than anything–and doing something that involved being away from him at night and for extended periods of time–and for what? Some enterprise run by people like Gerald Levin who are only interested in getting rich at the expense of the people they contract everything out to, like migrant workers they can hire and fire at whim? This was also a point where every publication knew they were going to exploit the internet, and even the ones that had always been very decent about not forcing writers to sign away all of their rights for nothing, really began demanding that they sign these ridiculous contracts. Never mind that there was absolutely no kind of solidarity or community among the writers–the writers were really perfectly happy to do it, it was every man or woman for him or herself. I found it particularly ironic that the first people to very merrily sign up were these feminist babes whose ouevre was predicated entirely upon the worship of Kathleen Hanna and Sleater-Kinney and others of that ilk. They had no ambivalence. Their attitude was, “Oh goodie, more for me”–rather than what might benefit the entire community in the long run. I found it particularly dispiriting. But maybe I’m just an outmoded relic of the ’60s.
Steven: Blue Oyster Cult was always known as a rock critic’s band because of the connections of Richard Meltzer and Patti Smith (both of who wrote lyrics), and Sandy Pearlman (who managed and produced the band). Did any of that stuff have anything to do with you first meeting BOC drummer Albert Bouchard?
Deborah: Well, it probably had a lot to do with Albert’s simply tolerating me! You don’t notice me starting a band with…Lars Ulrich. Or Jimmy Page. Not that I’m not fond of both and their own inimitable ways, but I think Albert is a little more enlightened with regard to both women and rock critics. He also spent enough time with rock critics that he felt I was really wasting my time. I don’t think he liked seeing how I was treated or what I went through. He’s very supportive of just about anything that I do but he really encouraged me to stop. But there are plenty of bands that are Ford model bands…and it doesn’t seem to be quite the pejorative you make “rock critic’s band” sound like. Am I overly sensitive about this? I think a lot more has been made of the rock critic connection with BÖC than some other artists–Bruce Springsteen is probably still more involved with the rock critic ethos than BÖC ever was. Albert and I got together only peripherally through rock & roll. What really happened was that in 1984, I ran into Helen Wheels in a bodybuilding gym. It was actually a pretty funny gym–I ran into David Lee Roth there, too, and he was very humble, much more so then when I’d done a cover story on him for The Record and he was really incredibly obnoxious. He saw the interview as his opportunity to just hold forth–he just wanted to do a monologue, rather than participate in any give and take. The piece came out pretty well anyway, just because I decided to put up with, rather than challenge his nonsense. But the gym is another context altogether–and it was kind of cool that we had that opportunity to have a little P.S. And it’s also just one of those New York-really-can-be-a-small-town things that make you appreciate being here and loving it here in spite of what you always had to do just to get across the street even before Arabs started trying to blow us all up.
But anyway, Helen is someone who had written lyrics for BÖC, and she’d actually been the great love of Albert’s life in, like, 1967, which doesn’t just seem like another century, it really was one. And there was another funny connection in that the other girls in Flaming Youth had met her in Max’s or somewhere one of those nights I’d decided to stay in and take advantage of the terrible water pressure on E. 10th St. Princess that I was, I occasionally did enjoy taking a bath. There were a few other major events I missed that way too, but I’ve gone on too long here as it is.
Anyway, Helen had wanted Flaming Youth to back her up in 1973 or something, and I got really offended and said something to the effect of, “Who the fuck does this Helen Wheels think she is? I am not a back-up musician,” which of course has only become more hysterical, to me, anyway, since Helen died unexpectedly in January, 2000, and I found myself devoting the next entire year of my life to making a record where I was essentially backing her up, only she wasn’t there anymore. But I’m sure she would appreciate the gesture.
Anyway, both Albert and I were training for the New York Marathon, and after she introduced us, we began running together, then writing together and that was that. Albert was always someone I admired as a drummer–in fact, he was probably one of the reasons I stopped playing drums. It was like when I was into figure skating for a brief period in my childhood and it wasn’t only that I couldn’t stand the outfits, but Dorothy Hamill was the kid on the patch next to me. It was really very instructive at 6 a.m. on a freezing morning at a very early age. I realized that not only did I have certain physical limitations in comparison, I didn’t have the unbelievable concentration and desire I was witnessing right in front of me at that moment to overcome them to just reach the standard that was also being set. And I was probably a better drummer than skater–which may not be saying much. But it depends how much you love anything and what you can live with doing, if that makes sense. But we really had more in common than I’ve ever had with anyone. And he’s also a great teacher, which I think anyone who’s ever worked with him is well aware of. He’s also much too humble to take credit for what he really does. Even the guys in Metallica–they loved BÖC, which I think they made pretty explicit by covering one of Albert’s songs, and they were very particular about it being one of Albert’s and his brother Joe’s songs–they couldn’t figure out what happened and why something that seemed so great to other people just didn’t work for those involved. But anyone who understands music knows what the deal is. You can hear it.
