Yesterday I chatted on the phone with the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts/radio shows, Chicago Public Radio's very own Sound Opinions, which you should listen to if you like pop music. He's also the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and the author of several books, including a biography of Lester Bangs. We had a lot to talk about in just 40 minutes or so so let's just get to it.
What's your method for listening to an album before you review it?
It depends on the record. If it's a new Britney Spears record, sitting and listening once fairly intensely as I read the morning roundup of blogs is all it's going to take, whereas a new Wilco record or something that's going to be a little deeper or more complex is going to live with me a while. I'm going to listen while I'm working, I'm going to listen in the car, listen while I'm cooking. I'm old school that way: I hate listening on the computer. I need to have a shiny disc that I can haul to the car. Occasionally, I even listen in the bathroom.
Do you use headphones?
I don't do that that often unless I'm working and my wife is sleeping. In terms of actually giving it the headphone test, no.
Why do you think that the analysis and reporting of rock and roll is a realm that's primarily occupied by male writers?
That's an old question, and it's one I've been debating with some of my peers since basically I started. There was a great class of female rock critics who were a part of Greg's and my class of critics, and they included Ann Powers, who is now the head rock critic at the LA times, and Lorraine Ali, the rock critic at Newsweek: I worked with her a lot when I was at Rolling Stone. And also Evelyn McDonnell, who was at the Miami Herald until recently. Evelyn and Anne did Rock She Wrote together, the first anthology of female rock critics. Lorraine and I agree on this--she's insulted when she's considered a female rock critic, as the girls in L7 said, "Fuck this female rock stuff: I wanna be a rock band." Lorraine's in that camp, and Evelyn and Ann, obviously, putting together this book, thought about this a lot. I'd fight with them on panels on stuff in a good-natured way and say "You're right, there is this old boys network. We're the access keepers in terms of publishing new voices." But they put the emphasis on the "boys" part--I think it should have been on the "old" part of it, because it was no easier for me as a fat precocious kid from Jersey City to get published in the Village Voice or Musician magazine or Rolling Stone when I had such audacious ideas like Hüsker Dü was infinitely better than Bruce Springsteen in 1987 . It was no easier for a Hispanic gay guy or a black woman or Anne and Evelyn to get published. In fact, it became easier for them because they were women and everybody wanted to publish women. It was still hard if you were a young black boy or fat young Italian kid from Jersey. I hate sounding like Dan Quayle when I talk about this but there is this incestuous little club. How do you get published in Spin? It's really good to sleep with one of the editors or to go to college with him or her. That's the only way you're going to interview Radiohead for Spin. It doesn't matter how great a journalist you are, you've gotta be in the club. The media elite that Quayle talked about kind of does exist and it's hard to break into it. That having been said, certainly Ann and Evelyn did as well as Kot and I at the Herald and Times. The fact of the matter is, is that there isn't that many jobs. There's probably three dozen max newspaper music criticism jobs in America.
I was happy to hear you defending Ringo on Sound Opinions last week. Who is your favorite Beatle and why?
You gotta go with Lennon as far as I'm concerned. He was just the most perverse prick. He was the rock and roll soul of it. Complicated and complex and by no means perfect: that band would piss on its audience, literally, in Hamburg. He was a punk rocker. Even later when he was home baking bread, allegedly, he never followed anybody's expectations: "I don't believe in Beatles." This is of course wishful thinking, and as Lester's biographer I never liked to play "What would the dead hero do today?" "What would Kurt do today?" "What would Lester think?" But I do believe that Lennon would be appalled by the Beatles nostalgia. He was very much about living in the moment.
I think George was too.
Yeah and to his credit he was a really classy dude. We had Tom Petty on the radio show once and he told this story about how George Harrison's favorite thing to do was to drive his bulldozer around the giant farm he owned where he'd grow his own pot. If I was a gazillionaire, having a farm in Hawaii with a pot farm and a bulldozer seems like a good thing to do.
