The Sound of Music
Writer Jim DeRogatis stares at the Flaming Lips

Tom Lynch

Jenny Lewis is late to Navy Pier. Chicago Sun-Times pop-music critic Jim DeRogatis and his partner, Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, prepare to interview the Rilo Kiley crooner for her new solo record on their Chicago Public Radio show "Sound Opinions." The show's staff--mostly a handful of fact-checkers and engineers--dodge in and out of each other's way as DeRogatis and Kot discuss how to get the ball rolling once Lewis arrives. "Musicians suck," they both say, as if they've both said it a thousand times before.

The two journalists are taping shows in advance before they trek down to Austin for the annual South by Southwest festival. "It's fucking Texas; it just looks like it isn't," DeRogatis, also lovingly known as just DeRo, quips. They discuss their flight plans, the merits of flying American Airlines, whether or not to ask Lewis about her life as a child star, a question she's had to answer countless times. (She was in "Troop Beverly Hills," among other things.) "Well, if anything, you're honest, Jim," a co-worker shoots at DeRogatis.

"Yeah," he says, "honest to the point of fault."

This month, DeRogatis, who grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, releases his biography of a legendary orchestral-pop, indie-psychedelic band: "Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma's Fabulous Flaming Lips," published by Broadway Books. It's his fourth book about rock `n' roll--he tackled his idol, music journalist Lester Bangs, in "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic"; he took on the alternative-music explosion of the nineties with "Milk It!" and he dove into the altered minds of rock `n' roll psychedelics in "Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock." He also edited, with his wife, the anthology "Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics," in which multiple critics tear down widely considered masterpieces, like offerings from the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. As the pop-music critic for the Sun-Times, he writes multiple columns a week. (DeRo's the reporter who received the infamous R. Kelly-pissing-on-kids video from an anonymous source in 2002.) Combine all that work, plus his efforts on "Sound Opinions," and he has to be "honest," because he doesn't have the time to invent lies anyone would believe anyway.

DeRogatis is polite, jolly and generous, not the stereotypical rock critic who inhales three smokes a minute and hasn't left his room for two days. When talking about something he adores--like music, obviously--he's energetic, and the effect is charging. Get him to talk about the Flaming Lips, and you don't have a chance.

"I've been a fan since 1989," he says of the Lips. "I always thought that they were a band that didn't know what they wanted to be. They were somewhere in the middle of the New York and L.A. underground scenes. There was the Flaming Lips, the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. They didn't fit neatly into any camp. I thought they were The Replacements on drugs. I thought they were this sloppy band that couldn't play and substituted psychedelics for beer."

In 1993 DeRogatis named the Flaming Lips' record "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" as the best of the year, which led to the band playing a "thank you Chicago" show. "It think it was one of the best albums of the nineties," he says. "One of the best albums, period." DeRo has long considered the Lips' one of this era's most influential bands. "My first book was on psychedelic rock," he says. "I tried to draw the connection from the acid tests of the sixties to the raves of the nineties. From The Beatles' `Revolver' and `Pet Sounds' to Aphex Twin, My Bloody Valentine and the Flaming Lips. I was trying to say that this was the future of rock."

While he was writing "Let It Blurt" in 2000, he passed along the Lips' "The Soft Bulletin" record to his editor Gerry Howard, who promptly dismissed it. Years later, during the "Yoshima Battles the Pink Robots" tour, the band played the Aragon for a New Year's Eve show and DeRo's praise was quoted in the New York Times. Howard saw the piece in the Times and insisted that DeRogatis write a book. He immediately agreed.

"I've wanted to do this book for years," he says. "I find the band fascinating. Name another band in existence that had their biggest successes on their tenth and eleventh albums. Pink Floyd? Fleetwood Mac? But those were like six different bands. This band also covered three eras of rock `n' roll--the eighties indie scene, with everyone sleeping on each other's floors, the nineties insanity when they found themselves on "90210," and now, whatever they are now. Plus, they are really fascinating people."

DeRogatis called Wayne Coyne, the Lips' leader, and told him his plans. The band members were all for it, since DeRo had interviewed them many times before. "They didn't read a word of it until it was published," he says. "I don't think there are any bands today that would do that. I think that's extraordinary, a testament to the band's fortitude and courage and faith."

In "Staring at Sound," DeRogatis does tackle some serious issues of the band's history, from past lovers to heroin addictions, and he spent time on tour with them, as well as in the studio for the band's upcoming record, "At War with the Mystics." "No question was too personal, no information was off limits, and the band never asked to look at it," he says. "They knew there would be some dicey areas I'd have to go.... but there was never a single question they declined to answer, or a door they barred, literally or figuratively."

