Robert Christgau: Got it right.
Brett: …who has been writing about popular music professionally for closing in on 50 years. Is that accurate?
Robert: No, I would say 45. It’s 45. Well, yeah, I guess that’s right. Forty-six, that is right.
Brett: Well, I’m going to say closing in 50, then. I think that’s accurate.
Robert: All right.
An edited transcript of this interview was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Nieman Reports.
Video from this interview is also available. Brett: You helped invent the craft that you practiced, most influentially in your years as a writer and editor at The Village Voice, where you established the Consumer Guide, which continues today on msn.com, and the Rock&Roll& essays, which continue in their way at the Barnes and Noble review. I’m Brett Anderson. I’m a Nieman Fellow at Harvard this year. The reason you only can see my back is I’m normally the restaurant critic at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. So what it is I look like is none of your business. Bob, could you talk a little bit about how you started in this business? There’s an assumption, perhaps not entirely unfair among outsiders, that people get into rock criticism… or writing about rock music in general because they want to hang out with rock stars.
Robert: That is the last thing that has ever interested me. And once I was sufficiently powerful/autonomous, because I wasn’t ever really powerful, to stop doing profiles and interview pieces, I stopped doing them. And it’s not… I mean, I think I’ve written some good ones. And it was partly just that whole hanging out lifestyle has never really appealed to me. I prefer being at home with my wife or as [critic] Dave Hickey said, standing up in the back and telling everybody what I saw. I prefer to work as a fan. Now, of course, I’m not a fan. I have all kinds of access, all kinds of expertise, and I spend 15 hours of my day listening to music, which very few fans who are employed can possibly do, or want to do. It’s too much, actually, but I can do it.
However, it’s my aim as a critic, and I think it should be… it’s my aim as a critic, and while it isn’t one I would dictate to anyone, because I don’t believe any particular posture is the correct posture to do any job, I think it’s a good guideline. As I said, the aim of my job is to have fun, and if I stop having fun, I’m not doing my job.
Despite all the foolish and ignorant people, who grow in number every year, as I grow older and they do too, who believe I’m phoning it in, well, I’m not. Insofar as I have time to listen for pleasure, I spend a large percentage of that time listening to the music of the last five years, not all of it, nor should I.
My test, for when I write about a record, is when I get that feeling in my belly that says, “Ooh, this is really good. Ooh, I really like that one,” and if it doesn’t happen, then in my view, the record is not good enough to write about. There are exceptions to this generalization, as there are exceptions to every generalization, but they’re rare.
Brett: What is the… talk a little bit more about the itch you were trying to scratch when you started writing about rock music. There are a lot of fans out there who love it and don’t get into this kind of work. You had a journalistic instinct as well.
Robert: Look, I got out of college in 1962. I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be a great novelist. I wasn’t even a good short story writer. In fact, I was a terrible short story writer, and I have recently reread those stories. They’re bad. I wrote one good poem once, when I was in college. One. So after two, three years, I still wanted to be a writer. And I had a lot of experiences between ’62 and ’64 that persuaded me that there are other ways to write well. To outline them briefly, there was the “Catch-22” epiphany, when I realized that this novel that was selling a million copies was as good as… in fact, better than William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions,” which I never finished.
And I’m proud I never finished, and I’m sure I was right never to finish. Then there was the Tom Wesselmann epiphany, when I walked into an art gallery on West 57th street in November of ’62, showing Wesselmann, a pop artist who’s not as well known as the big four, but is really my favorite next to Warhol.
Great American Nude series, heard Connie Francis’s “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N” playing in the gallery, tried to figure out how this was happening, since I was the only person there. And I went in to look into the office, and she didn’t have the radio on. And then I discovered that the radio was in the painting. It was tuned to WABC, and while on the wall was a great masterpiece, I no longer remember which. And out the window was what looked like a garden scene from the Better Home magazines collaged in.
And on the couch was this pink woman with, well-defined nipples. And very pink. She was very pink. [laughter] And I realized that all this stuff went together. I was listening to rock ’n’ roll again for the first time after I got out of college. I went to college in Hanover, New Hampshire. As far as I was… and I listened to jazz.
Apparently there was some rock ’n’ roll on the college station because the guy who wrote “Animal House” has written a book about Dartmouth at that time. That’s where “Animal House” is based, on the AD House at Dartmouth. And he swears that they had Ray Charles festivals and stuff but maybe I was just too much of a snob or unlucky to get there.
Anyway, I just listened to jazz in college, some folk music, not much. Leadbelly, that kind of stuff. No Joan Baez, please.
But as soon as I got back, as soon as I got back, I was listening to WABC again. I listened to WABC too. And it wasn’t the greatest time in rock ’n’ roll but supposedly that day the music died stuff, that was always a lot of hooey. And there was Phil Spector, early Motown, in a few months although not yet, surf music, as well as the odd hit of novelty and other sorts that always is on the radio.
I’m not so sure about today actually when the playlist is down to 15 instead of the 40 it was then. I don’t think that’s healthy at all.
So I understood that. So I love rock ’n’ roll again even though I was a jazz fan and wanted to be a great novelist. And having all that stuff come together in the Green Gallery really changed my head. And then in 1964, maybe it was ’63, I was interested in sports and I was interested in sports writing. A good friend of mine who was my boss in that job, a painter named Bob Stanley who’s up here although he’s probably not in the shot, he was a sports fan too. He was actually interested in sports writing and we talked about sports writing.
I purchased A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science” and I read an essay there called “Ahab and Nemesis” which is about the 1955 Archie Moore
-Rocky Marciano fight at Yankee Stadium. It is, in my opinion, one of the great essays of the 20th century and I hold to that opinion to this day. I certainly thought so at the time but I’ve read a lot more essays since.
I said to myself, if I can ever write anything as good as this I will have done what I want to do as a writer, and I decided to become a sportswriter.
Brett: And did you do some sports writing?
Robert: Yeah, but not really. I got a job after a while as a beat reporter with the suburban news service of The Newark Star-Ledger, the Dorf Feature Service. And in principle we covered high school sports, but what this really meant was that we called up our contacts on each of the 40 or 60 local basketball teams, found out who won, and who scored the winning baskets and wrote a paragraph about it. That wasn’t really sports writing. And every once in a while we’d do a feature on one of the players. We’d do a phoner. I’ll never forget once we were short a phoner and the guy who really ran the place was the sub editor, his name was Lloyd Glicken, just a show-off. He got on the phone with some forward somewhere and sat at the wire that sent our copy over to The Newark Star-Ledger and typed up his feature as he did the interview.
Brett: Wow. That’s impressive.
Robert: We used to say to Lloyd, “Lloyd, how do you finish an essay?” And he’d say 30.
Brett: Dash 30 dash.
Robert: Hyphen 30 hyphen, which is the way you indicate in newspaper work that you’re done with your piece. He typed his 30. Hit send. That was that. No he didn’t hit send. There was no send then actually. They were already seeing it over there.
Brett: The dash-30-dash conceit was how people announced on social media that they got fired at The Times-Picayune this last summer, on the day that people got…
Robert: So anyway, and then I began to get various kinds of… I mean, as I was working at Dorf I was writing. A friend of mine was an editor at Popular Photography. I did some work about the underground film movement there. We co-ran a film space. I was still listening to rock ’n’ roll. I had this notion of a Chuck Berry feature, the idea of Chuck Berry as a folk artist, a little stupid but not a bad way to start a good idea, in a way. I was so anti-folk.
Brett: Who did you write it for?
Robert: I didn’t, but I’ll get there. And on the wire I’d been making the police checks one day. A girl had died on a macrobiotic diet in Clifton, New Jersey. And I actually knew what a macrobiotic diet was because Tom Wolfe had written a feature about macrobiotics and I was a big Tom Wolfe fan. I’d worked briefly at the Trib as a copy boy literally for about six weeks. But got to know the turf at that time. And really got into him then. He was writing for New York magazine, which was then a supplement, there all the time. And so I, you know, when called up. I did the horrible thing you have to do and call the parent of the person who just died. Which is really awful when it’s an automobile accident.
This guy, but this guy was ready to talk and I knew what it was. And he began spilling all this research he’d done. He was a lawyer about people who died on this diet. And I walked over to the Herald Tribune the next day, asked Clay Felker to give me an assignment. Tom Wolfe walked in, told me what to do.
Brett: Was he dressed like Tom Wolfe?
Robert: Yeah. He always dressed like Tom Wolfe. [laughter] And in three weeks I, it turned out that they knew a lot of the art people I knew from my boss’s job. I followed up all the leads that her father had given me and I wrote the 3,000-word piece that won a lot of awards. And, and then I was assigned the Chuck Berry piece, which I am sorry to say I never finished. As I never finished the Aretha Franklin piece I was later assigned by The Saturday Evening Post. These are both notoriously elusive people and I was simply not good enough, not dogged enough, not arrogant enough and not really that interested in hanging out with famous people enough [laughter] to pursue it the way I should have. I blew both those stories. I’m not proud of it, but it’s a fact of who I am.
But Esquire called me up and Commentary called me up. Commentary. [laughter] And they both gave me reporting assignments and, but and I was sort of hanging out at…
Brett: Non-music assignments?
