“what even is a review?”

A formidable question, posed by Mark Sinker at Freaky Trigger, and a fetching/daunting examination of its many contours and contradictions. The surgery begins with a complaint (from a friend of Mark’s) about Nick Tosches’ review of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid in Rolling Stone, I think because Tosches seems to not address the record itself. Which leads to a trail of thought that includes Flaubert, the Grotesque (not the Fall album), Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and the dread NoiseBoysism. Sinker on the latter:

Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches: when James Wolcott dubbed them the Noiseboys, he did everyone (as so often) a disservice, including them, by collapsing them into just one wild-style jerk-store project and mislabelling it to match. They were friends in mischief, to be sure, but they were none of them particularly like one another in style or even tactic. What they did in fact share was a perverse attitude towards deep cultural knowledge, a feel for how to write and how to play and what was out there besides just rock. Elsewhere rockwrite was already sleepwalking uneasily — so they felt — towards a narrow pedantry, autodidact learning as a mode of borrowed bad authority. One escape route: knowledge as all-purpose bust-it-wide toolkit, as weaponry on behalf of the militant mutant grotesque that was rockthink’s earliest best contribution.

“Wenners and Losers”

Jessica Hopper reviews Joe Hagan’s Jann Wenner bio in Bookforum:

Sticky Fingers opens with the sort of scene that becomes its defining feature: Jann Wenner sells someone out, transacting on a relationship for whatever gain could be exacted. We meet Wenner as he is poisoning his friendship with no less than John Lennon, betraying Lennon’s trust for a $40,000 book advance. This is grimglorious rock gossip, but who really wants to read about the exploits of a vain, power-mad scoundrel running/ruining a great thing while we are living that very sitch in 2017’s Technicolor real time?”

Just Another Rolling Stone Top 500 List?

Well, sort of.

Rolling Stone’s 500 Worst Reviews of All Time, a “work in progress” by someone named “schmidtt,” showed up recently on my Facebook feed, and though I instantly assumed it was something I wanted nothing to do with — and it is still something I will not likely ever find time to read in its entirety — it’s not an entirely unenjoyable ride. I don’t always understand what the guy’s beefs are (beyond “I disagree with this particular assessment of this particular album/artist”) but his bullshit radar for silly turns of phrase is pretty good, and I did laugh at some of the bits he quotes (and there’s some value in just having all these disparate RS reviews hanging together in one venue; I just clicked around randomly). Truth is, I should probably be grateful right now that I was never hired to write record reviews for Rolling Stone — their loss, my gain, I suppose. (I do wish I could search the database by writer. And I did spot at least one gaffe: Arion Berger is a she, not a he. Anyway.)

From the Archives: Steven Rosen (2003)

Steven Rosen gets his byline on

By Steven Ward (September 2003)

Veteran rock writer Steven Rosen has been traveling with musicians and profiling them–mostly guitarists–since the early ’70s. He has written for just about every rock publication under the sun. Here, Rosen reflects on five magazines that stand out to him.

Rolling Stone
Maybe the crowning jewel in my literary kingdom. I pitched them a story on Bad Company. This was maybe the first time the magazine printed a story before the album was even released. I received an advance copy of the first album and knew it was going to be a monster. I was right. This was probably a 2,000 word story and I never pored over every comma and colon as much as I did on this one. I was proud of this–it took two years of phone calls ingratiating myself to the editorial staff–pitching them on ideas that constantly got turned down. I believe I dealt with Abe Peck. He was great–guided me through the process, helped me via telephone on re-writes. A story in Rolling Stone–I was cool!

From a distance, I dealt with Lester. I have one of his rejection letters written on a little piece of Creem stationery. I did several stories for them–Deep Purple and some others I can’t remember. Creem required an antithetical voice to the one I used with Rolling Stone. They wanted you to riff, improvise, toss out lines and insights like automatic gunfire. Rolling Stone required methodical, and perfect word use. I can’t remember the other people I worked with there–maybe Jaan. I loved the Creem beer can/car page.

