Making It Up As We Go Along: Interview With John Morthland
By William Crain (December 2002)
John Morthland, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was an active participant in the mid-wifing of rock writing. He assisted its transition from teen magazine coverage and the occasional uncomprehending daily paper piece to something more vital and alive, which attempted to capture the spirit and concerns of both the music and its avid listeners. John worked as an editor and writer at Rolling Stone in its early incarnation, has freelanced for numerous other publications, and in the early 1970s was an editor at Creem magazine. He was among the first group of rock writers to branch out and write extensively about other genres such as blues, gospel, country and soul. In the early 1980s he authored The Best of Country Music, the first comprehensive guide to C&W. In the past two decades John has successfully made the transition from writing exclusively about music to writing on a wider range of topics for general interest magazines, in particular Texas Monthly, where he is currently a contributing editor.
I visited with John on several occasions this past summer, discussing his experiences in the early days of rock writing, his friendship with some of its other leading lights, the differences between working for Creem and Rolling Stone and his editing of a new anthology of Lester Bangs’s writing, due for publication in the summer of 2003.
William: Let’s talk about how you got started in rock writing, some background on where you were living and what you were doing when you first started.
John: I was a student at Berkeley, and in my senior year my roommate and best friend took a Poli Sci course, and his T. A. was Langdon Winner. Langdon was best friends with Greil Marcus. They were both Poli Sci grad students at Berkeley and lived a couple of blocks from each other. So I became friends with Langdon through my roommate Darrell, and Langdon came over to the house a couple of times. And that summer of ’69 I wound up living in a house up in the Berkeley hills where Langdon lived. An old woman named Mrs. Altrocchi–a widow of an Italian professor at the University–had three of four rooms that she rented out to students and I just needed a place for the summer, and one of Langdon’s roommates there was going away for the summer. So I moved in there and Greil lived, literally, up the street a few doors and around the corner. A five minute walk away.
So I met Greil and he had just taken over as Review Editor at Rolling Stone, and I started writing reviews for him. I didn’t really know what I was doing but at the time hardly anyone did, ’cause rock writing was pretty new. Some were better than others for sure, but we were all in a lot of ways making it up as we went along. I think some of us were really heavily influenced by the weightier film critics, like Pauline Kael. There were two or three film critics at the time who had a lot of cachet in both popular and academic circles. And I think some of the early rock critics took cues from them, but probably most of us weren’t really too influenced by anybody, just making it up as we went along.
William: Right, actually that’s part of what I like about that period. It reminds me in a way of what happened in underground comics. It was out of the limelight and no one was taking it seriously, so there was room for things to develop, and interesting things can happen that probably wouldn’t have happened if it had been under more scrutiny because people would have been more self-conscious about what they were doing.
John: Yeah, you know, you could sort of make your mistakes in print in those days and learn from them. You make your mistakes and you see them and you recognize them as mistakes immediately. And that’s something that’s hard to do nowadays because there is a certain level of competence required; it’s a form now, and it’s pretty institutionalized. But that was one of the great things about back then–you really learned by doing it, and by trial and error. You’d make horrible mistakes and embarrass the shit out of yourself, but you learned from it and you didn’t do it again.
William: Prior to your experience meeting Greil and writing these reviews you interviewed the Rolling Stones, right?
John: Yeah, that was when I was in high school.
William: This was what, 1965?
John: Fall of ’64.
William: And so it was the whole band, with Brian and all?
William: What was that experience like?
John: Well, you know, I was a 16 or 17 year old kid, it was really odd and exciting.
William: Was it a press conference?
John: No, it was backstage at this hall in San Bernardino California, which is where I grew up. Mostly I talked to Keith ’cause he was the big yakker. He really sat down and talked–the others you just sort of caught on the fly. Brian was in and out, flitting all around, and Jagger was sort of unapproachable, but you could get in a few questions. And Wyman and Watts were hanging out talking to the cops about their guns and stuff. [laughs] I was young and naïve and definitely didn’t know what I was doing then. There was nothing but teen fan mags, and the questions that you asked rock stars were the silliest.
William: Favorite color…
John: Favorite color and all that kind of stuff. But it was incredibly exciting and scored me a lot of points with kids at school–and I really needed that.
William: Where did that interview end up seeing print?
John: In a local daily. On the weekends they’d have a teen section, it was in there. They were sort of semi-straight interviews but nothing like you’d see today. They were pretty…shallow.
William: Those early Stones records I love, I’ve spent quite a bit of time collecting mono copies of those.
John: Oh, it’s incredible stuff, yeah. And just the experience of being at a Stones concert then, and the way they looked and their live show at that time…the level of hysteria was really unprecedented, for me at least. I was too young to have been at the early Elvis shows. I had never seen anything like it, and it was really so exhilarating. And you really identified with the Stones ’cause they were the ones that none of the adults liked. They weren’t cute like the Beatles and their music was a lot raunchier. You identified with them and they really played to that. But those shows, you couldn’t even hear the band in those days, couldn’t hear the music at all. But just watching them was amazing.
William: So, getting back to Rolling Stone magazine, it was located in San Francisco at the time, right? Were you working in the office there?
John: It was in San Francisco at the time. It was the summer of ’69 when Greil started me off. He was editing the reviews section. I believe my first review actually appeared in the same first issue as Lester’s first one. Lester was also brought to the magazine by Greil. If I remember right he had been trying to get in the magazine before Greil, he might have been sending them stuff cold, I don’t remember for sure, but I believe Greil was the first to print Lester and it was the same issue where he first printed me. So anyway, near the end of that year they were getting ready to expand and they were looking for someone to come on early the next year, early 1970. And I went in and interviewed with Jann. ‘Cause I’d had daily paper experience–limited–and it had been a while, but you know, I’d been writing reviews, and there weren’t too many people with any kind of experience that were writing reviews, so Jann was interested, and John Burks, who was the Managing Editor at the time, and really a great one, was interested. So I went in and interviewed with Jann.
William: What was Jann like in those days?
John: He was always kind of preoccupied, really intense. You know he made no bones about how ambitious he was or any of that. And at the same time he wanted a real quality product. Shortly after I interviewed with him came the Stones Altamont concert that was the subject of the Gimme Shelter movie. I was there with Langdon and Darrel. So when it was over Jann and Burks and Greil, who was also there, decided they wanted to do a really big thing on it. A kid had been killed.
William: Was it evident to you at the show that something bad had gone down?
