By Steven Ward
(originally published in rockcritics.com in 2006)
Jon Wiederhorn has been writing about heavy metal for almost 20 years now. Starting out writing for his college paper and serving an internship at the legendary English music weekly Melody Maker, Wiederhorn has made the music journalism rounds.
Today, freelancer Wiederhorn concentrates on a main gig as a senior writer at Revolver–one of America’s best heavy music magazines–as its most enthusiastic and knowledgeable scribe. During the following e-mail interview, Wiederhorn talks about writing about music, his love of Revolver, his hard luck experiences working at Rolling Stone, and why heavy metal has always meant the world to him.
Steven: How long have you been in rock journalism, and do you remember where your first professional piece of music journalism was published and what you wrote about?
Jon: Like many rock journalists, I started writing about music for my college paper. I was the entertainment editor of the short-lived Boston University weekly The Boston Network from about 1988 to 1990, which gave me access to lots of artists who came through town. There was already a well established daily, The Daily Free Press, which I worked with in later years, but in order not to be a big fish in a little pond, I started out at Network, which was less competitive and gave me entree to bigger things right away. In addition to getting free tickets to shows like Metallica, Anthrax, David Lee Roth, Yes, Rush, and Pink Floyd just for writing up reviews, I was able to secure photo passes and shoot the bands from the front of the stage, which was a dream come true for a lifelong music fan and photo buff.
Steven: How did you first get in the business?
Jon: When I was a senior in college, I went to England on a semester abroad internship program, where I worked for a now defunct weekly magazine called Melody Maker, which was the main competitor of the NME, which still publishes. The first review I wrote for them was of Coroner’s No More Colour. Since they were an alternative mag, they didn’t have many metal writers and I was able to get decent play right away. The first interview story I wrote for them during my internship was on a British band that went nowhere called the Red Dogs. After I returned to the States the magazine kept me on as a stringer, and I wrote for them at least once a month. That, in turn, opened up doors at other publications, including Alternative Press, Raygun, and The Boston Phoenix.
Steven: Let’s talk about Revolver where you are a senior writer. Did you write for Revolver when the first five issues came out–the general interest rock mag version–or did you start when they switched formats and went all metal?
Jon: Interestingly, I loved the original Revolver and really wanted to write for them, but I didn’t have any luck with my pitches and I wasn’t really persistent, which is a necessary trait in the freelance world. There’s a bit of a back-story to why I didn’t pursue them with vigor. Before I started at Revolver I worked as Executive Editor at Guitar magazine, and later guitar.com and musicplayer.com. But before any of that happened, I wrote many pieces for Guitar World, including a cover story on Metallica. Now, Guitar World and Revolver were both owned by Harris Publishing at the time, and the two publications shared various staff members. Of course, Guitar magazine was in direct competition with Guitar World. So, when Guitar magazine folded, it was a little awkward to pitch the same people I had just been competing with weeks earlier (granted, they always won hands down since they had a higher budget, more visibility, and better writers). This may explain why I got no play at the early Revolver. However, the minute they switched formats, their editor Brad Tolinski (who also edited Guitar World) and his deputy editor Tom Beaujour (who now edits Revolver) took me to breakfast and told me they wanted me to be a major contributor to the revamped Revolver, since they liked the way I wrote about metal.
Steven: You do a lot of stuff for Revolver. You have at least one major feature in each issue, usually two. Is Revolver a full-time gig for you now or do you see yourself as just a freelancer?
Jon: Revolver is my main freelance gig. About half of my time is devoted to them. But I also write regularly for MTV.com, FHM, Guitar World, and Penthouse.
Steven: I have said before that Revolver is a beacon in the world of fan-oriented metal magazines. Revolver is a literate magazine that competes with lesser mags such as Circus, Hit Parader, and Metal Edge. Do you think Revolver gets the respect it deserves?
