Tom Hull has written, by his own estimation, “several millions of words” about rock, pop, and jazz since he first delved into rock criticism circa 1975, writing for the Village Voice, under the editorship of his mentor and friend, Robert Christgau. Like a lot of rock critics of his era, Hull moved on to other pursuits in the ’80s–in his case delving in to the world of software design and engineering. Said training came in handy a couple decades later when he joined forces with The Dean to create robertchristgau.com — the behemoth of rock critic websites, and an astonishing resource for all things Dean-related. Hull’s own site, Tom Hull on the Web, is in itself an excellent showcase, both for his own music criticism (past and present), as well as for his writing on movies, politics, books, etc. Hull’s web aesthetic might best be described as simple, text-biased, utterly comprehensive, and headache-free. (For those interested, Tom also has a Twitter feed.)
Hull, who has lived most of his life in Wichita, Kansas, responded to several questions I sent him about music criticism, web design, his working relationship with Christgau, and free jazz.
What turned you into a rock critic? What/who was the trigger for your interest in this stuff
Intellectual whiplash, I guess. I had a very isolated, miserable adolescence. I started to hate school in 8th grade, dropped out two years later (January 1966), and went through a very anti-intellectual phase — my main interest at the time was race cars. But then I got into reading, went to the library, spent my allowance in bookstores. The first book I remember buying was Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd, and that led me to Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and to Evergreen Review and Grove Press — I’d read anything they’d publish (and the smuttier the better). I couldn’t stand any of the literature from my school books (well, except Shakespeare), but bonded instantly with beats and dadaists and such. Another of the first few books that I picked up had a profound impact: The New Radicals, edited by Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, which gave me a “new left” political analysis to make sense of my opposition to the Vietnam War. From there I read magazines — Ramparts, The Realist, Liberation, Minority of One, The New York Review of Books. I read Staughton Lynd’s Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, which fit nicely with my naïve and idealistic view of American history, and I was so shocked by Eugene Genovese’s scathing review that I wrote a letter to protest. Genovese patiently wrote back, suggested that I read more of his work, and that got me interested in Marxist views of history, leading on to the Frankfurt School.After five years of isolation, reading in my room and writing a little, I decided to give college a try. I went to Wichita State for a year, then moved on to Washington University (St. Louis), where Paul Piccone published his philosophical quarterly, Telos. I worked on Telos, took classes from leftists ranging from Carl Boggs to Stephen Schwarzschild (who ultimately made the deepest impression on me), and edited a quasi-student paper called Notes on Everyday Life. One day Don Malcolm came to me with a piece on the Beach Boys. I knew nothing about the group after 1966 but was pretty sure Malcolm was full of shit — the tipoff was his use of “high art” — and my interest in rock crit developed from arguing with him. I learned some things from that experience: that I enjoyed exploring popular music, that it provided me with a sort of psychic balm, and that it gave me something to talk about that nearly everyone in my acquaintance related to. Then I got a day job, left academia, and never read Marxist theory again. In a nutshell, it had become too automatic, too predictable, whereas rock crit in the early 1970s expanded my world.
Early on you developed your own spinoff of the Consumer Guide — The Rekord Report. Talk about that. Where was it published?
I don’t recall the exact sequence of events, but I worked in a type shop in St. Louis, and one of our clients was an alt-weekly, St. Louis Today. They didn’t have a regular music writer, so I proposed myself. They agreed, then went bankrupt before they could run anything by me. I may have written some of that stuff before, or then, or just later, but it started with a review of Christgau’s book Any Old Way You Choose It, where I argued, hey, anyone can do this sort of thing. I then wrote the CG reviews more as an example than as parody or homage. They were published thanks to Don Malcolm. He had written a column in the Wash U student paper called “Mainline,” and he wanted to reprint them as a collection: Overdose. I did typesetting and layout free and he gave me a four page insert for my stuff.
You mentioned to me that you started writing at the Voice in 1975. How did that come about?
I had actually subscribed to the Village Voice as far back as 1968, back in my room in Wichita, although I was more interested in theater and politics at the time, and don’t recall Christgau from then. (Later I found all the old Voices from that period in my parents’ attic and clipped them out, which eventually came in handy.) Some friends nagged me to send him the Overdose insert. I don’t have the cover letter I wrote, probably something snotty. I was surprised when he wrote right back and asked me to write for him at the Voice. My first assignment was reviewing a new BTO album. My brother had homed in on their early albums when he visited me in St. Louis, and I wrote a favorable review of their third as a sort of tribute to him. Unfortunately, the fourth was their worst to date, but Christgau and I had sort of a working class bond over the band.
There are two very interesting archival pieces on your site: a funny (and yet critical) letter from Lester Bangs, and a screed you wrote in response to Dave Marsh’s “The Critics Critic” piece. Did you have any other correspondence with Bangs? Did you ever end up doing anything for Creem?
No. Not long after that Bangs and all the others I knew at Creem — Wayne Robins, Georgia Christgau — quit and moved to New York. I saw Bangs a couple times there, but I wasn’t very sociable and my girlfriend wound up spending more time harranguing him (or vice versa). He was freelancing, taking singing lessons. I always figured there’d be another day, then he died.
