Rock journalism: Is the write stuff long gone?

 

By Robert Philpot

Knight Ridder Newspapers

 

In "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's semi-autobigraphical movie, a seasoned rock critic named Lester Bangs dispenses advice to William Miller, a 15-year-old who's trying to break into music journalism.  Among the warnings in the 1973 meeting: Rock musicians are not your friends, so don't get too close to them; it hardly matters anyway, because the enemy -- big-biz forces cannibalizing rock acts as they capitalize on their success -- have taken over.

 William Miller is fictional, sort of; he's a representation of the young Crowe, who began his career as a teen-age rock writer before switching to writing and directing movies in his 20s. Lester Bangs, however, is real -- or rather was real -- though Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of him mellows him out a bit. He was a wild, cough-syrup-swilling, gonzo writer and part-time musician who helped create rock journalism in the late '60s - and who, despite his own advice, befriended rock musicians. He died in 1982 at 33, a casualty of too much hard living.

In 2000, Bangs' ghost seems to be everywhere. Not only is he a character in "Almost Famous," but he's the subject of a recently published biography, Jim DeRogatis' "Let it Blurt" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $15.95), which includes an account of the Bangs-Crowe meeting. Peter Guralnick, the guest editor of the upcoming Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (Da Capo Press, $14), included a Bangs essay in the book: the critic's liner notes to a 1980 album compilation of songs by the '20s German group the Comedian Harmonists (a 2000 intro to the essay by New York Times critic John Rockwell helps justify the inclusion of the piece).

Not everyone who sees "Almost Famous" will know who Lester Bangs was, but for those who do, the character inspires nostalgia - not just for the heady days of late '60s and '70s rock music, but for the pioneering days of rock journalism itself. Back in the day, hard-core rock-music fans could name many critics off the top of their heads - Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau - but it's difficult to find a star rock writer today. And many of today's most familiar music critics - Robert Christgau, Robert Hilburn, Greil Marcus - have been doing this since the early days.

"I think Cameron catches the cusp of the change in his film," says DeRogatis, who has seen "Almost Famous" twice. "It went from inspired amateurism, people who wrote because they were obsessed with the music or with a band, to a form to sell what's cool. I think (the latter) is what rock journalism is today."

Bangs' "inspired amateurism" included first-person reviews influenced by such writers as Beat novelist Jack Kerouac and barfly poet Charles Bukowski; his pieces often read like run-on letters to brethren music fans. When he worked at Creem, the now-defunct magazine that was once the main rival to Rolling Stone, he engaged readers in arguments and recruited some of the more eloquent letter-writers who ever appeared in the magazine. In interviews, he was likely to attack his subjects, as he did in a series of talks with an increasingly leery Lou Reed. In a music world dominated by MTV, fragmented radio formats and corporate conglomerates, Bangs' antics probably wouldn't pass today.

DeRogatis and some others interviewed for this report agree with the Bangs character in "Almost Famous": The enemy took over a long time ago. Once, rock journalists were allowed unusual access to the bands they wrote about - in "Almost Famous," young Miller accompanies a band called Stillwater, a fictional amalgamation of Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, on the road as he tries to get an interview with the band's elusive lead guitarist. That mirrors some of Crowe's real-life experiences, especially with Led Zeppelin and the Allmans.

Now, DeRogatis laments, thanks to tightly controlled publicity schedules, writers are lucky to have lunch or get a 20-minute phone interview with big stars.

"You're not even supposed to think about asking tough questions," says DeRogatis, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times (a paper he says will let him ask tough questions). "You can't write a critical piece about Limp Bizkit for a magazine, because you need Limp Bizkit to be on the cover."

Richard Meltzer, who recently published a collection of his work, says he was in the game even before Bangs was. Meltzer, who was one of the founders of Creem and worked with Bangs during the early days, has an even bleaker viewpoint, which is that rock writers always faced the forces that DeRogatis complains about.

"It was like trench warfare," says Meltzer, who's 54 and says that he stopped writing rock-crit in earnest in the mid-'70s. "You basically had writers who had to contend with vicious publicists, monstrous record companies and editors who wouldn't let you get away with anything. You had to fight for every word. Magazines, including Creem, survived by getting record-company ads, and the way they got ads was by their quota of positive reviews.

"The difference was that writers fought this," he adds. "Writers refused to kind of buckle under to it. But by '72, '73 or '74, a whole style sheet evolved, and you had a whole new cast and crew of people willing to submit to it. But from about, let's say '68 to '72-'73, there were those of us who would give 'em hell."