John: Well, I was way in back, but yeah, word traveled fast and they kept stopping the music and saying, “knock it off.” The sound cut out a few times and you couldn’t hear well as far back as we were. They were literally just little specks. But by the end of the afternoon people had built fires back where we were and they had thrown all their garbage on it and it just smelled foul. Everybody had been drinking cheap wine and smoking pot and taking whatever else. Even in the back the crowd was getting kind of surly and cranky and just anti-social. So yeah, you could tell it was a bad scene everywhere. There was no violence back where I was. I never saw a Hell’s Angel. I knew they were there, I knew that apparently people were getting hurt, but no idea how badly, no idea that they were basically methodically stomping the shit out of people–we didn’t have any idea of that. But when I went home, even though we weren’t near the action, going home you just felt kind of flat and let down by it all.
William: So you worked on the cover issue for Rolling Stone?
John: Yeah, they called me that Monday and asked me if I’d come in for a couple of weeks and work on it. And there was about a dozen people maybe who contributed to it, in various ways. And Burks and I, mainly Burks–who was a great line editor–he shaped it all and I did a lot of after the fact research, phoning around to hospitals and police stations and trying to find out how many were hurt and how bad. You know, just sort of nuts and bolts stuff, and like I said I had worked at a daily before and that was why they wanted me in there, ’cause I knew how do that. I wrote up all my stuff and I helped Burks edit everybody else’s stuff into one coherent piece.
William: Was there already the feeling that this in some ways represented or symbolized the end of the era?
John: Yeah, to some extent there was, but more than that it was just shocking. It was only a few months after Woodstock, with that vibe and that whole mythology. There was some sense that it was the end of something or the beginning of something but it wasn’t real coherently expressed. People were still too close to it at that time to make that kind of sense out of it, there was just a sense that something had gone real real wrong and that things were not what they appeared to be with either the Stones or their audience. I think it took a while for the symbolism of it to take shape.
William: How do you feel about the Maysles brothers presentation of it in Gimme Shelter?
John: I like the film.
William: Yeah I like it too. They obviously edited it to illustrate how these events came about, with the poor planning and all.
John: There was a real strong tendency at the time, and we at Rolling Stone were guilty of it, to jump on the Stones and blame them for everything. And they certainly did a lot of foolish things, like trying to pull that off on 48 hours notice, and not going on for a long time; they left people hanging for a long, long time before they came on while they waited for it to get dark. Certainly, they contributed an awful lot to creating the atmosphere. But at the same time they were pretty helpless and were sort of revealed as such in a lot of ways–pretty pathetic and impotent. As more time went by and you got a better grasp on events it really became apparent they were a cause of it as much as anybody but they were also completely out of their league and clueless as to what they had conjured up.
William: So who were the other writers you were meeting at the time? There was Langdon, Greil…
John: When I started, Greil was not full time, he worked out of his home, came to the meetings, delivered the review section every two weeks. He was a regular at the meetings, did the review section, but he didn’t come to the office daily. The editorial staff at the time was Jann, Burks, who had come from Newsweek or somewhere like that, and also had daily paper experience and had written for Downbeat–he was a jazz guy as well as a rocker. He was Managing Editor. A guy named Charlie Perry was the Copy Editor; he’s been a food writer at the L.A. Times for years now. And Ben Fong-Torres was already there, he was sort of the staff writer and I became the second staff writer. This Altamont issue turned out to be an audition for me more or less, and after it was done I was told to take a couple of weeks for the Christmas holidays and then start right after Christmas.
William: Was John Mendelssohn on the staff?
John: No, Mendelssohn was in L.A. and he was writing for Greil’s review section, I don’t think he ever wrote anything except reviews for Rolling Stone, I could be wrong. He was another writer that Greil was nurturing. Ben was the other staff writer and he had come on not too long before me. Then, shortly after me, Ed Ward came, he replaced Greil as Reviews Editor. It’s hard to remember now. First of all, I think Jon Carroll came–he’s now a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He came to Rolling Stone as a writer, editor, and so did Ed Ward, who had been doing some reviewing and who was in Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. And the other was a guy named John Lombardi who had been at a Philly underground weekly.
William: When did you first meet Lester?
John: I first met Lester that summer, very soon after I started writing for Greil in 1969. They brought him up to the Bay Area from San Diego, from El Cajon. ‘Cause he was writing for the magazine and they wanted to meet him. So they flew him up and he stayed with Greil part of the time and around the corner with me and Langdon part of the time, he was up there for about five or six days, maybe less. So we hung out then.
William: First impressions of Lester?
John: Well, I liked him a lot. He was real nervous, he was very unlike us, we were all sort of San Francisco Bay Area hipsters and he was you know dressed pretty straight and he had pretty short hair and he was like a suburban kid, and pretty shy. People say in retrospect, like in the DeRogatis book, well he might have been on drugs or something he was acting so strangely, but I just thought he was really shy and nervous about being there. He thought maybe he was gonna get hired.
We sat and talked for a long time. We went out and saw, Buddy Guy, if I remember right, and we talked about how much he disliked blues and stuff. He talked a lot about the Velvets, who no one up there liked. I wasn’t a big fan, I was a mild fan of theirs. And at that time they had a small group of fanatical fans and everybody else hated them. I was neither, truthfully. I liked them but they weren’t the holy grail for me, and most of the other people at Rolling Stone and in rock circles in the Bay Area really hated them. And Lester really loved them, of course, so that set him off immediately.
So my first impressions were that he was this shy nervous guy from Southern California, small town, suburban background. Here he was in the Bay Area amongst this hipster milieu and he was out of place there; out of place somewhat by choice, but he was out of place and he knew it. But he really wanted to write–he talked about writing a lot. He talked all the time about writers: Kerouac, Burroughs. He talked about music all the time. And even then he had a really strong, singular outlook on the world. There was a lot of stuff in the hip world that he didn’t buy at all. He was not at all a party line guy and at the same time he wasn’t overly hostile to it; sometimes he was but he wasn’t always. He was a really interesting guy and really fun to be around.
William: What was the atmosphere at Rolling Stone like at the time? You get the impression that things would have been pretty informal, but obviously work got done.
John: Yeah, that’s a pretty good description. Like I said, Burks had a lot of professional experience and he knew what he was doing and he knew how to get a magazine out. He was a very good editor, real good at nurturing people and helping shape their copy. So it was real professional but at the same time it got pretty loose. It was work, though, no doubt about it, some of the business people there were pretty straight ahead business types. But for the most part it was loose and the people worked hard and got things done. Pretty self-motivated people. And Burks held it all together, and Charlie Perry as Copy Editor–they were sort of the organization of it really.
William: I guess everyone was pretty passionate about what they were doing?
