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BC of the Month, March 2007: Jon Sobel

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The purpose of this monthly series is to highlight an outstanding contributor to the site as chosen by the editorial staff. This designation is meant to recognize and celebrate those writers who not only shine by virtue of their talent, but whose ongoing participation gives all of us a reason to tune in each and every day. As new readers are continually discovering BC Magazine, we also hope to introduce these fine writers to a new audience.

Fans of the independent music scene who visit BC regularly already know that Jon Sobel is the go-to guy for up-to-date news on indie releases. Publisher Eric Olsen opines that Jon “…combines a musician's knowledge of the subtleties and intricacies of music and the music industry with a lifelong fan's passion and a gift for very fine writing. Jon has long been the indie artist's best friend on Blogcritics and his more recent forays into theater have been exceptional as well!”

A BC contributor since January of 2004, New York-based Jon is equally at home writing theater reviews and the occasional piece of political or social commentary, and indeed the quality of his writing has made him a favorite with readers and editors alike. Assistant music editor DJRadiohead offers this: “Jon Sobel is a fabulous writer and a key contributor to our music section. His writing has a literary quality to it and his work is imbued with a rare dignity and intelligence. Jon is better able to translate sound to word in his description than just about anyone I know. He's just a damn pleasure to read and edit.” Music editor Connie Phillips agrees that “Jon brings so much to the Music section with his reviews and round-ups of what's going on in the world of independent artists and recordings. He writes with a lot of knowledge, a little humor, and consistently in top-notch form.”

Jon doesn't just talk the talk when it comes to writing about music. In addition to holding down a day job as an IT professional and writing for BC, Jon is a working musician who fronts a band called Whisperado. You can hear some of their music on their Myspace page.

Before we get to the heart of the matter, a little background on Jon:

I have three lives. As an IT professional, I mind machines during the day. As a musician and songwriter, I lead the roots-rock/alt-country band Whisperado, run blues shows in New York City, and, when time allows, play bass as a sideman with other bands. As a writer, I review music, theater, and the occasional book or movie; once in a while I write something political, funny, or extra-stupid.

I’m fortunate to have been raised in a humanist family, immersed in music, literature and science. The family has included both writers and musicians. Grandpa Martin never finished high school but published a raft of self-help books, a few novels, and regular book reviews in The Jewish Post. He was also a published songwriter back in the days of sheet music. Grandma Pauline was a novelist and poet and also wrote for confessional magazines. My parents have both authored textbooks, and my mother is the only person I know to have earned a weekly paycheck for writing verse (funny story, that…).

I grew up in the Long Island suburbs, outside New York City, and then spent four years at Harvard studying English poetry – everything from Beowulf to Yeats. After college I toiled in a toy factory, worked as a substitute teacher, drove a wheelchair van, and made a semi-living as a working musician, before settling into the computer career that has supported me and my creative endeavors ever since. Since 1994 I’ve lived in Brooklyn.

Q & A: The Serious Stuff

A person could get tired just looking at your resume — writer, working musician, songwriter, musical entrepreneur — and all of this on top of the job that pays the bills. First of all, where do you find the time, and secondly, was this part of your life's plan, or are you making this up as you go along? And which of those varied personae do you find the most satisfying?

I’m mostly making it up as I go along. Writing is the one thing I always wanted to do, but I didn’t figure out what KIND of writing was my strong point until I started doing reviews, and that didn’t really happen until the age of the Web, when there were a lot more opportunities. At online publications you could actually get some readers without having to battle for a rare spot in an “old media” publication – I never really had the stomach for that, so I never made a serious go at trying to be a professional writer.

What I find interesting is that what really prepares you to write critical pieces is exactly what we always complained about in school – writing book reports and term papers. You think, “When am I ever going to need to do anything like this in real life?” And for most people it’s true – they don’t. But writers do, especially writers of short essays on current events, music, art, literature, sports etc. Those are basically book reports and term papers! So it seems that the one thing school DID prepare me to be was a writer.

Most of what I do I had some preparation for, but, at a higher level, picked up as I went along. I always found computers interesting – writing little BASIC programs back in junior high in the ‘70s, playing with those rinky-dink Commodore PET personal computers that we had in high school, and such – but I never thought I’d make a living working with computers. My Dad gave me summer jobs doing computer programming, which turned out to be very valuable, but for “real life” I assumed I’d be doing something liberal-artsy like writing – which ended up being true – just not for a living. At least not at this point.