I heard Peter Bogdanovich on the show talking about how Tom Petty liked telling George Harrison stories. That seems like a pretty cool afternoon, hearing Petty talk about Harrison.
That's what the whole radio show is about: getting in touch with that part of everybody that's still a fan. To hear Tom Petty talking about Harrison is like any 13 year old kid today talking about Jeff Tweedy or the Arcade Fire.: "Oh my god, you know them, you met them?"
How do you and your team agree on who will appear in-studio on your show? Have you ever disagreed on someone, a musician/group who one of you thinks is interview-worthy while the other doesn't?
It starts with interview worthy. Our basic criteria is that we have to be enthusiastic about the music. They have to be as good say talker as they are a performer. If one of us loves the music and the other one is like "This is undoubtedly newsworthy," that's cool. We've been offered some huge names. Who's that fucking wimp with the acoustic guitar...
Yeah! John Mayer's people were begging us to come on the show, and we were like, no. We would have Dave Matthews on, although both of us despise him. The opportunity to get in his face--"What's with the fuckin' 20 minute violin solo?"--would be good. We've interviewed him individually for the newspaper and he can play on that level. But John Mayer basically seems like a nice guy whose music sucks, so why would we want to beat him up? We don't ever want to be Howard Stern, just to sandbag them unless they're a big newsmaker. I cornered Perry Farrell and tried to ask him some tough questions about the corporate nature of Lollapalooza and I had no qualms airing that because he's putting on this multimillion-dollar endeavor and we're going to hold him responsible. We had the head of the Grammys on a couple of years ago and he got so mad he hung up on us. I don't mind that, but just to sandbag someone and be shitty to them in the Mancow or Stern way, that's despicable.
Why do you think people like claiming that they knew a band before it was famous?
Everybody has that hipster credential thing: they want to have gotten there first. It comes down to the fact that rock and roll is the ultimate democratic art form. If we're talking about Hannah Montana--the average 11 year old is entirely convinced to the core of her being that she knows more and understands more about Hannah Montana than I ever will. Let's say I'd have to review Hannah Montana and the Rolling Stones. I'd get 50 emails from Hannah fans saying "You stupid old man, you don't understand," and 50 emails from Rolling Stones fans saying "You stupid punk kid, you'll never appreciate that Stones." As long as that continues, I'm doing OK. Everybody has this possessive thing about rock and roll: I use that term broadly, from Public Enemy to Hannah Montana to Arcade Fire. It all belongs to them. Somebody's not going to get in Ebert's face and argue the merits of "No Country for Old Men" and think that they know more about film than he does, because they don't. Whether they liked it or not is up to them, but they don't know more than Roger, but everybody knows more about music than everybody else. That's the ultimate trump card. "Oh yeah? Well I saw Hüsker Dü when they rehearsed in the closet, screw you."
Chicago's rappers seem to have clever lyrics and social consciousness in common. Do you think it's a coincidence or something about the city?
I absolutely think it's something about coming out of Chicago. This is not a place that tolerates pretension well, with notable exceptions, obviously--we produced Billy Corgan. I think you have to be real here and you can't be fronting, to use the rap term. I should preface this by saying that I've gotten beaten up in some well-publicized critical dustups by the likes of Kelefa Sanneh at the New York Times--I am a rockist. "Rockist" I believe is code for racist. Because I happen to favor the more musically inventive hip-hop--I still think "Paul's Boutique" and De la Soul broke ground that few artists subsequently have built on. I happen to think that 50 Cent's despicable misogynist homophobic music is reverse racist in the sense that he's championing violence in his own community. He's horrible. The message is vapid and hollow and false, because he's no longer what he claims to be, if he ever was. According to some people, then, I don't understand hip-hop, which is crap. I mean hey, Rhymefest and Common, and Kanye and Lupe are African-American, and they have more realistic, more common black experiences I think than 50 Cent. Maybe 50 Cent is genuine, maybe he had that gangster upbringing, but let's face it, it's was much more common for a kid on the South Side to be working at the Gap and not be making enough money every day to take the bus to work like Kanye, or to be growing up loving "Star Wars" and video games like Lupe or a guy who had five jobs in one year like Rhymefest. I know those people; those people are my neighbors. What was so great about Cobain's music was that it captured an element that was common to many people in his generation and he made poetry out of it, and I think that's what the Chicago guys are doing. I think it's great, and it's only because so many people are afraid to condemn the gangster pose in hip-hop. This is a movement akin to what happened in Seattle. Why is Chicago not being held up as the hip-hop capitol of the universe? It's racist in a reverse way. We think all rappers should be gangsters. Well fuck you! What about De La Soul, they were three fat college kids from Long Island. Or Chuck D, everybody in every genre of hip-hop gives him his props but he was a college kid from Long Island. The guys in Wu-Tang were movie fans from Staten Island . Staten Island's a suburb, it's not the mean streets of Harlem. Those guys were sitting around in a basement with a giant TV watching kung fu movies and getting stoned. They weren't shooting people.