John: Yeah, you know, there was a sense that no one had ever done something like this before and we were all really excited about it. And we all read each other’s stuff real enthusiastically and whenever we found a new writer we’d get real excited. ‘Cause it was hard to find people who could write and were knowledgeable about music back in those days. It’s not that hard anymore. But back then, there just weren’t that many of them and any time you found a new one it was exciting, like, what can we find for him to do?
The underground papers at that time had varying degrees of professionalism. Some were really pretty strong and some were really amateurish. Some wanted to remain amateurish–unreadable graphics and stuff like that. Some–theL.A. Free Press and the like–aspired to something really literate and good looking and intelligent. So there was them on the one hand and then straight dailies on the other hand, very few of which even had rock writers at the time. I mean, very few ever covered it at all and when they did it was just a staffer. So we were between those two and we had the savvy about the music and the enthusiasm and the dope smoking anti-establishment bent, and at the same time we had the professionalism of the dailies. We knew we were pretty lucky to be in the position to do that type of work and get paid for it.
William: What writers were you reading at the time you started? Lester of course came a lot from the Beat angle.
John: And I did too to some extent, I think we all did. I can’t say that they were influences, in terms of emulating, but I read them. They influenced the way I looked at the world, but yeah, the Beats and Norman Mailer, both his fiction and his non-fiction. I read a lot of him. Kesey, although to me Sometimes A Great Notion was so far superior to Cuckoo’s Nest which is the book that everyone knows him for.
Like anyone who has basically just gotten out of his parent’s house and out on their own, there was just so much to discover then. I mean, I came to Berkeley in 1965 from San Bernardino, California, very insular, Mojave Desert town. Half the stuff I was reading by the early ’70s I had never even heard of until I got to Berkeley. And, you know, that included classics. I read a lot of Theodore Dreiser and poets Creeley, Ginsberg. I was reading a lot of nonfiction, mainly political and radical leftist interpretations of American History, everything from Eldridge Cleaver’s book to The Peoples History of the United States. I also read a lot of whatever was trendy then, from Siddhartha to drivel like Stranger in a Strange Land. In the early ’70s I discovered detective novels. Almost immediately after I got out of college I discovered Raymond Chandler. And I read everything he wrote, which, at that time, a lot of it wasn’t in print and you had to scour the used book stores. But you could find it, it hadn’t been out of print that long. And I still do read a lot of detective fiction but that started right at the turn of that decade, ’70, ’71. Also through the ’70s and ’80s I read every novel and essay I could find by Ishmael Reed. Still do, though there’s not as much new stuff out there on a regular basis as there used to be.
William: Was Crawdaddy! a magazine that you read early on?
John: Yeah it was. I read it, it was around before Rolling Stone, and I read it, but at the same time it never occurred to me that I could write for it. I didn’t really write the way they wrote in Crawdaddy!. It was more long personal, impressionistic, essays. I enjoyed reading that kind of stuff, but it never occurred to me that I could write for it, and it was kind of distant and far away and involved a very small number of people too.
William: How big a role did the “new journalism” school have stylistically on the beginnings of rock writing? Say in the late ’60s: Crawdaddy!, early Rolling Stone?
John: I think what was called the “new journalism” had a lot more influence on the East Coast writers than on anybody else ’cause that’s where most of it was coming from.
William: Wasn’t Christgau in an early new journalism compilation?
John: Yeah he was. I don’t know. It’s really hard to draw these distinctions for me, but I think that kind of writing was influential on rock writers but maybe not in an overt way. Again, it goes back to learning how to break the rules but not be just spewing all over the page. Learning how to break the rules effectively, so I think, yeah, in that sense it did influence rock writers, just like certain film critics, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, affected rock writers a lot ’cause in a lot of ways film critics were the closest model for early rock writers.
William: I guess I was thinking of things like a Nik Cohn piece on Phil Spector I read in a Rolling Stone anthology, one that you had a couple of pieces in as well.
John: Nik Cohn was a great writer!
William: Yeah, he’s one of my favorites, and the piece I mentioned stylistically reminded me a bit of, say, Tom Wolfe, and not just because of Wolfe’s famous piece on Spector.
John: Sure, Yeah I can see that, I think I met Nik Cohn very briefly maybe once and I have no idea if he would consider himself as being influenced by Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and that sort of school of journalism. But a lot of times with social cultural stuff you know you have stuff going on all over the place that is somewhat similar but not necessarily aware of each other.
William: Yeah, I guess what I was trying to get at was how aware y’all were of those writers and what they were doing?
John: You know, when I started writing in ’69 and ’70 I was barely aware of it, I knew who Tom Wolfe was, of course, but I’m not sure I actually read him. I think I became aware of him probably around Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, and I liked him but I don’t think he influenced me unless in an indirect way, in terms of doing really different stuff that is still accepted as journalism. So they really opened up a lot turf that a lot of people then went into consciously, or not. So, yeah, I do think they opened up that territory and made it easy for rock writers to get taken seriously.
William: How long did you stay at Rolling Stone?
John: Less than a year, about 10 months. I think I started in December of 1969 and I was gone by October of 1970.
William: What were your reasons for leaving?
John: There was a lot of turmoil at Rolling Stone at the time. The magazine was really split between people that wanted it to have more of an aggressive political tone and to cover a lot more than music and the ones that wanted it to be pretty much strictly a music magazine. And among the latter ranks was the owner, so that’s the way it went.
William: Where did you stand?
John: I quit, it was a really turbulent time, I’m still not sure who quit and who got fired. A lot of people left in a period of two or three months. A lot of us left, most of us. I left ’cause I didn’t like the way the magazine was going and I didn’t like the fact that the best writers and thinkers of the magazine and editors were disappearing. Greil left, Burks, Jon Carroll, Ward left a little after me. I don’t know the order. Burks and Greil in particular were the two people there that I identified with the most and looked up to the most. Burks was a great editor and Greil had gotten me started there and was an amazing thinker. Probably those two leaving had a lot to do with me deciding to leave but basically I was burnt out on the internal turmoil and not interested in the direction the magazine was heading in.
William: Where did you go from there?
John: Nowhere, I freelanced until I went to Creem in 1974. Creem was the upstart, and some of us really dug it, it had all the high energy early ’70s Detroit stuff. It was all right there in that publication. And it was in many ways amateurish but it was a wide open place, we could write anything in Creem. So I immediately started freelancing for them, among others. I grew more steady with them over time, I wasn’t paid much as a freelancer, but mainly it was just like–Creem at that point was a really cool place. By the early ’70s at Rolling Stone the whole ’60s underground culture had become more above ground and there was a hierarchy developing in the quote-unquote hip community; you know, the people who had head shops and the people who were roadies that had money, and so there was a hierarchy, particularly in the Bay Area. The backlash set in especially in the Bay Area, with James Taylor and all that, and the people that had been through the ’60s started looking for a lot softer music, they were, uh, growing up, at least in some ways.