How do I find the time? Good question. Two main factors. One: I’m a messy, scatterbrained person. I can only concentrate on something for a short period of time. This forces me to be extremely productive in small periods. For example, I’m writing these answers during a few spare minutes here, a few minutes there, spread out over several days during lunch hours, in between checking emails and cooking and rehearsing music and working out, etc. Even if I didn’t have a job, if I had all day to write and play music, I’d still do things like this in pieces, because that’s how I am. So I have to make the most of each piece of time.

Two: I don’t watch too much television. I watch some. I like TV. But it requires a lot of sitting still, which isn’t my strong point, and it’s also pretty much the opposite of productive. Keep your TV watching to a minimum and you’ll be a far more productive person.

The different things I do are satisfying in different ways. Playing music makes me happy acutely and immediately. Writing criticism is satisfying in two calmer ways: it exercises the brain, and it (sometimes) helps others. The blues shows, which I run once or twice a month, are part of the same subsystem for me – I can make people happy by a) giving performance opportunities to struggling musicians and b) presenting blues to blues-lovers in a city that’s sorely lacking in blues venues. (The blues scene in the suburbs is much more lively than in the city, where it’s practically non-existent these days – I don’t know why.) All that is probably a substitute for not having kids – I don’t know, do your own psychoanalysis.

In addition to paying the bills and providing structure (which, as a scatterbrained person, I need), my computer job lets me work with nice people and play with computers, both of which I like.

I listened to some Whisperado tracks on your Myspace page — you guys are good! You've recently celebrated your fourth anniversary; how did the whole band thing get started?

Thanks. Well, for most of my musical life I was pretty content to play in other people’s bands. It’s a satisfying thing to get good enough at your instrument (bass guitar, and I also play some piano and acoustic guitar) to be sought after by other bands and singer-songwriters. I wrote songs over the years, but they mostly weren’t very good – I certainly never had enough strong material for an act of my own. And I also never learned to sing. But then I started to write some songs I thought were stronger, and I wanted to have an outlet for them, and to get my ass out in front of a band and see what that was like.

Also, I had been writing a lot of reviews and I started to think that if I was going to be telling other people their music sucked, or they were bad singers or had crappy songs, I really ought to know something about what it was like from their perspective. Put my money where my mouth was. So I got a band together and took voice lessons. And here we are.

David, our drummer, is an old friend from bands of decades past – I met him in the very first band I joined after moving back to New York after college. He also played with me in an early version of my ex-wife Halley’s band. Patrick, our guitarist, is a well-known blogger – he runs the blog Making Light with his wife, Theresa. The two of them are well-known science fiction and fantasy editors with a combined IQ of 471 (I measured once when they weren’t looking). I knew Patrick from when we worked together backing up a singer-songwriter friend. He’s so far written only one song for Whisperado, but that’s okay – at this rate, after a mere 40 years together, we’ll have enough Patrick Nielsen Hayden songs for a whole set. He also spells me by singing lead on some cover tunes, and the sound of the band is defined in a big way by his Telecaster playing.

A lot of BC writers tend to stick to one section of the site or another, but your BC contributions, while leaning somewhat in the direction of music, are almost as varied in scope as your personal life, ranging from book and theater reviews to the occasional political piece. Is there any one part of the site that you consider to be "home" more so than the others?

Not really. I write more about music than anything else, so in that sense that’s my “home base,” but I probably have spent more time in the Politics section because that’s where you can get into (sometimes) fun arguments. Less lately, since I just haven’t had the time – also political arguments tend to make me angry, and who needs that? I also visit the Culture section pretty often. As far as music, most of my friends are musicians, and we talk about music all the time, so I don’t really need Blogcritics for musical companionship – I have that in the meat world. I do READ the Music section whenever I have a chance – I like to get other writers’ perspectives on things I think about a lot myself.

More recently, I’ve been pretty excited about doing more theater reviews. I’m not at the level of getting invited to review Broadway shows yet, but it seems that at the off- and off-off-Broadway level, reviews are more important to the producers. Broadway reviewers are much less powerful than they used to be – it’s the audience – mostly tourists — that decides what shows are successful. Only tourists can afford Broadway prices anyway – they’re people who have budgeted a big block of money for their New York City vacation, and a Broadway show is part of that. But smaller shows need all the promotional help they can get. Even very small-scale shows include a publicist in their budget because it’s that important to them, and those publicists are happy to invite reviewers like me in to cover their productions. Plus when you’re a theater reviewer you always get the best seats.

