By Steven Ward
RJ Smith is a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine, where he writes about the media. Smith previously wrote about music for the Village Voice and Spin. Instead of composing some kind of contrived introduction to this e-mail interview, I asked Robert Christgau, who edited Smith at the Voice, to write a short and simple appreciation. Here’s the Dean on RJ Smith:
“A member of the first generation of rock critics to come up in the alt-rock/college-radio subculture, RJ Smith is conspicuous although not unique in how quickly and thoroughly he outgrew that subculture–without ‘outgrowing’ music at the same time. I do feel sometimes that his taste for the offbeat reveals a latent alt-rock bias. But it would be nice if the current alt-rock generation produced many writers like RJ, with his hunger for reporting and historical research and his ability to connect to disparate genres deep down. Wish I could say I’m confident it will.”
Steven: You grew up in Detroit. What, if anything, did the Michigan-based Creem magazine mean to you as a teen?
RJ: Detroit, the whole place, was how I got to music. Before there was a Creem, there was just so much amazing radio in Detroit–most of all this station, CKLW, that played the best bubblegum, Detroit soul, Motown of course; their weekly charts would have Paul Anka and Dennis Coffey and the Frost, all neck and neck for the top. And because they were a Canadian station based in Windsor, Ontario, they had to play a quota of Canadian pop to satisfy government regs, which meant more variables–Guess Who, Ian Tyson, BTO. It was pretty glorious. The city was burning down in ’67, and that was one side of it, but the other was this station playing obscure local soul and Motown and Bobby Vinton, and the mix was sending out a different message. I was one of those kids with a transistor glued to his head, and AM radio in the late ’60s was culture for me.
After 1967 comes white flight and my family moves to the ‘burbs. North of Eight Mile. Sometime in junior high I started hanging with this kid named Billy Pichurski–Peachy we called him, he was the evil one. He would play the Stooges for me in his garage, and it truly frightened me. I didn’t know what it even meant to be somebody’s dog, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It made me want to go to confession. He’d play the Stooges or the Velvets or Mott the Hoople and then we’d ride our bikes across farmland that was being bulldozed into suburban tracts. One day he started getting into this magazine he showed me, Creem. Then one day Billy told me he had ridden his bike out from our suburb to nearby Birmingham, where Creem was headquartered. He already had me reading Lester Bangs, and now he was saying he had met Lester Bangs. That this guy lived on our turf. That he really existed. We rode out together once, but when we got there the office was closed. Billy pointed out Lester once at a fabulous show at the Masonic Temple–Hall & Oates, Lou Reed (in his “tying up” with the microphone cord during “Heroin” stage), and Focus.
There was a lot of contentiousness in Creem–writers who challenged the stars they interviewed, writers who contested their readers’ values and who spoke in languages I had to step up to–the writers weren’t gonna make it easy. I kept reading Creem from there, and Lester, of course. He was the first concrete inspiration, the first writer I could point to and say, I want to be like that. Never did get to meet him. Once I knew where he worked I’d ride out solo and stand outside the office, as afraid of going in as I’d been the first time I heard Iggy.
Steven: Do you remember where and when your first piece of music criticism was published?
RJ: A review of an August Darnell and Kid Creole record for my college paper, The Michigan Daily, at the University of Michigan. The college paper was where I learned whatever I ended up learning at school. There were a lot of people to learn from: the newspaper’s co-editor was Ann Marie Lipinski, now the editor of the Chicago Tribune; one of my editors was Rick Berke, now in the New York Times‘ Washington bureau. Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly‘s lead film critic, was editing the arts section–we ended up roommates. Owen subscribed to the Village Voice, and was corresponding with Pauline Kael–I started reading both.
Steven: Tell us the story of how you got into writing about music in the first place.
RJ: Well, it goes straight back to Detroit. There’s this institution there they try to play down these days, called Devil’s Night. I’m guessing it goes back to race tensions between whites and blacks who both fled the south along parallel lines to work in the car factories during the great migration and then the Depression. The night before Halloween, you go out and pull the tricks in advance of whatever treats you get tomorrow–and we’re talking nasty tricks: abandoned buildings burned down, garages with parked cars set afire, just a lot of craziness and shooting transpire. (Good kids would go out and soap windows, toilet paper trees, set small fires.) And that was part of the city: this ugly wall people beat their heads against, this crazy energy that escaped as hate or enmity at least.
