Rock critic Chuck Eddy of Austin has written a fascinating book, containing a collection of his music reviews, essays and musings during the more than 25 years he has been in the business. This includes time he spent working for the influential The Village Voice as its music editor.
The new book is titled Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism. He has two prior books, The Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music (1997) and Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe (1991).
I recently had the chance to sit down with Eddy at Epoch Coffee in Austin and talk with him about his career and his book. The book covers just about every music genre, and while odds are good you will find mention of some of your favorite bands you may not like or agree with his opinions.
You see, Eddy has been pigeonholed by some as being contrary, and it does seem at times in the book, at least to me, like he goes out of the way to criticize the darlings of other music critics or praise those dismissed by critics. He denies that it’s intentional. More on that later in this piece.
I began our conversation by wondering aloud what it is like to make music criticism your profession. Does listening to music become less pleasurable when writing about it is your job?
He said the pleasure and joy of listening to music has never lessened because of his occupational choice.
The book does a great job of explaining his introduction to becoming a paid music critic. He wrote what he calls in the book “a 11 page manifesto complaining about the state of rock criticism, declaring that everything interesting in music was already over, and mourning my having missed the whole boat.” The piece is excerpted in the book
To their credit then Village Voice editor Robert Christgau printed part of the letter. He soon began writing music criticism of his own, published in the Voice and several other publications. In 1999 he became the music editor at the Village Voice, a position he held for six and a half years. This meant the roles were reversed and now he was editing Christgau.
An excerpt from that letter:
“How the fuck can you revolutionize an industry which has accepted Pere Ubu and Essential Logic and the Angry Samoans and Teenage Jesus and the Birthday Party? You can’t. Nothing scares anybody anymore, nothing surprises anybody anymore, there’s no such thing as a real mindfuck because people’s minds have already been fucked with over and over and over again. I never realized it until now, but the Sex Pistols were the worst thing that ever happened to rock’n'roll – they demanded anarchy, and they got it. Anarchy means you can do whatever you want, and that’s what everybody since the Sex Pistols has done. This has given us a surplus interesting music, but it’s also given us a situation in which you can’t tell the artists from the poseurs. Sly Stone and the Dolls were able to make revolutionary music because, back then, there were dictated limits on what you could or couldn’t do, and they did what they ‘couldn’t.’ Now there are no such limits – what if Sly and the Dolls had waited until 1983, and everything else (the Ramones, the Pistols, PIL, Prince, and all) between 1970 and now had happened without them? Would Greil Marcus still be able to write that ‘there is no vocal music in rock to match’ Riot, or that ‘nothing short of the Sex Pistols’ singles has touched it’? I doubt it.
“And yet, the rock critics of the world are going to spend their time voting on which 1983 videos were the most fun to watch. And we’re going to accept Prince, or Grandmaster Flash, or King Sunny Ade, or Flipper, or Big Country, or Bob Fucking Dylan.. and we’re gonna push whatever we like as the bearer of the future of rock’n'roll, as if there is such a thing. I think this is kind of what Lester Bangs meant by the ‘be the first one on your block’ attitude; unfortunately, he died before he could offer any kind of solution or alternative, except that we should listen to old John Hooker records. I wish I had a solution, and God and Lester know I need one more than the Christgaus and Marcuses of this world do – I just turned 23 a month or so ago, and I only started to listen to music ‘seriously’ in 1979, and I haven’t seen a real rock’n'roll revolution yet, and I want a There’s A Riot Goin’ On or a New York Dolls or a Johnny Rotten so bad I could shit. But I’m not going to get one.”
The Village Voice changed a great deal during the years he worked there, he said. During most of that time he was given “carte blanche,” he said. He left the post when the Village Voice was purchased by New Times Media -- a couple years after the Village Voice had started to “rein in” the music section.
But for a while there he had a great time.
“It was my dream job,” he said. “I was really getting away with murder.”
The topic of voice came up several times during our conversation. When he would edit pieces at the Village Voice, he said, sometimes a writer’s pitch letter had a better voice than was contained in their submitted piece, so he would cut and paste. A good music critic has a distinctive voice – he likes those who are conversational, who write like they talk, he said.
