[5 April 2010]
Remember that scene in Almost Famous where the young journalist William Miller has lunch with the cynical and jaded rock critic Lester Bangs, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman? My lunch with legendarily outspoken author and resident Chicago Sun-Times’ pop music critic Jim DeRogatis feels something like that. OK, so I’m not a bright eyed teenager and DeRogatis (or “DeRo”) is much more optimistic and less surly than Bangs. But look at the similarities: DeRogatis grew up idolizing Bangs, and although DeRo and I find ourselves at the tail end of the 2000s instead of the mid-‘70s, both time periods are (and were) defining moments. As technology and the blogosphere are changing the way music and journalism is delivered, the Almost Famous duo were staring at the advent of arena rock and a golden age of journalism that was coming to an end. As print media writhes in its death throes, it’s a scary time to be a journalist, and even a crafty vet like DeRo doesn’t know the answers.
DeRo suggested we meet at Wishbone, a Southern, soul food institution on Chicago’s North Side. With its noisy clatter and down home cooking, he considers this his second office. DeRo’s a big guy, wider than tall, and his appetites seem less than healthy (he orders a double burger and seems constantly on the verge of a cigarette break). He is the author of numerous books, including Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips. Along with Chicago Tribune rock critic and hetero life-mate Greg Kot, DeRo hosts the venerable radio show Sound Opinions, billed as “the world’s only rock and roll talk show”, causing me to wonder if DeRo might be reluctant to engage, a bit “talked out” as it were on the subject of music and journalism.
As the man who has made notorious enemies of Ryan Adams for a negative live review and who was fired from Rolling Stone magazine for refusing to change a scathing review of Hootie & the Blowfish, I figure DeRo might possess some of the arrogance and venom of his idol, Lester Bangs. However, the man is charming and affable, and an hour and a half later, I realize that I’m going to have one hell of an interview to transcribe. Initially, our sit-down was to talk about DeRo’s involvement in the recent release of an illustrated history on one of his favorite bands, The Velvet Underground. My meal has been forgotten, and I feel like I’ve been talking with a friend about music, obsessions and writing. In the end, the fateful similarity of our Almost Famous lunch remains timeless: there will always be fanatical fans with fanatical opinions to inflict on people, but only the truly driven and talented will rise to the top. Call me a romantic, but I like to think that honest expression and passion will lead the music and journalism industries on to the next plane of their existence, and like DeRo says, if you don’t think that the next great band is jamming right now in some garage in the suburbs, then it’s time you got out.
Tell me about The Velvet Underground: A Walk on the Wild Side. How did the project come to you?
The idea originated with Voyager, a publisher in Minneapolis. They’ve been doing a series of coffee table art books on classic rock bands. They did something on Zeppelin and I had written an essay for that book on Houses of the Holy, and Greg had done something on the first album. Their idea was that they were doing these really cool art books, and one critic would write a central essay of the main historical relevance of the band, and then critics would also write about one album. So after the Zeppelin book they called up and said, “We have access to a lot of Velvet art that either hasn’t been seen or has been seen very seldom, so we’re going to put it all in a really nice art book, do you want to write the 10,000 word connective tissue essay?” I said sure, it’s like if someone calls you up and says “I’ve got a truckload of these Christmas presents ... do you want them?”
So the book exists for the art, and I think the designer and the editor really should have their name on the cover instead of me. So they asked me for the essay and if I could recruit some writers who might be interested. Glenn Kenney was primarily a film critic, I knew him from my early days as a fanzine writer in New Jersey, and I thought it’d be interesting to have that film aspect from somebody, and Bill Bentley’s interview with Sterling Morrison that had hardly been seen by anyone, so it was fun to do that. What I wanted to do was what you would basically get in a CD box set, which is a nice history of the band but without the hagiography of The Velvets as Gods on a mountaintop.
Was it daunting coming up with a fresh angle to approach to the Velvet history?
I think there was a lot of that, especially when I read the liner notes that David Fricke did for the Velvets singles box set. In a lot of books written on the Velvets history, you have people presenting themselves in their own best light. What I wanted to do was synthesize everything I’ve written about the Velvets and try and put a context to the pictures. I don’t know if someone said, “I’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars if you do a Velvets biography” that I’d do it. I don’t know if I’d want to do that because (A) Sterling Morrison and Nico are dead and (B) Lou Reed is very, very difficult to interview and is not really interested in telling the truth about Lou Reed. John Cale wrote a fine autobiography which is a great book to start with when you’re dealing with the Velvets. So, I don’t know if a really definitive bio on the Velvets can be written at this point, and certainly what you’d have to do to get any of the players to cooperate would be pretty difficult.