There was so much hate and tension as you approached the late ’60s, and after the ’67 riots (“Motor City’s Burning” et al.) it just got surreal. I remember during those riots there was an after-dark curfew on, and my mom told me to go out at sunset and bring in my roller skates. I could hear the helicopters in the air, and thought they were going to get me.
So that’s all one side of it, but against that was the radio: “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” by the Temptations speaking in code, the example of Nancy Sinatra hanging with Wilson Pickett on the weekly countdown speaking out in the open. I couldn’t process that dissonance, and I think I am still trying. Somehow it made me realize how so much of who we are, and who we want to be, is mixed up in such incidental seeming things as charts and 45s. I mean I still think along these lines: I spent a lot of time on this upcoming book looking for secret messages in Joe Liggins’ “The Honeydripper.” I swear they are there.
Steven: Tell us what kind of influence, if any, Lester Bangs and/or Richard Meltzer had on you or your writing.
RJ: The first time I came to New York, it was Christmas break. Bangs and his band were playing at Max’s, and hell yeah, I was there–I just remember this heavy guy howling his lungs out and pulling up his pants a lot and Joey Ramone dropping by near the end–they were playing down the street–and leaning against the back wall. Appreciating. I should have just left New York after that, because it was never gonna be more New York for me.
You know, as far as Meltzer goes I never really got him! He was more pretentious than Lester and less honest, and it’s been kind of sad watching him over the years. I could be wrong but I don’t think he’s a very happy fellow today.
Steven: In a 1987 article in Vanity Fair, former Voice writer James Wolcott wrote about Bangs and Meltzer and the article was titled “The Noise Boys.” In the article, Wolcott writes, “There is a cadre of writers at the Village Voice (RJ Smith, Chuck Eddy, Greg Tate) trying awfully hard to be the noise boys of the eighties. But, face it, the thrill is gone.” What is/was your reaction to that statement? Were you trying to emulate those guys at the Voice? Did Wolcott have it wrong or were you trying to shake things up?
RJ: Well, by then Wolcott had endured a lot of warfare with Christgau and the Voice cultural police, he’d taken his lumps and written many great pieces about music and TV and other stuff and set his sights waaay beyond punk rock. So I think “the thrill is gone” said a lot more about his feelings about a scene he was ready to leave than it did about me and Chuck and Greg. I don’t think he was saying we were trying to channel Bangs–I’m not sure he’s a huge influence on Greg–so much as say we were trying to matter like Lester did. To which I plead guilty. I think by then the biggest influences on my writing were Pauline Kael, Robert Smithson, and this newspaper columnist in Detroit named Bob Talbert.
Steven: Tell us about working with Christgau.
RJ: The most helpful and complicated editor I’ve ever had. An obsessive mind: I remember when Steve Anderson was working as Bob’s assistant, alphabetizing the records, taking old vinyl to storage, filing mail. When bob got hate mail–Michael Gira had jerked off in a baggie after getting a shitty letter grade he totally deserved–Bob didn’t blink, he just told Steve to file it under S for Swans. Order had to be maintained.
Bob was somebody who systematically walked you through your piece line by line, sentence by sentence, and wouldn’t let go until it was good, however many rewrites it took. I couldn’t have had a better experience when I came to New York–if I had succeeded in hanging out with Lester, who had died months before I moved to NYC, it probably would have only confused me. Bob pulled you into his world–you learned way more about his sex life and the cats and his bad knees than you probably wanted to know, and like every great editor I’ve worked for he tried in subtle ways to sometimes pull your style in his direction, he rewarded you if you sounded like him–at least it could feel like that. But by the same token he respected you more if you fought him and resisted his gravity–in the first piece I wrote for him (Dream Syndicate) I took a shot at one of his sacred cows, Lou Reed in his domestic bliss period, and Bob picked up the copy, yelled at me and said I was full of shit. Then he helped me make the sentences better and published it that week. Wanting to write the way Lester wrote was one thing that brought me to NYC. Learning to write the way RJ writes was what Bob helped teach me, and it’s how I was able to stay in NYC and make a living. I was at the Voice from the early ’80s until 1990, and wrote for it after that from Los Angeles. Bob was such a magnet for good young writers and such a smart guy at pairing up critics with work that was going to challenge them–he wanted to see what the punk rock guy might have to say about The Art Ensemble, he let the funkateer take on Talking Heads, etc.
Steven: Who were your favorite Voice music writers back then, and do you read the Voice today? If so, which music writers are your favorites?