Also, reviewing theater you feel more of a personal connection with the production and the performers than you do with strangers who’ve sent you music they’ve recorded in a studio. I don’t mean you meet them – quite the opposite, you want to avoid that. I don’t like to meet anybody from the productions I review except the publicist. What I mean is it gives me a really good feeling to talk up an excellent play by a new playwright or a fantastic performance by a young or unknown actor. I really feel I might be making a significant difference for them.

Of course there are plenty of bad productions too, but I’ve gotten better at sensing in advance which ones are going to be worth seeing.

Another good thing about theater reviewing is that it’s forced me to develop the skill of writing fast. I can sit for weeks listening to a CD, but these plays usually only run for a month or so. So I feel it’s important to get my review published the very next day after I’ve seen the preview, so that if it’s a good review it can have the most helpful effect for them.

Your Indie Round-Up columns are a great place to go to find things that might normally fly under the radar of the average music lover. How do you find and pick the records you write about there?

Some of them come from Blogcritics postings. Some come directly from publicists who know me and send me CDs unsolicited, all of which I listen to and some of which I review. To some degree, they’ve gotten to know my tastes and interests, so I don’t get too badly flooded. Others come straight from artists, who are doing their own P.R. and have heard about me somewhere or read my reviews.

I try to review everything that I like. Sometimes I also write about recordings that I don’t like but that get me thinking for one reason or another, or that I expected to like but was disappointed in. Sometimes that’ll happen with a CD I’ve requested through Blogcritics, in which case, since I’m “obligated” write about it anyway, I’ll give it a piece of my mind. Very little time for that, though – I don’t request things unless I’m almost sure they’ll be good. So most of my reviews – probably 80% or so, maybe even more – are positive. 

You're a real (as opposed to a transplanted) New Yorker. How has growing up under the cultural influence of the city shaped your work?

I think living in and around the big city tends to expand your range of interests. That seems to be reflected in my writing.

When I was deciding on where to go to college, I had a chance to go to Swarthmore, which is one of the most selective small liberal arts schools in the country. Swarthmore has a really beautiful campus, and it’s not too far from Philadelphia, but I elected to go to Harvard instead and one major reason was that it was right in Cambridge/Boston. I’d grown up in the Long Island suburbs under the influence of New York City and when I left home I couldn’t wait to live in the thick of a city, so that’s what I did.

More so than Boston, New York is so huge it’s like a whole universe in itself. You could never possibly know every corner of even one of the five boroughs. By population, Brooklyn (where I live) would be the fourth largest city in the US if it were its own city (which it was until 1898). Queens is the most culturally diverse county in the country. (That’s what they say, anyway – I’m not sure how that claim is arrived at, but spend some time traveling around Queens and you’ll believe it.) Manhattan is Manhattan – still the center of the world in some ways, in spite of the spreading mall-ification and Disneyfication. The Bronx, too, would be a large city all on its own, and I know so little about it that it’s like another country to me. Staten Island has forts, open spaces, nature – and Republicans, talk about diversity!

Making your way as a New Yorker is challenging but extremely rewarding. No matter how active or successful you are, you’re still going to be a tiny fish in a big pond. But there are more interesting fish swimming around than you could possibly ever get to know. Just staying a healthy fish and avoiding the pond scum feels like a huge accomplishment. It’s hard to feel bad about your life when you live in a place like this and are out in the midst of it doing a bunch of stuff you like and not hiding quivering in a dark corner with a blanket over your head.

Living in the city exposes you to lots of different cultures and subcultures. Not only does that expand your interests and your curiosity, but it makes you have a larger sense of community. This is a broad generalization, but I think people in small towns feel more of a sense of community centered in their town, and in their family, but less of a sense of community with all of humankind. Maybe that explains why there are so many liberals and progressives in big cities.

Q&A: The Fun Stuff

What book/CD/DVD do you have more than one copy of, in case something happens to the original one?

That’s a more complicated question than it would have been back in the analog age. I don’t really have double copies of things, physically, but I’m in the process of copying my most valued CDs onto the computer (uncompressed, which takes up a lot of hard drive space). So that, in a sense, is my “more than one copy.”