I feel strangely proud of the Chicago rappers, even though I have nothing to do with them. Especially Kanye, maybe because he's my age and he's so open about his own ambition.
Kanye's a complicated guy. When he said George Bush doesn't like black people, that was coming from the heart and it was real. Ultimately all of his posturing and temper tantrums about awards and stuff--you've got to remember that when the chips were down he said something honest and that needed to be said. There was no political commentator on TV who could put it that simply, and that was truth, and he paid a big price for that. The guy means well but he shoots himself in the foot sometimes. That's part of his charm, he's not a fake poser, like 50 Cent or Li'l Jon, this guy is the real deal.
What are the perfect circumstances for you under which to see a concert?
I personally believe that rock n roll should never get any bigger than the level of the Riviera or the Vic or the Chicago Theatre :three or four thousand seats max. At that size, the performer can see every pair of eyes in that hall and the sound is exquisite. When everything comes together the way it should, the energy can be felt in the very last row, in every corner of that room. You're feeling that energy and giving it back to the performer and it becomes this loop that becomes the most amazing thing in the world. That's why we love rock n' roll. When you get to the Aragon, it starts to get dicey, and you're never going to have a life changing experience at the United Center. Or if you do, it's going to involve lasers, it's not going to involve the music. I suppose theoretically it may be possible, but even if it is, if U2 doing the "Achtung Baby" tour blew your mind at the World theater , just think about how amazing it would have been at the Park West. It's always going to be better in a more intimate setting.
Is there an artist or band you like so much that it would be a deal-breaker when it came to a friendship?
No. The whole idea of Sound Opinions is that people who deeply love music love to fight about it. You can insult anything I love, you can say Lester Bangs was a hack, that Velvet Underground sucked, or the Flaming Lips are cartoons, I'm not going to get upset, but if you say to me "Music is just entertainment," that stabs me to the very core of my being. Those emails that say "What are you getting so excited about? It's just fun, it's just entertainment." That's like, man, we don't speak the same language. You might as well say you're a woman-hating, black-hating, far to the right Attila the Hun Republican. I don't understand the air you breathe.
Who was the first musician or band that you were obsessed with?
At the very beginning, circa 5th grade, I was way into the Beatles, that Red and Blue album, those early best-of hits. What a great entry point. I was also majorly a Jethro Tull fan. But I saw "Beatlemania" on Broadway. Its' cheesy and shit, but for the first time you're in this theater and you hear the live drums and you're like "Ok, that's great."
I heard a story on the Fab Faux yesterday on NPR: they sound great.
I have this theory that you'd be much better off today seeing great a U2 cover band or Led Zeppelin tribute band than seeing what passes for U2 or Zeppelin. Those people have a love for the music. They're getting paid but they're plumbers by day. For them it's alive and vital in a way. U2 might as well be a corporate meeting. "We're playing tonight in an arena, we're having a corporate meeting this afternoon to discuss our stock price." That's what it is. I'm big on tribute bands.
