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What are your life-changing albums?

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My life changing albums were Being There, The Soft Bulletin, Chocolate and Cheese, and Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Can you rattle off your favorites off the top of your head, or do they constantly change?


Well, those are two different questions. If you say “What are your favorite albums of all time?”, that changes every day and probably six times a day. As far as albums that changed my life, I was a snot-nosed young punk in Jersey, and I’m reading Lester Bangs talking about the Velvet Underground, and part of it is I admire his writing so much that I want to hear it, but there’s that impulse that you might have had reading me talking about the Flaming Lips before you heard them, and you’re like “They can’t be this good. This guy’s probably full of shit.” But, I was 13 or 14, I took the train into the city to Bleecker Bob’s, and bought White Light White Heat, I brought it home and heard “Sister Ray” and I was like “Fuck, it is that mind-blowing.”


So, Velvets changed my life. Same thing when I first heard Wire’s Pink Flag. I had been a fan of the Flaming Lips, but when I first heard Transmissions from the Satellite Heart it made me feel a completely different way. I had admired Bleach and Nevermind, but I think it was In Utero that drove home the point that this guy truly is extraordinary. If you don’t think that the next album that could change your life isn’t being recorded in some garage in Schaumburg, that’s when it’s time to get out.


Every writer fears turning into the jaded critic who can’t enjoy anything anymore. Do you always have that hope that the next great thing is coming, or do you ever think that nothing could come along to completely blow you away anymore?
I absolutely believe that there are great things to come. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not cynical about the same old shit. When somebody’s waxing rhapsodic about All American Rejects, it’s like what? I think you have to be as wary of the person who says that everything is great as you are of the person who says that nothing will ever be as good as The Beatles. I think both people are dishonest fundamentally.


2009 was a great year for me in terms of music. Japandroids and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart blew me away. How’d you feel about it?
Some years are great, and I have 150 albums that I can’t live without and some years I have a mere 70 or 80. I usually keep a running tally. I liked the new Flaming Lips album a lot and it’s great to hear them being freaky again. I loved that Japandroids record. I loved the Ida Maria album.


Like any old couple, what keeps the spark between you and Greg alive?
It seems like we never run out of things to talk about. It’s endless, and even when we agree on something my take on it is different and I like it for different reasons than he does.


I can’t imagine that at a party, people don’t come up and engage you in conversations about music. Does it wear on you?
It’s nice to have areas of your life that have nothing to do with music. What wears on me are the soul sapping experiences of being a critic at a daily newspaper. Someone says “This is news” so you have to cover it. It might be something like Lollapalooza, which to me has very little artistic merit. Whereas Pitchfork never fails to excite and surprise and thrill, and yeah, it’s a pain in the ass when it’s 110 degrees and you’re out there in the sun all day or it’s raining and you’re soaked and covered in mud. However, I’ve always experienced music at Pitchfork that’s blown my mind. I don’t ever go to any show expecting to have a bad time. If I have to review Britney Spears at United Center, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna suck. I’ve seen Britney seven or eight times, and she’s a human robot, an animated sex doll who isn’t even singing, but there’s always the possibility that it may be a transcendent experience, and I would prefer that. I would prefer to have a mind-blowing, positive, amazing experience than to have her suck.


People seem to think that it’s fun to write a bad review, and maybe it is, but I’d rather have my mind blown. Here’s this young woman, whose had two failed marriages at 25, been institutionalized twice for mental problems, has had her two children taken away from her, and throughout her life has been groomed to be a pop fuck toy, has been taken advantage of by her mother and then the Disney Corporation, and then by countless mega-corporations. It is not inconceivable that with such a depth of experience and such pain and world weary wisdom, that she could create great art on the level of Billie Holliday. That is not inconceivable, you know what I mean? Look at that life! So, you never go out expecting that something is gonna suck. But when there’s too many of those in a row, like you’ve got to review Billy Joel and Elton John at Wrigley and then have to see Dave Matthews followed by Lollapalooza, you’re just pretty much done. It’s like loving food and being a great food critic and you gotta spend the next three weeks eating at McDonald’s.


Is writing a job, or is it something you’ll always need to do?
If I got fired tomorrow and had to go work at Kinko’s or be a waiter, I’d come home and still write at night. I would not go see Lollapalooza or Britney Spears anymore, unless I had some bug up my butt and I just had to say something about Britney Spears. I’m a fanatical fan with fanatical opinions to inflict on people, so the writing doesn’t get tiring. A lot of the other bullshit gets tiring. The industry is fundamentally corrupt and disgusting and full of evil, bad people. The live music industry, the record industry and the radio industry are all full of these people. Probably the worst insult that anyone can give to me is when someone accuses me of being part of the industry. It’s like “Fuck you man.” I hate that notion. Their rationale is that a good review of mine will sell records and a bad review will tank it. That’s irrelevant. When you’re a writer, you’re writing to an ideal reader in your head. I think every good writer has that reader. To me, it’s this 13-year-old kid, who has this hard earned 10 or 12 bucks in his or her hand, for whom music means everything and for you to say that you should run out and buy this now when you don’t really believe that, is akin to rape. As opposed to some asshole that’s going to tell me that the first Oingo Boingo record was brilliant, or whatever slight piece of trivial pop product of the moment. There’s nothing wrong with trivial pop product. I’m a big fan of the Black Eyed Peas. It’s pure and utter crap but it’s tasty. It’s like eating a box of M&M’s. It’s not good for you but it’s great.


I think there a lot of people today for whom music is not that all important, all defining, soul bearing force of life. I will argue about this until I drop from asphyxia. But Wayne Coyne, having written a beautiful song about life, inspired by the death of his father, and loss and the importance of living in the moment, for him to then sell it to Mitsubishi, is wrong. I’ve told Wayne that, and we’ll argue about it for literally five to ten hours, because his favorite sport is arguing. I’m sorry, but it cheapened that song (“Do You Realize??”) for me. It was a brilliant and beautiful song, and I don’t want to see it in a car commercial. I would have been happier if he went out and mugged little old ladies to get that money. It’s just wrong. I think that too many people today use music as an accoutrement to their hip lifestyle. The second biggest insult that someone can give me after you’re just part of the industry is that music is just entertainment. I refuse to accept that. Yes, at times it can just be entertainment, but I believe that it is also the greatest force for truth that we have. Paintings, photographs and film can be great art and convey important truths, but music does something that is intangible and affects you in ways that are deeper than all of those other art forms in my opinion.

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By Robin Cook
14 Apr 2009
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