Robert: I was hanging out. At Esquire, David Newman was writing their music column. He had just written “Bonnie and Clyde,” was a little too busy to write a $300 a month, every four, three months column for Esquire. So I said can I have that? And they, they gave me the gig to be a critic.
Brett: Can you talk a little bit about in those early days, what did your editors expect of you considering that there was relatively little precedent for music criticism at this time?
Robert: It was, well, I lasted eight columns. Eight four time a year columns at Esquire, because the editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes, was a jazzbo who had been told that rock was dying. Which was actually a big rumor in 1968. [laughter] It really is hard to convince people that this is true, but you can actually find it in… Richard Meltzer was one of the people who… You don’t even know, people don’t even know who Richard Meltzer is, but he was one of the great early rock critics.
Brett: I mean, I do…
Robert: Brilliant writer, but a bit of a jerk. And I mean I was, by this time it should also be said I was living with a woman named Ellen Willis who I’d gone to junior high school with. Who later became the rock critic at The New Yorker. I had all these theories of pop going around from the Tom Wesselmann thing and talking to my friend Bob Stanley. About pop culture and its equality and mass culture and how the high culture was a bad, was a snobbish idea. All these ideas. All the ideas that have been in my criticism ever since. That changed, evolved, yes, but really basically the same set of prejudices and insights. And Ellen, who is about the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life, when I, she didn’t know what I was talking about when I first brought it up. About 15 minutes later she was up to speed and spinning off her own theories.
And she liked Andy Warhol a lot too, even though she was a much more left-wing person than I was. She came from a real left-wing family, although her father was a cop. My father was a fireman. And so Ellen and I, we’re all ready talking all this stuff up. We had sought out Richard Goldstein, who was already writing the pop eye column at The Village Voice. And who I regarded as the first rock critic. We just called him up. Said we want to talk to you. We, we’re on to something and we became friends.
Ellen was a really impressive person. Richard is now, in my opinion, Ellen’s most vociferous descendant as a thinker. He is her, he is her real true acolyte and disciple, not me.
Brett: What is the, when you went to the Voice, did you have an agenda about what you wanted to do as a writer and…
Robert: Well I, so there I was at Esquire. I know rock ’n’ roll …rock ’n’ roll. As happens to a lot of people who do this gig. He just saw an opening and grabbed it, right? For me, it turned out… And actually that’s what
happened with Ellen too. When Ellen was at The New Yorker, she kept writing about her ’60s heroes. She didn’t really try to keep up. [She, I mean, she wrote very important criticism that is now thankfully being rediscovered. But not that it needed to be rediscovered by people who really knew what the history of the field was anyway. I mean, it’s not quite as, not quite as big a boom as people made it out to be. [laughter] So, but she got bored too. I didn’t get bored. I don’t bore easy. It’s one of my real, it’s one of my real gifts as a critic.
Brett: Not having become bored by your subject?
Robert: I don’t get bored. I find the world very interesting. I think it’s, I mean there’s another kind of journalist who doesn’t and then goes seeks out the interesting and they find really odd… That’s not what I do. I’m an enthusiastic person and damn it, the music has certainly kept me interested. And anyone who believes it’s still not doing that isn’t listening.
Brett: Are you open to the idea that music won’t continue to do this for you? I mean, are you…
Robert: I don’t, at this point I don’t think it’s very likely at all.
Brett: Yeah. [laughs]
Robert: I mean, I think it’s quite possible I won’t have any place to write about it. Because we’ll get to that later I expect. But and if I’m not paid to write about it I won’t, I’m not going to do it. I don’t write for free. That’s my, that’s one of the reasons I became a journalist. Right, I didn’t say that. Yes, I could…Yeah, you could write, you could write an essay as good as “Ahab and Nemesis,” and get paid for it that week. That, I didn’t… I knew this and I knew this because I did not, I grew up not poor but not wealthy. My father was a fireman, worked 80 hours a week at three different jobs. And we did fine, but we were not wealthy. Far from it. And I was self-supporting from the moment I left college when I was barely 20 years old. Except for the five bucks my grandfather would give me when we went out to dinner. And boy it made a difference.
Robert: Thank you, grandpa. So anyway, I could feel that Harold Hayes was getting tired of my, of my hippie guff. My hair was longer then. Not a good look, but I kept it for a long time. And I knew Goldstein was getting sick of the job, so I walked into the Voice, said I know Goldstein’s getting sick of the job. Here’s what I do, can I write for you? Dan Wolf said yes. Now, Dan Wolf is revered. He’s the founder, founding editor of The Village Voice. And I don’t revere him. He became Ed Koch’s eminence grise. Not in my opinion a good thing to have done with 12 years of your life. But, but I got to hand it to him. He said, Ellen and I used to write letters to the Voice, though she always got published. They were pretty sharp. [laughter]
And he said I’m going to lose one of my good letter writers, he said. But he gave me the job anyway. And yeah, I mean initially and I wasn’t getting paid. Right? It was 40 bucks I got paid. Forty bucks for a long time.
Brett: So it wasn’t a full salary gig when you started?
Robert: Are you kidding? [laughter] This is alternative journalism. You’ve been there.
Robert: Did you have a full salary gig?
Brett: I did for a while.
Robert: Yeah, right. It took a while though, right?
Brett: Yeah. It took a while.
Robert: And the salary was shit besides.
Brett: It seemed good after years of not having one. [laughter]
Robert: And so it was $40 and I said well, and by that time I was making 500 at Esquire. Right? 300 for the first time, 400 the next seven or six, and then 500 for the last one. I still remember, you notice.
Brett: I do. [laughter]
Robert: So Wolf was offering me 40. I said I’m not going to spend a week writing this. And I would spend, I mean on my little 2,000-word Esquire column, that was the better part of a week’s work. I don’t write fast. I rewrite a lot. I said I’m just going to churn these out. Fuck it. But I had to come up with a column topic and a real essay and it took me a while, as far as I’m concerned, to find my bearings. I mean the pieces I wrote early on were good pieces, but they weren’t as good at what they were as the little condensed Esquire columns were at what they were. Which were kind of epigrammatic and jewel like in various kinds of way, at least by the standards of the time. I don’t think all of them read that good anymore. But they were very dense and witty.
The Voice stuff was not. And then, say two, three months in, Willis has her job at The New Yorker. And so we’re getting, vinyl is pouring into our apartment on East 8th Street. I’ve kept my apartment on East 9th Street. We started living together in November of ’68. And I want to play the records all the time and Ellen doesn’t actually want to have the music on all the time. So I started to work over at my own apartment and just play records. I mean, essentially it was a big storeroom with a kitchen table and a typewriter.
Brett: And you just sat there and played records? Did you take notes?
Robert: No. Not usually. And I was hearing all these records that nobody else was writing about and I came up with the idea of doing this consumer guide column. And initially it was very off the cuff and not very good.
Brett: What was the idea? Explain a little bit the concept…
Robert: The idea was that there is more product, let’s call it, than there is space and time to write about it. That’s A. B, this is high hippie era as far as, you know, it doesn’t seem that way in…’69, that’s high hippie. And high political hippie. We were on the political side of the hippie movement. Which is mostly spiritual, which Ellen was more into than I was, but she was also more into the politics. I was less a hippie than she was. And the hippie movement was anti-consumption. And Willis and I were not. One of Willis’s greatest essays from that period is a defense of consumerism that she wrote overnight. One of the few things in her life she ever wrote overnight.
Brett: She was slow too?
Robert: Yeah, very slow. But she wrote this overnight. I remember her sitting there the whole night working in, she worked longhand, and then typing it up. Called consumerism and women. It’s still, you can find it online. It’s a great essay. Basically saying no, consumption is good. It’s fun. It’s obviously not the answer, but it’s not a negative. So I decided I would call this column where I did these capsule reviews of records the Consumer Guide. And that I would do another thing that hippies weren’t supposed to do and offer letter grades at a time when pass/fail was at its peak. [laughter]
Robert: And these, both these things were quite specifically intended to get in the face of my supposed confreres in the counterculture. Which I’d always come at from a pop art as opposed to a San Francisco hippie point of view. Which was harder edg
ed, more entertainment oriented, less interested in art and the idea of art. All those mass culture ideas that Willis and I developed in the late ’60s. Which is not the way it was done elsewhere in the country. It was very, very polemical as far as I was concerned. And so it was just a way to be contrarian. But it was also to acknowledge the breadth of what was there, and that has always been my interest.
I am not, yes, the idea of any record I give an “A” or above to, is that should I need to, there’s enough there that I can sit there and write 1,500 words detailing it. Yes, that content is there. That content is not necessarily on the surface or the reason that we listen to the record. It underlies the record. [laughs]
And the first thing I care about is the brute sensual pleasure of hearing the music. Which usually involves enjoyable, obviously enjoyable surface enjoyable melodies. This has become an extremely disreputable notion in this century. I would say that most serious critics now believe that what is called an earworm is a bad thing. I like earworms. I woke up this morning…
Brett: And an earworm being melody?
Robert: Hearing a song from the Alt-J record that I reviewed three days ago, and wondered whether it was really worth it. I had some real questions about it. When I was humming a song from the Alt-J record this morning three days after I last listened to it, I said oh yeah, I was right about that record.