Guitar Player
My first major pieces. In fact, the first story I ever wrote for them became my first cover. A company called Gibson & Stromberg were ‘rock’ PR company at the time. They handled everyone from The Stones to Dr. Hook. They took a liking to me and opened up their roster. Lydia Woltag, one of the great women working at the office (that building just about on the corner where La Cienega rises up to meet Sunset Boulevard), liked me. She even found me a place to rent in Laurel Canyon–$75 a month. She asked me if I wanted to interview Jeff Beck. She should have asked me if I needed oxygen to breathe. Beck was God, he was king. I was a guitar player who’d played his licks–messily–for years. She set it up and I spent two days with him at the–then–Continental Hyatt House–talking and hanging. An hour into the interview, I happened to check my batteries and oh Jesus God, they were dead. I turn to him, my head hung in shame, my career over before it even began. “Jeff,” I muttered, sheepish, cowering, embarrassed, “My batteries …” Before I could finish he said, “Come back tomorrow, we’ll do it again.” I came back the next day and he was perfect. Everything I wanted him to be. I brought a guitar I had because I thought he’d dig playing it. He loved it and said he wasn’t going to give it back to me. I probably would have given it to him. And that interview became the first of 16 covers I’d do for Guitar Player.I dealt with editor Jim Crockett and after he left, Don Menn. They were my mentors, helping me to hone my interviewing skills–how to extract the most out of a guitarist. Guitar Player was the bible for guitarists and I became associated with them. Over the course of six years, out of 72 possible covers I wrote 16 of them. I owned that magazine. Many great experiences there–Frank Zappa, Ron Wood, Jimmy Page (I toured with the band in 1977 for 9 days), Ritchie Blackmore. This is probably my favorite time of writing. The money would have made a McDonald’s employee laugh–they paid me $150 for the Page cover and said this was the most they’d ever paid a writer. I didn’t care. I remember seeing Guitar Player in the library once–I read an article on Dickie Betts and I remember saying to myself, “I can do this.” I loved that period–1973 through 1979.

Guitar World
Began writing for them around 1984 and became known as the Edward Van Halen connection. Edward had become a friend and I always had access to him before anyone else. I did three covers on him and the second cover, July 1985–still stands as the definitive story on him. Noe Goldwasser was the overseer and a very insightful editor. I did seven covers for GW between 1984 and 1987. My writing was improving and the stories seemed to resonate with readers. But Noe got weird–he wanted other writers to cover Edward and this pissed me off. I wasn’t told about it. And the stories were simply rehashes of the pieces I’d earlier written. A great magazine nonetheless and a very fun time.

I tried for a long time to get a piece in Circus. I read their stories which were filled with metaphor and hyperbole and colorful description. I eventually did several stories for them–Jethro Tull, Robin Trower (for their sister mag, Circus Raves), and some others. Joe Walsh. Circus and Creem were pretty much the same periodical–they covered the same types of artists and the writing style required for both was the same. A very delightful ride.

Flipping Channels with Bob

“One of the best music videos of 2013 belongs to a 48-year-old song. The interactive video for Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ released yesterday, is a tour de force: as the music plays, you can flip between sixteen channels of simulated TV programming. But whether you’re watching a financial news update, a romantic comedy, or a tennis tournament, it looks authentic except that everyone seems to be lip-synching the lyrics of the song. While many of the channels are peopled by actors, the lineup is peppered with numerous celebrity performers such as comedian Marc Maron, rapper Danny Brown, the hosts of ‘Pawn Stars,’ and Drew Carey (on the set of ‘The Price Is Right’). The overall effect is head-spinning but incredibly compelling: the more you surf through the ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ video, the more the song’s contempt seems to be addressed to all of western civilization. By the time you land on a vintage live performance of the actual Bob Dylan, he feels like the only real person in existence.”
– Gavin Edwards, Rolling Stone

Here’s a link — http://video.bobdylan.com/desktop.html — whadd’ya think?