In the Bangs/Meltzer days, rock writers sometimes acted like rock stars. Meltzer writes about standing in a vat of chicken salad and throwing food at the New York Dolls' David Johansen. DeRogatis' book includes an anecdote about Bangs stirring up a food fight with the unamused British glam-rock group Slade.

"That's probably my most vivid food-fight memory," says Jaan Uhelszki, a Rolling Stone Online writer who worked at Creem, of the Bangs-Slade melee. "But you were closer to the bands back then. I did a story where I put on KISS makeup and went on stage with KISS. Lester took his typewriter onstage during a J. Geils Band concert, and wrote his review onstage."

Uhelszki also sees restricted access as a problem - "Back then, you could see Gregg Allman put his face in a plate of spaghetti and fall asleep" - but what she misses more is a sense of community among rock writers. She doesn't see a mentor-protege relationship like Bangs and Crowe's happening now.

"We were really fierce about passing on the spirit back then," she says. "But don't forget, we were inventing the form. Most of the rock writers now aren't community-based. It's more competitive. ... Even with the online community, you're hard-pressed to find people who'll help each other."

Uhelszki says that she tries to help young female rock writers, because rock journalism is still a male-dominated world (significant exceptions include The New York Times' Ann Powers and USA Today's Edna Gundersen). But don't expect Meltzer to pull a Bangs act anymore, because he was never all that impressed with the field in the first place.

"I haven't read any of the stuff in years, because it just got revolting," Meltzer says. "For one thing, it became completely binary, like 'This is good, this is bad.' . ... (But) even in the heyday of the damn thing, I wouldn't say that I read rock mags just to read them. I'd pick 'em up if I had a piece in 'em, and I'd see what else there was. I didn't feel I needed to have any guidance to what was going on because I was seeing it with my own eyes."

Of course, you could blame the "revolting" writing on the music. In the late '60s/early '70s, Rolling Stone cover subjects might have included a still-vital Beatles and Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin. You were unlikely to see the equivalents of teen-pop artists such as the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera - all of whom have recently merited Rolling Stone covers. In the early days of Rolling Stone and Creem, rock was in its adolescence, still rebellious and breaking rules; now it seems to be about adolescence, and rule-breakers are harder to find on magazine covers (the one glaring exception being rapper Eminem, whom too many writers forgive for his virulent lyrics).

"One difference between now and, take 1970, is that the music is nowhere near as central to the culture," says Guralnick, the guest editor of Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000. "For example, a review of the new Rolling Stones album, the new Beatles album, the new Van Morrison album, the new Aretha album - these could be written about at great length 30 years ago, and these could be the subjects for passionate disagreement or agreement. I think that that climate doesn't altogether exist anymore. It's just much more diffused. You have many more different themes."

Guralnick - whose credentials include writing "Last Train to Memphis" (Little Brown & Co., $17.95) and "Careless Love," (Little Brown & Co., $17.95) two award-winning books about Elvis Presley -says that the main thing writers struggle against today isn't lack of access but lack of length; fewer outlets (especially most daily newspapers) let writers stretch out as much as they used to. But the biggest problem with good rock writing today might be that there's just so much rock writing overall. And it's in places where it didn't necessarily have a home in the late '60s: daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, obsessive fanzines, general-interest entertainment magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, and, of course, the Internet. Finding the good stuff is the difficult part.

And there is some good stuff out there, giving hope that there's a vital future possible for rock journalism. DeRogatis recommends Michaelangelo Matos, who contributes to the Seattle Weekly and has written for papers in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago. Uhelszki says she likes a Bay area writer named Greg Heller. "If there's another Lester out there, it's him," she says. "He's the type of guy who'll go head-to-head with someone like Sammy Hagar and say he stinks."

Even Crowe, who long ago stopped writing rock journalism when his career as a screenwriter and director took off, still has something to say on the subject - and, in the spirit of his movies, it's typically optimistic.

"Somebody told me recently that there's a kid named Charlie Zaillian," Crowe says, "whose dad happens to be Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter-director. And that (Charlie) had this fanzine called Distortion. And he is 15. And so I called him up, and I said, 'We're finishing this movie about a 15-year-old journalist. I want you to come see it.'

"So this kid shows up, with a couple copies of his fanzine, and I met him. I read the fanzine; he's fantastic. It lives. It lives and it's harder to find and all that stuff, and I was very, very happy to meet him. And I thought, 'Y'know what? There is rebirth. Rebirth is possible.' This guy was going on and on and on about all this new music that he'd gotten or downloaded, and there was just pure passion in it. And a lack of cynicism. But an artistic, critical edge. I just felt great."

 

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