Brett: Back to the Consumer Guide. You said that your sort of, your parameters for the records that you review in there is it has to be a record that would warrant say 1,500 words of explanation, yet you write 150.
Robert: Or at that time it was 75. Yes.
Brett: At that time it was 75? What is, did you have any, when you had this idea did you have pushback at the Voice?
Robert: No. They let me do it.
Brett: There was no pushback?
Robert: They were very permissive. Diane Fisher who was actually my editor and was not a very good editor, as far as I’m concerned. I’m sorry, she’s probably still alive. But she oversaw all of the writing there and when I became the editor myself, replacing her after [Clay] Felker bought the Voice, I got rid of most of those writers. Most of them, not all of them. She had some really good ones, including James Wolcott and Gary Giddins.
Brett: Who both continued to write for the Voice?
Brett: Yeah. I wasn’t sure about Wolcott.
Robert: We’ll get there in a second, I hope. But no, there was no pushback at all. They said hmm. They noticed that I was promoting myself to twice a week instead of, twice a month instead of a once-a-month column. But they just said no. I mean so they must have thought in some way it was a good idea or that I was cool. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I think that the writing I was doing then, as I said was good, but it got better. And they must have seen that.
Brett: And that… But this notion that you were going to write that short. You kind of stumbled onto a style here. Is that fair to say? That’s very identifiable with you.
Robert: I always, I used to think, you know when I was first interested in journalism, I would read the Herald Trib. And I would read like, there were always these bits columnists. You know, I can’t remember a specific example anymore. But you know, witty little anecdotes about famous people or, that’s usually what it was. And I didn’t, the famous people part, well I accepted it actually. I became more critical of that as I went on. But the way they were written, the Herald Tribune in particular really encouraged people to write with some style. And I always thought that was cool. So the notion of trying to be epigrammatic? No, that was fine with me. How good I was at it early on, that’s another question all together. I don’t think I was very good.
I mean, those early Consumer Guides are on my site, God help me and I’m not especially proud of the writing in them. It was always, I mean, because I still had this attitude, you’re paying me 40 bucks, to hell with you. [laughter] That means I’m getting two bucks a piece for these. And I didn’t, I didn’t work as hard on the prose. And I didn’t really work as hard on the prose actually until I met my current wife. And she began to push me in that direction. She said you could do more here. This should be funnier. Said that a hundred times.
Brett: Does she read your work? I mean, does she serve an editing role in your professional…
Robert: It’s gone off and on. It’s back on now. For a long time she didn’t, but in the early days, yes she did.
Brett: When did you transition into editing as well?
Robert: Ellen and I taught each other to edit. We’re both really good editors. And I think we learned from each other in some kind of strange way. I didn’t actually do any, I mean I went, my first editing job was when they gave me the job at the Voice. But you know, especially in those days, and continuing today, a lot of people who get editor jobs can’t edit. It’s unfortunately all too common. Now, what’s also common these days is there are no editing jobs because nothing gets edited. That’s worse. But there’s a, the editing job consists of passing the copy along or formatting it. And, you know, and what was said about Fisher was that her great ability was to be able to talk on the phone and make paragraph marks on a piece of paper at the same time.
She didn’t edit the stuff that came in there. I did. I edited everybody. And including Giddins and Wolcott and Richard Meltzer. Giddins loved it. Wolcott, Meltzer, not so much. Although Wolcott thought it was OK. Meltzer was the one who really couldn’t stand it.
Video of this segment is available. Brett: Could you talk a little bit about your editing philosophy and how editing a critic might be different than editing other types of journalists?
Robert: I actually don’t think it is any different, so I can’t do that.
Brett: Well, expand on that.
Robert: Because I think the idea is always to help the writer say what he or she wants to say as well as possible. That usually means that you let them have their own ideas. But if ideas are patently contradictory, or in some cases, unfactual or just too stupid to abide… and in one case, I remember one guy who decided to review the Yellow Magic Orchestra by making all the “l”s “r”s and all the “r”s “l”s. [laughter]
Robert: And I told him that this was not acceptable, and never wrote for me again. I had him because he funny, but that wasn’t funny. And he thought I was being… people weren’t saying politically correct yet, but that was what he meant. I was right, of course. But no, it has to do with… but then you find every soft adjective, every cliché. If you see a way to say in 12 words what that person has taken 16 to say, be it reversing clauses or taking out a passive construction or any of the literally dozens of other things that you could catego
rize, should you take a week to think about it, then you do that. Concision, always concision, and clarity, even though some people would read my knottier sentences and say what are you talking about?
But I maintain that my sentences are always syntactical except when they don’t want to be and know it. And almost always clear. Occasionally, I see something… I look at something and I say what does that mean? It does happen every once in a while. Not often. I always know what I mean. And I’m sorry, that matters to me. Because if it’s 10 years later, really, I am the objective reader.
Brett: What can, you know, this dynamic that you’re describing between editor and writer is something that we’ve spoken about as disappearing. The business model is…
Robert: It’s terrible. It’s just terrible. I want to say… I mean, the Voice. When I took over the Voice music section in ’74, I said… you know, I told you. Diane Fisher published a lot of people I really thought were no good. Three of them, two of whom I won’t name, had regular gigs, one weekly and two biweekly. And one of them was dull as dishwater, pardon the cliché, and eventually moved over to the Post. One of them still hates me, still hates me to this day. He’s a lawyer. His prose was impossibly knotty. It had no vividness or humor to it. The descriptives were usually wrong. And everybody had the clarity and construction problems that I discussed earlier.
And the third was named Frank Rose. And I said I will give each of you four shots over the next 12 weeks. Three times four. No… no guy is going to the Post. No you’re writing… you’re not writing every week anymore. You’re writing every third week until we got this sorted out. He actually said I’m gone. He didn’t even bother to try.
The other two guys did. And as I said, the lawyer still hates me. And Frank Rose, who tried really hard, is working for a magazine called Zoo World. At the end of the four-week trial period, I said Frank, I’m sorry. You’ve gotten better, but you’re not good enough for this section.
Five months later, he called me and said I have a review I’d like to write for you of the America album. America is not a band I was especially eager to cover. And I expressed skepticism. He said please, take a look at this. I said sure. And I did. And he had become a different writer, and the America piece was really funny and great, and I ran it.
Now, he says he learned to write in those four sessions, that he… and he became a very well-known reporter and journalist, Frank Rose. I taught a lot of people to write. And I continue to… I do it at NYU to this day. How do you teach people to write? My rule is interrogate every comma. Nothing gets by you. Anything that you don’t think works, you indicate it.
You show them what you want to do, and you work so fucking hard on what you’re doing—it’s especially true of students—that you will shame them into working harder as well. And…
Brett: You mean by leading by example?
Brett: Working your stuff to death.
Robert: Right. They could see I was not just making a few marks on a piece of paper, that I would… you know, the students especially, but it was true to a lesser extent because they were, for the most part… there were a few exceptions, more skilled than most students tend to be, the writers I used. And I would bring… sometimes I would bring writers who I just liked because I thought they had a field of knowledge that I wanted to cover or ideas that I thought were worth exploring or I could see that there was a spark there, and there was funny stuff or insightful stuff, even though it was a little messy in a lot of respects. I would work with them, and they all got better. Everybody got better. Except for Meltzer. He didn’t get better.
Robert: That’s what he says. And I think he’s probably right. Meltzer’s a really, really good and idiosyncratic prose stylist. He did actually… he does say he got a lot tighter as he got older. He does admit that.
Brett: When you’re teaching a kid today to write and pushing them to do these things that you just discussed, is it… knowing that the skill has less commercial value than it did 15, 20 years ago, or would you agree that it has less commercial value?
Robert: I sure would.
Advice to Young Critics
Video of this segment is available.
Brett: What do you tell that young person who says that they want to… they want to do serious criticism. They want to do…
Robert: Anything worth doing is worth doing well. It’s not really very hard to… and I, you know, I do really understand.
Brett: But what professional guidance can you give them knowing they also have to pay rent?
Robert: I can’t give them any professional guidance. My professional guidance to rock critics, since before the Internet, was don’t become one. [laughter]
Robert: And then if they say but I really want to… I mean, the don’t become one, it’s a useful thing to tell people because the ones that really don’t want to, will fall by the wayside, and the ones who do want to will defy you and get better anyway. Or you know, and I mean, don’t become one, of course, I’m being somewhat comic. I wasn’t quite that… quite that absolute. But this is a very hard way to make a living. That’s what I would tell people. And especially if you want to write well, because the good stuff is getting squeezed out. And we can talk about what that process was at any time if you like. And it far precedes the Internet, but the Internet just put wheels on it.
Brett: Talk about the process.
Robert: Sure. The early rock critics, I got to do what I did because I got into the field before anybody could tell me I was wrong. I had this, I mean, when I say, …I wanted to write really well. I wanted to write like myself. I wanted to have a lot of ideas. I’m interested in ideas, not an absolute, you know, who knows? Some say I’m a public intellectual, but I’m not a highbrow, so…
Brett: You don’t consider yourself a highbrow?
Robert: No. I don’t think I have those credentials. I haven’t read enough. I don’t know enough. I have a BA. Everything… since then, I’m an autodidact. And you know, I read a lot, but I don’t read as much as Harold Bloom… [laughter]
Robert: What does he read? Two books a day? What does he do? Simon Frith. I don’t read as much as Simon Frith. I always carry a book with me, and when I’m on vacation with Simon Frith, I learned that his rule was to always carry two books with him in case he finished the other one. [laughter]
Robert: So anyway, where were we?