That’s how BÖC managed to be so productive during the time he was there. Then after we put out the record, people said, when are we going to see the band? And then we had to do the band. Albert actually wanted to work with this very talented and funny guitar player, Pete Bohovesky, who’d been in a young band he’d produced. And then he ran into Billy Hilfiger, who was an old friend, who was really eager to play guitar, too. We weren’t planning on being such a guitar band. But I didn’t really have to play, because we had these two hot shots. And they had certain typically macho attitudes about my playing guitar, so I didn’t play. It was just as easy to not. Then, in ’97, just as we were really starting to get it together and about to do our first national tour, Billy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. At first, everyone was hoping for the best, but it turned out he had the deadliest form of cancer. He was pretty amazing, though. He was really determined to beat the odds and he almost did. He survived just a little over what the maximum life expectancy is for someone with his disease. I don’t know how much he really knew about it, but we did. And it wasn’t great for his spirits to say, OK, you have a brain tumor, you’re out of the band. We tried to work things around him, but it was pretty difficult. In the interim, Pete, who’d already experienced some very serious stuff with his own family, decided that he wanted to give up music completely. He started selling all of his gear without even telling us. It was kind of annoying, because we would have bought it. Basically he was giving it away. He’d show up for a gig without an amp and it took us a while to figure out what was going on. But hopefully, he’ll find his way and things will work out for him.
Meanwhile, we decided we didn’t really want to get another guitar player and I had to get serious, for the first time in my life, about playing the guitar, something I’d really done since I was 10 years old without making any progress whatsoever. Felice Rosser of Faith, who’s a really great singer and bass player, was the one who convinced me I could do it. She told me all I had to do was practice–what a concept, and one that had never previously occurred to me. And it’s really begun to all come together live in a way it never did before. And I am really, really enjoying playing. And I’ve been forced to overcome a lot of my insecurities about my playing. I think that’s also why I basically hid behind the keyboard of my typewriter–and later, computer–for so long. I felt more confident there–although that’s not saying much.
David Hirschberg had actually never played bass before we forced him to join us. The guy who played on Eponymous, who played with Joan Osborne and Poppa Chubby, basically flaked out at the last minute. David had played guitar, but he’s one of these very musical people who can play practically anything–he actually played sax on Eponymous. In fact, he was the only one of the Brain Surgeons, other than me and Albert, who was on the debut. So we are really back to the basic unit. And one day, he was fooling around on guitar and I picked up the bass and it’s something we’ve been switching around with ever since. It’s kind of weird, but then so is everything else we do and it gives us both a chance to stretch out a little and surprisingly, it works. The whole thing has evolved very organically. And even though it can be grueling doing it in a completely un-glamorous, no-frills way, musically it’s very satisfying. There’s no hype, it’s very pure and basic. And if you come see us, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Soon we’ll be old enough to take our rocking chairs and be just like any other regular blues people. Well, maybe blues people with a little light show and hopefully a couple of laughs. For me, the blues is really the essence. That’s what it’s all about.
Steven: What do you think of rock criticism today? Do you have any current favorite mags you read, or writers you like?
Deborah: There really is no one right now I’m honestly compelled to read. There are some people, like Neil Strauss, for example, who I think are solid, credible reporters. I will read what he writes simply for news value, because it always has some. I’ll read The New Yorker, which is worth reading once again. It’s too bad that they’ve never been able to come to terms with rock. High Fidelity was one of my favorite books, so I was optimistic when Nick Hornby wrote a few columns. But it’s one thing to be a fan, another to write knowledgeably about music week in and week out. It’s funny, though, they don’t seem to have that problem with other kinds of music. Whitney Balliett is actually another of my great idols. He makes me really want to hear the music he’s talking about. Maybe that’s what it is about most rock critics now–they really make me not want to hear the artist or album under discussion. And I don’t think I’m alone there. That’s not to say that I don’t read a tremendous amount. But the formulas of most rock magazines are just too obvious to me. I feel like I’ve read it all before, just like the women’s and the men’s fashion and health mags all seem to advertise and contain the same sex and diet tips every issue. I don’t waste my time buying them. I read them all at the doctor or hair salon or gym. But I read a lot of books, not only about music–Albert and I both just finished Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll. I think everyone should read it.
Steven: Any chance you would ever write rock criticism again?
Deborah: I don’t know that I ever actually said that I wouldn’t. I would write for The New Yorker. But I had reached a point where I didn’t even want to listen to music, much less write about it. I was reminded of this when I went to the memorial for Alan Betrock last year, which just happened to be at CBGBs the day Joey Ramone died, so it was even more poignant. People were remembering how Alan, who founded New York Rocker, which was a labor of love for everyone, and I was thrilled to be part of it, would always ask you on the phone, “So what are you listening to?” And I was thinking about how happy I was to finally not feel so negatively about everything that after awhile it just got to be too much effort to even go through the motions of faking it, which of course you might not realize reading me because even at my most obnoxious, I am still funny. I am not stupid. And I am a pro. But I was hell to be anywhere near, especially for myself. And I had just lost the ability to derive joy from or appreciate the beauty in anything. A lot of it has to do with just working on my playing, and realizing how much it means to me and how much I get off on doing it. If people like it, that’s nice, but I don’t really care. I am just trying to be satisfied with what I’m doing and take pleasure in little improvements. And one day, I realized that I was listening to music and enjoying it in a way I had not in years. I was just putting on Aretha for sheer pleasure and hearing a syllable or an inflection that I might have heard thousands of times before come alive in a new way. At this moment in time, there isn’t a day that someone in this house isn’t playing a Duke Ellington tune one way or another–whether banging it out on the piano or from the master, who of course, re-imagined the same things differently himself depending upon how long or who he had to tinker with.