Say you were appearing on American Idol. What would you sing?
I've never seen American Idol. I don't have an option of not going on at all?
You'd pass up the chance to do one song for millions and millions of people?
"Mr. Suit" by Wire. It's from Pink Flag which is the greatest album ever made. I'm tired of being told what to think/I'm tired of being told what to do/I'm tired of fuckin'' phonies/That's right, I'm tired of you/No no no no Mr. Suit." It's the first song I ever taught my daughter to sing although we'd substitute in "I'm tired of big fat phonies." The sentiment was the most important sentiment that rock n roll can ever express which is to be yourself and fuck the man.
Who have been some of the rock stars you've met who were the most surprisingly down to earth despite their fame?
Thinks.... None of them! Laughs. You're talking about an art form in which you're inventing yourself. Down to earth is relative. Even when people are fairly down to earth, it's kind of as a pose. I think Wayne Coyne likes to thinks he's as interested in the truck driver as in Christina Ricci when she pops in backstage. That's not entirely true. I mean he respects and talks to the truck driver, but there's a bit of starfucker in all these people. I think Moby is a really incredibly nice guy, and a fairly regular guy, although and then there he is giving his opinions about PETA on the red carpet to E!. Everybody in the world has Courtney Love's email address and to some precocious 13-year-old girl who wrote some screed to her, Courtney will write back 10,000 words. As far as being a real person that you can touch, she qualifies, but she's insane. I mean Jesus, you wrote 10,000 words to a 13-year-old girl, you have nothing better to do? And, I think there's more plastic in her body than fat. So, that hardly qualifies. None of them. If Cameron Crowe --and he's a really regular guy, but he's a fucking star too-- got one thing right in "Almost Famous" it's "They're not like us. Don't make friends with those people." Laughs.
If you could be, just for a year, any rock star, who would it be?
It would be amazing, even if you got to spend a day as the Beatles circa '65. It's amazing how it's been presented to us as this safe, sane homogenized scenario. You're 20, you're from Liverpool, the world is throwing itself at its feet, you're doing every fucking drug, men, women and cats are throwing themselves at you. That had to have been exactly what the Roman emperors experienced, in terms of instantaneous gratification of any worldly whim or desire. The debauchery that must have one on! The Rolling Stones would make this their claim to fame but the Beatles got there first and the fact that it was presented as these lovable cute mop-tops is what really the coup of the century. If you could look into those hotel rooms for one hour at any point during Beatlemania, I'm sure it would blow your mind.
I read in the Bob Spitz book that they didn't like hanging out with the Supremes because they were 'uptight' but the Ronettes were more fun, whatever that means.
I'm sure what that means is that they all did blow off each other's breasts.
It's interesting to me how the Beatles always look older to me than they were. I don't know if it's because I was younger when I got into them or maybe now I am just in denial that I'm seven or eight years older than they were during Beatlemania, but they always looked more mature to me than their age.
I think there's always an element of that, when you realize that Lester Bangs would have been 65 or Kurt Cobain would have almost been 40. I met him once and I always think of him as 20-something. People remain fixed in your mind at the time when you first met them, not to mention just seeing them on TV. By the way, I'm convinced that McCartney has gotten the most expensive weave or rug known to man. When you're that rich, you can hire ten people to grow hair for you. It's insidious. That's what's nice about [Keith] Richards. He looks like he's 100 years old.
What's your next book project?