Brett: You were talking about the process.
Robert: Yeah, I was talking about how it evolved. So I got to do all of this kind of weird stuff, and I got to be very political. You know, I’ve alw
ays been very straightforwardly left-leaning/leftist in my criticism. I make moral judgments. I moralize, which you’re not supposed to do. I do it. And as well as being sometimes very unkind, vulgar, highbrow in diction, I use academic works, and I say fuck a lot. And at the Voice, I could do both of those things. Most places, you can’t do either.
Brett: Can you, in your outlets today, can you curse?
Robert: Not really. I’ve pushed them a little bit, and they’ve given a little bit. But I respect, it’s a different, it’s not the Voice. I understand that. I didn’t mind not being able to curse in The New York Times when I worked for The New York Times. That didn’t bother me. I understand. And so Microsoft has a, we have 10 million people coming through the portal, so I understand. Maybe once in a while, though, in context, I can, because I’m blogging. I couldn’t when it was a feature. Now it’s a blog. I have a certain amount of autonomy.
So anyway, and I always did what I believe artists should do. Why is popular culture good? Is it good because the formulas are good? Well, sometimes the formulas are useful. What happened at the Brill building was formula, and people did a lot of really good things with it. However, formulas tend to be deadening, what usually happens in the best art is that somebody pushes the formula in some way, the envelope, as is now the cliché.
And I would always, not always, but I always kept my eye on people who I felt were working within the form, but stretching the form. That seemed to me to be the ideal. Well, I thought that was the ideal for myself as well. Push the formula.
Brett: Of criticism?
Robert: Of criticism. Do what you can, get away with what you can. I do a lot with tone. I mean, I really, I sometimes do, indeed, assume affect, a vulgar tone, just to piss people off. Yes, I do, sometimes. Sometimes. Or to juxtapose it with something entirely different. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. And I believe things should be a little wacky, and I’m in favor of wacky. And people, most people, wouldn’t think I was wacky, but I’m wacky. My wife, Carola Dibble, really pushes me in the wacky direction. Willis was much more a clarity person and pushed me to clarity. But ever since I’ve been with Carol, which is since ’72, she’s been make it funnier. No, no, no, that’s a boring word. Come up with something better.
So anyway, but what happened was, I mean, and we were all, like, for the most part, we were … please, I use this word with quotes around it, “visionaries.”
Brett: Who’s we?
Robert: Me and Goldstein and Meltzer. All the people at Crawdaddy, and Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh and Ellen. All of us. We were inventing something. We were doing something that had never been done before, and for the most part, the ones who stuck at it for even a little while, we had some convictions that we got to push.
Brett: Were there less…
Robert: Once we proved it was a viable way to make a living, more calculating people came on the scene. People understood what publishers really wanted, as opposed to what they had to put up with from the likes of me. What they wanted was celebrity puff pieces. You know, this… it happens at Rolling Stone.
Brett: Who you’ve written for off and on, right?
Robert: Yeah, well, but not that much. Yeah, but yeah, a fair amount, finally. I had a set to with Jann Wenner very early in our career. I wrote a piece for them that he hated and published anyway. I wrote him back and he wrote me a three-page letter, explaining why, I wonder, I hope I can find that letter. I bet it’s somewhere. And I wrote him an eight-line letter explaining why he was full of shit, and we didn’t talk for many years. But anyway, Cameron Crowe. That’s the name I’m looking for. There is a person who saw that there was some other thing you could do than what Greil Marcus and Jon Landau, their heads of the review section at Rolling Stone, both in their own way, very intellectually ambitious people.
Brett: Jon Landau, who’s Springsteen’s manager.
Robert: Now, Springsteen’s manager, went in that direction, but… and remains an extraordinarily artistically ambitious manager. I mean, they’ve stayed together for all that time for a reason. He’s a principle person. And so but then you… but Cameron Crowe, who’s a nice guy, I’m told. I’ve never met him. I believe it. He’s certainly a smart guy and a talented guy. But he saw that there was another way to do this, and it was…
Brett: Which was what? He was…
Robert: It was to…
Robert: Cozy up to the stars and write pieces they’d like. You know, he… I was a great admirer of the profile as a form. Thomas B. Morgan, he was briefly the editor of the Voice in the ’70s, wrote a book called “Self Creations: 13 Impersonalities.” Wonderful book.
Brett: Of profiles?
Robert: Profiles. Cameron Crowe didn’t write that kind of profile. He didn’t get it. There’s no Frank Sinatra has a cold in Cameron Crowe’s…
Brett: Is there room for criticism in profiles? I mean, I, you have done that.
Robert: My own belief is that profiles should always be written by critics, and when they’re not, they’re worse. And there are certainly many critics who can also write a good profile. Josh Eells at Rolling Stone right now is one of those people. You know, he has a good head on his shoulders, smart guy. And he’s not the only one. If I paid closer attention, I could give you more. I’m sorry to say I don’t. My favorite profile writer of the last 25 years is Touray.
Brett: Oh, sure.
Robert: Fabulous, wonderful. I mean, his collection is really I mean, it’s exemplary. But…
Brett: Do you gain something as a critic by doing a profile? I mean, I know you said that you, I’m thinking over the years you have written profiles, I recall a P.J. Harvey piece that I admired a great deal. Are you growing as a critic by hanging out with artists? Can you gain any insights?
Robert: Of course you can. But usually you’re also corrupted by them.
Brett: In what way? Because it’s harder to say what you think?
Robert: Because they’re your friends and you don’t want to make them feel bad, or they’re your sources and you don’t want to wreck them. It can be either, and both are corrupting. And I mean, I used to find when I went out on the road with somebody, I had to wait a week before I could even calm down and write the piece, because I knew for that first week, I’d be too nice to them. And so no, I think, I mean, no. I don’t think it’s a good thing for a critic to hobnob with artists. Now, when I need a piece of information or want to get insight at a certain thing, I do my interview. And there’s a piece in my Harvard collection [“Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno,” published by Harvard University Press] about Sam Phillips and Iris DeMent, both of whom were ex-Christians as am I, I grew up in a fundamentalist family.
And I wanted to write… and so I… and you know, usually, very often, you could get the personal info you need from everybody else’s… I do that a lot. You read a lot of stuff, grab what you want. But in this case, nobody was doing that. And nobody was asking the questions I could ask because I had the same background. And so I called them up and I asked them, and I got great stuff. And I’m very proud of that piece. That’s why I collected it.
Brett: Let me ask a little bit… I’m going to bring up a specific piece to get a little bit more into your process of writing and reporting. As I’ve mentioned before, I just got back from South Africa. I did a lot of driving around there, and one of the things that, when the road got long, my wife would read to me. One of the things I asked her to read to me was your piece about Graceland from 1986.
Robert: Oh, and you had the piece… oh, it was on…
Brett: We put it on an iPad or whatever. But this…
Robert: Oh, I’m so touched.
Brett: And as it happens, she loves Paul Simon. I love, you know, “The Indestructible Beat of Soweto” is one of the best pieces of music I ever heard, and it’s thanks to you I got turned on to it as a teenager. And so, but she read me this piece about “Graceland,” about the Paul Simon record, that you wrote. And in it, you interviewed Paul Simon, but you also interviewed…
Robert: He was really mad at me after that piece, by the way. He was mad.
Brett: Well, I’d like you to expand on that, but also just, you interviewed at least a dozen people who were associated with South Africa in some way who might have an opinion. It was interesting.
Robert: It was a reported piece, not really a profile. It was a reported critical piece, and if I did not put that piece in my Harvard collection, and I can’t remember the specifics anymore, but what I felt was that it wasn’t everything I then, in 1997 while I was making those selections, wanted it to be. I’m sorry to say I haven’t looked at it in a long time, and I can’t tell you in more detail what my problems with it were. I mean, it was, I mean, partly, it was that it was very long, and it would have replaced two or three other pieces, and I’m sure that went into my calculations as well. I just said no, not quite up to snuff. Not everything I want it to be.
Brett: But the amount of effort that went into that that was very obvious because you had interviewed so many people. It’s atypical.
On Twitter and Business Models
Video of this segment is available. Robert: As I said earlier, I’m a political person. And so if I’m going to write directly about a political subject, that it something I’m going to take very seriously, indeed. I am not going to…I’m not going to…I don’t believe in mouthing off. I believe in doing your research. I’m really not one of these spouters. I’m never going to be on Twitter, ever.
Brett: Why not?
Robert: Because I don’t spout. Because I rewrite. And Twitter is not a rewriter’s medium. It’s a place where people say stupid things, as far as I’m concerned.
Brett: Do you follow anyone on Twitter that…where you…
Brett: You don’t.
Robert: Never look at Twitter.
Brett: What is the…Twitter, I suppose, offers a segue into kind of talking about the economics of journalism a little bit and how it affects critics. I’m ensconced at Harvard this year around a lot of conversations about business models in journalism. And you can find people who will argue, particularly if you’re at the business school, who would argue that this particular period of time in journalism is a good thing. It’s a good thing for journalists. It’s a good thing for journalism. It’s a good thing for readers. And the reason would be…
Robert: …enrolled in the business school, right. They’re the ones who know.