Your Marsh piece was unpublished, but did it ever get out there, to him or anyone else? Did you receive any feedback?
I made a few copies, circulated it to friends. I doubt that Marsh ever got it — I didn’t send it to him. George Lipsitz wanted to publish it (I forget where), but I thought it needed a pretty heavy edit and when he sent me a copy virtually unchanged I turned him down. I met Marsh a couple times later and he always seemed pretty cold, but that could have been anything — Malcolm and I both wrote tirades against Springsteen’s Born to Run in Terminal Zone, and Marsh was militantly partisan about Springsteen, but again I don’t know if he saw that — not many people did. The one bit of evidence that I have that he was even aware of me was the time he wrote that Queen was the “real fascist band.” That was shortly after I wrote my ELP review — the Voice changed my title from “ELP Moves Up From Fascism” to “ELP Moves On Up.” Among other things, shows he didn’t understand my point.
Who are some of your own writing heroes — rock critics or otherwise? You mention Adorno in at least one piece, I notice.
I read a lot of Frankfurt School critical theory before and during college. Before that, I had a pretty good sense of how Marxists approach history from reading Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, Barrington Moore, and others — not sure now whether to include William Appleman Williams in that list, but I read a lot by him and his new left followers, notably Gabriel Kolko, but I read a lot of mainstream historians too. What I got out of the Frankfurt School was a sense of how capitalism permeated modern culture. Adorno and Horkheimer were obsessed with fascism, seeking out its roots in everything since the Enlightenment, especially in the bourgeois compulsion to dominate nature, and while they were more focused on the horrors that could produce, one could find all sorts of marvelous moments of liberation popping out of their dialectics. I think Marcuse tried to build on the latter, but aside from a couple catchphrases — “repressive tolerance,” “polymorphuous perversity” — I never got anything out of him. The Frankfurt critic I was most taken with was Walter Benjamin — my gold standard for what a critic should be, and the first to impress on me that I would never be that good. I recall reading his brief essay, “Unpacking My Library“: he started by sketching out the sort of piece I would have written then dismisses it as trivial, going on to something much deeper. He always went for the deep, unobvious points. He planted the idea for the best book I’ll never write with an offhand comment on Charles Baudellaire: “a secret agent — an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule.” It occurred to me that one could say the same about Marx, re-rooting him within the bourgeois revolutions he extolled in 1848 and could never really see beyond.
I stopped reading critical theory after I left college, and that’s when I got much more into rock crit. The one book I was most impressed with then was Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, probably because it was so matter-of-factly personal. I also read Christgau’s Any Old Way You Choose It, but my appreciation for his writing grew more out of our long relationship than that initial book. I’m afraid that my reading on music has been heavily slanted toward record guides — not the best reading (or thinking) but they feed my encyclopedia bent. I never read much fiction — probably averaged a couple novels a year up to 2001 and less since then. Best novel I ever read was Thomas Pynchon’s V., but I gave up about 300 pages into Gravity’s Rainbow. I read The Master and Margarita and several of John Gardner’s books-within-books, and toyed with the idea of trying to write one after my first wife died. She used to say that she’d like to write a self-help book for cats on how to train their owners, so I imagined wrapping that up one thread based on her phone conversations with her sister, a sort of vicarious second life, and another detailing her demise at the cellular level (she was a brittle diabetic). I never got through the physiology research, in part because I found it more comforting to read about vast periods of time.
From the mid-1970s well into the 1990s I mostly read popular science, but at the time I veered into geology and paleontology, moving beyond John McPhee and Stephen Jay Gould and into some pretty technical monographs. Science had been my first love, but largely spoiled by a particularly brutish 9th grade teacher. I didn’t give it a further thought for more than a decade, by which time reading Immanuel Kant and Robert Paul Wolff restored my faith in reason. By then it was too late to actually do science, but I could engineer software, and I could apply that discipline to business. Aside from science and engineering, but main thing I read during those years was business management books. They ultimately had a lot to do with ethics, and at the time seemed more revealing than anything nominally in political science.
Then in the late-1990s I took some time and actually started writing a political book, but again didn’t get very far. I was thinking then about post-capitalism, trying to plot out utopian proposals to save us from a number of dystopian tendencies (peak oil, climate change, other resource and population issues, inequality, “the coming dark age,” and so forth). My fascination with utopian literature goes way back — early on I read Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin and those threads had as much to do with my thinking as the Marxist legacy (which has its own utopians, like André Gorz). I put that aside when I realized I hadn’t done enough homework, then the world took a grim turn with George Bush and the War on Terror. For a while I spent a lot of time looking into how conservatives think, then more recently I’ve shifted my focus back toward inequality.