I don't know. The Flaming Lips book to be absolutely frank was such a disaster There was a book I wanted to since 2000--it was going to be called "The Best 30 Minutes of my Life," which basically was about playing in rock bands and why people do it--rock bands that never went anywhere. The best 30 minutes of your life might be the Tuesday that you played at CBGB's at 2 AM and there were four people there and the rats. Broadway books, who did the Bangs book, came to me and said, "You've written so much about the Flaming Lips, would you like to do this book?" I said "We've been talking about this other book for forever." And they said "We'll do the Flaming Lips book first and then we'll do this other book. So I did the Lips book: it didn't' sell, nobody gave a shit. Their last album tanked and nobody wants to read about them. They've turned into sort of a Bonnaroo band: "Let's put on a big party and we have fuzzy animals and lights and sing happy birthday." This band that existed for 23 years that was my generation's Pink Floyd in terms of its creativity in the studio has really kind of taken an easy ticket. I wrote about them at exactly the wrong time. Had I done that book before "Yoshimi"...laughs. So, music book-wise, that threw a kink in my plans.
What publications do you turn to currently for insightful music criticism, other then the Sun-Times and Tribune?
The state of music criticism is so dire but also better than it's ever been. I have let my subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, Pace, Harp lapse. It's just more dead tree media that I don't need and I feel guilty about these piles of these unread magazines-it's despicable. That having been said, I'm reading more than ever. My modus operandi is that after I listen to an album whether, once for Britney or a week for Wilco, I do a Google news search and the nice thing is that more or less in the same typeface up pops Joe or Sally's blog and the Rolling Stone review, the Miami Herald, the Phoenix Arizona weekly review and you have this democracy of voices having a conversation when it works. One out of 10 of those pieces, and that's being generous, is worth reading. The rest is more masturbatory crap than we've ever had. You really have to have a much harsher filter than you've ever had. The nice thing about the Internet is whether it's Rolling Stone and it's big and glossy and expensive or Sally's blog and it's absolutely free --it puts them on the same footing if the reviewer has something insightful to say or not. That's kind of the way I read abut music these days. Otherwise I'm a voracious reader, I subscribe to a zillion magazines: the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's. I read everything, but about music, I just go fishing but I throw must of the stuff back.
I like Sasha Frere-Jones' little nuggets in the New Yorker.
Yeah, that having been said He's a motherfucker in that "rockist" camp. Did you read his article recently on why indie rock is so white and racist? This is from the man who a year ago lauded the Arcade Fire for their rhythms but just to stir things up then said, "Now everybody's obsessed with 'Pet Sounds' and they've got no soul." First of all, half the studio musicians who played on "Pet Sounds" were black. What does that have to do with anything? Kanye is sampling Daft Punk. Shouldn't we be past this conversation? By the way, Sasha, you were in a in a fucking art rock band that was whiter than Stereolab. Having been in Ui, which was one of the whitest bands ever, you were indie rock white. It's like that girl rock thing. When do we get past this notion of white indie rock and black hip-hop and female rock? I thought we were past all this.
I had that song "Watch my Feet" on my Myspace page for a while and a friend asked me where I'd heard of it, and I was like, "The New Yorker, naturally."
He's not always wrong; he's sometimes right on. The thing that's sad about him and Kelefa and a certain school of critics which sort of followed the me/Kot/Powers/Ali/McDonald school of rock criticism is that they had this notion of rockism and pop and it's like postfeminism, and "Juno," which drives me crazy. Diablo Cody was a stripper, but "she was in charge of her own sexual exploitation, so she was empowered." But you're still showing your titties for money so men could whack off. It's a bogus argument. So that's what the popism thing is: Britney Spears sells a bazillion copies, therefore she must be of interest, let's dive deep into the musical wonder. But McDonald's has 70 billion served, and that doesn't mean it's good for you physically or tastes good. Especially in this post-Naomi-Klein era of "We should be enlightened about globalization and its insidiousness." I'm not against anything that's popular just because it's popular. There's always s meaningful bubblegum: Hannah Montana is great, she's better than fuckin' Britney Spears.
Speaking of which, what's a record that you and your daughter have agreed upon, lately?
She was way into Hannah majorly. She's big on Fallout Boy. I have no idea what she hears in them: I know what I hear. She was down here surfing the other day when I was getting ready to interview the Super Furry Animals and she was very high on their record and very astutely mentioned that "They sound like the Beat-les, Dad." Ooh, yeah, actually that's "Pet Sounds," but you're in the right ballpark. But she's completely unimpressed with my opinions on anything. She couldn't give a shit, and that's exactly how it should be. I just leave it all out and she's welcome to sample it but I think the worst thing you can do is force-feed them.
