The Zen of John Kordosh: Inside the Hallowed Halls of ’80s Creem
By Anthe Rhodes (May 2004)
John Kordosh can blindside anyone with science or pop culture. He was Creem‘s quick-witted everyman who went willingly into those good and not so good nights with the full gamut of musicians. Kordosh, however, has followed a completely different career path than his counterparts. Starting out as a chemist for Dow in his home state of Michigan in the 1970s, he began contributing to Creem in 1980 before joining the staff in ’84 and making the final move to California as a co-editor in ’86.
During his tenure at Creem, Kordosh’s tone was irreverent as well as whimsical, nipping if not biting at the vehicle that fed him, and he always took the reader on his personal journey, making you feel as though you were there, by asking questions and responding as you might have. By many accounts he is the well respected man about town–that is, if you don’t talk to two-thirds of Rush, their fans, or a few scattered prog-rock enthusiasts on usenet groups. It was amazing to interview Kordosh: ten or twenty years ago, I could never have imagined conversing, via telephone–let alone devil’s word box (a.k.a. instant messaging)–with one of the music and culture writers who most influenced me in my young adult life.
John Kordosh took time out of his schedule, and an appearance at The Viper Room, to talk from his home in Simi Valley, CA.
(Following the interview: John Kordosh Fun Facts!)
Anthe: When did you start writing?
John: I’ve always liked writing and did well on essays and the like. In fact, on e-Bay a while back I saw this chapbook I wrote in junior high school called “Joe & Sam.” They were just a bunch of short stories about Joe and Sam, but I guess it showed I liked writing. I always wrote stuff.
Anthe: Where did you go to school?
John: Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan as an undergrad. The first two years I didn’t know what I wanted to do in terms of a major. I didn’t take any math or science classes–just the soft courses. Then I decided to major in chemistry, so I went for two years straight and took nothing but physics and lab courses. I always did well in science.
Anthe: You had a good number [in the draft]?
John: I had a great number. In the upper 300s.
Anthe: So you didn’t see the shit.
John: What shit?
Anthe: Vietnam… the paddies and the shooting.
John: Oh, no. No. I had two older brothers and if either of them had been drafted my father said he would send them to Canada. He was an army captain in WWII. We were near the Canadian border.
Anthe: Did you go right to grad school?
John: Yeah, I went to Pittsburgh for grad school and got married right out of college.
Anthe: You really had it all together.
John: No, I don’t think so. I dropped out of grad school and went to work for Dow in the lab, making saran and saran-like products. I was only making $300 a month in grad school. They paid for my tuition and books, but I was living on shredded wheat, that was my favorite stuff, it’s all I could afford. So, I got kind of disgusted and went to work for Dow
Anthe: Where did you go then?
John: Dow was in Midland and in some ways it was a Dow town. My wife really didn’t like it, so we moved to Detroit, which is where I was from, and I got into paint. Anyway, my first time writing was for the Detroit News in the Features section. It was always something scientific, like stinging insects in the summertime, black holes in space.
Anthe: At what point did you get ensnared by Creem?
John: About a year later. I knew all about Creem, being from Detroit. I had been reading it for a long time. I got to know the editors by spending time with them. I think I met them while I was playing in the band. Sue [Whitall], Dave [DiMartino], and Bill [Holdship] would come and see my band, the Mutants. We were a pretty big draw on the weekends. We opened for Blondie, the Pretenders, the Romantics, and twice for Iggy when he did a four-day-long weekend.
Anthe: What was the first story you wrote for them?
John: “Apocalypse Hooterville” in 1980. It was a review of Green Acres, which was already in syndication.
Anthe: Why was that your first piece rather than, say, a music-based one?
John: Because I really like the Green Acres show. It was quite brilliant, and I knew it very well. I wanted to write for Creem and I thought it was a topic that needed to be covered.Creem was one of the few magazines that would devote space to something that, shall I say, esoteric. And meaningless. I always liked Creem‘s non-music coverage. Creem was all about pop culture–music was the flagship, but that included a lot of turf. Humor, foremost. I honestly saw Creem as being more of a humor mag than a music mag. Music was the backdrop, but the real story was the humor and Green Acres fit into that nicely. I always saw Creem that way. That might explain its demise.