I’m not much inclined toward thinking of people as heroes, but I would be remiss not to mention George P. Brockway here — most of what I know about economics I got from Brockway, even though in the long run I’ve read a lot more by Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and a few others. Also Bill James, from back when he wrote his annual Abstract and I was still interested in baseball. And Studs Terkel, whose interviews opened doors to everyone. And Bill Bryson, whose travelogues and language dives made the world a friendlier place. And Richard Manning, who started writing about clearcut forests then moved on to clearcut grasslands (also known as agriculture). And Barbara Tropp, who taught me how to cook (Chinese, anyhow, but that was the great leap forward, everything else being relatively mundane).
How did the arrival of punk change your outlook on music and/or your writing about it — or did it?
It got me into buying singles for the only time since my teens, but I was pretty well tuned into predecessors like glam and pub rock, so I wasn’t surprised that there was a lot to be gained from stripping down and cutting back to basics — that was already happening in lots of ways. Actually, the Brit Invasion of the mid-1960s had some of that but was still teen-oriented, whereas punk was adult-oriented. But punk didn’t rule for me. I never thought of the mid-1970s as a wasteland, and I was at least as much into funk and disco, and getting into jazz and, for that matter, country — turned out that I had absorbed a lot of that when I was young (most likely from Porter Wagoner), but then it became a path for relating back to my mother (a huge George Jones fan). So punk was just one more thing in a world full of wonder, but it definitely made sense. Probably helped that I was in New York at the time, so I was better connected than ever before or since — able to get records, to see acts, to compare notes with friends who were trying to figure it all out at the same time.
You also mentioned to me that you got off the rock writing boat circa 1980 — what happened?
My life got more complicated and shifted direction. I had a falling out with Malcolm which ended Terminal Zone (at least for me — he published one or two more), and I wasn’t writing enough for the Voice to make it worth the trouble. I got over my 9th-grade-induced science-phobia and started to think about engineering. I bought a computer (an Apple II, soon traded in for a S-100 bus Z-80) and started designing software to run typesetting systems. I parlayed that into a job in New Jersey, then another in Massachusetts and within five years wound up as the resident UNIX guru in a startup building a 3D CAD system for packaging design and prepress. I worked there for over 10 years, at various point managing staff and/or leading special projects. I left to try to build a venture around a free software program I had built, then when that flopped I returned to New Jersey for a job doing Unixware kernel development at SCO.
What sorts of work did you do in tandem with, and following, your early years as a rock critic? What’s the arc that takes you from “writing for the Voice in the late ’70s” to “developer of Robert Christgau’s website”?
As noted above, I worked in typesetting during the 1970s, and software engineering from 1980-2000. I’ve never made a living, or for that matter much more than a couple thousand dollars, from my writing. SCO was hit hard in the post-Y2K tech bomb, in large part because they couldn’t position themselves between Microsoft’s monopoly power and Linux’s free price tag. They went crazy and did some very stupid things, including laying me off (not that I could have fixed those other stupid things). I had moved back to Wichita, where good jobs are scarce, so I thought about consulting, building websites, putting together a home automation business, and/or refocusing on my writing. I wound up mostly doing the latter, writing several millions of words in the last decade.
Was robertchristgau.com an idea you brought to Robert Christgau, or did he approach you?
It was originally my idea, but it didn’t happen until it had become his idea as well, in mid-2001. Fortunately, I had a lot of free time then. Unfortunately, there were distractions to contend with. Among other things, my nephew’s wife was killed in the World Trade Center, so I tried to spend some time with them. I should probably note at this point that, although I stopped writing for Christgau around 1980, we remained friends and saw each other fairly regularly. For my jobs, I moved to New Jersey, then to Massachusetts. After my first wife died, I visited my sister-in-law in New York pretty often, and usually I dropped in on Bob and Carola. He eventually introduced me to a friend of his in Boston, Laura Tillem, and we’ve been together for 25 years now. They came to Boston more often after that, or we would meet in the Catskils (where Bob’s sister, Georgia, had a house). Then we moved to New Jersey for a couple years before returning to Kansas in 1999.The point is we had a long-term friendship and a lot of trust built up before either of us broached the website idea.
My understanding is that the idea started as bringing the Consumer Guide to the web. Obviously, it grew leaps and bounds beyond that (to the point where I don’t know if there is any work published by the man not available on his website). How did that evolution — from Consumer Guide to everything — occur?
It was always the plan to publish as much essay material as possible, including things like his tidbits in the monthly Playboy music columns, and they were there (more or less) from the beginning. Each piece was stored in its own file, so there was very little design to do there: I just had to write the code to do the directory indexes. He gave me his word processor files, covering everything he had written going back to sometime in 1988. It took some work to convert the files from Word Perfect to HTML and to check and clean up on some edits, so it took a few months to get them all up. (The one thing I had but couldn’t use was the Harvard book, Grown Up All Wrong. The publisher’s contract reserved “digital rights,” which they mostly use to deny us.) The bigger design problem was the Consumer Guide entries, because they needed to be stored in a MySQL database with artist and label tables normalized. We also needed to reconcile the books and columns. I wasted some time trying to create forms to manage CG data, then decided that it would be easier (for me, anyhow) to fall back on shell scripts.The graphic design was the easiest. I threw it together as a first stab prototype on the first day. He liked it, especially the fact that it solely emphasizes the words, and has never complained about it since.
