You know that wannabe rock journalist kid modeled after Cameron Crowe in the hit movie Almost Famous? That was me. Seriously, I nearly cried watching that movie because it so directly mirrored my own experience growing up as a teenager who wanted nothing more in life than a career writing about the music that I so dearly loved.
Because as much as I loved growing up listening to the music of Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, and the rest, it’s possible I may have loved reading about it even more.
Growing up as a kid in the counterculture of the sixties, there was of course no shortage of available magazines and newspapers devoted to the subjects of rock and roll and the ongoing cultural revolution it spawned. Rolling Stone, in the original folded-over newsprint version was widely acknowledged as the kingpin of the lot — but there were others. Eye Magazine and Crawdaddy! were two of the first that caught my eye.
But I think the first rock magazine that I truly identified with was Circus. The magazine actually started out in the early sixties as Hullaballo. But, as with so many other things during the sixties, they soon felt the need to change their name in order to distance themselves from the teenybopper bands they once specialized in covering, and cultivate a hipper image. Circus Magazine’s specialty really wasn’t so much the writing as it was the pictures, which were often published in full color two-page spreads on high quality glossy paper.
Still, it was Circus where I first discovered the real art of writing about music. Specifically, they had this writer named Ed Naha who did a column that I want to say was called “Rock-A-Rama.” Naha’s specialty was basically skewering then current records by writing the shortest reviews humanly possible, and making them read funny as hell.
I’m not 100 percent sure on this, but I’m pretty certain that it was Naha who penned the now famous review of prog-rock supergroup GTR that simply read SHT. I’m equally certain that Naha was the inspiration for the scene in the movie This Is Spinal Tap where that band’s album “Shark Sandwich” is reviewed as “Shit Sandwich.” The last I heard, Naha had gone on to some renown as a critic of psychotronic horror movies.
What I soon learned however, was that the real jackpot for funny, irreverent rock criticism was Creem Magazine. Creem covered the big names like Zeppelin, Bowie, and the Stones just like everybody else of course. But they also championed the more fringe elements of rock and roll at the time, giving ample coverage to people like The Stooges, The MC5, The Dictators, and The New York Dolls. Where the feel of Circus could best be described as slick L.A., Creem was more like equal parts greasy Detroit, and seedy New York.
Creem had it all. To fully appreciate this magazine, you also had to read it cover to cover. Sometimes you’d find the best stuff in the magazine in places like the letters section or the photo captions (which to this day remain some of the funniest ever). Creem even used to run these fake liquor ads modeled after the whiskey manufacturer Dewar’s Profiles, where a rock star celebrity would champion their “Boy Howdy” beer. It was just priceless stuff.
Creem also had some great writers like Robot A. Hull and Lisa Robinson. None of these however were better than the late, great Lester Bangs. Bangs was one of those writers who seemed to write best in a sort of gonzo style seemingly born of little sleep, and fueled by what had to be a potent pharmaceutical concoction.
In Bangs prose, absolutely nothing was off-limits, including — and perhaps especially — the sacred cows of rock and roll. He once deemed Mick Jagger a “fake moneybags revolutionary,” praised the “honesty” of then perceived lightweights the Guess Who, and wrote a review on the Troggs with the provocactive title of “James Taylor Marked For Death.” His interviews in Creem with Lou Reed, which were more like aggro-fueled confrontations, are absolutely legendary. As a result, I instantly fell in love with this guy’s writing. Bangs was proof positive that possibly the only thing as cool as actually being a rock star, was writing about them.
Of course, like most people who end up writing about rock and roll, I had to first try my hand at playing it. What they say about most rock critics being frustrated rock stars is unfortunately absolutely true. So I first tried being the singer in a rock and roll band. Although I could carry a tune, what I soon figured out was that all the long hair, crushed velvet jackets, and platform heels in the world, couldn’t mask the fact that I just was not “rock star” material. Okay, so I sucked. You can sue me for it later.