Anthe: Why do you say it might have been its demise?
John: Because I think ultimately the very idea of Creem became too elusive. A lot of people don’t want their music coverage sullied with the thoughtful insight Creem provided in its latter years, and many of them worked in the Creem art department. And we were demanding a lot from the readers. A way lot. Ourselves, too. It was like a weird experiment.
Anthe: I’ve read what you thought about the place of humor in music writing. It was in the Rush story where you said you couldn’t imagine doing it without some degree of humor.
John: I really can’t. It’s a pretty ridiculous thing, when you think about it: being a “rock critic.” What kind of job is that?
Anthe: And not in a mean-spirited way, or to dismiss the music.
John: The music kind of dismisses itself effectively.
Anthe: Some take themselves very seriously…
John: I mean, it’s obvious that Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet disc, although a top-seller, doesn’t bear much discussion. It’s self-evident. Neil Peart really takes Rush seriously, as he should, but not as some sort of grand artistic presence.
Anthe: I mean, they can take it seriously, but not to the extent of egotism, although all have egos to some degree. So much of your writing concentrated on music and personalities, but was in contrast to some other writers by its intelligent humor.
John: Well, it was a music mag. I had a thought about Creem, during Dave DiMartino’s tenure as editor, the things the editors controlled, like the cover headlines, the table of contents, the letters page, “Rock ‘n’ Roll news,” and especially the captions–all those things were meant to kind of pull the curtain away from the magazine, and allow the reader to peek inside. To nudge the reader and say, “Yeah, we know we have a Motley Crue story in here, but here’s what we’re really doing in Birmingham, Michigan.”
Anthe: Which, to some people’s taste, would be the perfect pop magazine.
John: And it was a challenge to the reader to present it like that. Really, when you think about it, there haven’t been too many magazines that would try anything so audacious.
Anthe: Rather than what Rolling Stone turned into fairly early on.
John: In any case, I think it hurt the magazine’s circulation. Compare Rolling Stone of 1984 to Creem of 1984. An independent group of psychiatrists would think the Creem people were fucking insane. Their words, not mine.
Anthe: But Creem wasn’t trying to keep up with Rolling Stone realistically, right?
John: Naw, no way. I personally resented their massive readership and, moreover, their undeserved reputation.
Anthe: More, I would think, Crawdaddy!, and maybe Hit Parader, too.
John: Crawdaddy! way back when was pretty cool. I used to read it as a youngster and be amazed that there even was a “music magazine.”
Anthe: When did you start reading it?
John: Oh, God, like, 1967. They actually covered the Kinks, who were not too popular then, so I was entranced. Actual Kinks photos in an actual magazine. It was hard to find, too. I used to buy it at the Fifth Estate near Wayne State University in Detroit.
Anthe: Do you think that had some influence about how you approached writing?
John: Maybe. I was usually into lesser known bands and so on. The writing style, no.
Anthe: I just meant sympathetic in attitude.
John: Oh, sorry. Yes, I think it did, in fact. It seemed obvious to me that the writer should be sympathetic to titans like the Kinks–underrated titans, I must add–and I think I felt the same way about, say, the Replacements. It behooves the rock writer to enlighten his readers in a gentle, yet persuasive way.
Anthe: Who were some of your favorite music writers?
John: I loved H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Journal, though he wasn’t a music writer…I liked Rick Johnson. He was a big influence on me when I was getting into the biz, and Lester Bangs. I was influenced by LB as far as being in music journalism, but I’m surprised he’s as deified as he is. What I really like is Mystery Train by Greil Marcus. And I never tried to emulate him, but Nick Tosches was a big fave of mine when he wrote “Unsung Heroes” in Creem.
Anthe: What did you like about them, particularly?
John: Greil Marcus talked about what musicians liked and made connections–a sociological insight I didn’t have, [he] looks at it and sees deeper things. Tosches would write about people I never heard of and I was just fascinated by their stories. I liked the seriousness of it all. I talked to him once in my life and it was actually a thrill for me, but probably not for him.
Anthe: Why do you say that? He’s said some things that are close to what you have to say.
John: Oh, I’m sure that’s true.