And Creem meanwhile was this kind of rampaging, kicking, screaming, really insurrectionist thing. And so was the music they championed. Not just the Detroit stuff, but that was obviously the bulk of it with the Stooges and the MC5, and there were bands back then, like the Frut that was a Detroit band. You know, many of them just got one album out on some label, but they were all just so far outside what was then considered FM rock mainstream or AM rock mainstream. And these bands were really high energy and very outside. Creem was getting readers who were younger than us who were into the metal bands. But a lot of people who had been through the ’60s and who did not go to James Taylor and Carole King and singer songwriters, that softer rock, for the writers among them Creem was the place to go whether they got paid or not. Also the readers: Creem was political and the left was falling apart all around us at that time but there were still a lot of really political people and Creem originally spoke to them. So it was a complete alternative to Rolling Stone and to everything else. It was definitely anti-establishment, but it was also anti-Rolling Stone and anti-hip aristocracy.
William: It seemed, in the best sense of the word, more adolescent than Rolling Stone.
John: And more grass roots. There was a hip aristocracy–you started hearing that term a lot in the early ’70s and there was a reason why you did, ’cause one had really formed and Rolling Stone was part of it and if you rejected that then Creem was where you went. But by the time I got there as an Editor in ’74 Creem was definitely getting more professional. And that’s part of the reason I was brought there to edit, because I had experience, and a lot of it was getting deadlines going and getting typos out–the magazine was notorious for dropping whole lines and paragraphs. At the same time I was trying to not affect the magazine’s personality.
William: And it was published by Barry Kramer right?
John: Yeah, Barry was the Publisher, Dave Marsh had already gone East. Ben Edmonds left right around the time I arrived. The staff, at the time I got there, was Lester, Jaan Uhelszki, and um, Georgia Christgau, she was a typesetter/writer. When I first visited Creem it was down in the Cass Corridor a really raw part of inner city Detroit. Then they moved out to Walled Lake and lived in a big farmhouse. The staff was so small then, a couple of people drove there everyday, but basically everyone lived at the farmhouse and I visited there too. But by the time I actually went to work there it had moved into offices in Birmingham and the staff was basically living in two houses and a few others were living by themselves. But the bulk of the staff was in two houses in Birmingham.
William: Your work there was primarily as an Editor by 1974?
John: Yeah, basically. I was there for about 7 months in all and I wrote about two pieces I think that whole time. I was there to sort of pull it together as an editor and to clean up typos, get on a production schedule, and formalize deadlines more, stuff like that. So I was trying to do that but in a non-heavy handed type of way. Creem wasn’t a place you could be a boss: it would never have worked and it wasn’t my inclination anyhow. So I worked mainly at that, getting a real solid deadline and production schedule worked out and cleaning up typos and making it look better and read cleaner.
It worked out fine. Contrary to Creem‘s image maybe, nobody there objected to that, they were all glad to have that. Lester included. Lester was real good at deadlines and took editing well, I don’t think he’d ever really been edited before at Creem. And I didn’t edit him as heavily as I did most people, but he didn’t need as much editing as most people. I edited him probably more than he had been edited by anyone except Greil up to that point. But he welcomed it. He wrote really, really long, and I didn’t mind that but I was not adverse to cutting and when I did I’d explain to him why and we’d discuss it, sometimes we’d put it back in.
William: Was this the period of time when y’all became really close?
John: Yeah, we became really good friends during that period when I was in Birmingham. We had been friends before that, ’cause at that point I had known him for about five years, but we became really good friends when I was in Birmingham. For one thing there was nothing in Birmingham, except the magazine and the staff people who lived there; you got to know everybody really well.
William: What was your impression of Barry Kramer?
John: O.K. Barry was, by the time I got there, really heavily drugged all the time and was pretty nigh impossible. For a long long time when people would say complimentary things about Barry I just wouldn’t get it. What I’ve come to see is that if I had known him earlier there was a time when he was not so totalitarian. He was just impossible. But he wasn’t always, I mean he was always very ambitious and always hustling and very aggressive.
William: So at that time was he very hands on with the magazine?
John: Yes and No. He’d come in in the afternoon and he would work into the evening after we left. He tried to be hands on and we tried to keep him from being hands on. He was there for staff meetings. He was watching what was going on and he was always pushing for the magazine to get more commercial and everyone was resisting him. And you could resist him up to a point, whereas at Rolling Stone you couldn’t, it was gonna happen whether you like it or not. And of course Creem did get more commercial and mainstream and all that but it kept its wild streak much longer than most. But it was a constant struggle with Barry, it really was.
William: He’s passed away, right?
John: Yes, he died, in the late 70’s early 80’s. It was a weird OD–he died of nitrous oxide overdose. And I was long gone by then. People either had bitter fallings out with Barry or they just left to get away from him before it came to that.
William: How would you compare the work environment at Creem to what you had known at Rolling Stone?
John: It was just a lot looser, in some ways. I mean everyone still took the magazine real seriously and worked real hard to get it out. But it never had the sort of professionalism that Rolling Stone had. Creem always had a lot of typos and stuff. It got better, though, it got a lot better.
A lot of the difference in working at Creem and working at Rolling Stone you can see from the product, which was very different. When I started at Rolling Stone there had never been anything like it, and it was really exciting, I have to say. It had never occurred to me that one could make money writing about music, and really, Rolling Stone was the only place you could at that time, though the other rock mags paid a little. But at Rolling Stone the push was always towards professionalism. When I started at Rolling Stone, for the first three weeks we were in the loft above the printers shop, that was obviously to save money, but shortly after that we moved to an office building and we all had cubicles with doors.
The reason that it was a lot different working there [at Creem] from Rolling Stone is that, like I said, at Rolling Stone we had cubicles and when I got to Creem we had a room for editorial, and we all sat in there. This was the office in Birmingham, Summer of ’74. It was just a big open office and there was me and Lester and Jann Uhelszki and Georgia Christgau. And then the art department, this was in an office building over a bookstore, and so down the hall was another office, and the art department was down there and we were separated from the art department. Barry had his own office and a couple of the business people had their own little offices. But we were basically all there in one room all day every day. People would be having conversations when you were trying to type, trying to think. And most of the staff at that point was just living in two or three houses.