Do you have a background as an archivist, or are you just someone who likes reading Christgau and wanted to see more of it available?
My background is in typesetting, so it’s no big deal to be handed a 300-page book to re-key it. Back in the 1970s I re-keyed a bunch of Murray Rothbard books for the Kochs. Some took 3-4 days, but it’s not like they were harder to do than parts manuals for Beech Aircraft. I’ve always viewed the Internet as a vast, nearly limitless public filing cabinet. Personally, I think that everything of any conceivable public value should be there, accessible, without paywalls and such. Unfortunately, our copyright laws, compounding the illusion that they constitute a viable system for compensating writers (and so forth), are in the way. We’re fortunate that Christgau was able to retain rights to so much of his work, and that he was willing to open it up and make it available.
How much collaboration is there between the two of you on this project?
Quite a bit, although we’ve both been fairly lax about updating it in recent years. I drove to New York in September 2001 and built the site in his apartment, over two or three weeks. We settled on the design, organization, and database then; registered the domain, got a server, started uploading files and populating the database. Looking at my notebook, I see that I left Wichita on September 5 and got back on October 27, but there was a stretch of time after September 11 when I couldn’t get to his apartment.I initially set up the website so either of us could update it, but in practice it wound up being exclusively me. That way I get to work with a private copy and only have to sync it up every few months. When he wants something changed, he tells me and I do it. Anything I want to do that’s out of the ordinary I clear with him. It’s ultimately his website, and this seems to work well.
RobertChristgau.com went online in 2001. This is prior to the explosion of web 2.0 (or social media — whatever you wish to call it). Are there any social media elements — with more interactivity — you would like to incorporate some day, or are you both happy with the site as is? (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with it, just to be clear. Simply noting that it’s built on an earlier model of web creation.)
The website was originally intended as a repository of Christgau’s writing, and nothing else. We didn’t really care how many people saw it, or how many clicks each made, although we did provide a browsing framework and search tools to help the curious. Indeed, we deliberately minimized the graphics and excluded any multimedia to conserve bandwidth (as well as to focus on the words). We had no desire to run advertising. We didn’t even sign up for the usual Amazon book deal. These were design constraints, and while some amount of altruism went into the design, another factor was that we wanted something cheap to run with minimal maintenance. None of what we wanted to do needed “Web 2.0” stuff, and “Web 2.0” interactivity would only have made our lives busier and messier. Perhaps there may be a user base for a Christgau-centric but much more interactive website where a community can congregate and contribute to projects that go beyond Christgau’s own writing. We saw some hints of that sort of thing in the voluminous comments to Christgau’s “Expert Witness” blog. (Indeed, a few people are trying to do that through a Facebook group, but that strikes me as a horrible way to go.) But that would be another website, or if Christgau was directly involved it could be a sidecar to his website. Or he could trim it back to something like running a blog and/or a bulletin board on the side — those things are in fact very easy to set up, although they certainly add to maintenance overhead. In any case, we’re still going to have a reference store much like we currently have.
Of course, like anything, I made some choices in 2001 that I wouldn’t make now. I’ve updated the code to run on current platforms, and last year we moved the website to a new server that eliminates some of the bottlenecks we previously had (e.g., we no longer have disk quotas). The new server also makes it possible to do things like mail lists that were impossible before, but we haven’t taken advantage of much of that. Looking back, I probably made a mistake not putting the static pages into the database. I thought it was faster and easier to maintain, but the directory list scheme is pretty unwieldy these days, and it’s that much harder to generate RSS scripts. And there are lots of little issues I could list. Making it easier for people to syndicate articles might help expose more people to the website. But more work on search engine optimization might have even more effect: for some reason Google almost never lists artist pages even though they’re vastly more informative than the usual lists of retailers and music services they routinely crank out. Letting users comment on pages? Sounds like a headache. But as I said, it’s Christgau’s site. If he wants to add more functionality or dress it up differently, we’ll talk about it and probably do it. But he’s been pretty satisfied with it, or at least he doesn’t complain to me much.
It’s mentioned on the site that readers have also sometimes been participants/contributors. Can you talk a bit about that?