Anthe: What about your contemporaries?
John: I like John Mendelssohn and Dave DiMartino a lot. These guys can really write. I thought Dave was a better writer than Lester Bangs, just had a better idea of how he was doing it. You know who’s a great writer and an editor’s dream? Jon Young. I used to actually look forward to getting a Jon Young story in the mail because I knew it would be absolutely un-edit-able and, in general, perfect.
Anthe: Did you ever regret writing anything, like something written in the early hours or after too many beers?
John: Jesus, all the time. I regret almost everything I ever wrote. I told you this before, but I don’t know if you believed me: I only like, maybe, five stories I ever wrote for Creem. I can’t even read the earlier ones, because I took so very, very long to find any style. Style was important to me. I experimented a lot and finally got to where I was going, but my writing’s never won any awards. So, to answer the question, revealing so many homosexual musical relationships was a mistake I regret bitterly.
Anthe: You have a dark soul.
John: Hang on, I want to answer that question seriously.
Anthe: You weren’t being serious the first time?
John: To be honest, I don’t think I ever mistreated or misrepresented anyone. I was scrupulous about quotes. I regret more my own failings as a writer than I do mistreatment of any subjects. Jesus, that sounded pompous.
Anthe: Many writers feel the same, a lot of them “great” at least to various readers. So you were more from the “informing” approach to writing than the follow-the-current-trend that a publicist would be pitching?
John: I sympathized with the publicist, who really has a difficult job. Particularly Belinda Carlisle’s publicist. But, I think the answer to the question is yes. And for a dark soul, I’m one optimistic son of a bitch.
Anthe: That in itself sounds a bit dubious.
John: No, I really am optimistic. I always have been. I have no idea why, though.
Anthe: But you’re more a writer or journalist–almost an observer–than a critic. A student of human behavior, in a way. That’s part of what I would get out of your stories.
John: I agree with that. I never bought into the fact that just because I thought Styx’s new album was horrible that no one should buy it. I think I liked interviewing musicians because they live interesting lives. They’re maybe not that interesting themselves–their opinions, I mean–but their experience is fascinating and I wanted to convey that.
Anthe: So that could be why you gravitated toward writing about music, too?
John: Yeah. Plus it’s an infinite market–look at TV nowadays. The public has an appetite for celebrity that guarantees writers an income. Writers need to get paid, too.
Anthe: Photographers, too–even more so. It depends on the heights or depths you want to go to.
John: Everyone needs to make a living. Photographers need to cultivate relationships with musicians, because it gives them much-needed access. It’s pretty screwy and neurotic, but it works.
Anthe: It was fun looking over your old reviews and interviews.
John: I don’t know. Sometimes I think I have deep insight into Creem and the world of rock writing, and other times, when I’m sober, that I’m full of shit. Drinking is bad except in moderation, but it’s only fun when not in moderation.
Anthe: Sometimes that’s hard to find, though.
John: Well, I’d like to be taken seriously. I have this sense, and I might be wrong, that our “peers” never took the Dave DiMartino ear that seriously. That we were just about the jokes and such. But Dave is a virtual encyclopedia of musical insight, and compelling musical insight. And I think Bill has experience in the industry that rivals anyone’s. Oh, fuck it, I’ve changed my mind–who cares? “Era,” not “ear.” They probably don’t take Dave’s ear seriously, either.
Anthe: That’s something I wanted to ask about, the different Creem decades.
John: I think maybe I feel a little out of place in the critic’s world because a) I’m a scientist and, b) I’m damn handsome. I would have enjoyed being a medical researcher, I think. It’s a good thing I can’t go back in time, because I have about 89 careers I’d like to try.
Anthe: How was the acclimation from working at Creem in Michigan to California?
