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Jim DeRogatis is a music-journalist extraordinaire, and if you take an interest in rock music in general or have read any record reviews over the years, chances are his name rings a bell. He's the official pop music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, and over the years he's authored several great books: Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips (Broadway Books, 2006); Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock (Hal Leonard, 2003); Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the '90s (Da Capo, 2003), and, (my personal favorite) Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic (Broadway Books, 2000).
His articles have also appeared in magazines such as Spin, Guitar World, Modern Drummer, Penthouse, and GQ, and he's also worked as an assistant editor at Request and Rolling Stone magazines. In addition to being a music scribe, he co-hosts Sound Opinions, the "world's only rock 'n' roll talk show", (with Greg Kot) which is syndicated nationally via American Public Media.
It was reading his book "Let it Blurt" (about Lester Bangs) that made me want to track DeRogatis down, and ask him point-blank questions about music journalism in general. I figured anyone that could tackle a subject as fascinating as Lester Bangs with the same kind of passion, humor and intensity, (that does Bangs justice), would be a fascinating guy to interview. Thus, here's our conversation:
JNOW: How did you get into music journalism? Was it the classic case of hearing particular albums and realizing you had formed strong opinions about them?
Before I can talk about music journalism in particular, I think I have to say how I got into journalism, or writing, period, and that was that I have always been a voracious reader. I do not think it's possible to be a good writer if you aren't first and foremost a reader, and that means reading far and wide in as many subjects as possible, not just the ones that hold your immediate interest, like music. So I read, and because I loved music as much as writing, I read the great writing about music: Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer. And I aspired to be a fraction as good as any of those greats! When I was a senior at Hudson Catholic Regional High School for Boys in Jersey City, I had a journalism class; all the smart kids took Masterpieces of Western Literature, and the football team took journalism, because it was about short sentences. I took both. I was driving my teacher crazy with questions like "What is the New Journalism?" and "What is the difference between criticism and journalism?" and "Where does investigative reporting go after Watergate and Silkwood?" and he finally said, "Listen, you've got your A; please just stop coming to class! Go interview a hero in your chosen field and you're done." I picked Lester Bangs, and I spent a long day with him in his apartment at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue across the Hudson River. It was an incredibly influential experience, and one of the many things he said that always stuck with me, and which is certainly true of me as a young music lover and aspiring critic was, "I was always a fanatical fan, and I always had fanatical opinions that I wanted to inflict on people." I was certain I wanted to be a music critic from that day forward, April 14, 1982. And I was devastated when I heard the news on WNEW-FM in New York that Lester had died two weeks later, April 30, 1982.
JNOW: Don't laugh at this second question, but I noticed on your bio page on your website you make "serving as an assistant editor at Request and Rolling Stone" almost sound like jail sentences. Were they that bad? Is there anything you'd like to say on the record regarding Jann Wenner and your time at Rolling Stone?
My time at Request was incredible, and I worked with two of the best editors I have ever encountered in journalism: Keith Moerer and Susan Hamre. I was the assistant editor under them, and my time at Request was like grad school for me. I had left a position as a reporter/columnist at The Jersey Journal, where I spent five years as a city reporter, but I was burned out and uncertain about what I wanted to do next. I moved to Minneapolis because I had friends there, and was fully ready to work at Kinko's if I had to while writing at night at home because I couldn't imagine not doing so. Instead, I lucked into this job being paid to write about music and edit music copy for the first time in my life, and it was heaven, even though my salary was only a third of what I'd been making at the paper. Rolling Stone, however, was a different experience entirely: Keith from Request was hired to be the music editor, and I went there as his deputy music editor. Jann Wenner told us: "Rolling Stone needs to change or die!"
This was 1994, and they'd sort of bulloxed that whole little alternative rock thing. Of course, nobody ever really changes anything at Stone except Jann himself, and the job turned out to be living hell for Keith and me. It was like we had the keys to a Ferrari but we could only drive it five miles an hour. Jann's whims dictate everything. We were both looking to extricate ourselves when I sped up the process and got us both fired. I've told that story so many times I'm sick to death of it. It involves Hootie and the Blowfish and my big mouth.
JNOW: In "Let it Blurt", you gave an excellent portrayal of Lester Bangs, someone who in rock-lore had a large cult following, but from my impression was largely mis-understood by various rock critics and had a reputation that un-fairly preceded him. Was it your goal to bring out the human side of him and set the record straight about his gifts as a writer?
I'm not sure he had a reputation that unfairly preceded him; more like he had a one-dimensional reputation for people who didn't really know or read him – sort of like this mad wild man of rock writing, its Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one – and of course, as with any artist or public figure, there was a man behind that public persona. I wanted to shed more light on his brilliance as a writer, and add depth to the perception of him as a human being. And I hope that I succeeded with both, to some degree.
JNOW: Recently I came across your Best of 2007 concert list for the Chicago Sun Times, and seeing Fall Out Boy at #1 and Justin Timberlake as #2, I almost want to ask you if you're worried Lester will come back from the grave and haunt you for these selections?