After leaving the Village Voice he worked as senior editor at Billboard from 2006 to 2007 and while it was quite different from the Village Voice it was interesting. He still does some freelance editing for Billboard, he said.
While at both jobs he missed writing his own music pieces, having been kept busy editing others.
Talking about it now it sounds like he’s been making up for lost time. As he told me about the pieces he writes for Rhapsody (where he has the metal beat) and other publications including Spin (where he writes their “essentials” column) I got the impression he has to be writing practically every waking hour. While it’s not that bad, he said, he definitely doesn’t have enough time to do all the writing he would like, he said.
But there has been another problem besides time, namely the pieces he and other critics write have, generally, to be shorter.
He mentioned this after I asked him what impact has the Internet has had on music criticism. Surely, I argued, it had to have been changed by the fact that suddenly, when the Internet became popular, everyone has, essentially, their own printing press be it blogs or writing reviews on Amazon or Facebook.
The big change, which he attributes to both the effect of the Internet as well as publications like The Entertainment Weekly, is that now “everything is just bite sized,” he said.
He only has 600 characters, for example, to write a review for Rhapsody, he said.
“It is harder to get a personal voice in reviews of that length,” he said. (These last two paragraphs, to give you an idea of this problem, are 239 characters.)
As I slowly eased the conversation into what I was concerned might be a topic he may be tired of writing and talking about,namely the stereotype of him being a contrarian, I asked him what he thinks makes a good music critic.
After we moved past the obvious – it’s a subjective matter, there is no one “right” way to be a critic or to write reviews , etc. – we got to the meat of it.
“Critics should stick to their convictions,” he said. “I like critics with strong opinions.”
As you may have guessed, and some excerpts I’ll share at the end of this piece should make clear, he definitely is a critic himself with convictions and strong opinions.
For example, we talked about the collaborative album between Lou Reed and Metallica, widely panned by many critics. He didn’t hate it.
Together they are doing a “loud minimalist” style connected to what Velvet Underground used to do, he said.
“It is the most interesting album I have heard by either of them in a couple decades. The idea is interesting.”
That brought us to another question I posed: How much attention should critics pay to other critics?
I told him, “It seems like some of the pieces in here were partly a response to critics who, for example, didn’t like Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album or Toby Keith?” He praises both in the book.
He used to pay attention to other critics’ pieces way more than he does now, he said.
“Early on I wrote out of the context of an idea of there being a consensus,” he said. “Music critics are part of the world, and I am part of the world.”
These days, he said, he honestly doesn’t even know what records critics are going to name as their favorites for the year.
I finally bit the bullet (I was feeling shy doing my first in-person interview in several years) and asked the question I most wanted to know.
“What stereotype of you are you most tired of addressing? Is it the one you address on the book’s last pages namely the idea — which you reject, complete with evidence — that you are a contrarian?”
This is what he says in that conclusion:
“Meanwhile, as has been happening approximately forever, some nincompoops still accuse me of being a ‘contrarian,’ implying I’ve always said only ‘pretended’ to like certain music because other critics don’t like it, and vice versa. Which of course smugly assumes the other critics tend to agree on what they like (i.e. usually whatever the person calling me a contrarian likes) and which also conveniently turns a blind eye to all the things I’ve gone on record as liking that lots of other critics do also like (in this book alone, maybe start with the White Stripes, Metallica, Timbaland, Eminem, John Cougar Mellancamp, Michael Jackson, and the Pet Shop Boys), not to mention the thousands of records most other critics dislike that I too have no use for. And it ignores all the critics who’ve agreed with me over the years, and all the ones who disagreed with me until their minds changed. And finally, it ignores almost every word I’ve ever written: space permitting, if I claim that something is good or bad, I tend to specify why. After decades of spelling this out, somedays I wonder how much longer I can bear morons with impaired reading comprehension skills calling me a charlatan…”
(So you can see, perhaps, why this potential moron hesitated to raise this issue.)
“As I say in that conclusion I have always written about music other critics like as well as some that others don’t like,” he said.