John: Creem grew up in Michigan, and so did I, so I was very comfortable working there. For me, the big acclimation was leaving the science world for a while. But when I came on board, Dave was the editor-in-chief, so the working atmosphere was amazingly good. I mean, I went to work just to clown around with Dave and Bill. Then Bill and I would go to some show and do hijinks and such. Life was wonderful. Then, in November of ’86 Dave went to LA to become the bureau chief of Billboard. That was quite a career move. And Creem was struggling. Ever since Barry Kramer died and his wife Connie inherited it, the finances weren’t all that wonderful. She eventually sold it to Arnold Levitt, who was our boss at the end of the Detroit days. But readership was down–Circus and Hit Parader were the main competition, although I think we on the staff thought they weren’t very good. As magazines, I mean. We still thought Creem was a wonderfully funny idea, but as the financial noose tightened, fun became rarer. When Dave left, Bill and I were made co-editors–we agreed on it. Good for us. Yeah, going full-time was a big deal.
Anthe: Could you tell me more about when you first started writing a lot for them and then went full time in ’84?
John: When I first started freelancing, I was way busy, but I got everything done. I mean, I was working as a chemist full-time and playing in the rock band, and freelancing, and also looking in on my family now and again. But I sometimes thought, “Gee I could be an editor,” because I kind of think I could do anything if I studied it a bit. So after Sue Whitall left Creem, Dave asked me if I wanted to be an editor full-time. This was at a restaurant in Birmingham; it was a lot like Sex In The City, only with hot guys. At the time, Rick Johnson was on staff, so I became the fourth guy. But psychologically, it was big to leave the lab because I trained to be a chemist, and this was quite different. Anyway, Rick left shortly thereafter–he went back to Macomb, IL–so it was just me and Bill and Dave, and later our very able assistant, Joanne Carnegie. Joanne and I still e-mail to this day.
Anthe: How was it to leave the private sector of science for something so polar opposite?
John: It was exciting. The science I do–paints and coatings–is really extremely interesting, but not as glamorous as you’d think. The rock field held the kind of cocaine-like instant buzz of “hanging out with rock stars.” I thought it was lunacy from a long-term financial viewpoint at the time, and I still do. Kids, don’t make this your path! But I always wanted to write–I love writing essays in particular. So, to get to write AND to hang out with rock stars AND be part of the magazine I felt was America’s funniest…it was too damn tempting. And I’ve never over-thought things. I like to think quickly and then act quickly–oft a mistake, I might add.
Anthe: That’s so interesting coming from a man of chemistry and numbers, but also letters–it’s almost Mr. Goodbar-like.
John: You know what, I never saw that movie. Diane Keaton, right? It was a famous book first. Well, I never read the book, either. I read a lot of sci-fi.
Anthe: What I meant was, to do one thing during the day, then another at different times and then cross over almost entirely.
John: Oh, yeah. But you have to grab the gusto, I’ve heard. At the time I was a little bored with the lab and when I left rock writing I was a little bored with editing–not writing, but the editing part was getting to be a drag, and Creem‘s finances were ridiculously awful. So I felt evil even assigning a story because God only knew if someone would get paid. That was right before the mag folded, a non-fun time. Our writers, for the most part, stuck it out, and many of them are among the best in the history of the business. Or, as Dave liked to say, the history of history itself. We were big on hyperbole at Creem.
Anthe: You mean like “The Phil Collins Shriek That Created a Wondrous Poverty-Free World”?
John: Hey, did you ever see Dave’s headline to a Creem story: “Foul-Mouthed Reagan Shocks The World!” Sub-titled “A Really Catchy Headline for a David Lee Roth Story.” Now that’s Creem. I missed the Phil thing.
Anthe: “Year in Rock ’87”. Tell more about the move–that was another reality trade, from Detroit to Los Angeles.
John: I had only been in LA once before and that was to interview Stevie Wonder, who actually made a Christmas song up for my kids and let me tape it. Can you imagine? They were little, but even they knew who Stevie Wonder was. Amazing. Anyway, the day I came to LA, which was Dec. 30 or 31, it was like 75 degrees and Dave drove me to the new offices on Sunset, and all the palm trees–good God, it really looked like paradise. Like right out of a Randy Newman song. So it was cool to be in LA, because we were hip midwestern dudes, as you know. Even though Dave was at Billboard, we could still all hang. But trouble in paradise. The staff was drastically reduced, and sales were lagging. Or, as I like to say to my cat, Robo Smoo, “Run, Robo Smoo, Farmer Jones just fell down a well.” Which we were doing metaphorically.
Anthe: That fast?