I don’t recall whether I initially solicited help or just accepted and encouraged it, but I received the first offer to help out before I finished my drive home from New York. That was from Joe Yanosik, and the most important thing he provided was a sketchy but pretty extensive bibliography of everything he knew of that Christgau had written. That is the basis of the bibliography on the website. Within a few weeks I got more fan letters and offers, and over the years I’ve collected those names in the Acknowledgments file. Probably the single most important user contribution came from Allen Belz when he went through the CG books and double-checked every factual assertion. He’s responsible for the vast majority of the items in the CG book corrigenda files — although a few dozen others wrote in to correct additional things. One of the most important things about the website is that we can iteratively, painstakingly, and eventually get it right. As I mentioned above, the pieces from 1988 to 2001 came from Christgau’s own computer files. Christgau has transcribed a few earlier files, but most came from a clippings file that I had accumulated over the years — including those 1969 Voices I salvaged from my parents’ attic. Over the course of 2002 I typed in most of the early articles plus what was missing from the books. But my clippings were far from complete, so I invited other people to submit missing pieces, and a couple dozen people sent in typed copy or scans (again, see the Acknowledgments file). There is still a fair number of pieces we don’t have, including most of the Newsday reporting and some early material from Cheetah (one reader recently sent in a bunch of those, but they’re incomplete, not even in the bibliography). We also have a corner for Carola Dibbell‘s writings, and it is even more incomplete. Of course, one way to fill in these holes would be for Bob and Carola to take a couple weeks and dig through their own files and send whatever they find in (preferably recoded). In their defense, they’re busy people working on producing new content, and the old stuff is (for them at least) old. So in a sense the community has more interest (and desire) in making all that appear than they do. We’ve managed to create an interesting balance here between reader and writer — one that partly caught us by surprise, although me less than Christgau as I’ve been much closer to the free software movement, true community websites, and the writings of people like Clay Shirky. I should also add that even more striking than the popular involvement in the website was the development of a commenting community around Christgau’s Expert Witness blog: over three years, about 150 posts elicited an average of more than 200 comments, with more than 50 regulars, no spam but a few trolls. Quite a few of those people had written to me previously, but EW was the first opportunity they had to interact and build on each other. That suggests that we missed an opportunity in not developing a more community-oriented website.
Tell me about the Writer’s Website Project. What is it, and what are your plans with it? (I know, for instance, you built Carol Cooper’s website — any others in the works, or already out there?)
In 2002 I thought it would be a good idea to generalize the Christgau website software into something other writers could use to build public archives of their work. Lots of things kept that from happening, but I did get some initial favorable feedback, and Carol Cooper was so into it I hand-built her website with some of my prototype code. It might be worth reconsidering if I could come up with some combination of a free CMS package and plugins for whatever specialized functions are needed.
In the ’70s you only reviewed rock records, but when you resurfaced in the Voice around 2005 you were writing a Jazz Consumer Guide. When did you get into jazz? And how did that column come about?
I ran into Miles Davis first: back in college everyone had a copy of Bitches Brew, but I don’t recall anyone having anything else. I started branching out in the latter half of the 1970s, but I was listening as much to the postclassical avant-garde — Glass, Cage, Crumb, Wuorinen, Stockhausen, Berio, Babbitt, etc. — as jazz. Tom Johnson was covering the avant stuff for the Voice then, and he was an inspiration as well as a guide. But over the years I lost track of most of that, while I slowly built up a jazz collection — often binge-buying after reading Gary Giddins or Francis Davis. By 1980 I was devoted to Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, tuned in to Herbie Nichols and Steve Lacy, and was pretty sure I didn’t like Charlie Parker. Over the 1980s I picked up a fair smattering of John Coltrane, David Murray, Don Pullen, Arthur Blythe. At the time, I told people my favorite vein was old-time jazz played by avant-gardists, like Air’s Lore, or (my favorite at the time) Roswell Rudd’s Flexible Flyer.
That changed in the early 1990s. Rock at the time was dominated by grunge and gangsta rap and with a few exceptions (Ice-T, but not Nirvana) I didn’t like either. And Laura started playing jazz when she got the chance, so I started looking through guides to check out what I had missed — especially the early stuff, but ultimately I worked through every nook and cranny of the jazz canon, plus all the early country, blues, and rock I had missed. I was making good money at the time, so rather quickly bought a couple thousand CDs. When Chistgau asked me if I’d listened to Thelonious Monk yet, I had a dozen (or more) CDs. Earlier in the 1990s Christgau tried to recruit me to write about African music, but I didn’t feel I was expert enough. In 1996 he asked me to review Rhino’s Masters of Jazz compilation series, so I wrote a piece we called Jazz for Dummies. I kept accumulating tons of jazz after that, filling out gaps in my knowledge. My old desire to learn it all had kicked back in. After the Christgau website went live, Michael Tatum got in touch and we kicked around ideas for a record guide. He edited a webzine in Chicago, Static Multimedia, and offered to let me do a monthly column on anything I wanted. My dream column then was Recycled Goods: a batch of Consumer Guide reviews of reissued or archival music. I started writing that in February 2003. Also in 2003 Christian Hoard signed me up to do a batch of 25 entries for The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, where I covered a little bit of everything: rock (Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Nick Lowe, Waco Brothers), dance (Donna Summer, Pet Shop Boys), rap (Blackalicious, Buck 65), reggae (Bunny Wailer), country (George Jones, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams), folk (Ani DiFranco, Loudon Wainwright), African (Fela Kuti), and jazz (James Carter, Matthew Shipp). Christgau also asked me to write a few reviews — mostly on jazz but also one on John Prine. Then in 2005 Gary Giddins, who had been the Voice‘s jazz writer for more than 30 years, quit, and Christgau had to figure out how to fill those shoes. His solution was to ask me to write a jazz consumer guide, with Francis Davis writing deeper pieces, and since neither of us were based in New York, Nate Chinen would cover the live scene. My big problem was getting enough print space for all the records I wanted to write about. Since I like to keep my process open, I wound up publishing my triage notes on my blog: I called this Jazz Prospecting. The Voice cut Christgau loose in 2006, but Rob Harvilla continued to publish Davis and me. However, when he left subsequent editors were indifferent to jazz and squeezed ever harder on space and money. I kept doing Jazz Prospecting a couple years after the last Jazz Consumer Guide was published.