RJ: There were so many. Carson was a clear early favorite–I’d met him when he was on a book tour for his first novel and did a reading in Ann Arbor, and he offered to show my college clips to the Dean. Back then Carson was so game, reached so far–and over time out of the blue he would just pick up some strange new tool, speak in a new dialect and smack you with this funny voice he was toying with to keep himself interested. He threw away more gambits and strategies than some writers ever cultivate.
Greg Tate was in there; Barry Michael Cooper was chopping tall trees. Steve Anderson, Susan Shapiro, Howard Hampton a little later, a lot of great individual sounds.
But as influential as reading the Voice was hanging out at the Voice. Every week there was some new line being drawn, one week it was the old city hall lefties versus the fresh radical feminists, the next week it was the folks who thought the performance artist who stuffed yams up her ass was the bomb scuffling with those who had their knickers bunched. There were rats scrambling around and the pipes burst in the winter and for a while you could come in on a weekend, pull out a business card and at certain desks gather a line of coke just from the scattered leftovers. You might get some pencil shavings in there, but…There were more amazing conversations in the hallways and more fights than I’ve ever seen since and I miss them dearly. Damn that place needed a human resources person–the one person who might have unified the whole staff!
I was there the night Stanley Crouch and Public Enemy’s attaché Harry Allen had their “fight.” Stanley shoved Harry into the Xerox machine and Harry ran out shouting “RJ, quick–call the police! Stanley hit me!” The Media Assassin bringing in the Man to the Voice; he had them take him to the hospital, too. I even miss stuff like that. (Stanley offered to hit me once or twice, too). There was more good editing going on in that building for a spell–you had Kit Rachlis, my boss now at Los Angeles mag, and Doug Simmons, who showed as much creativity and more improvisatory flair than the Dean–when Pete Hamill was offended by Greg Tate’s cultural nationalism and sent in a parody written in the voice of a Bensonhurst meathead celebrating goombah crooners, Doug just knew it was good and smart and funny and he ran it as the lead review, a picture of Tony Bennett beneath it. A load of good editing. I mean, the guy who edited the letters to the editor section worked harder with Voice writers on their “fuck you too” responses than most of the feature editors I’ve had since in other publications.
I’m worried about the Voice these days. Being taken over by the New Times chain has to feel like quite a blow. The Sunbelt New Timesers have a lot of contempt for the Voice and probably for New York itself; they think they know better. They demand loyalty–that’s not in the genetic code of the Voice I’ve enjoyed reading.
Steven: When did you decide to concentrate on other kinds of journalism and why?
RJ: I’d always been interested in how cultural artifacts tell us stuff about the cultures that made them. And in the late ’70s and early ’80s to be in New York during post-punk and hip-hop and the indie thing, it was no brain stretch to find all kinds of meaning among the music. I wish it were so easy in a lot of the music most written about today. Today critics aren’t supposed to explore “what’s being said?” as much, and there’s a lot of pushing to find stars and prop them up.
A certain form of critical writing and a voice was coming easy to me, and doing the same thing over and over again is usually death for a writer. I wanted to work harder than I was and push myself and so moving to Los Angeles and taking on other subjects seemed like a good move. I should say that somewhere along the way I became more interested in telling stories. Good criticism can tell a story, but other sorts of writing seemed more availing, and I started exploring them.
Steven: When did you start writing for Los Angeles magazine and what is it about writing about the media that moves you today like music writing once moved you?
RJ: After a number of years at the Voice, and at Spin after that, writing for audiences that you tend to feel already know the lay of the land you’re writing about, and for whom you maybe don’t have to flag every reference, after that I wanted to see if there was a way to keep some thread of what I had been doing while trying to reach an audience that had to be persuaded of whatever it was I was arguing. Opening up my writing, to a more general audience, just sort of flowed out of that.
Around the time I started thinking about opening up my writing, I got the opportunity to write and edit at LA Weekly. I thought I’d come to L.A. for a couple of years and be out, but this is such an amazing, information place, I haven’t wanted to leave. There’s still stuff I discover when I turn a corner a mile away from my house. I don’t miss the grid of the NYC map or mind.
The editor of LA Weekly, Kit Rachlis, moved on eventually to Los Angeles magazine. He’s a great editor, and his excitement about the city is palpable. The media is just something that I’ve always been obsessed with–and press criticism, too. Alexander Cockburn did it incredibly well at the Voice; Dave Carr wrote a great column for DC’s City Pages. In Los Angeles half of what the media means comes down to the Los Angeles Times, it’s a real monolith out here, and I have only started to wrap my brain around its content and influence. L.A. has seen little solid press criticism in the time I’ve been out here, since 1990. So it seemed like fertile ground for saying something.