John: Not that fast, but pretty fast. So despite LA’s all-around excellence, the job was becoming more grueling. And Bill was getting unhappy at this new Creem and even LA. I think I liked LA better than he did.
Anthe: Maybe it seemed that way in light of how it was in Detroit?
John: I think the absence of Work Dave hurt us. I like and respect Dave so much, and Bill does too, that I would have gladly stayed whatever I was under his tenure–assistant editor or whatever I was. But Dave was gone and Creem was sinking. And Bill started looking for an out, and didn’t have the option of returning to the lab. I wasn’t even sure I still had that option. At the end, I was just plain tired of talking to rock musicians and I cared less and less about the music. Kind of like Dave Marsh and rap music, only better.
Anthe: Why did Dave DiMartino leave?
John: And publicists–I mean, I like them and all that, but it’s like never-ending. I think Dave was a more skillful administrator than myself at a younger age. Dave left because he got a great offer from the prestigious Billboard mag–a canny move on their part. Plus, the writing was on the wall even back in Michigan–it didn’t look good.
Anthe: Then moving to LA was the last great effort? You must have all felt it was viable enough for a try.
John: You know, I think even we felt that Creem wasn’t long for this world, the world being Earth, of course. My wife wanted to move to LA–actually, I didn’t. At the time I was lining up companies in the Midwest to talk to about chemistry jobs. I thought living in Chicago would be way cool. But we gave it a spirited college try, I guess. You know, MTV was in existence and I think that started killing off the rock mags.
Anthe: I see…
John: I remember writing our “Rock ‘n’ Roll News” column in LA and thinking, “well, fuck, MTV is going to have this out six weeks before we do, so what’s the point?” So “R&R News” became very stylized and cows were mentioned a lot. Seriously.
Anthe: Really? You don’t think people like to have something to hold?
John: Some people do. I know I do. But the greater market could get their music fix, such as it was, off of TV. It’s just progress. I’d like to know how many people in the world have ever looked at the rockcritics web site. How intensely is the world interested in rock writing? It’s a small crowd. So, economically, a bad idea to invest in a rock mag.
Anthe: And it seemed to get even more corporate with each decade–the music industry, I mean.
John: I guess. I think that’s a natural part of the progression of any industry. People never tell me that the aerosol wall texture industry is getting too corporate. And yet, it really is. In Michigan, we were much happier. But we were also more financially stable.
Anthe: Sacre Bleu, indeed.
John: Sacre Rouge.
Anthe: How did the stories and interviews contrast between Creem in Detroit as opposed to LA? You seemed to get around despite being in the Midwest, but as far as flying goes, it’s pretty centrally located and lots of bands toured there.
John: I did a ton of interviews when I was freelancing in Michigan. Someday I must go back and read some of them. And, yeah, I interviewed John Waite in Miami and ZZ Top in Wichita, Judas Priest in St. Louis and Black Sabbath in Indianapolis, etc. Michigan is just fine in that sense. Out in LA, though, we instantly had lunches with publicists at the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset in Beverly Hills, and so on. It’s different. Plus the bands come through here like clockwork. Hell, I saw a Sigur Ros concert in LA a couple of years ago. They were great, incidentally.
Anthe: That den of iniquity. How does that effect the story, review or interview process, if at all?
John: I don’t think it does. For example, Bill and I and the Replacements were great friends and serious drinking pals, but that started up in Michigan. Please see the excellent Bill Holdship story. Out here in LA, it just made it easier to get together with them, and then on to Barney’s Beanery for volumes of alcohol. But that’s an example of it not being that much different psychologically. I remember interviewing the Thompson Twins in LA–a fine, fine story, I’ll add–and I wouldn’t have liked their music any more or less back in Michigan. Nope. That Alannah from the Twins was one of the funniest fucking people I ever talked to. A charming, witty girl. Oh, and I remember interviewing Fleetwood Mac–every single member, in their homes. You can’t do that in Michigan. You should see Lindsey Buckingham’s pool. What a life, God love him. He actually had a radio-controlled submarine toy in the pool he showed me and we played with it. That’s what this job’s all about.
Anthe: Max out the good times. Did you get more respect from musicians and such, when you made the move?