You wrote on your site recently, “I’ve dropped my Jazz Prospecting and Recycled Goods columns, so I’ve started to back peddle as a music critic, and will before long become as washed up as anyone else.” Please elaborate.
Well, I thought I was spending too much time on music, and that was keeping me from doing other things — things that might be more rewarding or useful or just personally more satisfying. I’ve been turning over in my mind a book about politics in one form or another for fifteen years and it bothers me how little progress I’ve made on it. Part of the problem is that I keep changing my focus. In the late 1990s I didn’t see a lot of immediate political issues but I was worrying about longer-term problems, including the corrosive moral effects of increasing inequality, what happens when various resource limits are hit, and how such an inequitable society might break down under that pressure. I worried, for instance, that we might return to a world where violence — both desperate insurrectionary acts and smothering repression — became common. Alternatively, I wanted to show how many problems could be solved by sensible engineering, provided that it is sensitive to human needs, which I believe included an egalitarian society which follows a sense of mutual respect and support as opposed to the capitalist model of individualist profit-seeking. I actually wrote quite a bit about post-capitalism then, but was stymied on some of the “blue sky” proposals and, ironically it turned out, was reluctant to play up the downside if we failed, not least what soon came to be called “terrorism.”
Then Bush came along and terror became the central issue of American politics: the blowback against overweening American power and the knee-jerk violent reaction to any affront to that power, especially among America’s so-called conservatives. That’s when I realized that a whole slew of traits — Nixon’s “silent majority” gloss on bigotry, the ’80s “greed is good” ethos, the self-righteous growth of the Christian right (which really hit Kansas hard in the 1993 “summer of mercy” but I wasn’t here for that), the bankrolling of the right-wing propaganda machine, the fevers of gun fetishism, the new prominence given to nepotism and aristocracy — all of that suddenly merged together behind the face and throughout the administration of George W. Bush. With the “global war on terror” it suddenly became important to understand all of that, and not just because it was obvious (to me, at least) how self-destructive it was but because the people who should have opposed Bush were so intellectually unprepared to do so. (Indeed, one reason Barack Obama has had so much trouble reversing course is that he is largely a prisoner of the same thinking that so captivated Bush.)
But now my thinking is shifting back (cautiously), and again I see inequality as the focal issue: the core agenda of conservatism has always been to defend the rich and powerful, and the essence of progressivism (and I would add civilization) has always been to extend respect and equality to ever broader circles of people, so I’ve come to see that issue as the immediate battleground and its resolution the path to a better, saner future. That’s all pretty schematic, but it’s a subject I feel I have much more to say about than I ever could about music, so I suspect that heading in that direction will wind up being more satisfying.
What I’m more sure of is that sticking to writing about music would be more frustrating, because that’s already happened. I consciously chose to go wide — to write briefly about a lot of records instead of in depth about a few — so I’ve been even more sensitive than most to the matter of access. And the key fact is that in order to get access you have to court publicists, and what they want to see is a prominent venue. When I was writing for the Village Voice (and when the Voice still had a reputation), that was a fairly easy sell, but writing a self-published blog with no download links and half the content about things other than music, that’s a bit harder to sell. Since the Voice stopped running Jazz Consumer Guide, my access has been shriveling up — not real fast, because I’m better known as a critic now than I’ve ever been, but it’s something I can measure, and what makes it worse is that I’ve never had the access I wanted — especially European labels where so much of the world’s most interesting jazz appears.
You mention that “access” is an issue in regards to continue to write about music. I take it you don’t engage in file-sharing/downloading?
I do very little downloading, even of links sent to me by publicists. Part of that is that I’ve had so many CDs to listen to, and it’s usually many more steps to listen to something downloaded, extra hassle, then it’s hard to keep track of it all. But another part of it is that I’ve never taken the trouble to really understand how it all works. The main thing I’ve had to go to downloads for is hip-hop mixtapes, but I don’t listen to enough to get the hang of it.
On the other hand, I find streaming very convenient — if not all that reliable. I did some work with Rhapsody a few years back, and started to write little notes on everything I listened to there. That gave me a way to keep up with non-jazz albums I couldn’t get or afford, and I currently have more than 4,700 “streamnotes” — sort of a second class review, as the sound isn’t that good, the sequencing is awkward, I can’t see the packaging, and I have little motivation to spend much time with any given record, especially ones that don’t turn me on immediately. Lots of things never show up there — e.g., I still haven’t heard last year’s Beyoncé record — but the coverage is good enough that I feel pretty knowledgeable on mainstream rock-pop-rap, and that wouldn’t be remotely possible otherwise.