Anyway, since it’s impossible for me to pick a single CD as my absolute favorite, I’ll answer the question with a book and a DVD. The book would be the complete works of W. B. Yeats – mostly for the poems, and secondarily for the plays. Unless you go back to Shakespeare and Milton, the English language really doesn’t get any better than Yeats. My two-copy DVD would be the movie Tremors. It’s the most perfect movie ever made. In fact I believe it’s the movie Yeats would have made, if he had made movies instead of written poems. Yeats died on my birthday, did you know that? Twenty-four years (exactly one generation) to the day before I was born. “Six Degrees of Fred Ward.”

If you had to pick one sense to do without, which of your five senses would it be?

That’s easy: sight. I have bad eyes anyway, so I’d be mentally more prepared to go blind than to go deaf or lose any other sense. Hearing – because of music (and certain people’s voices) – is too important as a source of pleasure. Touch, smell, and taste are also major pleasure senses. Hearing and smell are also really important for survival. I’d miss seeing beautiful sights and watching movies, but there are plenty of movies in my brain. I could definitely handle that better than losing any of the other senses. Might not be the most convenient for the people who’d have to help me around, but this interview is all about me, right?

What do you wish they'd do a series about on TV?

A girl who runs around in skimpy outfits killing vampires. Since that’s completely absurd, I’ll have to think of something else. Seriously, I had a tough time with this question because there’s way too much on TV already. Even the 5% of TV that’s worth watching is way too much – you could do nothing but watch TV all day. So I’m going to wish for a TV series about what happens when suddenly all TVs stop working. Think about it.

If you could, would you swap sexes for a week?

Sure, I’m fem-curious. Oh, wait a second – would I be having my period?

What do you think you'd learn if you could swap to the opposite sex?

I’d want to learn how much of my knowledge of women, painstakingly acquired over a lifetime, is right and how much is bullcrap. Also I’d learn how women really see me. ‘Cause this interview is all about me, after all. And rightly so, if I do say so myself. And I do say so. And rightly so.

What sports team will you love until the day you die?

The Mets. Dad was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and so the family loyalty of course switched to the Mets, who were born the year before I was. I don’t think that had anything to do with Yeats, incidentally. I found out, though, that my mom, who grew up in Manhattan and The Bronx, was – to the extent that she was a baseball fan – a Yankees fan. I didn’t learn that until well into my adulthood, but it still meant years and years of therapy before I could finally reconcile this bizarre bifurcation of the spirit.

What's one sign that you're a total nerd?

Oh, there are so many to choose from! I have a t-shirt with a picture of a Borg cube (from Star Trek) on it. Even my nerdy girlfriend won’t let me wear that one.

What's the first book you recall reading?

Hard to really remember, but I think the children’s book I remember most clearly is Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, about the boy who gets eaten by a lion. That was supercool. Of course I read a lot of other kids’ books before that – I know I read The Wizard of Oz because I still have the copy my parents got me when I was three, with my crayon drawings all over it. Come to think of it, that has a lion too. As for “grown-up” books, I’d say it was The Lord of the Rings. My Dad read The Hobbit to me over many nights as a bedtime story, and I liked it so much I insisted on going on to read the trilogy myself. I was seven years old, but the story’s pretty easy to follow even for a kid. And one thing The Lord of the Rings doesn’t have is child-confusing sex scenes. Or lions, for some reason.

What magazines do you subscribe to?

The New Yorker, Time Out New York, Wired, Macworld. Also a bunch of techie I.T. publications I get at work – exciting stuff like CIO Decisions, Infoworld, Mactech, and my favorite title, Disaster Recovery Journal.

Who is your favorite writer?

Among contemporary prose writers, I’d say T. C. Boyle. From earlier times, Thomas Hardy. One of my favorite nonfiction writers is John Lahr, who writes theater criticism for the New Yorker. He’s the son of Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in the movie The Wizard of Oz. See how it all connects?

Who is your least favorite writer?

Michael Crichton. When I was a kid I read tons of science fiction – anything I could get my hands on – and the only book I can recall actually not finishing was The Andromeda Strain, in spite of what seemed like it should have been a really interesting and scary story. I guess even as a child I had some kind of instinctive feel for bad writing. Since then, I’ve actually read a couple of his other books. He definitely comes up with some good stories. Unfortunately he writes like Jennifer Lopez sings.

Do you have a favorite Blogcritic?

I’d say Duke de Mondo – he’s the only individual Blogcritics writer I subscribe to the RSS feed for – but it seems a little unfair to pick someone who doesn’t post frequently. Among the more prolific writers, I really like reading Nik Dirga’s good solid music criticism.