John: I don’t think so. Most musicians knew about Creem and had some grudging respect for its reputation. I think more indie-type bands, like maybe REM were like that. Not that REM’s respect was grudging. Peter Buck, for example, knew all about Creem because he’s interested in such things. The Place Mats knew of Creem. Actually, now that I think of it, I think almost everybody knew about Creem. I remember meeting Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon at some frou-frou Hollywood event, and even he knew about Creem. Not to slam REO, but they didn’t seem to be Creem kind of guys. The Place Mats, now they did. So, I think the amount of respect was pretty equal because our predecessors at Creem had done a fine job of establishing the brand, quite seriously, and even we did a pretty good job. Dave and Bill and I, I mean. And Joanne. And the art department.
Anthe: You always held your own very well, like with the Mats, Rush and Motley Crue interviews. And as you alluded to, some weren’t exactly Creem kind of bands, or yours. But you were able, or rather you liked, the approach of being a student of human nature?
John: Ha! Well, I usually had fun, even if it was Motley Crue. I mean, at the time, they were amazingly popular–God only knows why–but their experience in their world was way out there, by my modest standards. Yes, I was always into the human-interest angle when I did an interview. I mean, if you saw my record collection, there’s a lot of unpopular stuff in there, and I’m including Burl Ives and The Aluminum Group. So when talking to a band, if it was Robyn Hitchcock, whom I think is quite swell, or Motley Crue, who kind of scared me, it was a different deal. But I thought the readers would like to know what it’s like to hang out with both. Even the people who hated Motley Crue must have enjoyed their decadence, the lesbo tapes and so on.
Anthe: Hef’s Mansion: yes or no?
John: Very sadly, no. I only wish. Damn that Hef for ignoring J. Kordosh lo, these many years.
Anthe: So, did your appreciation for the music at the time start to fade along when Creem did?
John: No, I’ve always loved music. I wasn’t a huge fan of some mid-to-late-’80s stuff at the end of Creem, but what the hell. In fact, I think leaving Creem and leaving having to have an opinion about music elevated the level of my enjoyment significantly. Nowadays, I enjoy bands as diverse as Granddaddy and Radiohead and don’t have to explain why. It’s a fucking blessing. I think for me it came down to science equals fact, which is only true if you’re an immature scientist, and rock writing equals opinion, which is only true if you’re an immature rock writer. And, hey, I was both.
Anthe: Your humble mix of esteem and honesty is engaging–almost Zen-like.
John: To tell you the truth, I’m getting troubled about my self-deprecation. To tell you the truth, I think that my stint at writing the “Rock ‘n’ Roll News” column was almost definitive; it was there I introduced the bovine Buttermilk…
Anthe: Tell more about that…you’ve said there were only five stories you wrote that you actually liked.
John: Yeah, about that. I really liked, much more, “Creemedia” [which] dealt with all manner of obscurity. Short story, I think that near the end of my writing at Creem I ‘found my voice.’ So the stories I like are latter-day stories.
Anthe: Which didn’t include Molly Hatchet?
John: Ha ha, Lord, I don’t even know why I did that. There are greater Hatchet fans than myself. No, that story was hackish, I think. I haven’t read it since it came out, though.
Anthe: And what was your voice, if you can do your best to describe it, and how did it evolve?
John: My voice was one of reason but light-hearted incredulousness. No shit. I wanted to be very deft, and I’m sure I failed 99% of the time. It evolved because I was reading better, skilled writers.
Anthe: Personally, I loved the “Year In Concerts ’87: You people paid way too much for some pretty lousy shows.”
John: I DO remember!
Anthe: And when I said regrets, I meant like shots at the late Natalie Wood…stuff like that.
John: No, not really. Here’s a good and true story: Billy Joel once called us to bitch because we were being mean to his then-wife, Christie Brinkley. Hubba. And the woman who answered the phones didn’t put him through, if you can believe it. Anyway, we thought it was cool that Billy called to bitch-slap us about his woman, but still, we were right in openly mocking her. Actually, he called twice. The first time, I think Bill talked to him, and then he was denied editorial access.
Anthe: I would have thought it would have been about your reference to him in your “kissing etiquette” book review.