Brett: Right, but let me finish. And so their argument would be that journalists are now just being forced to give the market what it wants.
Robert: Oh, the people in the business school say that, huh? Really?
Brett: Sure, you could find people that think that.
Robert: Oh, really? They think that the market should get what it wants. OK. No.
Brett: The market should not get what it wants?
Robert: No, the market exists to be fucked with, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what. When I say push the envelope, when I say push the parameters, when I say pop forms are good for people, that’s the market, right? So what do I do with the Consumer Guide? I give people… I gave them, early on, brevity and some laughs. That was the idea. What did I get to do? I get to tell people that their favorite artist was full of shit. I got to complain about the political implications in the year 2525, I think. I can’t remember anymore. That was an early one. I got to express ideas that were not popular ideas.
And I was working, let it be said, in a journal, in a newspaper, which at that time, was conceived to do that very thing, to serve a market, get advertising, but put out provocative and unconventional opinions.
Brett: That was profitable to do that.
Robert: It was profitable. They figured out how to make it profitable. It’s a long story which we can’t go into here. It wasn’t all their journalistic virtue, and the fact that they had a wonderful thing that couldn’t fail. There was some luck involved. Moreover, what publishers are there to do is to tell you what the market wants. What editors are there to do is to protect you from publishers, and try to get you to do good work. Yes, as we all know, especially your editor-in-chief, he’s really half a publisher and half an editor, because he really has to worry about the bottom line in a way nobody else does.
Then there’s also the question of advertising, and the limitations of basing your journalistic business model on selling advertising. That’s the way the Internet has really killed us.
But the other way the Internet has killed us, we’ll go back to this question, but I want to say this now, is that it has reduced the value of the written word, the cash value of the written word, because there are more of them, and because there are certain people who are so eager to spout that they will happily do so for free, or almost nothing.
While many of them are crap, that doesn’t mean they are not going to siphon off a great many readers, critics in general. Most people who buy the newspaper do not buy it to read the movie reviews.
That has never been true. It wasn’t true in the heyday of… who? I can’t remember … I’m trying to remember a good old-time movie reviewer, and I can’t. Judith Crist was terrible.
Robert: All right. Janet Maslin. They don’t read it t
o read… they don’t buy it to read Janet Maslin. They don’t do that.
Brett: So why should publishers publish criticism if people don’t buy the publications to read criticism?
Robert: Because they care about good writing. Because they’re actually in… you know, so I work for the Barnes & Noble Review these days, and Barnes & Noble used to be a bete noire among book lovers, because they were killing the independent book store, and they did this, and they did that. I never bought that entirely. I bought it a little. [57:44] Now, I don’t. And as always, I have to remember the name of the person who owns Barnes and Noble, his Italian surname. Do you remember his name?
Brett: I don’t. I’m sorry.
Robert: I never remember his name. And I’ve said this like a dozen times…
Brett: I believe he builds houses in New Orleans, too, for homeless people. I should know his name.
Robert: The guy loves books. I’m not a… I’m a socialist. I remain a socialist. I’m old enough to say that and not worry about changing my mind anymore. But does that mean I think capitalism is bad? No, I always tell my socialist friends rock ’n’ roll would not have happened without capitalism. It is a capitalist form, and it’s the best things about capitalism.
Brett: Which are?
Robert: Being socialist doesn’t mean there’s nothing good about capitalism. Far from it. But I will tell you one thing I really like about capitalism. The people who make things and really care about what they make. At the moment, capitalism… 42 percent of profits in the United States, and I don’t know what year, but it was a recent one, were generated in the so-called financial services industry. In other words, 42 percent of the 100 percent of profit in the United States is now generated by people who are selling money. That is not my idea of goods and services selling money. I mean, I’m not saying it isn’t necessary. Of course it is, at around 10-15 percent, maybe.
And the guy who owns Barnes & Noble cares about books. Similarly, the people who own magazines and newspapers should care about words. That should be what they care about.
That’s what they’re selling, and yes, do I believe that their critical standards, that some writing is better? You’re damn right I do. Are a lot of people going to not agree with me? You’re damn right there are, a majority. A majority are not going to read about, care about, because the majority are not really readers.
We have an illiterate society, and I’m pleased if 15 or 20 percent of them are readers. It’s a big society, 15 or 20 percent will do me fine.
Brett: Are there, in your mind, fewer publications run by people that care about words…
Brett: Because publishing is easier to do with the Internet, has that begat more voices in your view?
Robert: So I’m told. So I am told, and I don’t claim to have done a thorough investigation. Actually, I don’t claim to have done as much investigation as I think I should. There are only so many hours in a day, and I still try to read a book a week, and listen to records for 15 hours a day, and write every day, so seven days a week. I can’t say for sure, but in my field, for instance, there is Pitchfork. Pitchfork I read some.
Brett: I started out as a pop music writer in 1990. I don’t recall Pitchfork having been around then. Maybe it was, but it certainly has grown in influence over the years among young people, apparently, who like to read about rock ’n’ roll. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Robert: Absolutely. I don’t know what his numbers are. His numbers are never as good as they’re supposed to be. When people actually do the breakdown, not that many people read it, but, without any question, for a lot of different reasons, including Ryan Scheiber… is it Scheiber or Schreiber? It’s Schreiber, isn’t it? Never met the guy. Ventures like the music festival he put on in Chicago, for instance, Pitchfork.tv, he’s got an eye. It begins as a record nut’s place to spout off, ’95, ’96, ’97. I don’t remember exactly when it was.
He runs it out of his parents’ basement, or something like that, and comes up with this idea of the precise… he takes the letter grade and puts it on a scale of 100, so that this record is an 8.7, and this one is an 8.4, and this one is an 8.3, and this one is an 8.2.
Well, I can actually do that sometimes, but it’s not that easy, and let me tell you, it’s something you have to learn how to do. When I was grading records in the beginning, that first six months there, you’ve got this scimitar you can just wave around, and you do sometimes cut off somebody’s head unfairly.
You’ve got to learn to rein yourself in a little bit, which a lot of the people at “Pitchfork,” especially in the early days, did not. Every once in a while, somebody gets a 0.0. As somebody who’s been grading records all my life, I’ve only heard one 0.0 in my life, and that’s the Kay Huntington album that’s on my site. “What’s Happening in Our World,” is that what it’s called?
Brett: It’s an “F”?
Robert: It was an “E.”
Brett: An “E”? [laughs]
Robert: Somebody found it on my… one of the commenters on my blog found it, said, “It was an ‘E.’ ” [laughter]
Robert: Anyway, he was an indie boy, and I can’t, after 15 years… and although I do not read Pitchfork religiously, or even regularly, I read it a lot, for reasons I’ll explain. Fifteen years later, I cannot tell you exactly what his aesthetic is. He’s a terrible writer, terrible writer himself. When I was doing a piece about it, I ended up writing it, doing it in 2003, I just decided to pick really bad reviews off the Internet and just talk about prose. I picked four reviews, and I didn’t pay attention to who had written them. Two of them were written by Ryan Schreiber. [laughter]
Robert: A complete accident. He thought I was… it was a complete accident. I didn’t even know who he was, and never looked at the byline. There’s something very special about the badness of his prose.
Robert: It’s pretentiousness, it’s lack of context, but I would say that pretentiousness and lack of context, to this day, remain a feature of the Pitchfork review. What is the Pitchfork aesthetic? What do they think a good record is? Could they lay it out… now, they have columns, which I do not read often, once in a while, and certainly, Nitsuh Abebe, to name one person, is a very:
Brett: Who’s at New York magazine now.
Robert: Right, who also writes, I think he still writes for Pitchfork, is one of many good writers to work there. In some cases, writers he’s developed. In other cases, like Douglas Wolk, it’s people who are already around who they use. But most of them are not. Once again, I don’t make… a guy he uses a lot is Ian Cohen. That’s a byline I’ve come to know. Ian Cohen doesn’t like something,
I should check it out. Ian Cohen does like something, it’s probably terrible.
Robert: He’s very reliable in that way, and his reasoning is none too clear, because there’s a certain sense of which, I’m sorry, I’m not going to be too articulate about this. I haven’t… Because, really, it’s a job that needs to be done by somebody who’s a little closer to the whole gestalt of the thing than I ever could be, somebody who’s much younger than me, who’s grown up inside that world, instead of looking at it from the outside. It has to do with, I would say, a contrarian impulse. If I had to guess… no, it’s more complicated than that.
Schreiber actually takes that and then brings it to, sometimes, a place where he sees something accessible and he likes, so that he can be a contrarian, but then accessible contrarian, which is one reason it’s successful. I mean, the Arcade Fire review, they made Arcade Fire. I think that’s fair, and that was Schreiber’s call, so that was a good call.
Arcade Fire is hardly an arty band, as the bands who are reviewed on Pitchfork go, so why did he pick that one out? Because he saw something else there. If you read the actual review, the guy who wrote that review, he got out of rock criticism and started writing about teen pop, which he found was more to his liking, which is really not where you would expect a Pitchfork writer to go, but that guy went there.