Those were both great concerts, for what they were! (They were also listed chronologically, my friend, not in order of superiority!) But Lester was nothing if not totally unpredictable and wide and varied in his tastes. Yes, he loved and gave voice and intellectual grounding to the punk and heavy-metal aesthetics. But he also loved Anne Murray, Olivia Newton-John, tons of bubblegum pop (the Timberlakes of his day) and countless other artists that almost nobody liked but him (see especially: the Shaggs). Any way, I never said I wanted to be Lester when it came to emulating his aesthetic. What the heck did he know, anyway? If you don't think, as a critic, that your taste is better than everyone else's, well, I just don't think you're ever going to be very convincing as a critic.
JNOW: Has music journalism suffered in your opinion due to the advent of technology, (ie online vs. print) or do you think it's enhanced it?
The Net has enhanced music journalism to the extent that a universe of information is now a mouse click away. When I first read about a German art-rock band called Neu! from the early '70s, it took me four years to track down my own copy of their first album. Now that I just dropped that name, anyone who's curious can read reams of stuff about the band, hear all of their music and even correspond via email with the players in, oh, about five minutes flat. That can only be good. The point of your question, I think, is to ask whether bloggers are making critics irrelevant. I don't think so. The critic brings a wealth of insight and journalistic talent and resources to the job that the average blogger does not; he or she is just a person with an opinion. This is not to belittle what they do: I love it! It has always been a vital part of the discourse in rock: Before there were blogs, there were fanzines, and I wrote for other zines and did my own for 10 years before I was paid a dime to write about music (at Request, as I said). Back then, you had to sneak into Kinko's in the middle of the night to run off 500 copies of your 8 1/2 by 11-inch zine on your pal's key card. Now, you just slop it up on the Web. And that's great.
JNOW: What's your take on music blogs & sites in general? They seem to run the gamut from "here's pictures of my friends at last night's show" to almost essay-laden-arrogance. Is there an in-between? Is your "Sound Opinions" show your answer to this? It must be nice to clear the air in that format.
There are great blogs, and there are awful blogs. The latter outnumber the former by about 9 to 1, but that doesn't mean anything: Great magazines are outnumbered by lousy magazines and great albums are outnumbered by awful ones by at least 9 to 1 as well. There is an in-between. You just have to ferret it out. But the same is true of any worthwhile writing or art. The vast majority of everything is mediocre. The point of "Sound Opinions" is that the one thing that Greg Kot and I cannot do when writing for the newspaper or our books is to grab you by the collar and say, "LISTEN TO THIS!" On the radio, we can play you the music we're talking about RIGHT NOW. Also, we can have all at once, immediately and unrehearsed, the spirited conversation we'd have about our reviews if they were in the paper on Sunday and we ran into each other in the balcony at a show on Monday night. Same conversation; it's just on the air now! This is what everyone who loves music does: You rave about some discovery you've made and try to convince your friends that it will change their lives, and you rant about something you bought that was a complete and utter hype. If we cannot fight about music, what on earth is there worth fighting about, since music covers every aspect of life?
JNOW: Have you ever re-visited some of your writing over the years and said to yourself: "Wow, I was a little hard on that album." Do you have any anecdotes of re-visiting something you might have passed on the first time?
Never trust any critic who doesn't on occasion double-back on him or herself. Our relationship to music changes with time, and that's true for everyone. Um, off the top of my head, at this date and time, I would say I was way too kind to R.E.M.'s "Monster" and just a little too harsh on the Smashing Pumpkins' "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness." But I could give you tons of examples.
JNOW: What can you tell us about your upcoming book about Sheperd Paine? And how did this idea come about?
It is nice, when you live music and criticism pretty much 24/7, to have one aspect of your life (besides wife and daughter) that has nothing whatsoever to do with music. Kot coaches high school basketball; I study military history and enjoy building and painting military miniatures. It's a complete geek thing, though not as bad as being a Trekkie or something, I hope. Shep Paine is, quite simply, the Lester Bangs of miniatures and modeling; he wrote the book (several of them, in fact), but there was never a book cataloging all of his work in one place and taking him through the broad arc of his career. My book [Sheperd Paine: The Life and Work of a Master Modeler and Military Historian] was my attempt to do what François Truffaut did for Alfred Hitchcock, championing and explaining the life and work of a great artist.
JNOW: What kind of advice can you give to our readers who want to become music writers?
This always sounds deceptively glib, or maybe overly simple, but write, write, write, write, write, and then, write some more. And all the while you'd better be reading, reading, reading, reading! (See my very first sentence above.) Don't worry about who's reading you, or if anyone is reading you at all; just write! In your reading, see what works for other writers, and try to use those things yourself; I don't mean particular words or phrases, I mean the way pieces are constructed, language is used, ideas are expressed. Sooner or later, you will collect a toolbox full of these things, and that will become your style. And if you are meant to be a writer, and have any talent at all, in time, people will read you and your work will be noticed. But above all, you just have to do it and keep doing it and not let anything (like the need to make money or get a "real" job) stop you.
JNOW: Thanks Jim for answering our questions!