It was not like the paper was coming out of one house, like in Walled Lake when literally everyone lived in that house. We had an office, but three or four of us lived in one house and three or four of us lived in another. It was so much more communal than Rolling Stone, and of course that’s what Rolling Stone never wanted to be–it was, for a while, out of necessity. And of course Creem did it out of necessity too and later it did become more professional, but maybe a part of it was being in Birmingham as opposed to San Francisco. There was basically nothing to do there except work for Creem and I didn’t hardly meet anyone except for Creem people. When I left the office in San Francisco I was friends with some of the Rolling Stone staffers, sometimes we’d go to movies or go to dinner, but atCreem we basically just had each other; when we left the office we went and hung out at one or the others house, and that’s all we did. We went to the office and worked at the magazine and we went home and hung out with each other. So it was really different in that way too. And you can see that in the difference between the two magazines. Barry Kramer wanted Creem to be a big money maker but Jann really sought from the beginning to turn Rolling Stone into a totally professional mainstream magazine as it ultimately became–as his and my generation became, like it or not, the mainstream. And there was always a lot of emphasis there on professionalism, though it was not always clear what that meant particularly. But there was always that idea going around there.
It got pretty nasty at Rolling Stone. A lot of things were polarized, the split between politically-oriented and I guess what you would call the culturally-oriented people. A lot of people there considered themselves part of the left, but anyone who worked at Rolling Stone was really disliked by the radical left, almost all of the radical left. And your really hard core political activists felt like Rolling Stone was sucking out the energy of the youth movement, capitalizing on it; the common term at the time was culture vulture. You could think of yourself as being in league with these people but they didn’t think of themselves as being in league with you, so it was weird. And that was what that split was about. I was on the more political side. And at a certain point it just got so chaotic there that people just wanted out because it was really just such a drag to come in there. But virtually all of our replacements were experienced journalists who came from dailies, or, like Hunter Thompson, who had already published books.
William: Was he around the office much?
John: I met him once. He came in just as I was leaving. And Ralph Gleason had been there. He wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, a jazz column, and before that he’d been one of the really key jazz writers back East. By the ’60s he was really into the rock scene, particularly the more experimental bands. When I first came to the Bay Area in ’65 to go to college in Berkeley, Ralph just really blew my mind: I had never read, coming from San Bernardino California, I had never picked up a daily newspaper and read somebody who was saying nice things, complimentary things, about kids who were taking drugs [laughs] and demonstrating. I had never seen anything like that. Ralph put up some of the money and helped Jann start Rolling Stone, and remained. Him and Greil are the two that would come into staff meetings from outside. I don’t recall that either kept an office there but they were definitely staffers and definitely integral. So anyway, Ralph, Ben, and Charlie stayed and we were replaced by people with more straight journalist experience.
William: Going a little off topic, I’m a big fan of a lot of L.A. bands from the ’60s, and reading up on that scene it seems like there was a great deal of animosity between the L.A. and San Francisco scenes of the time. Particularly a lot of condescension towards L.A. bands from the Bay Area scene. Since you were there could you give me some perspective on how you see it?
John: Yeah, there was enmity, sure, you know the idea that L.A. bands were plastic and commercial whores and that San Francisco bands were exploratory and revolutionary. It was a pretty serious rivalry.
William: More recently, you know, there’s been a lot of revision looking at how many L.A. bands were really quite good and maybe aged better than the San Francisco stuff.
John: Yeah, sure, the funny thing is unless you’re thinking really hard about it, at the time that was going on you could be in the Bay Area as I was and like lots of L.A. bands and still maintain in your head that schism. You know, to this day I really don’t much like L.A. In my head I could be a Bay Area chauvinist and still like a lot of L.A. bands. But for that matter, in, you know, in Berkeley-Oakland by the late ’60s there was a terrible rivalry between them and San Francisco. The San Francisco bands were Art with a capital A and the East Bay bands were cool and funky and they played clubs and sounded really gritty, and they played songs and the San Francisco bands jammed. And there was a really intense rivalry; these were pretty intense times.
William: Who were some of the East Bay bands?
John: In the ’60s the biggest East Bay band was Country Joe & the Fish, and that was the other thing: the East Bay bands were seen as political and the San Francisco bands weren’t. There was a terrible split all through the ’60s between the political activists and the “turn on tune in drop out” people. That was an incredible schism. Later there was Commander Cody, Tower of Power, Joy of Cooking, and they were really rootsier and funkier, more grass roots in tone, they played in bars mainly as opposed to the Fillmore, which they would play at, but still mainly bars.
But of the L.A. bands I was a huge Buffalo Springfield fan, I liked the Byrds, of course–I mean, everybody liked the Byrds even the people who hated L.A. The first Doors album I loved.
William: I guess the Beach Boys were considered pretty uncool at the time?
John: They were so out of it that no one really thought about them, although people in L.A. still took them real seriously. That whole Brian-is-a-genius mystique really took hold during the hippie era, that was an L.A. thing. Nobody I knew–I mean, that was an embarrassment, people I knew were embarrassed that they ever liked the Beach Boys. And of course within a few years people were coming back to them anyhow.
William: Of course, now there’s a huge interest in that stuff again.
John: Yeah, there was a period back then where people hated the Beach Boys and then started coming back round to it again.
William: I do think a lot of the L.A. bands music has aged better than the San Francisco ones.
John: Yeah, I can see that because the San Francisco bands–I liked them almost all when they came out, you know, they were your local bands, but I got tired of jam bands really fast. And for me, of the San Francisco bands, my favorite is that first Moby Grape album and the first Country Joe album, although at the time they came out I wouldn’t say they were my favorites. It was not an easy music to get on record, especially back then, the technology just couldn’t accommodate a lot of those bands. The people who really loved those bands, you almost had to see them to understand why, because they couldn’t do on record what they could do live. And that was another thing, the L.A. bands were all in the studios using all these sound effects and they were not live bands; even the good bands, like the Byrds were very iffy live, and Buffalo Springfield was too for that matter.
William: You currently write for Texas Monthly on a variety of topics, mostly non-musical. How did you make the transition away from music writing?