He seems like a nice guy, by the way. I interviewed him. I wrote about this for the NAJP [National Arts Journalism Program] blog once. I wrote about the whole business. Nice guy, smart guy. For all I know, Schreiber’s a nice guy in this market. I don’t know that he isn’t.
But nevertheless, there is this contrarian impulse. And the contrarian impulse is not rooted in any positive set of values that has any content that I’ve ever been able to pull from it.
Now, as I say, I’m not intimate with it. It’s not my world. Somebody could do this. But one of the things I believe is that nobody wants to, that they want to be in their bubble, talking to other people. And it’s a large bubble. Not that, I don’t…
Please, now, don’t think I’m implying that it’s some tiny thing. It’s not tiny. But in their world, in their self-contained world, they never have to examine first causes and basic values, to simply talk as if those are understood and then make judgments. Which are often, in my opinion, truly willful.
But that was especially true in the early days of Pitchfork. I don’t know when Scott Plagenhoef came on at Pitchfork. 2004, 2005 I think it was. He was, I think, a sportswriter. Once again, I don’t know the details here. But he was a “real journalist,” let us call him…
Plagenhoef is, as I perceive it… My moles at Pitchfork are long gone, I had a few once, but they’re gone… imposed on the writers certain basic criteria. For instance, “If you are writing a positive review of this record, name two songs that you like, and tell us why you like them.”
Brett: That’s what they ask of their critics?
Robert: That’s my guess, what’s in there. “If no one has ever heard of this band, give us two sentences placing them in history and geography.” Now, on the early stuff, this didn’t happen… I mean, it might have happened sometimes, but it did not happen regularly. There is some kind of a template going on there, where this now almost only happens in their reviews. Plagenhoef left. I don’t know why. It’s still there. And it makes Pitchfork the most useful place to go for somebody like me on the Web because it’s got that factual material.
Brett: All that info.
Robert: …and because you can at least tell what songs the motherfucker likes, and figure out whether you like the songs or not! Instead of this vague stuff, this general, generalized stuff. And the fact of the matter is that if you go to other sites, including ones whose sensibility, one you may like even more, as I do, say, PopMatters. Their writing is much less consistent and just much less good. That’s not to say the writing at Pitchfork is great, but it’s better than most of these other places. Now, what I would say in addition to all of that is that there’s gotta be individual blogs and places that if I were really on my game and cared, it can’t be nothing.
Robert: It’s just not statistically possible that it’s nothing. What I’m certain of, because I’ve looked at enough, is that it’s not much, not much good writing going on there for free in this great utopia where everybody can say whatever it is they want and express their opinions freely. Not much.
Brett: Can you talk a little bit about how…? Your two main outlets are online outlets now. I mean, you’re making a living writing for MSN and Barnes & Noble.
Robert: Thank God.
Brett: Has the transition…
Robert: Bless you.
Robert: Bless you, Italian guy who’s trying to make me remember, for running an Italian-American guy. For running a book… for liking a book so much that you actually have a literary magazine that you put on the Web. Thank you, Sam Sullivan, my editor in Philly at MSN, who used to be a publicity guy at Electra in 1978 and who worked at Billboard and who has long history in print journalism. Thank you.
Brett: What is the…
Robert: Thank you smart people above Sam Sullivan, who actually do like good writing sometimes, as long as we can get all that entertainment stuff over in the other portal, or whatever they call it. It isn’t a portal. The other sector, the other tab.
Brett: [laughs] One thing that I’ve noticed, that I can identify that has changed about, at least, the context of your work, is on the MSN site, you have all these comments. Is that adding value, you think, to your work, the fact that people can discuss it?
Robert: You said the Consumer Guide continues. Well, it doesn’t. I don’t do the Consumer Guide anymore. I do something similar, which is some ways easier, and other ways harder, and it’s getting harder all the time, because there aren’t enough records to write about. I write about two records I like, four times a week…
Robert: Twice a week, four records a week. That’s, if you do the math, 208 records a year. Folks, there aren’t 208 good records a year, so I have to figure out ways to fill it out, and it’s getting tougher and tougher to do. However…
Brett: Which means you’ll review older records, is what I understand.
Robert: I review older records. I get to go back to old stuff and write about jazz records that I never wrote about, and stuff like that, but believe me, it’s still not enough. That’s not easy to do that stuff, especially jazz, because I like jazz, because I have no expertise to speak of. More than you, probably, but not a lot. I actually don’t mean—you—I mean “you, whosever is watching this.”
Brett: [laughs] I’ll allow you to say that.
o, I think you probably know as much about jazz as I do. That’s what I mean. Anyway and I never thought, once, I never looked at my comments. That’s a good rule. If you write online, don’t look at the comments. I know that’s Ann Powers’s rule, who I think is probably the best writer on the Internet, and who just did this piece on Beyoncé where my commenters said that the comments were stupid. I just looked at them. They weren’t as bad as I feared.
They weren’t as bad as some of the comments I’ve seen on the MSN movie blog, which, that movie section, by the way, is done extremely well. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Brett: On the MSN site?
Brett: I’m just going to mention that Ann Powers writes for National Public Radio online.
Robert: That’s right, and is an old friend of mine.
Brett: And has written for the Voice, and The New York Times…
Robert: She was the music editor of The Village Voice. I love her. I think she’s the best rock critic in America, end of story, including myself.
Robert: Because she has her heart in the pop stuff, as well as following… I don’t have my heart in the pop stuff. I follow it. I’m here to tell you, I think that Black Eyed Peas record is really great, and I don’t care how boring you thought it was, and how much you already knew the samples. It’s a little cause of mine, and it’s why, when people want to talk about how stupid I am, which a lot of people do on the Internet, they bring up how I like the Black Eyed Peas album. See, that’s the way the world is now. If you like something that’s really popular, you must be stupid.
Brett: You’re saying your heart isn’t really in that stuff in the way that Ann Powers’s is.
Robert: No, but I follow it, and I care about it, and I value it in principle, so that the Pink album… I love Pink, but this is the best album that Pink has made in 12 years, and it was a top 10 record for me. The rule is, you don’t look at your comments, and I know I’ve got some stupid comments from the consumer. There are heavy metal fans who believe that anybody who doesn’t like heavy metal is just automatically… they’re especially…
Brett: You don’t like heavy metal especially?
Robert: I don’t like heavy metal. I don’t like it, it’s horrible. And I don’t like heavy metal because it produces people exactly like those rage heads.
Robert: Yeah, I think they’re jerks. That’s right, I think you are a jerk.
Brett: You like Motorhead.
Robert: Yes, and furthermore, I know heavy metal fans who I think are great, Donna Gaines, but in general, that’s the way it works. Donna would say, “Oh, you don’t know them, and they’re really better people,” and she’s probably right, because she does know them, and I don’t. The verbal expression is not to be shared. Anyway, where were we? I’m sorry. Oh, you were talking about the commenters.
Brett: Yeah, the comments.
Video of this segment is available. Robert: I used to get comments. I did a blog for the NAJP for a few years, and I got more comments than anybody.
Brett: National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia.
Robert: Right, and I noticed that I was very happy about… First of all, I got a lot of comments, and most of them are really smart, but that was the NAJP.
Brett: You can see that’s one good thing about the Internet?
Robert: No, I will not.
Robert: Far from it. Far from it. Far from it, because… all right, now we’ll go on, and then for the first few Expert Witness entries, there were like four people, six people, half of them I recognized from NAJP, they seemed to be the same people, although their tags might’ve been a little bit different, commenting, and that was nice. I never thought about it. I never thought about commenting. I agreed to do this because they paid me some money to continue to write about records, and I decided I just really wanted to do it. I missed it.
Brett: Because you did retire.
Robert: I did. I was making good money for the Consumer Guide. I made more money from the Consumer Guide at Microsoft than I ever did from The Village Voice, if you break it down. I do not make more money for Expert Witness, which is not as much work, but is plenty of work. I don’t get paid well for Expert Witness, not on an hourly rate. I am doing it for love, but I wouldn’t do it for nothing. That’s the difference, and…
Brett: Can you talk about the…
Robert: No, let me go on to the commenters.
Robert: Then gradually… so the comments were pretty smart, nice. There’s this guy that loves everything I do, and I recognized him. It was nice to have him around. It’s all guys, I’m sorry to say. Then gradually, these people began talking to each other, and a friend of mine, a much younger friend, one of those people I told not to become a rock critic, and did, and now is doing some sort of Web editing, and has had a lot of Web editing experience, he said to me, a couple of years ago, “That’s the Holy Grail. In blogging, that’s the grail. You have…”
Brett: Getting commenters?
Robert: No. It’s not getting commenters. It’s getting commenters who talk to each other, who actually begin to develop relationships among themselves, and I am incredibly proud to have attracted this community, which probably consists of… I don’t really know what the numbers are, 20, 30 regulars, and 20, 30 less regulars, and 100 people who are… it’s probably a few more than 100, but it’s not…
Brett: It looks as if you get about 150 comments on average per Expert Witness blog.
Robert: That’s about what I get, but in the early days, we went to 500 once. Don’t assume that they’re always talking about me. Sometimes they set up contests, or mini-polls inside, or they just get talking about something else. Sometimes, especially if it’s an obscure record that they haven’t heard yet, they can’t very well talk about the record other than… In the age of streaming, most records get heard by at least some people, and there’s some commentary, but it’s not mostly about the week’s topic, only once in a while.