Jon: I think the respect level is growing, and I think a lot of people started taking the magazine more seriously after it was purchased by Future Publishing. What I like about Revolver is that it doesn’t dumb down its editorial to cater to the stereotype of the illiterate headbanger. In fact, I would argue that the type of approach and caliber of writing is comparable to that of Spin, Blender, and even Rolling Stone. Sadly, the fact that it’s a metal magazine means there’s a certain stigma attached to it, but the editors and writers work tirelessly to make it a hipper, more intelligent publication than, say, Metal Maniacs or Hit Parader.
Steven: I have also said Revolver is the best American heavy metal magazine being published today. I still believe that, but you guys now have some serious competition from Decibel. What are your thoughts on Decibel and do you see Decibel as a good thing that makes Revolver strive to do better?
Jon: I think a little bit of competition is good to keep everyone on their toes. Also, Decibel caters to a more underground crowd so there’s not that much overlap. I think metal fans could buy both and get something unique and worthwhile from each.
Steven: You have had an extensive freelancer career. From a look on the Internet, I have seen your byline at MTV.com, Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Blender, Guitar, Pulse, Giant. Am I leaving anybody out? Have any of these jobs been more than freelancing?
Jon: As a freelancer, I have written for all of these publications as well as Guitar World, Stuff, Melody Maker, Spin, Raygun, Cosmo, The Boston Phoenix, US, TV Guide, Campus Calendar, Teen People, CMJ Monthly, Alternative Press, Teen, New York Newsday, Details, Request, and Swing. There are probably others I am leaving out. As far as staff jobs go, I started out as the heavy metal section editor of the College Music Journal and it was my first real gig in the “industry.” After I left CMJ I freelanced for a variety of places, and was eventually hired as an Associate Editor at Rolling Stone to write their “In The News” section as well as other news stories, reviews, and features. Later, I worked for two years as Executive Editor of Guitar magazine. When that folded, I became the Executive Editor for guitar.com. 18 months later, the web site seemed in serious danger of losing its finances, so I switched to musicplayer.com, where I also worked as Executive Editor. Sadly, that was at the height of the Internet bubble explosion and I was laid off after about six months. At that point, I freelanced for a while and secured a music news column at TV Guide and the music writer freelance position at Stuff before taking a job as a writer at MTV.com. I held onto the Stuff gig while I was at MTV, but when there was a major editorial shift at Stuff, I was sent packing along with most of my editors.
Steven: Anybody who writes for Rolling Stone I have to ask: any interesting stories from that experience?
Jon: Man, too many to mention. Writing a cover story on Alice in Chains at the height of Layne Staley’s drug addiction was exciting, harrowing and ultimately sad. It was also a major lesson on bureaucracy. Before flying to Seattle to conduct the interview, I had a meeting with Rolling Stone‘s then managing editor Sid Holt and Alice in Chains’ manager Susan Silver in which we discussed the terms of the interview. The band were upset that a prior cover story in Spin featured only Staley on the cover, so they agreed to do the interview only if the full band would be featured on the cover. As I recall, Holt agreed and I flew off to conduct the interviews. During the interview, I saw track marks on various parts of Staley’s body (hands, forehead, fingers) and he all but admitted he was still using heroin. This wasn’t the crux of the story, but it was clearly part of the piece and an indicator of why Alice in Chains weren’t touring. Anyway, when the magazine came out, the cover was a shot of Layne looking like he had just fallen into a cactus and the cover line read: “To Hell and Back: The Needle and the Damage Done.” The band threatened to kick my ass and Susan Silver freaked out and refused to grant me access to any of her bands for a while after that.