DeRogatis dove headfirst into each member's family history, drawing up information long forgotten, long buried or that had never surfaced in the first place, such as a court case with Coyne's father from the early seventies in which he was framed. "It was a hell of a lot of work to do it right," he says. "I didn't want to do some Marilyn Manson hagiography, you know, I don't do books like that. I mean, these guys were reading the book and discovering things about their own lives that they didn't know. To me that's the greatest compliment. It's like, `Okay, I did my job.'"

DeRo estimates that it took him three years to write "Staring at Sound," but longer if you count all the years he's been writing since he became a fan back in 1989. "I like the process of writing a biography, but there are very few people I find fascinating enough to live with in my head for that long of a period of time. I don't want to write the R. Kelly story. I don't want to live with that motherfucker in my head."

Sometimes the hardest part isn't the writing process, however, but the downtime after the book is finished and shipped off to the publisher. "There's this horrible moment when the book is done and the band hasn't seen it yet. You send it to each of them in the mail. And it's not the reaction. It's the five or six days while you're waiting for the reaction. But, you know, obviously I like these people and I admire them, but at the same time, though I've had millions of hours of conversations with them, I haven't called any of them up, nor have they called me, just to shoot the shit. I've been to their houses, and they've been to mine, but never when the tape recorder wasn't rolling. I'm friendly with them, but they are not my friends. The difference between a journalist and a hagiographer is, my loyalty is ultimately to you, the reader. I would like the band to like this book, but not at the point of pulling a single punch for you."


To DeRogatis, Jersey City wasn't the ideal place to spend his young adult life. "Jersey City, where I grew up," he says, "where I was born, where I lived while I was at NYU, is a complete hellhole! Just horrible, pathetic and miserable. You're at the gateway of New York City, but it has all the urban aggravations of living in New York--the crowding, prices, crime, poverty, racism--without any of the cultural charms. At least if you're putting up with that shit in New York, you have the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I mean, the Statue of Liberty's ass faces Jersey City."

He saw his first concert at Madison Square Garden--Jethro Tull, though he admits it would be a lot cooler if he could say he saw Pink Floyd's "The Wall" tour first, which came shortly after--and he began playing the drums at thirteen. "That's when I started buying music obsessively, which led to writing for fanzines. I was a pathetic fat kid in Jersey City with no girlfriend, so I would just spend hours and hours in the basement learning drums. That's the only way how to learn to play an instrument. Not having a life and not having sex."

DeRogatis studied journalism and sociology at NYU--"which, to me, are the same," he says, "talking to and studying people and then writing about them"--and he got his first journalism job as a beat reporter for the Jersey Journal, a daily in his hometown. The Village Voice would ignore his pitches, so the music writing he would do was for free, for various fanzines. After five years he burned out, tired and broken after covering brutal crime for half of a decade, and in 1990 he shipped to Minneapolis and got a job writing for a magazine called Request, published by the then-dominant retailer, Musicland. He calls his two years there his "graduate school," and following the completion of his "master's degree" he found himself the pop-music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times by the summer of 1992.

"I knew how to write," he says. "I had the music thing but I also knew how to be a reporter. I knew how to edit clean copy. I had the professional chops and I had the music chops, which I think a lot of people in music writing don't have. They either have one or the other. Either you're a professional amateur or you're a boring professional."

He left the Sun-Times in 1995 and moved on to Rolling Stone, a move he openly admits was a mistake, left there after only eight months and moved back to Minneapolis with his wife, then pregnant. In 1997, the Sun-Times came calling again, asking if he wanted to come back. His only stipulation was that he wouldn't have to work in the office, where he wouldn't be able to blast loud music. He's been there since.

"I'm a journalist and a critic and a fan. As a journalist, it's a beat. It's the same as if I was covering religion. Religion today covers every aspect of life, you know? You have a woman's right to choose and you have people from the eastern world flying planes into buildings because of their convictions. There is no aspect of life that isn't covered by religion. Well, I think music even more so. If you were listening to N.W.A. in 1989, what happened after the Rodney King verdict was no surprise. If you know what Kurt Cobain was singing about, then his suicide wasn't a surprise. What other job could I have where in a week I can talk to Mary J. Blige, AC Newman and Brian May of Queen? Theoretically, music is what ties these people together. But really, I'm writing about people and life."

DeRogatis lives with his family--wife Carmel Carrillo, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, ironically, and their daughter Melody Rose--on Chicago's North Side, where Lakeview blends into Lincoln Park. On top of the books, columns and radio show, he plays drums in a band, Vortis, that is set to release its third album on L.A. label SOS in the near future and plays gigs every once in a while.

To DeRogatis, everything he does is closely related. "It's like Lester Bangs would say," he says. "It's all part of the same impulse. I collect this stuff. I write about it. I play it. I believe in it. It's all the same."