Brett: I’ve gotten advice on the kinds of crates to use to store LPs from your comment stream.
Brett: [laughs] It goes in those directions.
Robert: It’s all guys, and it’s mostly people who like physical product, although there are a nu
mber of younger people who are more MP3-orientated, and are perfectly ready to download, and everybody’s got to download something. I do. There are things that are only available that way, and in the mixtape world, free mixtapes, which are promotional items, and let’s not even talk about what happened to the music business in the age of the Internet.
It’s been fucking destroyed, and I feel very bad for the artists who can’t make a living or have to go on the road, and that’s the only way they can do it. It’s not a great life, living on the road. It never was.
I am really, really proud of this community. I look, sometimes, at the comments on Talking Points Memo, which is my favorite political site, Josh Marshall’s site. They’re much stupider than my people. You would think, “These are liberals…” Boy, I can’t tell you the kind of liberal stupidity that you get there, the kind of… the name-calling at the right, as if it’s funny. That stuff.
I mean, not all, please, but if I had to say which is the more intelligent bunch of discourse, mine. Easy.
Brett: You are proud of that?
Robert: I’m very proud of it. Now you have to tell me about another one.
Robert: I think I managed to do this… no, it’s got to be… once again, there’s got to be another one. There aren’t many, and how did I do it? I’ve been doing this a long time. The Consumer Guide has been, for a certain core of crazy record buyers, I would assume it’s somewhere between 100 and 500 in the world, that’s the way they buy records. They use it. It has other kinds of more general influence, but then there’s this core of people who share a sensibility with me, or can read through our differences, and are used to my prose, are not put off by naughty… all of that stuff that you try to do when you push the envelope in 1969, there you have your readers, and there’s more.
There’s a lot of what they call “lurkers.” Every once in a while, a lurker comes on, so I know they’re out there.
Brett: A lurker is someone who doesn’t comment, but reads?
Robert: A lurker is someone who reads, but doesn’t comment, and of course, there are lots of people who read the blog and never look at the comments, and the comments are known to be really one of the stupidest places that you can go in the world.
Robert: If they’re going to my blog, they don’t want to then go to one of the stupidest places you can go in the world. That’s my hope. No, it’s great. I’ve met some of these people. One of these guys is the head of the cardiology unit at the University of North Carolina Hospital, as well as the head of the medical school, and is also, I would say, the King Kahuna of all those bloggers. He blogs walking from one of those difficult jobs to another, on his smartphone, and somehow manages to find copies of things that nobody else can find, and if they’re really completely unavailable, even puts them up in a Dropbox for a while, so people can find them, these odd records that Consumer Guide crazies know about.
“Oh, where’s that African High Life record from 1986?” and things like that. That disappeared right away. Every once in a while, somebody finds it, and they rip it, and that’s all great, but this guy, in ’81 he was a freshman at Vanderbilt, and he missed the Pazz & Jop. He had just discovered it a year or two before.
Brett: Pazz & Jop being the critic’s poll.
Robert: The critic’s poll I ran, where I had my own list, and there was all the comments. He sent me this letter. It said, “Please, I missed it. I enclose a dollar. I would really appreciate it if you could mail me The Village Voice, please, please, please.” I had a bunch of them sitting at my desk, and an envelope. I saw the envelope, I stuck it in there, and I took his dollar, and I took a piece of Voice paper, and I said, “Here you go, Cam. Keep your buck,” and I sent it back to him.
He says that was where he realized that even though he was a Southern boy from Alabama, that he could be part of some other world, and it, for him, he says was a life-changing experience, that I accepted him for what he was. Why this should be… I didn’t do it trying to change his life. [laughs] I did it because it was a joke, but I’m very glad I did, and I’m really proud of it.
He’s an amazing person. He’s my fan. I’m really proud of that. There are a lot of other people, somewhat less striking, but boy, and they’re all different. I’m not saying I like everybody who comments. There’s a few I don’t, but for the most part, these are great people, and they’re different from each other. Many of them are further left than I am, and we argue about that.
Brett: In the ’80s is when I got turned on to your writing, and The Village Voice in general, and something that attracted me to it was, having grown up in the suburbs, it seemed to be this entry point to an urban America that I didn’t know.
Robert: That’s what it was for me too, growing up in Flushing in 1956, when I was 14. I heard about it on “The Jean Shepherd Show,” and I mailed them two bucks, and they gave me a subscription.
Brett: To the Voice?
Brett: What is it… when you’re writing your Consumer Guide or Expert Witness reviews, beyond turning people onto cool, new music that they might not have heard of before, what are you trying to do with those reviews?
Robert: Well, the main thing I’m trying to do is to write well. That’s number one.
Brett: Which means you’re entertaining and stimulating people.
Robert: That’s right, and pleasing myself.
Robert: I like to look back on my own reviews and say, “Oh, that was a good line.”
Brett: You do read your own stuff?
Robert: Absolutely. It’s good. Why not?
Robert: It reminds me of what I can do. It reminds me of things I thought that I forgot. It’s very useful sometimes. It can really be inspirational too, when you’re stuck on something. I read something else I…
Brett: To remind yourself you can do it?
Robert: Yeah, right.
Using Personal Experience in Reviews
Video of this segment is available. Brett: Yeah, I do that. A lot of criticism that I read, that I don’t find as enlightening as I’d like it to be, in this day and age, it’s personal, but it’s only personal, and there’s nothing else to it.
Robert: Yes. There’s a lot of that.
Brett: There’s a lot of that.
Robert: There’s a lot of that.
Brett: Can you talk a little bit…
Robert: That’s definitely a blog-era phenomenon. It’s not that it didn’t exist before, but it’s the basic, it’s the lingua franca of the blog era.
Brett: Talk a little bit about how you use the personal in writing, without tipping over into this phenomena that you’re talking about. You have very personal connections, obviously, to music. I’m thinking, I reread a piece you did about Thelonious Monk back in ’09, about writing about first listening to “Misterioso,” and all these kinds of things.
Robert: That’s a good one, but that one was exceptional in that respect. If you remember, it began with a few tales from my youth.
Brett: You apologized. Yeah, you apologized.
Robert: Forgive me, that’s how it began. I don’t usually do that. I did it when I did Louis Armstrong as well. With jazz, I feel a necessity to deflate my authority a little bit. It’s the reason I began with those personal things, because I know I don’t have the authority in jazz. In any case, what do I tell people? I’ve said this hundreds of times. First, figure out what records you really like, then figure out why you really like them, both of which are difficult things to do. Not what you should like, not why you should like it. What is it that’s actually giving you pleasure about this record?
As I said, I’ve got to get that feeling in my stomach before I go to the next place. What gave you that feeling in your stomach? Then figure out a way to put that, explain that clearly. Now, none of that answers your question.
That sounds like it’s completely personal, so what’s the answer? I cannot tell you that I have a top-of-my-head answer to that part, but, A, in the case of an artist who is not familiar, you have an obligation to situate that artist in the world. That’s especially true with world music, but it’s true with a lot of young bands. You want to know where they come from, how many of them there are, what they play.
In a capsule review, not all of those are going to go into every review, but they’re certainly present there are possible things you need to do. Then you have to find the specifics, or make a generalization that applies to this particular shade of pleasure.
Writing a capsule… and this could take a long time. Sometimes it just sort of comes to you. It does happen, one time in 15, maybe. You sit there, and you wait, and you listen, and you listen, until some detail, or word, or turn of phrase, or joke, that’s new, that’s original to this specific instance, comes to your mind, and you build off of that. Usually, you need two to make a capsule.
If you care about good writing, and you’ve reviewed 13,000 records in your life, you want to try…
Brett: Is that where your number is?
Robert: Yeah, it’s somewhere over 13,000. You want to try not to repeat yourself, and that obliges you to find a different way to express something, and my guess is that impression you get of my objectivity is partly tied up in that need to specify. Now, I do say the same things over and over again about records, but I do my damnedest to figure out different ways to say, “There aren’t enough good songs in this record,” [laughs] or I say it as fast as I can, or to say, “The second side’s better than the first side.”
Sure, I repeat myself more than I’d like to, but I know I don’t repeat myself as much as others do, because I’m very, very conscious of this problem, and I do suspect that that lends what I do a bite that’s not going to be present in the usual effusion.
Brett: There are many more hours of music released in a year than there are hours in a year.
Robert: That’s right.
Brett: This becomes more the case every year.
Robert: No. Well, yeah. Right. With the Web, it certainly does.
Brett: Yeah, with the Web. How do you, as a critic, budget your time wisely under these circumstances?
Robert: For one thing, I don’t listen to singles. I’m not interested in Web-based music, except insofar as it’s recommended to me, so that I only write about CDs that I actually get in the mail, or that reading about them encourages me to download from Rhapsody, and put on my Sansa player and play, and then decide it’s good enough to go buy. I have a small budget from MSN to do that, so I listen only to physical product. That, in itself… I mean, I don’t do what the MP3 bloggers do. And I don’t feel… I don’t have this daily need to find a song I love to pieces and will forget existed three days later.
Brett: Mixtapes are your exception?
Brett: Mixtapes are your exception to the physical product rule?