I don’t know if I could overcome my access problems by putting a lot of effort into downloading: most of what I was aware of missing came out on obscure European labels so the odds of someone making what I’m looking for available aren’t good. I’d probably be better off chasing the artists down, maybe offering them a discreet website where they could upload albums. On the other hand, Michael Tatum’s initial idea for his post-Christgau CG (A Downloader’s Diary) was to bypass the publicists and grab whatever he needed off the web. I don’t think that’s his only strategy, but it’s certainly one, and for someone trying to break in — writing a blog, say, with no credentials or obvious readership, it may be the only one. As I’ve said, access is essential, and if that is denied, either legally or economically, criticism will suffer, the market will be less transparent, and ultimately I think both the art and its business will suffer.
You’ve been expressing on your website recently the need for some kind of collective writing project, yet not something that tries to be everything-to-all-people, but lots-of-things-to-lots-of-people. As you put it: “I’m looking at least for the coherency of a tribe — a group of people who approach music in sufficiently similar ways that their opinions are likely to be of interest to each other. Who these people [are] has never seemed like much of a problem — I know dozens of obvious candidates — not that getting them to work (and to work together) is easy. But it’s long seemed to me that the basic principle of ‘build it and they will come’ applies here. The problem has always been building it.” What would be the aim of such a project, and the challenges — technical or otherwise?
The tribe I had in mind was the community that came together around Christgau’s Expert Witness blog, or more generally the Christgauvian Tribe (which I imagine branching out farther into domains Christgau only barely covered). A couple years ago Michael Tatum tried to organize about a dozen people into such a collective — an effort I probably subverted by getting hung up on technical minutiae. A subset of that group has bounced back as Odyshape, with all the pluses and minuses of off-the-shelf technology (easy to get up and running; hard to do anything special with). That’s good to see because it gets people writing, but blogs are meant to followed now and forgotten as soon as they scroll into oblivion. What I’d rather see is a site that accumulates and refines its inputs: the Christgau website is a single case example, but wikis offer a collaborative tool for doing that sort of thing.The prime example there is Wikipedia, and one could imagine it eventually supplanting All Music Guide: its main limits are uneven development, evaluation neutrality, and lack of specially structured data. (AMG, by contrast, has uneven development, evaluation incoherence, and structured data you can’t do anything with, plus the proprietary business model limits how much free help they can get — as well as how much they can pay for.) I tend to look at this from both sides: as a writer/user, of course, but also as an engineer: what would you need to do to something like Mediawiki to make it a general tool for supporting multiple tribes of music scribes?
I’ve noticed that in a lot of your posts you refer to a “metacritic” file. What is that, and why does it matter?
The name comes from metacritic.com, which scores and aggregates a database of record reviews from approximately 50 publications. The scores are based on ratings or reading of the reviews, and all are mapped onto a common 0-100 scale. The website then creates a weighted average of the scores, and can sort out lists of the most best-reviewed records for each year. I kept similar metacritic files from 2011-2013. Mine are simpler in that I just jot down codes in a text file, then run it through a program to generate the HTML. I pull out what I can from Metacritic, add 10-30 other reference points, and note whether I’ve heard the records. I use Metacritic’s scales but count the reviews differently: I’m more interested in how many good reviews a record has than what the average is. Toward the end of the year, I add in how many times a record is mentioned in a year-end list — I usually look at more than 300 year-end lists for this.The reason I do this is to get a sense of what all is out there in any given year, and to help me decide what to seek out and listen to. A person can only listen to a limited number of records in any given year — from my year-end lists I see that my peak number was 1,415 in 2011 — so you have to do some prioritizing. The metacritic file is my tool for doing that. My 2011 file listed 4,808 records that had been reviewed somewhere. The 2013 file was up to 7,868 records. It looks pretty cryptic, but gives me a pretty comprehensive sense of what’s going on, who likes what, and how my experience lines up with everyone else’s. That’s a lot of information.Of course, even at this cryptic level it takes an awful lot of work to put it together, and I’ve decided I can’t afford to keep it up. That’s a shame because it is something nearly every critic could get a lot of good out of — especially if they could tweak it to their own interests, as I do mine. But that would take even more work — something a group might be able to do but way more than what I can do as an individual.
You write a lot about music these days — loads of jazz consumer guides and whatnot. Also lots of writing about all sorts of other things. What keeps you going as a writer — you seem to have boundless energy for the stuff.
I’ve written several million words since 2003, expanded the ratings database from about 10,000 records to 23,000. I’ve tried to write a bit about everything I’ve listened to since 2006, so I have at least 10,000 notes on records — some can be called reviews, and some don’t quite rise to that level. It’s more time and discipline than energy: if you listen to music as much as I do and take the time to jot those things down, they add up. But it can also be wearing, which I’ve felt more lately, and it can also get to be rather mechanical and consuming. That’s one reason for the shift: to start thinking about things that interest me again.