So instead I started writing about it. The first thing I did was practice my ass off in my parents’ basement by writing and drawing my own little rock magazine. From there, I moved on to the high school newspaper, where my column “Rock Talk” became something of a hit at school. There was an undeniable feeling of power walking down the halls at my high school, and getting the acknowledging shouts of “Hey, Rock Talk! When’s the next big concert?,” as I passed by.
It was also during this time that I would hang out in the hotel lobbys where visiting rock stars stayed, hoping to get an interview. I actually got lucky a few times, scoring a sit-down once with T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, and partying with the likes of Uriah Heep and Rod Stewart and The Faces.
I even met Cameron Crowe himself — writing for freaking Rolling Stone at the same eighteen years of age I was — in the elevator at the Hilton when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were staying there. Like Crowe in the movie, I also got to know all the local scenesters and even the groupies — who had names like Anita Bandita and Stars N Stripes (who was famous for her patriotic taste in bras and panties).
In my mid-twenties, I finally got my first “real gig” as a writer covering the then emerging rap music phenomenon for Seattle’s music rag The Rocket. The pay was great too — ten bucks a review, and all the promotional albums and tickets you could carry home.
By this time, I had adopted a more serious “analytical” style of writing modeled more after people like Griel Marcus and Dave Marsh, then my original hero Lester Bangs. As I was always a bit nerdish in my approach to music, I just wasn’t really quick enough or funny enough to write like Bangs.
Anyway, the rap guys I was covering warmed up to me fairly quickly. This was at least partially I would assume, because of the fact that I was a journalist who took what they did seriously. Soon I was interviewing everybody from Public Enemy to Run-DMC to Ice T. Eventually, I went to work for two record labels promoting Seattle rapper Sir-Mix-A-Lot.
So I guess the first thing I would say to anybody aspiring for a career in music journalism is simply, don’t. That is, unless you like a lot of late hours spent huddled over a computer screen writing for little to no pay. The chances are also good you’ll pick up a few nasty habits along the way much as I did.
If that little bit of advice doesn’t dissuade you though, the second thing I would say is be absolutely passionate about what you do. This means nothing less than total zombie-like immersion into your chosen area of expertise. You should be living, eating, breathing, and excreting it nonstop 24 hours a day, possibly at the risk of alienating your friends, family, and any remaining corpse of a social circle you once may have had.
Know your stuff too. Because every time you wag your willie out there in public view for all the world to see, displaying whatever knowledge you may think you have, there are going to be at least a dozen or so armchair experts ready to call you out on it. Even your favorite Rockologist here has been taken to task on a number of occasions for things I’ve written right here at Blogcritics (and you angry Christine McVie fans can stop with the hate mail anytime now).
It is also a good idea to be as objective as possible when putting your opinion out there on display. At the end of the day of course, it is just your opinion — and you already know the joke about what most of them can be compared to.
But unless you don’t have a particular problem with looking foolish at best, and lacking credibility at worst, it is probably in your best interest that your “opinion” comes from an informed perspective. And that if need be, it can be backed up with fact. It is one thing to say you just don’t quite “get” Jimi Hendrix’s guitar style — it’s quite another to say that the boy couldn’t play.
As a rock critic, you should also always try your best to seperate the professional from the personal. If sombody like Al Stewart once stole your girlfriend (as he did mine), it is probably in your own best interest as a writer to resist the urge to write about him for at least about twenty years. Or at least, until the experience is far back enough in the rear view mirror that you can once again put his music in the proper perspective, or at least be able to laugh about the experience — as I did in a recent article here.
So you wanna be a rock and roll critic? Well, there you have it.
If bad hours, lousy or no pay, the increased potential for years of addictive and self-destructive behaviour, and the allure of becoming a social outcast are what turn your crank, then I suggest you fire up that web browser immediately and start those engines, mister.
You also might want to find some really depressing music to put on so you can start working on the trademark rock critic persona of being a dour old crank.
Lou Reed’s Berlin and Neil Young’s On The Beach have always worked for me.