What do you think is the best part of Blogcritics?

The community aspect – it’s like we’re all on one big team. Support and recognition from fellow writers is hard to find in other places.

What song is stuck in your head right now?

“Smile” by Lily Allen, because I happened to hear it just now.

What do you have set as the home page in your browser?

My Gmail login page. I use Gmail only for personal emails from actual friends and co-conspirators – not for list stuff. So any message I get at that address is almost always something I actually want to read. If I didn’t have any webmail, I’d probably have the BBC News as my home page. Blogcritics wouldn’t be a bad choice either – except that then I’d never get any work done.

Who was your idol as you were growing up?

Isaac Asimov. I wanted to be a science fiction writer so badly, and he was The Man – an endless fountain of amazing ideas. Also the exaggerated egotism in the introductions he wrote was very amusing to me – I was a kid who’d been taught not to toot his own horn.

What are three items you would need to have on a desert island?

Assuming people don’t count as items, I’d start with an iPod. I don’t actually own one, but if sentenced to a desert island I’d get one of those damn things and fill it up with my favorite music. It would be a solar-powered iPod, of course, and it would have a built-in shortwave radio receiver. I think if O. Henry or Rod Serling were around today, they’d write a story about the last man on Earth, who’s a huge music fan and is perfectly content to live the rest of his life just listening to music on his solar-powered iPod – but then he loses his headphones (which were also the last headphones on Earth).

My second item would be a seat of the proper height to sit on for meditating, because if left to my own devices without any distractions or human contact I rapidly go insane and meditating tends to help with that. Third, a bottomless pint of Guinness, like in that leprechaun joke. That’s because meditating and listening to music by myself could get old real fast. That’s assuming there’s plenty of food on the island – I don’t want to have to waste one of my three items on a Star Trek food replicator. I will if I have to, though.

What's the best place to get a meal in your neck of the woods?

Calexico. It’s a really good, inexpensive Mexican restaurant around the corner from my house. Spicy, filling, cheap comfort food with big portions.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

Make churches pay property taxes. Then we’ll see who’s really “godly.” I mean it. If churches had to pay taxes, they’d have to charge their members really big dues. Then people wouldn’t just join a church because their parents did, or out of peer pressure. And maybe people would start to see through the cloud of indoctrination and myth that prevents them from making sensible decisions and making up their own minds about things. (Also take away the “no parking in front of churches” rule. Make those ministers drive around looking for a parking space just like everyone else. Stupid ministers.) Anyway, with all the money we get from the churches’ taxes, we can exempt delicious Mexican restaurants instead.

Sobel on Sobel

We asked Jon to pick his favorites from among his articles, and this is his list. Check these out, and if you’re not a fan of Jon’s yet, check out the rest of his archive and find out what you’ve been missing.

Two of my favorites are among my more personal essays: All I Really Need to Know I Learned from John Hiatt Lyrics and Indie-Cision 2006: An American In Nashville. They were both a lot of fun to do.

Mel Call! got a lot of positive response and reminded me that I could be funny.
Getting back to music: Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs was fun. Nothing like publishing a “best ever” list to generate controversy. Leaving out John Entwistle caused a bit of a scandal.
My interview with the band Controlling the Famous was a nice opportunity to stretch out as a writer, even if the band hasn’t (yet) become as big as I imagined they might. Come on, guys!
And getting to write up Rosanne Cash’s CD release show was a blast, especially when the CD turned out to be so amazingly good.

For analysis, I think I did a pretty good job on Janis Joplin.
My favorite book review is the one of Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry – The Untold Story of an American Legend. For me it was history, music, and personal experience all rolled into one article.

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About Lisa McKay

  • DJRadiohead

    Congratulations, Jon, and well deserved.

  • jaz

    gratz Jon!!

    well deserved…

    for Jon…. Low Notes.

  • Howard Dratch

    Thanks. I enjoyed the interview by Lisa and the thoughts and links to Jon’s articles.

    I think we loved Isaac Asimov because he saw a world that was basically good vs. evil with the good guys winning. His was a positive legacy in a time when I am not too sure the good guys are still ahead. Now I have to read T.C. Boyle.

  • Duke De Mondo

    wow, that was an excellent excellent interview. and what a joy to see you spotlighted herein, Jon. totally 100% deserved.

  • Chris Beaumont

    Nice to see another Mets Fan!