I am a relative newbie, you might say, to the pleasures of free jazz, so I gotta ask: what are five free jazz records you would most heartily recommend to someone just discovering the stuff?
I count about 35 full-A records in my database that roughly fall under the free jazz rubric, so there are lots of ways to answer this, and none of them particularly right. That’s out of a little more than 400 full-A jazz albums (and that’s out of 11,756 total jazz albums rated), so free jazz is a small slice of what I listen to, but not that small: it probably accounts for about a third of the new albums I rate A- each year, and more have free elements. After all, at this stage free jazz is more than fifty years old, and numerous innovations from free jazz pioneers have been incorporated into the rather amorphuous mainstream blob of postbop. I think the first album to explicitly use the term was Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz. Coleman set up two quartets: his own with Don Cherry on trumpet, and a second with Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, and turned them loose to improvise over each other. That could have produced chaos, but it turns out to be a pretty tight album. Still, if you aren’t familiar with Coleman, you’d be best off starting with one quartet, like The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) — let’s go with that for the first album, and add that nearly everything Coleman has done since reprises the same knack, which is to take something that initially sounds funny, possibly even close to chaos, and make it right. Your ear (or your brain) wants to impose some kind of order on what you hear. In a nutshell, what free jazz does is stretch your sense of order. You probably won’t have anywhere near as much trouble digesting The Shape of Jazz to Come now as in 1959. If it seems too tame, jump to Coleman’s Sound Grammar (2006).
A lot of musicians from the late 1940s on were trying to stretch your ears. Dave Brubeck was mixing up time measures. Thelonious Monk wrote simple melodies with completely unexpected notes. George Russell came up with a scheme for substituting modes for chords, and John Coltrane picked up Russell’s scheme and ran amok with it. Charles Mingus liked to stage confrontations, and Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy were among his favorites for the way they clashed. Then there was pianist Cecil Taylor, who literally tore up rhythm and let the beat go anywhere so long as there was a lot of it. His most accessible album is probably The World of Cecil Taylor (1960) — mostly piano trio with saxophonist Archie Shepp added on two tracks. Like Coleman, Taylor only got more incorrigible over time, peaking in the ten albums he recorded over a week in Berlin in 1988.
My third album is the most obvious pick, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (1964). He’s a tenor saxophonist who pursued free jazz as a spiritual quest, and this trio album combined the intensity he is legendary for with a unique clarity, in no small part thanks to Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray. A whole series of deeply searching tenor saxophonists followed in Ayler’s footsteps, most obviously David S. Ware and Charles Gayle, but also David Murray (one of his first albums was Flowers for Albert) and even John Coltrane, who kicked off his late-career spiritual quest by hiring Sunny Murray.
Gary Giddins once said that the easiest way to get into free jazz is to find an album of avants playing traditional tunes — things you know well enough to recognize the changes. In the 1960s everyone was still trying to break new ground, but in the 1970s some started to look back, and the best example is Lore by Air (1979), a sax trio with Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall. The trad tunes here go way back, with two by Scott Joplin and two by Jelly Roll Morton. Big problem here is that it is out of print (shame on Sony).
For my fifth album, I should pick something recent, like William Parker’s Sound Unity (2004). Parker is one of the all-time greats on bass. He had played on over 250 records by 2003 when I wrote a long Consumer Guide to his work. This quartet returns to Coleman’s quartet lineup, only the two horns play off each other to much more spectacular effect.
These five albums roughhouse a bit but none of them break down in the sort of cacophony that free jazz is famous for, that some folks love and most can’t stand. An alternative list might single out: Jimmy Giuffre: Free Fall (1962; John Coltrane: Ascension (1965); Peter Brötzmann: Machine Gun (1968); Anthony Braxton: For Alto (1969); and Barry Guy: Ode (1972) — all Penguin Guide Crown records that I’ve never quite developed the stomach for (although there are records by all of those artists that I do like, and I have gotten more tolerant of sheer squawk — Brötzmann’s Hairy Bones and Ken Vandermark’s first Lean Left are close to my current limit).
As I said, there are many ways to field this question, but one thing I try to do is to take a broader view — as opposed to, say, the guys at Free Jazz Collective who only take an interest in free jazz. Unless I go overboard, I expect that my A records should appeal even to people who don’t normally like that sort of thing (whereas B+ records should only interest folks who are really into that niche).
Desert Island Disc? (Please pick just one.)
Back when Greil Marcus published Stranded, had he invited me (and I was rather ticked off that he didn’t) the record I would have chosen was a Jan and Dean compilation from 1974, Gotta Take That One Last Ride. It covered all their hits as well as major oddities like “Schlock Rod” and those songs can be approached on so many levels, from tacky materialism to sublime irony — everything that’s great and corny about America. Also, it was a gatefold package and Dean, who started out as a graphic designer, did a beautiful job in every respect, including some extraordinary surfing photos.I like it no less now, but at this point I’d probably prefer something like Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite — probably the 1995 “Special Mix” over the overstuffed 2003 release. At least half of the songs are just breathtaking, and I can’t imagine ever tiring of Johnny Hodges.