I’ve interviewed Lou a number of times and he’s a very difficult interview. If things had been slightly different he would have been a Borscht belt comedian in the Catskills, so part of it is he’s built up this reputation as being a sonofabitch, and so he sits there blowing foul smelling Cuban cigar smoke in your face, and has no compulsion against saying “That’s the single stupidest question I’ve ever been asked ... next.” So, life is short, you know? I also think there’s a lot that Lou just isn’t interested in illuminating in his own life. For example, his pioneering role in breaking down gender boundaries. Lou lived for several years, was clearly in love with and wrote some parts of two or three albums about a man who had become a woman. Yet, that’s completely erased from his history. Lou Reed isn’t interested in telling truths about Lou Reed.
What would be your dream book project?
I really don’t know. You have to spend so much time living with the subject of a biography just in terms of mental space, that I don’t know if there’s anyone else that I’d really be interested in writing a biography of at this point.
Something on Wire or the Feelies?
Yeah, I don’t know if there’s overwhelming demand in the world for either of those books. I’ve certainly written enough about both of those bands. I’ve been toying with the idea for a long time about writing a more personal book essentially about why people make music, dealing with all the garage bands I’ve played in since I was 13, none of which were important or went anywhere but that wasn’t the point. It’s basically why you can play a 25-minute set at CBGB’s on a Tuesday night in February to six people, including the soundman, and that’s the best half hour of your life. Why people play in garage bands… that’s what I want to explore.
Has playing live always been a passion for you?
When I was 17 and interviewed Lester Bangs as a kid in high school he said “I’m a fanatical fan with fanatical opinions to inflict on people” and you know, I’ve always felt the same way. I’ve played records on the radio and collected them obsessively and written about them and played in bands. To me, it was part of the same impulse of loving this music. People say critics are frustrated musicians. I’ve never been a frustrated musician. I’ve always made music under the terms I want and I know what the indie rock drill is. It’s being away for four months and sleeping on the floor every night, which is not something that I want to do. It’s fun in small doses, but I don’t have any delusions of grandeur.
How do you feel about the brave new world of technology? Are you going to miss the smell of newsprint or holding an actual magazine when those mediums die off?
It seems irrelevant to me how my journalism and criticism is delivered. I have as little to do with the means of distribution as I do with the paperboy who drops the dead tree media of the Chicago Sun Times on my porch. If you want to listen to me on a podcast or listen to me on terrestrial radio or read me in the blog or on paper, if you want to stick a USB port into something and the other goes into your head and you want to download whatever I was trying to communicate, the heart of it still to me is delivering good journalism and criticism, and the fundamentals of that have not changed.
There’s a proliferation of opinion on the web, but the quality of criticism you get from something like PopMatters is something different from scanning Rotten Tomatoes. There will be a hundred people posting their thoughts about Shutter Island and maybe one or two of them are worth reading. Even with the Sound Opinions radio show, if we weren’t writing and covering this beat as journalists and critics, I don’t think we’d be nearly as good talking about it. Obviously when we say “The world’s only rock and roll talk show,” it’s in the same spirit of Creem being the world’s only rock and roll magazine or the Rolling Stones being the world’s only rock and roll band. There are others, but I don’t think anybody else is doing it as well. Why are we any good, if we are? It’s because we’re writers first and foremost.
It’s also the dynamic between you and Greg Kot.
There was a reason it wasn’t “Siskel & Jones” or “Ebert & Smith”. If there were two people as hyperbolic or revved up as me, or two people as laid back as Kot, it probably wouldn’t be as interesting. Or it would be too much.
How did you two come together?
I had done the radio show initially with Bill Wyman, who is the critic at The Reader. When I first came to Chicago to work at the Sun Times, it was in large part because I admired Ebert, and it just seemed natural to do on radio what he was doing with Siskel on TV. The one thing you can’t do with a book, magazine article or the newspaper is say, “Listen to this now.” So we originally started on The Loop and then moved to Q101. And then I left to go to Rolling Stone and Bill eventually left to go to San Francisco, right around 1994-5. When I came back to Chicago in 1997, Bill was gone and it just seemed completely natural to do it with Kot, because there was that natural Siskel & Ebert symmetry. We were on XRT for seven years, and were frustrated with their complete lack of interest in helping us grow the show and to bring it national, even though they were owned by CBS Infinity, who also owns Westwood One the syndicator.
Commercial radio is really conservative. The guy who is playing Dave Matthews once an hour does not want to hear about the Strokes, and the guy who is playing the Strokes does not want to hear about Kanye West, and the guy who is playing Dave Matthews does not want to hear negative comments about Dave Matthews, even though when we were live and it was two hours and we took calls, we would take calls from Dave Matthews fans defending Dave Matthews or Dave Matthews himself defending Dave Matthews, so it’s a very narrow slice n’ dice world in mainstream radio. It always seemed to us that what Chicago Public Radio had done with This American Life or Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!; it’s a smarter place, and you have a lot more creative freedom. So to be able to go there and have their studio facilities and bring guests in and focus the show at an hour that was produced and wasn’t just two guys talking in-between commercials, because there are no commercials, was nice. And we’ve been able to go national. Now we’re on like 80 stations and it’s great.
