Music journalism and I have had a rocky relationship. If you have read any of my reviews, such as the one about Mr. Rogers’ album, you will see that I am not writing about music in a conventional way. My writing style probably drives some readers and editors crazy but you know what, I don’t care.
I read hundreds of music articles and reviews a month and, as with regular journalism, it is the unconventional reviews which break the usual rules that I find the most interesting. It is what I do here. If an album reminds me of something I want to say that is semi-related I’ll take it there faster than another rap artist gets his ass capped.
Well, it’s partially because I think music reviews that go beyond just telling the nuts and bolts are more entertaining to write and to read. I will take a review by rock critics Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs over a typical music reviewer any day and because I am insecure when it comes to writing about music.
I entered California Polytechnic University in Pomona, Cal in 1991. The school was well known for its architectural, electrical engineering programs as well as other fields. What it was not known for was its journalism program, which is the field I switched to within six months of my start there.
The bad news? The program was so small there were less than 30 students taking the newspaper part of the program, which meant everyone worked for the twice-weekly newspaper, The Poly Post.
The good news? The program was so small everyone had to work for the newspapers. I mention this not to brag – far from it – but to admit something I don’t usually share. You see, after graduation I went on to work for newspapers for about 15 years, writing an average of 10 stories a week. I wrote mostly news stories but also columns, book reviews, etc. I wrote about everything from how to build a meth lab – during a murder trial involving a fire – to serial killers, to many school board and budget controversies. There was, however, one area of journalism I steered clear of: Music journalism.
My first assignment as a newspaper reporter was to cover a fusion jazz concert. I had no idea what fusion jazz was and rather than do the smart thing – research it – I just went to the show. I listened, I took notes, and then went up to interview the lead singer. My first question: What is fusion jazz? Having shown my ignorance the interview went downhill from there. My Editor said it was barely publishable but he printed it.
My next assignment was to cover a Cajun band concert. Did I learn from my first failure? Did I have any idea what they were doing?
So I began the interview by again demonstrating my ignorance asking them to explain what Cajun music was. They answered but it was difficult to evaluate how good it was when I had never heard this type of music before.
Soon I switched beats and began covering other subjects at the newspaper and when I was editor the last thing I needed to do was worry about whether I was missing some music journalism gene.
I attended some great concerts – the Untouchables, Mojo Nixon, No Doubt (back when they were good ska instead of crappy pop), Dramarama and the Meat Puppets – but I let others write about it.
But when Social Distortion came to town I decided it was time to try again. Big mistake.
I had liked their earlier albums but considered their new album a poppy sell-out. I had heard rumors that there had been rioting the day before when they played another local college.
I went on to break two tenets of journalism: Double check all facts and keep your opinions to yourself during an interview.
The guys in the band were all friendly and cool until they asked me whether I was ready to begin the interview.
I began by asking them about the riot the day before. There was no riot the day before, lead singer Mike Ness said. Rather than acknowledging that he was probably right I held my ground and he grew increasingly frustrated.
Fine, he said, let’s move on. What other questions do you have?
Well, I said, trying the oldest journalism trick in the book some say you guys have sold out.
“Who says that?” He asked. I think he’d seen this trick before.
I admitted I did.
He asked what I knew about selling out and he had a point. I began eying the door which was a good thing because it’s exactly where he told me to go.
The article was a mess, a disgrace. It was a low point in my journalism career. I swore I would never try music journalism again.
And yet, here I am. It always reminds me of the classic line, which has been attributed to various musicians: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I wonder: Am I alone in this struggle?