Robert: Yeah, sure. I mean, if there’s… you know, if Wussy has a mixtape out, I’m gonna download it. And most hip-hop comes out that way. And if I hate it, you know, if… no. I download a fair number of hip-hop mixtapes. It sometimes depends on how it sounds and what I know about it. But I always burn physical sound. I don’t do it off the Web. Then it goes into the pile of CDs. I burn… you know, if it’s good at all… sometimes it’s not. But if it’s good at all, I’ll burn a physical and, you know, spend the money and take the time to do that.
Brett: Why is that important to you?
Robert: Because I work with a CD changer. And what I like to do is, I like to juxtapose records together and put them on and do something else and see what happens. I play them over and over again until something sticks. So, I don’t usually sit there and listen. I hear. My assumption is that pop music should demand your attention. Yes, are there exceptions? There are exceptions to everything, but in general, yes. And, so, I wait to see if this music demands my attention, if it distracts me from that other thing I’m doing. And, you know, sometimes, you know, you play…
I’ve noticed that this ASAP Rocky record… That’s the big hip-hop record of the early part of the year. Well, I went and bought that one. I don’t get much hip-hop, though. And then, you know, it was a big deal. And what I heard on Rhapsody was pretty good. I notice, when I play this record, I always stop at the seventh song, which is, I think, called “Fuckin’ the Problem.” Anyway, the words “fuckin’ problem” are repeated many times.
Robert: I haven’t looked. I haven’t figured out what its title is. Now, on the one hand, I know that I really like that track, even though I can tell it’s a really politically incorrect record, song about a house. People want to fuck. Anyhow. I don’t approve of that in principle, but if it’s really good, well, then I gotta think about new principles.
Robert: But the other thing is that I noticed that the first six tracks are not doing this to me. And this is leading me to believe that I personally do not find this ASAP Rocky record as good as I should. Now, that’s a tentative judgment, but it’s where I am right now. I could change my mind,
Brett: You’ll go back to this one because it’s being talked about a lot.
rt: Oh yeah. I go back to everything. And always sit and…You know, after I’ve done all this sorta casual listing or semi-casual listening, it becomes semi-casual. Then you do the hard listening. And it’s usually two. Or three.
Brett: But with these, like, Rocky, if it hadn’t gotten the attention that it did, and it didn’t grab you til the seventh song, might you have set it aside at this point?
Robert: Yes. Yes. I mean, you know, these judgments…There’s a bunch of records on the floor. What is it, about 150, 200? They’re all possible. Most of them I know are not gonna make it, but they’re all possible. They stay there. Sometimes I just flip through them. I’ll say, “I don’t know, about six months ago I played this. I better try this again.” And usually then I put it away. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I missed it. It happens.
Brett: Can you talk a little bit about how…?
Robert: I don’t… we… you know, by the way, we’re going long here, and I think we should be stopping soon.
Brett: I’m going to get to the last…You’re 70 years old?
Brett: 70. Can you talk a little bit about how age impacts your work? Rock ’n’ roll is considered a young man’s game.
Robert: It’s not. That’s it. Enormous number of really good records being made by people over 50, 60 and even 70. Because it was once the music of youth, it is now the only popular music that I know of that’s ever really addressed aging as a major issue in one’s life. The only one. I would say that some great old jazz players do it implicitly. But they don’t have lyrics so it’s not the same. Sonny Rollins, I certainly believe, does address that problem in his work. Or that issue. So, that’s it.
It’s not the music of youth. In fact, my opinion, for various formal reasons which we will not have time to get into here, good records by people under 30 are becoming more and more unusual. That’s because, I think, the creative part of that subculture is caught in the contrarian mindset to which I referred before, and is making stuff that isn’t something else, not something that is something else, to put it briefly. And that’s a much harder way to make something good. Not impossible, but harder. Not a good place to start, with the negative.
I mean, the other thing is, you know, how much physical… I happen to have a lot of physical vitality for a 70-year-old. I can still walk around. I can still dance sometimes. My wife does, too. I’ve always…
My father said about my friend, my painter friend, Bob Stanley… When he was in his 50s, we were all playing Ping-Pong together. He said, “He’s got a boyish quality. I like that in a man.”
Robert: And my father had that boyish quality, too. I mean, to a certain extent, you know, it’s genetic or acculturated or something. It’s built into my makeup. And that helps. But, you know, my friend Cam the doctor, who was about 50. He says he knows only one person his age—and this guy loves music—who loves music in his world. I was thinking that…
Brett: Who loves music like he does.
Robert: Yeah. Well, no. Nobody loves music… It’s like, I’m not sure I love music like he does.
Robert: But, you know, enough, so he has to talk to younger people about it. I don’t find that to be true. Yeah, sure, I have a lot of younger friends. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s fun, but I have a good knot of my close friends who are, say, go down to 55 or so. Even if they don’t have the time for it, they do have the enthusiasm. That’s dozens. Now, they’re my friends for a reason. I’m a music critic. That’s not the only reason, but it’s one, usually, often. Many of them are ex-critics themselves, but I don’t find this to be true. Maybe that’s a bubble I live in, but I certainly don’t find it to be a real issue in my own…
My belief is that this is a problem for rock critics in their late 30s. You get over that hump, and you say, “Oh, I love music.” In your late 30s, you tell yourself, “I’m too old to be doing this,” and a lot of people, but those who don’t, well, they either turn into hacks, which happens a fair amount, or they understand that this is who they are.
Brett: Is that what happened to you?
Brett: In your 30s?
Robert: Well, no. I never went through that period, but I saw it happening with a lot of… no, I never went through that period. It helped that in 1977, when I was 35, I was the music editor at The Village Voice, and the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Television were at CBGB every other week. That helped a lot, and I didn’t have a kid, which we were trying to do, and couldn’t, and that… I mean, the fact that I only had a child when I was 40, I think that probably made this all a little simpler.
Brett: Can you ever imagine being alive and not doing it?
Robert: ’77 I was 43, actually, when I had a kid. Sorry.
The Future of Criticism
Video of this segment is available. Brett: Can you ever imagine being alive and not reviewing records?
Brett: You can?
Robert: Absolutely. If somebody isn’t going to pay me, I’m going to stop, and somebody will stop paying me eventually, I assume, maybe, probably. Probably somebody will. I certainly can imagine it.
Brett: I recall, when you quit doing the Consumer Guide for a little while, came back doing Expert Witness, I think you had mentioned in a blog post or something that this is the way you process music, and that, from what I recall, was one of the reasons why you went back to it.
Robert: Yeah, it is, but on the other hand, I thought that I wouldn’t be doing any more honorable mentions, but in order to fill it out, I have to. Honorable mentions I do, they take a lot more time, actually, than the reviews, because I don’t allow myself… there’s the records that don’t make my “A” barrier. I would like to have more time to listen to records I already know, and spend a little less time looking. Now I’m starting to look for honorable mentions again. I didn’t for a long time, and when I decided I had to start putting them into the column, then it starts to creep up on you, and I do a little more of that.
I used to write them when, “Shit, I’m doing my last listen anyway, and I have this idea. I might as well write it down, and figure out what the good cuts are and have it on record for myself.” That was how it started, or, “Even though I know I don’t like this record, I really have to know why, because I’m a critic and I ought to know this record better than I do, because it’s a really important record,” that kind of thing.
;m doing more of it, so I’m not happy about that. When we go away on our getaways, which are all too infrequent, my wife and I, I bring the iPod, and I have a lot of stuff I love in the iPod, and I play it, and that’s a great pleasure. I don’t have enough of it.
Could I process a little less music than I do? I could. I’d have to see what it would be like. It’s a little hard to project.
Brett: It is hard to imagine.
Robert: Project, but I’m not going to be stopping listening to music unless I lose my hearing or something. Never, I don’t think.
Brett: My last question is, you described what your day is like. You’ve got 15 hours of listening to music. You write seven days a week.
Robert: Yeah. You’ve cut into my time here something terrible.
Brett: I know. [laughs] We’ll let you go here soon. Do you think it’s a reasonable thing to ask that someone else would follow in your footsteps? Is this…
Brett: It’s not a reasonable…
Robert: I don’t see how. My fear about criticism in general, we’ve barely talked about this, is that it’s gonna turn into an amateur’s game again. The gentleman amateur. The original critics were gentlemen amateurs. And that really saddens me. I think it should be a job. I think you should get paid for it. And I think that you get different kinds of people when you get gentlemen amateurs, with different standards. And they’re not… As a pop person and of the standards, I think you’re better off with an editor. I think you’re better off with a format. For all the problems I have with the way the dailies do things, I think it’s something to stretch against and to try and figure out how to do right.
And of course, good things can happen the other way, as well. It’s not absolute, but it’s not the better way. You know, and who would know? I mean, there probably are… I mean, then there’s my friend Cam, only he’s also a heart surgeon.[laughter]
Robert: And he’s not listening to new records while he’s…You know, there are people…But, you know, most of the people on the blog, they don’t have the time I do. And I guess, you know, in the loop, somebody will retire and do it sometimes. But, you know, no. It’s not practical. I’m very lucky. I mean, I just… I’m fortunate. And, you know, it’s quite possible that nobody will ever do anything like this again. I don’t know. But one can certainly see a lot of economic reasons why.
Brett: Let’s end there.