John: By the mid ’70s I was hardly writing about mainstream major label rock anymore. By that time I was writing about country and blues and gospel and reggae. That’s just where my interests were taking me. You know, it just reached a point where, and this was like 25 years ago, o.k., the Stones announce a new tour, say ’75 or ’77, and 100 million words are written about the new Stones tour and they appear in every magazine in the world. I just don’t have anything to add to that really. And so part of the way I’ve kept myself fresh as a writer is to write about stuff that isn’t getting written about too much by other people. But that’s only part of it, because that’s where my interests took me anyhow, you know, I got less and less interested in mainstream rock. I got more interested in blues, jazz, and world music, historical stuff. I left New York at the end of 1984. When I was in New York everything writing wise was very compartmentalized. I wrote about music almost exclusively and that’s part of the reason I left. I was all “New Yorked out” is the way I always put it. I had had nine years there and I just didn’t want to live there anymore. But it was also because I didn’t see how I could do anything but write about music while I was there. Meanwhile I had known Austin Texas for years, had a lot of friends here and had spent a lot of time here as a visitor, loved the music here and also knew I could write about other stuff here. So really when I left New York I became less and less of a music writer.
William: How long have you been in Austin?
John: Since ’85. I came to Texas in ’84. I first came to Austin to visit in ’73. Ed Ward and I came with Commander Cody when he cut a live album at the Armadillo. And I loved Austin and I knew I’d always wind up here. I lived in Dallas for eight or nine months in ’84. I edited a magazine there that didn’t survive and then I came down here. All through the ’70s I was writing a lot about country music, so I was coming down here a lot ’cause that’s when the Willie and Waylon and the Armadillo and all that was going on. I was always getting stories down here and I had a lot of friends down here. By the time I moved here I had a lot of good friends here. Joe Nick Patoski, one of my closest friends, I met him in ’75 or ’76, and I used to always stay with him. And then Ward moved here from the Bay Area. So I’ve always had a lot of friends and ties here.
William: When did you start writing for Texas Monthly?
John: Not right away, I knew some people there, like Joe Nick Patoski, who had been a good friend of mine for 8 or 9 years by that point. I think as soon as I got here I started to do occasional things, but very occasional. I was still writing a lot about music but at the monthly I was getting to do other stuff. Then in ’86 I started to edit an airline magazine, which I really loved. At the time there was a company here that was putting out the airline magazines for Branniff and Continental and Eastern I think it was, and I did the Branniff one. I really liked it, it was fun to edit travel pieces and just to deal with other kind of material. I’ve never stopped writing about music but it’s been a long time since I’ve written about the popular bands of the day.
William: Your book the Best of Country Music, any plans to update it?
John: It went out of print really fast. At the time I wrote it, country music didn’t have the across the board following that it does now. There was no alt-country then or anything like that, you know, it was Nashville and L.A. Since then we’ve gone from LPs to CDs. People are always asking me if I’m gonna revise it, but no, someone on the web revised it and annotated it for the CD era and that’s on the web. I’d have to go back and start over from scratch, everything has changed so much since then.
William: What music do you listen to the most these days?
John: I listen a lot to certain kinds of world music. African and Caribbean stuff. I listen a lot to blues and Texas music in general. I listen to a lot of Austin music, ’cause I prefer it, it’s where my interests took me to a large extent. I like more of the stuff out of here than anything else.
William: You mentioned how when you and your peers started you were all sort of learning as you went along, I was curious how you feel your writing has developed over time?
John: When I started writing for Rolling Stone, I had studied high school journalism, I had been Editor of my school paper, I had worked for my home town daily, so my background was in daily journalism, to the extent that I had one, but it was fairly significant. I had worked two summers on my home town daily, all kind of beats, I would take the place of whoever was on vacation, two weeks on the police beat, two weeks on school board, I would go out to the Mojave Desert Bureau office for 3 weeks then I’d come back and be on the Sports desk. So my real training was sort of who, what, when, where, why, and that whole daily journalism thing, pyramid style and that kind of stuff.
William: And that in a way was an asset being able to bring that to the table with the early Rock writing?
John: Yeah, ’cause I knew how to go get information. By now I’m sure everybody does. At that time I knew how to go to the police, what to ask them, if we were trying to find info on injuries, how to call hospitals and EMS–for Altamont, for instance–I called around local hospitals ’cause there were really chaotic reports and confusion regarding the amount of injuries and how many were killed. So yeah the daily helped me a lot in that sense, as far as my music writing. When I first started writing, my high school teacher, Sam Feldman, was the faculty sponsor of the student paper and I came on with him as a sports writer and he also moonlighted as a sports writer on the local daily and he got me started there. He quit teaching there before I graduated but we stayed in touch and in the early ’70s he came up to the Bay Area where I was staying at the time and we went out to dinner and he was asking me about rock writing and I was joking with him that it was a lot more like sports writing than anything else. I was half serious and half joking. And there are similarities in, say, the use of a lot of flashy adjectives, a lot of personalities on both sides, sports writers were allowed to have a certain amount of flair; in a way, until rock writing came along, sports writing was considered the bottom of the ladder.
As for developing my own style, when I read stuff I’m not really reading other writers to see how they do things, I’m just really reading for pleasure, and I’m sure I take in a certain amount by osmosis, unconsciously, but I’m not someone who reads Faulkner and writes those kind of sentences. So I think when I first started writing fairly well was around ’75 or so. And I had been doing it for about five years by then. I was sort of all over, I was looking for a style, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, I had worked at Rolling Stone, then I had freelanced, then I worked atCreem, and at that time, ’75, I had just left Creem. I think my style is pretty straightforward, not a lot of flourishes, not a lot of extra words. So by about ’75 or so I’d fallen into that style which I was more comfortable with and since then it’s been more a matter of refining that. It’s hard to say how my style has developed because I’m not a real stylist like Lester, Meltzer, or Tosches.
William: But your background in dailies continued to inform your writing?
John: I guess, you know, in a way it did. One of the ways I was different from a lot of my peers was that I did have that background in dailies. I sort of knew what the rules were before I went about breaking them. It taught me the rules of journalism and then I figured on my own how and where and when to break them. But at the same time by the early to mid ’70s I don’t think I could have been a standard daily newspaper writer, because by then I wasn’t as interested in following that format.
William: How would you describe your editing style?
John: Because I never had any real training as an editor, I definitely learned as I went along. To the extent that I had a style, I tried to be what’s called a writer’s editor. My concern was what is this writer trying to say and how can I help him say it better. When I was at Creem, a large number of the writers who submitted stuff were imitating Lester, and not very well. And I can remember telling a few people, “Hey, you’re trying to write too much like Lester. You need to try and find you own voice.” And some of them went on to be pretty successful doing an imitation Lester. So I tried to be a writer’s editor and I tried to make sure that writers found their own voice. Also, you try to match the right assignment to the right writer.