There is little

Critical language has for the most part been borrowed from other fields — few writers have been able to shake their liberal arts educations. The few new terms (tight, together, heavy) are vague and undiscriminating. A rock erudition has been established, and writers talk casually of ‘influences’ and ‘development,’ but it is all very distant. There are more reviewers, whose main function is commercial, than critics whose concerns are truly aesthetic. There is little rock criticism; change the names and it could be jazz or movies or art. And the bitch is that without other precedents, this bad writing is setting the precedents, and one more clean slate in the planet’s history is getting fucked up beyond all recognition.
Michael Lydon, review of Paul Williams’s Outlaw Blues in Rolling Stone, April 19, 1969

Gee, if this doesn’t make you feel misty-eyed for the “golden age” of rock criticism, I don’t know what will.

Critical Collage: Rush vs. the Critics

A by no means comprehensive or conclusive survey of a Canadian power trio who once upon a time (much less so now) got under the skins of more rock critics than any other rock or pop artist going.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Creem, June 1981

“For the record, those three are drummer Neil Peart, who writes all the band’s lyrics and takes fewer solos than might be expected; guitarist Alex Lifeson, whose mile-a-minute buzzing is more numbing than exciting; and bassist, keyboardist and singer Geddy Lee, whose amazingly high-pitched wailing often sounds like Mr. Bill singing heavy metal. If only Mr. Sluggo had been on hand to give these guys a couple good whacks…”
Steve Pond, review of Rush live in Los Angeles, Rolling Stone, 1980

Geddy Lee’s high-register vocal style has always been a signature of the band – and sometimes a focal point for criticism, especially during the early years of Rush’s career when Lee’s vocals were high-pitched, with a strong likeness to other singers like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. A review in the New York Times opined that Lee’s voice ‘suggests a munchkin giving a sermon.’ Although his voice has softened over the years, it is often described as a ‘wail.’ His instrumental abilities, on the other hand, are rarely criticized.
Wikipedia entry on Rush

Mark Coleman and Ernesto Lechner, The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, 2004

Continue reading “Critical Collage: Rush vs. the Critics”

Someone With a True Grasp of the Reality

Many thanks for Ralph Gleason’s review of Albert Goldman’s Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce… I didn’t know Lenny Bruce… but I am acquainted with Albert Goldman and his ambition to stake out a monopoly position for himself in a culture of which he is no more a part than I am; and I have been hoping that someone with a true grasp of the reality would judge the book for what it was worth, which Ralph indeed did.

Joseph Heller, letter to Rolling Stone, August 1974

Would-be English Kings

These would-be English Kings of Heavy Metal are eternally foiled by their stupidity and intractability. In the early Seventies their murky drone was all the more appealing for its cynicism — the philosophy that everything is shit, and a flirtation with pre-Exorcist demonic possession. Time has passed them by: their recent stuff is a quaint bore.

Ken Tucker on Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1979

Bubblegum Satanism

What Black Sabbath fan hasn’t plotted revenge on that scumbag Nick Tosches, whose infamous Rolling Stone review of Paranoid railed about Black Sabbath’s ‘bubblegum Satanism,’ and then went on to attack lead singer (in reality of Black Widow) Kip Treavor???

Wayne Davis, “Further Thoughts on Those Marvelous Loud Heavies,” photocopied pages from unknown fanzine, 1972

[Tosches’ review]


“‘Who’s Crying Now,’ the hit single off Journey’s hit LP, isn’t super hip, super deep or even real, real hooky. But it does sound good. What I’m talking about is the way the song’s soft, soapy bass redeems its soft, dopey sentiment by diving beneath tiny fillips of acoustic guitar and bubbling up around a dream-sized dollop of fat harmonies. Every shimmery cymbal tick pays tribute to the state of modern engineering. Same goes for the sting in Neal Schon’s electric-guitar solo, which is what finally drives the tune up, out and home.

“Would that one could say the same for the rest of the record…”
Deborah Frost reviews Journey’s Escape, Rolling Stone, 1981