However, he said, if every music critic has the same opinion on a band or album he might not push as hard to get his own opinion on the matter published, if it matches the consensus.
“If I am thinking the same as everyone why bother pushing to get it published?”
It is not that he tries to counter the consensus, he said, though he concedes it may appear that way at times.
He has a short attention span so when a band or artist “spin their wheels… I just don’t feel the need to cut them slack.” Put simply he may lose interest in a band if they don’t seem to be doing anything new or exciting, he said.
That was the case with Sonic Youth and Elvis Costello, he said. Sonic Youth or Elvis Costello may have put out some good albums in the last 20 years, but he mostly stopped paying attention to them when they became less interesting to him, he said.
I asked him, “Do you want those who read you to agree with your opinions or just to understand and appreciate your points? Because I found myself, while reading this book, disagreeing with you about some artists while finding your arguments at least eloquent and compelling.”
He said, “I am not trying to persuade. It is not important to me if they like or dislike what I say as long as they understand what I am trying to say… I want my writing to be alive. I want it to be good writing.”
We ended our conversation by trading opinions on alt-country, a genre on which he and I disagreed. I’m a fan of Wilco, Son Volt, Steve Earle and the Bottle Rockets, among other alt-country acts.
He calls alt-country “some of the blandest music ever made.”
While alt-county musicians and their fans may brag about how their music is not polished he demurs: “polished can be a good thing.” Too many of those bands have singers with terrible voices and that does not appeal to him, he said.
It is rare for him to turn down the offer to write paid reviews, but he sometimes does so, he said. He recently turned down, for example, an offer to write a 750 word piece on Kate Bush’s album saying he just did not think he would be able to justify it as he did not have 750 words worth of thoughts about Bush or her new album, he said.
Similarly, Rolling Stone asked him, a couple of years ago, to write a review of Steve Earle’s album in which he covers the songs of Townes Van Zandt. He turned it down as he is not a fan of either artist, he said.
“I think he (Earle) is a terrible singer…. I never really got Townes Van Zandt.”
Instead of alt-country Eddy would much prefer to listen to Korean pop music, he said. Korean pop has the same elements as Western pop music but is more fun and enjoyable, he said.
Let me leave you with three excerpts from the book:
Eddy on Arrested Development: “Between their horseshoes and hairdos and old men in rocking chairs, Arrested Development come off sillier than Right Said Fred without even trying. They could be like some mad scientist’s parody of a foolproof Pazz & Jop winner — Like, what do you get when you cross Tracy Chapman with De La Soul? Chrysalis could’ve just mailed out press photos and they’d still have a guaranteed top five slot. They’re the ultimate Sunday School band. All their hits sound like Bible parables. If I’d been raised Protestant instead of Catholic, I might have even taken them seriously.”
Summing up changes in music: “The Flaming Lips, whom I’m pretty sure I was the first writer ever to profile for a national publication, got more and more famous as they became more and more boring. Radiohead became the universally acclaimed Most Important Rock Band On The Planet for reasons that never made much sense to me. Acid and techno irrevocably changed music around the Western world, except in the United States, yet dropped off my radar after I chronicled them in January 1989. The Interweb altered how artists promoted themselves and how kids learned about new bands and so on….”
And, lastly, positive comments from him on his current state, geographical and otherwise: “Only once – for a couple years in the early ’90s, when I was in my early 30s, an age when rock critics in general often start dogpaddling until they sink or swim again – did I feel like I was treading water. And now, alive for a half century, somehow weathering increasingly bleak and unlikely to recover rock-writing doldrums wherein fewer and fewer paying publications have any interest in publishing criticism that isn’t phoned in, I can honestly say that I’m as excited about listening to music as I’ve ever been. Austin is an amazing mythical land of awesome $1 vinyl bins and garage sales and record conventions, and now that CDs are speedily approaching their historical end zone and college students who’ve only ever downloaded MP3s are suddenly all buying used turntables again, piling up on old vinyl somehow doesn’t feel so anachronistic anymore… All of which is to say the wheel keeps turning, and where it stops nobody knows.”