Creem and Rolling Stone are the only two places where I did much editing. At Rolling Stone I edited mainly the front of the book, the news type stuff, not random notes, the shorter articles in the first third of the magazine, mainly news oriented stuff. At Creem, Lester edited the record reviews, and everything else passed through me, which was sort of the idea of me going there.
William: Who are some of your favorite Rock writers?
John: You mean now or at the time?
John: To be honest with you, I don’t read the rock press right now. I still read rock writers but I don’t read the music press. Most of the music writing I read is in general interest magazines and weekly papers. In the past, you know, pretty much the same as everybody else’s, certain people emerged really early on, Lester, Greil, Meltzer, Tosches. I’ve always loved Peter Guralnick’s stuff.
Later, like, say, the mid to late ’70s there was a second wave coming in. And by then I was in New York and there was a first wave of Black writers writing about Black music like Greg Tate, Nelson George, Carol Cooper, and Thulani Davis–those four were all Village Voice writers. Thulani didn’t write all that much about music but when she did she wrote about it really well, and the other three wrote about music a lot and are really good writers.
William: What about some of the English writers, the NME people, for instance?
John: I didn’t see it that often, that was something you had to go out and buy and I often didn’t have the money. But I would say of the English writers, Mick Farren was a writer I always liked a lot. Charles Shaar Murray, I liked pretty good.
William: Nick Kent?
John: He didn’t do too much for me, I didn’t dislike him, maybe the bands he wrote about just didn’t interest me as much. Who else…Charlie Gillett, who wrote one of the first real rock books, Sound of the City, and I always followed him after that. It was an incredibly ambitious book at the time, it gathered so much information that had never been gathered before, in terms of record labels, profiles of the labels, and the identity of that label within the city, regional music.
William: What about the historical fiction book by Mark Shipper about the Beatles–Paperback Writer?. Do you know what happened to him?
John: This is one of the things I’ve been thinking about since we talked last time and you asked me about really good writers early on that no one’s heard of now. The thing is there were some, many I still can’t remember the names of now, but a lot of them went on to other stuff as a conscious decision. And he was one of them; I believe he works at an Ad Agency. At that time he did a certain amount of writing for the rock press, mainly for the sort of off the wall press like Creem and a magazine at that time called Phonograph Record Magazine that was a lot more wide open than something like Rolling Stone. And he wrote at places like that for some time but I don’t think he ever aspired to be a professional writer. I could be wrong.
When Paperback Writer came out there was absolutely nothing like it at the time, the idea that you could make up the whole history of a band was really great. I think it was eventually picked up by a publisher, but I know he published it himself first. And certainly within the more rambunctious school of rock writers that book was really a legend, and really cool and just a great idea. And actually no one’s really done it since, with another band. Lester started to do it with the Stones and he gave it up. I’ve read some of it and you know, it’s hard once you’ve readPaperback Writer, its hard to read anything else like that, he did it first and he did it as good as it can be done. It’s a really amazing piece of work.
William: I’ve only heard Lester mention the Beatles in passing but in the intro to Psychotic Reactions, Greil mentions that one of the books he had proposed writing was a history of the Beatles to be entitled the “Firstest with the Mostest”.
John: Really? I don’t even remember that. I don’t remember Lester ever aspiring to do a book on the Beatles. Particularly ’cause back then it was so hard to get a book on any rock band published–maybe the Beatles was the only band that you could get one published on.
William: I would be curious about his take on them.
John: Ah, like his take on a lot of bands he went back and forth on them. I mean, if you look at his really early stuff he obviously loved them and then at a certain point he stopped liking them, and then with hindsight what he liked and what he didn’t like changed. He blamed them for the death of rock because of “art” albums like Sgt. Pepper and then at a certain point they just became pathetic to him when they were doing all these solo albums. I’m gonna use a piece he wrote in the anthology called “Dandelions in Still Air: the Withering Away of the Beatles” a piece about the solo careers of the four Beatles written about ’74. It was published in the Real Paper, which was one of the Boston weeklies, and also reprinted in Creem.
William: Let’s talk a little bit about the anthology in terms of its content and structure
John: Sure, you know, the way Greil did it worked so well, that I can’t really do that again. I’m grouping pieces, I have about four or five categories. There’s gonna be one full chapter and two excerpted chapters from Drug Punk, which is something he wrote when he was still in San Diego. It’s nonfiction and in it he talks about how he tried and tried to write like William Burroughs and he couldn’t do it but then he realized that he could apply a lot of non-fiction and just write about the world around you. Some of it is really really good and some of it is hardly readable.
William: Did he revisit it and fuss with it?
John: No, not at all, never revisited it at all. It was written in ’67 and ’68, so that will start the anthology off. I’m doing a little more record reviews than Greil. That sort of short slashing stuff he wrote, a little bit more in the way of reviews. It’s been really difficult in a lot of ways ’cause Greil did a really good job in picking pieces. It’s been difficult for me, ’cause so much of what would be my first choice is stuff he already used. There’s a little more stuff from out of the way places. I mean, Lester wrote for fanzines, a couple of things that most people haven’t seen, there’s a pretty good amount of previously unpublished stuff besides Drug Punk. There’s a Lou Reed piece and possibly Lester’s initial review of Metal Machine Music, which he then expanded on in the next issue of Creem (which is inCarburetor Dung); the first article with Lou during that mid ’70s phase when they were really duking it out. Greil didn’t use that and I think I’m gonna use that. There’s a piece about Nico written for a new wave publication that ran for about three or four issues and went out of business before it could use Lester’s Nico piece, then it got picked up by What Goes On, which was the Velvets fanzine out of Boston at the time.
I wrestled and wrestled with some of the unpublished pieces, some of them are so long that I just couldn’t use them, but I couldn’t find ways to excerpt them either. There is a fairly long one written a couple of days after Sid Vicious OD’d and that ran about 1990 or so in a fanzine that was doing a Lester thing. So most people won’t have seen that.
William: Any non-music writing?
John: Oh sure, there is a long fantasy about Jimmy Carter in bed with Jane Fonda that is about 3,000 words, excerpted from a 10,000 word thing that was sort of music–it was about the Reagan-Carter presidential race in 1980. It was about both of them trying to enlist punk rock groups to their campaigns. That piece did appear in total in a fanzine, I’m using just an excerpt; it didn’t quite work as a whole piece. There’s a piece about California, when he went back to California to visit, that’s never been published. There’s a piece from the six or eight months he spent in Austin–he wrote this huge piece about Austin bands and Austin music and little pieces of it appeared in little magazines but most of it didn’t appear anywhere. And again most of it doesn’t make it as a whole piece, but I excerpted about three or four thousand words about him and the Delinquents playing a frat party. There’s a piece that ran in sort of a local Austin punk ‘zine called Contempo Culture that hardly anyone has seen, and that’s just sort of a Lester screed, harangue, whatever. He wrote a piece that was gonna be liner notes in 1980 for this album by this German singing group, the Comedian Harmonists, but the album never came out. Then, three or four years ago it finally got out as a CD; they didn’t use Lester’s liner notes for the CD booklet, but what happened was the New York Times ran them as just sort of a previously unpublished “Lester Bangs discovers a new kind of music” piece. So that ran 20 years after it was written, but that will be new to a lot of people.