Steven: You still write about music a little. You do the occasional review for Blender. Do you think Blender is the best of the music magazine out there today? Do you read the other ones?
RJ: I think in general music mags are suffering these days. I try to keep up, but I can’t say I’m as regularly stoked as I was even a few years ago. Commercial pressures are bigger than ever. Look at Spin, where Jon Dolan, Will Hermes, Charles Aaron and the rest form a bench as talented and stylish as any mag has had in years. You just wouldn’t know it from what comes out of the commercial process of putting a magazine together and trying to find an audience who’ll pay for it. But damn, if you let those guys do their own magazine, it would be brilliant. I like working for Blender: they have a sense of humor. Craig Marks is a really good editor. And they actually let you write negative reviews, which the rest of the field all but forbids these days. That’s one thing I wish Christgau still had in his consumers guide–the downside was half of it.
Steven: You have been working on a book about African American Los Angeles in the 1940s. I believe it comes out this summer–The Great Black Way. Was it the culture and cultural influence on us today from that time and place that attracted you to the project?
RJ: What attracted me in the first place to write The Great Black Way (it comes out this June, Public Affairs Books is the publisher) was that I wanted to read a book about the musical history of African American L.A., which seems to have had a certain peak in the 1940s and early 1950s. At the time I started on it, in the late ’90s, there really wasn’t a solid book out there. Then, when I got going, I realized how limiting it would be to just focus on the music that came out of Central Avenue, black L.A.’s Main Street: Central Avenue had Mingus and Ornette and T-Bone Walker and young Ray Charles and on and on, but it also had a lot more–there was Chester Himes writing these amazing novels and short stories about L.A., and the great black vaudevillian Pigmeat Markham was here, not to mention an incredible, all but unremembered early chapter in the civil rights movement. L.A. was so segregated then that all these little worlds, music, art, organizing workers in the defense factories, were interconnected, and disconnected from the white part of town. So I learned how just writing about the music without looking at who was in the audience was missing the story–because there was so much interconnectedness here. I think enlarging the focus makes it a more interesting book, too.
Non-Angelenos circulate a cliché that we don’t have a history. Actually, there are stories all over the place, and the history is fresher in a city younger than, say, New York. What we haven’t always had are good storytellers. The world of Central Avenue in the 1940s had a huge influence on so much going on today: it informed the civil rights movement, influenced hip-hop, modern black comedy, it created a modern sensibility I call black noir. You just wouldn’t know it because people haven’t looked much at the subject. This all interested me.
Steven: If you wrote another book, would it be about music?
RJ: I had a great time writing The Great Black Way. Too great a time: working on and off for like nine years, there were times I was afraid it was gonna be my only book! For me there’s a lot to be said for getting paid to hang out in libraries and interview people who want to tell their stories–that’s so different from interviewing a brat for Blender who sometimes acts sooo bored with a question they’ve heard before.
I will never stop writing about music, I never stop listening. But I can’t swear music will always show up in stuff I work on. I do like the idea of continuing to write about Los Angeles, because it’s such a complicated, different sort of place than other cities I’ve called home.
Steven: What music do you listen to at home for pleasure?
RJ: I have gone bonkers for Konono No. 1, this Congolese sidewalk band that uses archaic technology and volume to create a sound that’s almost arty and yet of the streets at the same time. I like this amazing European box set called The Big Horn, which puts together tons of 1940s and 1950s honking sax instrumentals. This started as research for the book, but it’s just really good–and come to think of it strangely arty and streety, too. This week I still like the Arctic Monkeys. Confirm with me later, though, ’cause I might change my mind.
Steven: Do you think blogs and webzines are the next logical step for music journalism or do you think maybe everybody isn’t cut out to criticize music for the public domain?
RJ: I absolutely think blogs and webzines are great places for getting good work out. More writers doesn’t mean better writing, but it might mean more practice, and feedback from readers–which you get by the ton online–is crucial. Obviously what blogs aren’t is a great place to get paid, but hell–getting paid doesn’t lead to better work necessarily, either. I think for anyone making a living working on two or three pieces or reviews at a time, it’s important to keep chipping away at a project that has no commercial potential–an essay or riff or novel you do because you have to. That’s where the truth goes. Then you get it published.
Steven: You are on a desert island. You can only subscribe to one publication–what would it be? (And you can’t pick Desert Island Rescue World or Help Me Get Off This Island Weekly.)
RJ: Guess I’d have to say Mojo, because they come with a CD each month so it’d give me something to listen to and read. Oh shit: is there a CD player on the island?