John: Billy Joel: fighting mad, as you like him! There are a lot of laughs in the rock writing game. No, Allentown Bill was pissed about his woman, so God bless him.
Anthe: Well, here’s an example. Was it really something worth getting mad over?
John: Only Bill Joel can answer that. I don’t think so, myself.
Anthe: Ok, so no one went out of their way to be insulting.
John: No, no, not at all. Bill and Dave and I are, and were, pretty nice people. Very polite. Japanese, almost.
Anthe: So, how did you forge a relationship with them?
John: It was a natural. Dave and I are, I think, very kindred spirits. Plus Dave knew way more about music and bands. He’s turned me on to more good music–and I include Orange Juice–than anyone I’ve ever known. When Dave was editor, [Creem] was sadly underrated. The captions are what I remember most. The art department would get the photos from photographers and since they decided what was going in, we would write the captions. We were getting all sort of disgruntled and thought, why not? I would look at a photo and see what they were thinking. We could actually do a story on just the captions. Dave Marsh took credit for “zany captions.” Dave Marsh taking credit for Creem‘s captions is like Orville Wright taking credit for the lunar landing. And Bill and I were really comrades-in-mischief at Creem. We hung out together a lot, and kind of played off each other. Plus we just kind of enjoyed making fun of things together, in the winning junior high-ish way your readers would expect.
Anthe: And in what ways did that conflict with the art department? It reminded me, sort of, what John Morthland said about Rolling Stone breaking at one point, between politicos and music writers.
John: I used to edit a teen magazine for Creem called Rock-Shots. This was a horrible photo mag that no one over the age of 15 would look at, seriously. But it was a real magazine. And I remember a big argument I had with a gal named Kathy Kelley in our art department about this magazine. Basically, it came down to me saying, “Don’t you think young people can have a magazine, too?” and her saying that she wanted to read a John Cougar Mellencamp interview. To me, she represented a certain unpopulist viewpoint that I think may be common in the rock critic world. That’s the trouble with rock criticism: everyone’s got a fucking opinion!
Anthe: But how much weight did they carry? I mean you didn’t go and critique their ad layout and cut and paste-up? Wasn’t there a separation of writing and graphics?
John: They carried no weight, thank God, but this was indicative of what our readers and potential readers also thought. Troubling in its way. There was a big huge separation of writing and graphics and I urge all of the incipient rock critics out there to get on board.
Anthe: Why would they even comment outside of just general interest?
John: Because, everyone’s got an opinion and why is J. Kordosh’s any better than yours? It’s because it’s about music. If it were about the hydrolysis of organic chlorides, nobody would have a fucking opinion. Except me, of course.
Anthe: My head is swimming…so it was never a literal problem?
John: It was a problem, but we dealt with it by ignoring them or mocking them. They really couldn’t out-argue us because we were who we were.
Anthe: You ultimately had the final say? I guess I just don’t understand why they would care, since it wasn’t their department. The text, I mean.
John: Okay. I think they cared because they worked for a national rock mag. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this; they were very bright and attractive people. But they had their own opinions and, sadly, those opinions didn’t coincide with the opinions of the editors. They were more into the popular mainstream than the editors were. But I do think they, correctly, saw the magazines a reflection of themselves.
Anthe: You wrote for Bill, too, afterwards at BAM and New Times LA.
John: Yes, I did. That was fun–I used to love those screwy LA New Times pieces. And I wrote for Dave at Launch, now Yahoo. Ironically, I somehow became a much better writer after I left Creem–at least, I liked my post-Creem writing, minor though it’s been, way more.
Anthe: Your stories and essays are transcribed and discussed at length on the net.
John: You know, I’d like to write more someday, but I’m so busy in the lab these days that I never pursue it. It’s like this: if I get three patents this year, and I might get one or two, is that better than writing an excellent and acclaimed story? I just don’t know.
Anthe: It would be welcomed, for how ever many there are. And since you always were a true writer, along with science, it’s commendable that you still care.
John: I still read rock criticism, but only like in the LA Times–Bob Hilburn, you know and also in Entertainment Weekly. I try to keep up. My opinions are incredibly well honed, I’ll tell you that. Damn, I wish I could rewrite that massive Kinks story–they just get better as time passes.