What was the best concert you saw in 2009?
I really liked the Jesus Lizard at Pitchfork. I was blown away by Ida Maria at Lollapalooza. I despise Lolla though. It’s just a corporate suck-fest. Even the things that you see there that happen to be great like Ida Maria would have been a million times better at Metro.
There’s just no danger.
Exactly. It’s Wal-Mart.
I like the way Pitchfork Fest is run.
There’s a real sense of community. It’s hard to walk ten feet at Pitchfork without running into someone you know. It’s much more a music community vibe where Lollapalooza is a shopping mall. But rock and roll should happen indoors at night. The live experience at at a fest is never as good as a focused club experience.
What do you think of the proliferation of festivals becoming the only way some people experience live music?
I think it’s a bad thing. The recurring question I always get when I’m in the crowd is, “Hey, do you know who this is onstage right now?” Which tells me that the people are not even there for the music necessarily. They’re there to make the scene. That’s always going to be inferior to people who are going to see a particular band because they’re there to see that band.
When I think of blog music journalism, is everyone just a gossip queen now? Do people have such a short attention span that gossip headlines are the only thing that will draw readers in? If it’s not a splashy headline, are people still interested?
Pitchfork is really old fashioned in a lot of ways, obviously I’m not talking about the new site, but you have these guys or girls sitting in their basement writing 2,500 or 3,000 words about some album they love and getting paid shit to do it. I think it’s coming from a noble place. These people are fans and they have ideas they want to share. Unfortunately, a lot of the writing tends to be indulgent and not very good, but I can’t fault Pitchfork as much as your mainstream magazines. If we were to cut out a review of the same album from Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone or even Harp, you put them on the same typeface and line them up side by side, and they all read the same. It’s the same “buy this new product now” kind of journalism. There’s very little thought or originality. There’s a million blogs that are offering unique perspectives, but they’re not edited or written as well.
I think it’s a transitional period, and I would hope that the best voices and writers will eventually find their audience and those are the writers that people will turn to. It would be nice if those writers could actually get paid to do what they’re doing. At the moment, if you’re interested in reading good writing about music, you probably have a hundred bookmarks and none of them deliver consistently every day, and you just have to ferret and search out where the good stuff is, which is exactly what we’re doing with music. There is no central repository where once every city had an inventive radio station, so you have to go fishing now, half the time stumbling around in the dark.
Which can be some of the fun of it ...
Yeah, but if you look at what made Creem magazine great throughout the Seventies was to be able to pick up the magazine and Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches would tell you what to pick up, and there was no way you could miss an issue of that magazine. A young kid in Ireland John Lydon is reading it, and a young woman in New Jersey Patti Smith, and a weird fat guy in Cleveland David Thomas were all drawing inspiration from it to go on and make history. I think we miss something now for not having that one central resource. Pitchfork is just really inconsistent in terms of good writers, and what I find really interesting is that everyone talks about Pitchfork the brand, but go ahead and name your five favorite Pitchfork writers.
It is pretty faceless.
Yeah, and what does that say about good writing? It’s all kind of indistinguishable and it’s not necessarily serving as an incubator for strong voices, which is what I think great rock publications should do.
When you first started out, did you always identify with Bangs and so-called “outlaw journalism”? You’ve never been afraid to take shots.
You know, I admired the people who were writing about rock and roll in a really powerful way as much as I admired the artist. To me, there wasn’t that much difference between what Lester Bangs was doing and what Lou Reed was doing. They were both offering that lifeline out of stultifying conformity. I was a sheltered kid growing up in Jersey City. I didn’t want to be there and Lester Bangs showed me a different world and so did the Velvet Underground.
Five years ago, you spoke at DePaul University about music journalism, and your last piece of advice was “Don’t do it.” Would you say the same thing today?
I probably was facetious when I was saying that because what I usually say is that unless you have an overwhelming desire to do this, where you can’t imagine not doing it and someone might as well say to you “Why don’t you give up breathing?,” then don’t do it.
Basically the same burning passion that it takes to stick it out in a rock band.
Exactly. That’s what we’re seeing a lot of writing become. To say I want to be a journalist or a cultural critic today is potentially the same as saying “I want to be a poet.” God bless you, and good luck doing it in between shifts at Starbucks. Much of the best music of the last 25 years has come from people who are happy to work as a plumber’s assistant or a junior electrician, or whatever their day job may be. They do it because they have this burning desire to make this music, and they’re freer to be more creative because they’re not beholden to worrying about selling it. It’s the same thing with writing, except that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be paid to do good work. With great indie rock bands, many of them have day jobs and they take a three week vacation and go on tour and they should be paid to play. I don’t see the problem with them not being paid to record their music, because they still have that ability to come to your city and play for you and that’s when they can collect. Whereas, you or I can’t go to someone’s house to review something for them and get paid. Yet, potentially a piece of criticism that opens your eyes to a new world of music is every bit as valuable.
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.