I realize now that a lot of what I “achieved” as a writer was all for the wrong reasons. I was very wrapped up in things that did not matter at all–really, a lot of nonsense–like where my byline was appearing, how big my pieces were. Just a lot of crap, which I don’t think was especially unique to me. And I would let myself get really sucked into the little games that other screwed up people would play. There were certain editors who were always trying to promote rivalries, particularly between women. At a certain point, Albert refused to go to another Christmas party. He described the people at one particular publication as all standing around talking behind their hands about everyone else instead of to anyone else. But I think he nailed the real difference between music critics and their subjects very succinctly. Music is essentially a communal effort, writing is not. Musicians have to be supportive of one another at some very basic level–otherwise you’ll never be able to play together. With writers, it’s every man or woman for himself and they’re all fighting for the same pathetic crumbs it’s in the interest of the people who pay them to keep them scrambling for.
There’s still a lot of interesting music being made and being listened to in most places in the world every minute of the week. And there are lots of thought-provoking ways to ruminate over and discuss it all. I think there are also ways to do it that can even be reasonable business, rather than utterly self-indulgent propositions. Which is not to say that plenty of self-indulgent propositions are not appreciated by a like-minded audience, either. But I think it’s also time to re-examine and re-work the approaches to them and come up with creative solutions. I mean, Rolling Stone did not succeed originally because it rehashed some tried, true formulas or corporate models but because it was an organic response to a particular time and community. It suffered its growing pains, as everything does. It’s adapted, amazingly, to various climates. If you really want to look at where it came from and where, maybe, it went astray–although commercially, it was probably more successful–you need to consider that it wasn’t about the market, but about what people wanted to say. And there was also the wise elder, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ralph Gleason. It probably would be very different if he were here. Maybe it wouldn’t be here. But things change. And not everyone wants to have a go at Excalibur…and there’s no reason why they should. But you can always dream. On and otherwise.
Steven: What CD would you bring to a desert island and why? (No box sets please.)
Deborah: I don’t think I would bring any CD. Anything that I’ve heard I can hear again in my head. It’s what I don’t know already that I’m much more interested in.
But let me ask you–this mythical desert island everyone always wants to bring a CD to…well, that would probably be more practical than the old record album, because at least you could bring your battery operated CD player for a while. But there wouldn’t be much of a point in bringing any CD or album anywhere if you planned on playing it a whole lot while you’re on that island, right? So I’m assuming you’re really going to a desert island with electricity–at this point in time, you might as well bring your computer and download all of recorded history, as well as use it to make a whole lot of new stuff in case your guitar or whatever else you wanted might have gotten shipwrecked en route. So maybe it’s time to just give up the ghost of this nutty desert island conceit once and for all. It’s gotten pretty tired, no?
3 thoughts on “From the Archives: Deborah Frost (2002)”
Lots of juicy inside dope but damn if I don’t find all the Yale’s and Harvard’s a bit disappointing. I’ve always known better but still like to hold on to this myth of rock and roll and rock criticism as this alternative “hallway” populist-pop academy and here it turns out as hidebound and class-tracked and gossipy and back-bitingly political as any other sphere of American life. Oh well.
Glad you’re reading through some of this archival material, Jack. I confess that I’ve only been scanning these pieces as I re-post them (migrating them from another server). I always loved this interview, thought it was one of the best ones we ran on the site (mostly I remember just loving Deborah’s stories and her colourful way of telling them), but I’m sure there’s something to what you say there also. But are you saying you’re disappointed that the Harvard/Yale stuff is a sticking point for Frost, or that it’s indicative of something (a disdain for academia?) rock criticism seems unable to shake? Not entirely sure what you’re getting at…
Seemed like a common currency, a badge, a club pass, she tosses off a lot– Harvard, Yale this and that. And my reaction is gut-level class resentment no doubt, and perhaps so exaggerated. Truth is a large proportion of my favorite books and authors have ivy league pedigrees. But the number of mentions of those hallowed institutions in reminisces ab the glory days of rock criticism surprised me. Like I said, I ‘prefer” thinking of those early days as this open field of dropouts and autodidacts and working class intellectuals. Damn reality! But I always liked Frost– never particularly sympatico tastes but always appreciated her pithy, no-bullshit style. BTW, what a great and neglected project, Scott. I can’t keep up w/ your posts (or re-posts) now that school is on but I’ll keep trying and I always find what I look at interesting. You deserve more attention.