Anthe: No, really? EW?
John: Yeah, I read that stupid EW. It’s horrible. You know at the end of their mag, back in the reviews section, they try to do funny captions a la Creem, and I stress that they try. Woe is them. There’s nothing worse or lamer than a funny caption written by a person clueless in the way of the funny caption. It’s a new circle in hell.
Anthe: Why do you suppose none of you gave in to the stereotypical Hollywood beast? I mean, you never sold out, never gave in to vices.
John: I think we did, a little. But keep in mind that we were already grown up men when we moved out here, so we had enough cynicism to protect us. That and our winning life-philosophies.
Anthe: Coke, babes, boom, pow…
John: There was that for some of us.
Anthe: How come you didn’t become immersed in to the high-tension world of rock?
John: In a lot of ways I just wanted to have a normal life. I stopped smoking pot by the time I was 20. It really messed with my sense of time. Like asymptote–that’s when an arc approaches a line, but never reaches it.
Anthe: So, tell me, why didn’t you just turn into a bunch of H-town gasbags? I mean, you could have.
John: You know about H-town? Sweet! Naw, total excess is fatiguing. But there was some excess, to be quite honest with you.
Anthe: I know you probably all had moments, even in the Midwest, but I mean all out.
John: No, never all out. We’re too down to earth for that, I guess.
Anthe: But you have this Midwest…even New York, vibe or outlook…not really a Warren Beatty inclination.
John: Yeah, I was molded in the motor city. I still like Detroit, at least in theory.
Anthe: All right. But what I meant was, I guess coming from a Lester Bangs, John Holmstrom perspective, you never had the all out life of excess; in fact, you kept up with school, marriage, friends, science…
John: Everyone’s only human, you know. It was a close call. Like I said, I had my moments. Believe it or not, I still have vices to this very day. I might OD on Coors Light someday; that would be tragic.
Anthe: But rather than ending up with no place to go when the bars close or being Tommy Lee’s personal assistant. Or some massive tool.
John: Well, people probably grow out of that or die trying. I see that as part of the Zen. Life is way too fucking short to worry about so many things, to not try and enjoy it.
John Kordosh Fun Facts (compiled by Anthe Rhodes)
- John Kordosh was the first celebrity host of AOL’s Live Chat. The first featured band was Great White.
- He was once cursed by a drunken Dave Davies, but wasn’t offended because Davies was drunk.
- Kordosh’s exhaustive history of the Kinks is still referenced by fans and other writers, 25 years after it was first published in Creem.
- His Rush story has been the object of scorn from their fans and laughter from others, a legacy well documented on usenet.
- The above fact makes him the Salmon Rushdie of the Rush set.
- “Yeah, I read that article. Kordosh was such a dickhead.” The words of one usenet reader.
- He drank with Ozzy Osbourne while Sharon loomed in back. Or rather, John drank while Ozzy watched. He was on the wagon then.
- “The person who wrote this article obviously has no concept of musicianship, if he thinks McCartney is better than Geddy Lee, or especially if he thinks McCartney could play guitar better than Alex, drums better than Neil, or write better lyrics than Neil…what the fuck planet is this asshole from?” Another Rush usenet reader.
- While tagging along with Bill Holdship on an interview with the Replacements, both became pals with Westerberg and the rest of the band. It was John who was secure enough in his masculinity to scream when bassist Tommy Stinson threw a beer bottle, shattering it against the wall.
- He loves Head. No, not that head, necessarily. The trippy Monkees movie, which John thinks is the best music movie of all time.
- “That interviewer was definitely a good writer, and pulled no punches in expressing his dislike for the band. Hilarious.” Still another usenet reader.
- He contributed to a professional petition against global warming; however, if he had to do it over again, he would reconsider.
- A guilty musical pleasure is difficult for John to imagine, since he has none. He is, however, a whistling music enthusiast.
- “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” is one of his favourite pop songs. Mostly due to Kiki Dee. He also enjoyed some of the disco music that came out around that time.
- Bob Dylan told John that he couldn’t remember making John Wesley Harding. But then, he told him a lot of things.