In his new memoir, Cornflakes With John Lennon: And Other Tales From A Rock ‘N’ Roll Life, esteemed music journalist Robert Hilburn draws on some of the seminal events and encounters from throughout his career, delivering a narrative rich with insight and off-the-record observations.
As the pop-music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times from 1970-2005, Hilburn approached his subjects—whether emerging bands with new albums or established artists during in-depth interviews—with patience and persistence, assessing their faults while encouraging them to live up to the promise of their talent.
Since leaving the L.A. Times, Hilburn has concentrated on writing books, Cornflakes With John Lennon being the first installment of that endeavor. He is also a member of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the following conversation with Donald Gibson of Blogcritics Magazine, Robert Hilburn discusses the craft of music criticism, expounding on the merits of a great album, the measure of creative conviction, and what distinguishes the best artists from everybody else on the radio.
As a music critic, how do you discern what’s good apart from your own preferences and tastes?
When I was young, I loved movies and music. But I thought, Look, I can’t be a film critic because I don’t know enough about the history of film. I don’t know German film and all that kind of stuff. But I said, “I know rock ‘n’ roll.” I was there when Elvis and Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry all came up. I was buying records. I could tell which artists [were] going to be important and last and which ones weren’t. I just had a confidence that I knew what rock ‘n’ roll was. It’s like if you taste a piece of something, you can tell it’s sugar; you can identify it. You know the essence of it; you feel the essence of it. So I felt I could apply that to rock ‘n’ roll, in a sense. What I was looking for was an artist who excited me as much as Elvis did or Chuck Berry did or Jerry Lee Lewis did. Who could rise to that level? Who could make an original statement as opposed to just making music that was here today and gone tomorrow?
When I would get a record, [I would think], How does it sound? Is it appealing? Is it interesting? Does it sound like something you’d like to listen to? That has to be the first criteria. It’s got to be appealing. The second thing I would think of is the vocal. How convincing is the vocal? Does it sound like this really matters to this person? Is it catchy or is it interesting? Or is it just kind of wimpy? And the third thing is what is the record saying? What are they trying to do on the record? What’s the point of view of the record? How original is it? How creative is it? Does it bend the rules? Does is it tell you more about yourself or about society? So I was looking for something that sounded good, that seemed convincing to me, and really did kind of step away from the herd of pop music. Of the, say, 5,000 people who’ve made hits, if you take 20 of those people away, rock ‘n’ roll would’ve collapsed as an art form. Because everybody else feeds off the energy of the really great artists. Think if you took away the Beatles and Bob Dylan, for starters. Look at the hole that would’ve left.