When music journalist Robert Palmer died on November 20, 1997 at the age of 52, he’d long since cemented his reputation as one of the most astute experts in his field. A fixture at Rolling Stone for over two decades, the first person designated as chief pop-music critic for The New York Times, and an author of six books, Palmer examined and chronicled music with feral acuity while, at the same time, appreciating the best of it with unadulterated joy.
“In a style that blended elegance and hipster enthusiasm, he would travel deeper and deeper into his subject, bringing his readers along with him in the interest of turning them on to something he loved,” Anthony DeCurtis writes of Palmer in the preface to the recently published anthology, Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, which he edited.
DeCurtis, a longtime contributing editor at Rolling Stone and himself the author of two retrospective anthologies—Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music And Other Matters and In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life And Work—has been a preeminent voice in music criticism and cultural commentary for nearly thirty years. In addition to his written submissions to the magazine, in the '90s DeCurtis served as the editor of Rolling Stone's record-review section, which led him to work directly with Palmer, the experience undoubtedly informing some of his recollections on him now. Presently, DeCurtis teaches in the writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this extensive interview with Donald Gibson of Blogcritics Magazine, Anthony DeCurtis discusses Blues & Chaos and the late Robert Palmer before generously yielding insight to his own career and craft. Along the way he reflects on music's immeasurable capacity to spark creative minds, the pros and cons of artist interviews, and how one such interview with a certain childhood idol resonates with him today.
How did editing someone else’s work compare to editing your own two anthologies?
You’re kind of willing to make mistakes on your own behalf. The two collections of my own that I did, I had fairly specific ideas for what I wanted them to be like. And once I got some momentum going on pulling it all together, I didn’t really question that too much. With the Palmer book, I found myself thinking a lot about how he would want to be represented…and about whether or not my own vision of what this book should be would match his. Finally, I just decided, this is what it means to be an editor. I was his editor. So it’s going to reflect his voice and who he was as I understood him.
I was interviewing Patti Smith, who knew Palmer and really liked him. I gave her a copy of the book—we had just gotten copies—and I brought one down to the interview and I handed it to her. We were being filmed for PBS and, because it was a film thing, there were endless periods of just sitting around, not really having to work. So we had a chance to discuss it, too. I was telling her some of the anxieties I’d went through about representing him. Patti Smith just held the book up. She just held the book up in her hand in front of me and said, “Look what you did for him. Look what you did for him. He has this now.”
She’s good with symbolism, isn’t she?
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] And her holding it, it just gave me a certain distance of it. I thought, 'You know, it’s actually turned out pretty well.' Just for a moment like this and for her to say that, it was gratifying.
In working with Palmer at Rolling Stone as his editor in the ‘90s, was there anything about his style at that point that had some effect or informed the way you appreciated rock criticism?
It wasn’t so much that; I just enjoyed reading him. He was certainly a writer that I’d assign things to because I wanted to read that piece. One of the things that probably should be said is how gracious he was. Maybe he was like this with everyone; I don’t know what other people’s experience was. But with me he was very cooperative. If I had a question, he would answer it. Or if I had a suggestion, he would listen to it. There are people who are so difficult.