It'll be interesting to see how Neal Pollack's kid turns out after his musical education.
Just to spite Neal he'll probably become a born-again Mormon.
Are there any albums or groups that your fans would be surprised that you really like?
That's always hard to say: if I can name them, I'm kind of connoting an element of Chuck Eddyism--he wrote the "500 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums" book and he names Tina Marie as number 4 or 5. He's intentionally trying to fuck with the metal heads. Honestly the things that I hear that are good in Hillary Duff or in Hannah Montana are the same things that are great in X-Ray Specs or Patti Smith. To me, none of it is surprising, whether I can explain that, I dunno. Singing "Oh, Bondage Up Yours" isn't that different from Hannah Montana singing "Be yourself, don't listen to anyone else, don't listen to the boys, be who you are." It's the same fucking message: this one is sappy and kind of saccharine and a fizzy bag of pop rocks, the other is a big juicy steak. But they both have their place.
It's the end of January--did you make any resolutions this year and have you still stuck to them?
I managed to quit smoking. I never smoked until I was 38 and I went through this divorce and I figured it's better than shooting smack. Now I'm not anymore. Chantix works, I highly recommend it to people. Except the freaky thing is that one of the side effects is weird dreams. I never remembered my dreams, never had nightmares but now every night it's a different nightmare. Every night some annoying thing that's been dangling in my life is played out. So you wake up every day fairly completely freaked out. But you're not smoking! It's amazing.
How does it feel to be the 198th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I dig your blog! It's flattering, but I'm a little insulted that Kot went first. But I figured, you were still trying to perfect your thing.
Well, I was intimidated.
People think because I'm vociferous I'm less approachable, but it's exactly he opposite. Actually, the one that's said "fuck" and "cunt" and all these horrible things on the air or played lyrics that have those words in them--I've never done that., but Kot's done it a half dozen times. If we ever get kicked off the air it's not going to be and my big fat mouth. It's always the quiet one you've got to look out for.
I just read the plug you got in Time Out. The thing that's really distressing to me and you're a good writer and you should be doing this for a living. In an ideal world, the best bloggers come to the attention of a place that will hire them and pay them and give them health insurance and shit. It's entirely possible when this Internet revolution plays out, and it's going to play out in the next year or so, it's coming to a head, it's going to mean that more people than ever can write, because they'll do it for free. If you look at the history of the written word, this notion of getting paid to do cultural criticism or criticism is about two centuries old. All the rest of the time it was like poetry-you could do it but you didn't make a living at it. So that's really distressing to me, because you shouldn't have to work a day job. There's an element of self-servingness: I shouldn't have to become a Home Depot greeter. But, the Sun-Times is in trouble, and it's not just the Sun-Times, the goddamn New York Times is in trouble, the Wall Street Journal's in trouble, and everybody's in trouble. Unless some model for how to get paid comes out, we're all going to be fucked. Musicians, ironically, for having all the noise focusing on this debate, are going to be better off than anybody. Really at the end of the day, Tweedy's never made that much money from selling records, but he'll play five nights at the Riviera and they'll make a couple of hundred grand. And that's the way it was in the middle ages: the troubadour went form town to town put his hat out and if he was good he got some coins and got fed and if he was bad he didn't and he gave up music. But what are we going to do? "I'll come to your house and write you a review." No! We're going to be working for Home Depot and blogging for free. It's not even just a matter of greed: to do something like the R. Kelly story, it requires resources, --to expose Abu Ghraib requires resources. And who did it? It was Seymour Hersh, he's 70! What's going to take the place of that? It's certainly not going to be Ann Coulter's blog, or as good as your blog is, it's not going to be your blog, because you can't, because you can't, because you're doing it at 5 in the morning before you go to work! That's horrible.