I was hired as an Associate Editor at Rolling Stone by David Fricke, who was the Editor in Chief at the time. As a young writer, it was a dream come true to be there interviewing acts I loved, including Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Tool and Anthrax. But there was also plenty of stress and drama. When Fricke stepped down, Keith Moerer was hired and a turf battle developed between Moerer’s people and the old guard. Soon after, I was taken off staff and put on contract. I remained on contract for the next two years under the regimes of Moerer and Mark Kemp, however when Kemp was let go Joe Levy came onboard and he decided not to renew my contract. I wrote a few more pieces for the magazine, but the work gradually dried up. It was a hard lesson, but an important one. Magazine editors typically develop relationships with writers they like to work with. And, unfortunately, editors typically leave a publication after working there for anywhere between one to five years. Then, when someone new comes in with his/her own favorites, those writers receive the majority of play. Fewer calls get returned and fewer pieces get assigned to you until you eventually stop pitching. I have seen this scenario played out repeatedly and found the best way to deal with it is to keep my hand in many different pies, so when one becomes stale, my livelihood doesn’t go out the window.
Steven: Tell me about your favorite rock magazines and favorite rock writers you were reading when growing up?
Jon: As a young kid, I read Hit Parader and Circus. As I got older, I read Rolling Stone, but was dismayed by their disinterest in metal. That’s when I discovered magazines like Kerrang! and Metal Hammer and underground fanzines like Kick-Ass Monthly.
Steven: Do you prefer interviews to record reviews? I suspect you do.
Jon: I enjoy interviews because it provides an opportunity to get inside the heads of artists I admire. I’m not interested in meeting them as a fan, I’m far more fascinated with finding out why they make the kind of music they make, what has happened in their lives that has inspired them to create, and how their lifestyle affects their music. I’m also interested in the kind of lifestyle they lead as a result of being a musician. Record reviews are fun, too, however.
Steven: Besides Revolver, what music magazines and rock writers do you enjoy reading today?
Jon: I like to read the New York Times, Blender, and Spin. As far as writers go, I enjoy David Fricke because he is so wonderfully descriptive and can place an artist in the right musical, historical, psychological, and sociological framework without seeming the least bit pretentious. His knowledge of music history is astounding and his interpretations are always inspiring. Jon Pareles is great too because he has a solid background in music theory and composition and can eloquently and precisely describe the way something sounds so you can almost hear it without even listening to it. And I enjoy Chuck Klosterman because he’s so colorful and provides such great insight into both his own life and the lives of the artists he’s addressing,
Steven: What’s the best advice you can give to writers who want to write for rock mags today?
Jon: Be prepared to hustle, don’t expect to start at the top, and don’t expect to make a lot of money. Write about music because you love music, not because you want to hang with musicians. I have interviewed hundreds of artists and while I have gotten along well with most, there aren’t really any I would consider a friend. Also, believe in yourself and your opinions and don’t be afraid of rejection.
Steven: When I interviewed Revolver Editor in Chief Tom Beaujour for the site, he said this about you: “He loves heavy metal and he’s such a great writer. Of all of our writers, he’s loves metal the most.” What is it about metal music that moves you so much?
Jon: I grew up on metal. As a nerdy, underweight kid in the suburbs I found the music to be empowering and it provided a sense of belonging. The girl you asked out may have laughed in your face, you might have gotten a D on a geometry test, and your mom might have grounded you for staying out past curfew, but as soon as you put the phonograph needle on the Iron Maiden record, you were transported to a place where it didn’t matter what you looked like, how smart you were, who your friends were or what your dad did for a living. It was all for one, one for all. Having said that, I have always been into other forms of music beyond heavy metal. As a writer, it’s important to know what else is out there and to develop an appreciation for other forms of sonic expression. I’ve always felt that music is a celebration of emotion and there are so many different genres that can communicate every sensation in the spectrum. I have found that some of the greatest metal musicians have a vast musical vocabulary, and if you have a general knowledge of music you can hear how punk, pop, hardcore, classical, jazz, blues, industrial, and new wave influenced many of the best metal bands. Outside of the metal genre, I’m a fan of the above, as well as Britpop, drone rock, alternative, indie rock, and electronica.