As far as dividing them, I’m thinking about calling one section “Travelogue,” ’cause one of my favorite Lester things was when he got somewhere he’d never been, and there’s really long piece, 15,000 words, and I’ve cut it a little bit but not much, that ran in Creem about when he went to Jamaica. That’s gonna be in there along with this California piece and something about a Moroccan band he did in the mid-70s. One of the pieces I’m gonna put in there in fact is an interview he made up with Jimi Hendrix five years after Hendrix’s death.
And then there’s gonna be a section I’m thinking of calling “Pantheon” and that’s where I’ll put pieces on the people that were his real obsessions: there’s gonna be 3 or 4 Stones pieces, two Miles Davis pieces, and the Lou Reed and Nico is gonna go there. There’s a Black Sabbath two-parter from Creem that I just wrestled with and could never get to my satisfaction, but I think I’ve got it in shape now, and that will go there. And this will be considerably shorter than what appeared in Creem. It’s been cut and a lot of what was cut was lyrics. There was a little too much interview in it and not enough of Lester writing, so I cut a lot of the interview so you could read more of Lester writing about Black Sabbath rather than Ozzy talking about Black Sabbath. And a Jim Morrison piece will probably be in there too.
William: “Bozo Dionysus”?
John: Yeah, that’s the one.
William: That’s a good one.
John: The book should end up being about 400 pages.
William: Who are some of the writers from when you were just starting that you feel have maybe been neglected historically?
John: Among neglected rock crits, I can’t remember back to my RS days who was great but subsequently went missing, except for J.R. Young, who invented the parable-or-short-story-as-rock-criticism. In the Bay Area, I can remember a guy named Sandy Darlington who wrote mostly for the San Francisco underground weekly, Good Times, and was just one of the greatest among the early rock critics, though he never had a national profile, never pursued it, and I have no idea where he is now or what he’s doing.
I can remember early to mid-70s Creem writers like Joe Fernbacher and Robert Hull and others who, for the most part, gave up writing, though some are still involved in other aspects of the music world. I think most of the good ones who gave it up did so because it was always a sideline. Some good ones gave it up because for whatever reasons they just couldn’t make a living at it. But I’m talking about the ones, like, say, Tom Smucker, who preferred to keep regular jobs and write about music very selectively on the side, and with a few exceptions very few really good, occasional writers find the atmosphere or outlets anymore to pursue it that way.
Among other later critics that come to mind, punk produced Mary Harron (now a successful film director), Gina Arnold, and Don Snowden (who eventually moved towards blues, jazz, world); post-punk Ann Powers, Lorraine Ali, and Chuck Eddy, the best rock critic there ever was who mostly celebrates stuff other rock critics can’t stand. Somewhere in there is Robert Gordon, whose It Came From Memphis is the best unknown rock book I know of aside from the Mark Shipper Beatles satire we already discussed. Many good ones went into other kinds of writing and/or editing: Daisann McLane is a travel writer; RJ Smith is an editor/writer who still writes some about music. Dave Hickey went to New York City from Texas in the early ’70s to edit Art in America, became a really fine rock and country music writer, and is currently one of the nation’s leading art critics; I was completely unaware of him until he began writing about music for Creem, the Village Voice and Country Music magazines, but I’ve continued reading him after he went back to art as his primary subject, even though it’s a subject I’m generally not very interested in. He’s not neglected, but the late Robert Palmer was one of my absolute favorites, and probably influenced me as much as any other music writer did, if only because we liked so much of the same music and he was arguably the only one who could write equally well about everything from punk to mainstream rock to blues and jazz to world music; he’s also one of the few with a strong technical knowledge of music who didn’t let that get in the way of being able to discuss what really mattered to someone listening to music as a pure fan, with no technical knowledge, like me. Gene Santoro is the closest thing we have today to a Palmer, though I don’t believe he’s quite as well grounded technically. I really miss Paul Nelson, whose work was so emotionally honest that it helped keep me honest. I really wish Stanley Booth published more often. Michael Corcoran is the only rock critic today I read real regular, because he’s in my hometown daily, and he’s my current fave; he’d be among my faves even if he wasn’t the one I read most often, ’cause he’s just such a strong writer. I really love the work of Gerald Early; though nobody thinks of him as a music writer, he is a contemporary African-American cultural commentator whose subject is often music, and I lap up anything I can find by him. Among Brits I neglected to mention, Simon Frith, in Creem of the ’70s especially, was just so intelligent and engaging. More recently, Barney Hoskyns.
Today, I also like, and regularly visit, even if sometimes I don’t wind up reading much, Jason Gross’s Perfect Sound Forever and Sarah Zupko’s Pop Matters online.
William: What are your thoughts on how music writing has evolved, and its current state?
John: Well, you know, everyone always asks that and the answer is pretty obvious. It’s become really institutionalized and tame and not very interesting, although there are still excellent writers out there working. Among the younger ones, they come up having studied a form and they sort of execute the form. I don’t see much in the way of individuality there, of really thinking about the stuff as opposed to evaluating it for a marketplace. There’s very little sense of discovery in it anymore, most people are working a form, basically. And there are a million reasons for that. At one time there were so few people writing about it there was sort of a feeling of discovery with all of them. And now it’s in every daily paper, it’s everywhere. What once used to be called music writing is now celebrity journalism. I read very little rock writing, very little music writing. Like I said, at one time there was so little of it that you could read it all. And now there’s so much of it that you can hardly make a dent in it and I don’t even try. I have favorites and I read them when I see them.
I like to read and I have very little free reading time, but I tend not to read the music press too much. I tend to read novels and general interest magazines. But I find that in general music writing is often better in the non-music publications because in the general interest publications there’s no dependence on the record companies for ad revenues. And so the writers tend to have freer reign. So I find the best music writing to be in the non-music publications and that’s all wrong, you know it shouldn’t be that way. I mean the best sports writing is in sports magazines, the best food writings in food magazines, why isn’t the best music writing in music magazines?