Sasha Frere-Jones, Earlier

Sasha Frere-Jones: Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man

Sasha Frere-Jones’ anti-memoir memoir, Earlier, moves around in time without clear logic, keeping things alive and even suspenseful, though somewhat cryptically.

Sasha Frere-Jones
October 2023

One of the noted paradoxes of our age is the abundance of unbidden cultural content that washes ashore every day and the concurrent impoverishment of an independent intellectual class (read: critics) to arbitrate this wealth. With staff positions increasingly scarce and freelance writing nominally paid (if at all), many working critics today retain faculty positions and other day jobs with journalism as a side hustle. Hence, the enduring romance for past exegetes like Susan Sontag or Walter Benjamin, who made a vocation of acute observations, elevating the secondary status of cultural criticism into a literature of its own. 

Sasha Frere-Jones is best known for serving as a former pop critic at The New Yorker, a position he held from 2004 to 2015. During his tenure there, he came to wider attention for the furor caused by his misbegotten essay “A Paler Shade of White” (2007), which contends that contemporary rock, as exemplified by indie bands like Arcade Fire, had become too white, thus betraying its fundamental roots in Black music. Vocal counterarguments were made, and Frere-Jones retreated (somewhat). He went on to write stylish pieces on artists ranging from Kathleen Hanna to Frank Ocean.

These elements by themselves don’t merit a memoir. Something went wrong along the way. Paraphrased briefly, Frere-Jones eventually left The New Yorker. (Who ever leaves The New Yorker?) During a brief stint as a music critic for the Los Angeles Times, he was fired for billing an evening at a strip club on his expense account. An addiction issue provided a backstory and alibi. He has since gone on to write for venues like Bookforum and 4Columns. His first wife, Deborah, died in January 2021. 

This last life-altering event prompted the completion of Earlier, which Sasha Frere-Jones had been writing, off and on, for over a decade, starting in 2010. Like Benjamin, his life has been somewhat contingent and, at times, a bit of a mess. By virtue of this, his is also a rich one to revisit and course through. Make no mistake, Frere-Jones is one of our great music critics. How, then, did this status come to be?

Earlier doesn’t give a direct answer. It is an experimental work consisting of short essays that resemble diary entries or, sticking with Benjamin, the concept of the thought-image (Denkbild): a cluster of words that form something like a photograph in the mind’s eye. Indeed, the opening fragment, “The Trees on South Portland (1978)”, seems to gesture toward thesis four of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) with its metaphorical comment, “All plants move toward the sun.”

That aside, Earlier is not an esoteric work but primarily a portrait of growing up in New York City and reaching middle age. As indicated, each essay is dated parenthetically with a year. The earliest date cited is 1967, the year of Sasha Frere-Jones’ birth, and the latest is 2023. However, it should be noted that these are not the first and last entries. Earlier moves back and forth in time without clear logic. This approach keeps things alive and even suspenseful, though somewhat cryptic. 

Earlier is an anti-memoir as a result. The focal point is not a personal trauma, a pivotal turning point, or an act of recovery, even though these elements could have been brought into play, given the bio of Frere-Jones sketched out above. Instead, Earlier dwells on ordinary moments and feelings that a more conventional memoir would likely marginalize or render invisible. Odd jobs, tour diary notes, micro-portraits of friends, and memorable sandwiches feature here. Such occasions accumulate and take center stage. 

We learn things about Sasha Frere-Jones both quickly and slowly, reflecting his own discovery process. Money was a problem, resulting in family moves. On the other hand, his father’s closeted sexuality is revealed later and only gradually through a porn stash, a friendly godfather, and co-written lyrics for a gay musical called Gulp! Frere-Jones himself drafted a book, The Mouse Who Lived at A&S, at the age of seven. He decided he wanted to be in a band at nine. One Halloween, he learns the n-word while trick or treating in Park Slope in 1977. 

Unsurprisingly, music is interlaced throughout. Frere-Jones’ account of his passion is decidedly generational, bearing the fingerprints of a pre-Spotify, digital non-native. Learning about new bands and acquiring music mean committed radio listening, saving money, and buying albums at record stores. He mentions winning a Bad Brains tape from WNYU and waiting weeks for it to arrive by mail. He writes about the long walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan to buy records at Bondy’s and J&R Music World. He sees the Clash in 1981 at a chaotic show in Times Square with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as openers. Earlier is especially perceptive in describing the rise of hip-hop through radio during the ’80s. 

This catholic taste informs Sasha Frere-Jones’ personal musical ambitions. There is a long, amusing essay called “Reel to Real (1980)” about how he and several friends tried to make a record at thirteen. They booked studio time and attempted to record two songs: “Cars” by Gary Numan and “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Things didn’t go well. Yet, by virtue of this, Frere-Jones learned about the basics of musical phrasing, the difficulty of transitions within songs, and the elusiveness of band chemistry. In retrospect, he is able to draw a vivid difference between hitmakers and bands. “These people [hitmakers] are imagining a car and they fix it as they build it,” he remarks. “Bands, though, want to build vehicles that don’t exist.”

This iconoclastic spirit and the shadow of mediocrity alike follow Sasha Frere-Jones to college at Brown University and after. Frere-Jones is an honest enough critic to know when his stuff isn’t up to snuff. Nonetheless, he perseveres. His band at Brown, Dolores, has pretensions of being proximate to Big Black and the Butthole Surfers but falls short of these benchmarks despite illusions to the contrary. Frere-Jones recounts how this over-baked attitude contributed to their decline of an opportunity to open for the Pixies, then unknown, at the Rhode Island School of Design.

This sense of disjuncture between himself and other, more famous musicians is elaborated in other parts of Earlier, which, combined, may have contributed to his critical sensibility. However, he never concedes this as such. There is a hilarious scene when Frere-Jones is in the same room as the members of Sonic Youth, but he refuses to acknowledge their presence. An interview with Prince never happens.

As a teenager, Sasha Frere-Jones attends St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights, an elite, arts-oriented private school, where Mike Diamond (Mike D) of the Beastie Boys is an upperclassman. They become friends, though Frere-Jones harbors some envy. “The appeal of Beastie Boys is that they are an honest-to-god band and that is all I want out of life,” he admits. “New York is oddly thin on high school bands. They are more common on Long Island, where the garages have room for them.”

Sasha Frere-Jones’ path to a writing career is equally full of coincidence and opportunity. His father tells him he is a writer at the age of 12. A summer job in New Jersey enables him to read Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner while commuting. An early station as a music writer is a frivolous corporate gig as a copywriter at Columbia House, whose famously bad taste “club” attracted buyers with deals like ten CDs for a penny. The New Yorker comes knocking only after Frere-Jones writes an article for Slate in which he disagrees with Alex Ross of The New Yorker. They become friends, and David Remnick gives him a call. 

This haphazardness and life of lateral moves characterizes much of Earlier. Circling back to Frere-Jones’ struggles mentioned earlier, he does write about his first experience drinking and the alchemical effect it had, but the issue of addiction does not loom large in these pages. He also writes obliquely about the faux pas of “A Paler Shade of White”, but this is a minor episode in his life, as it should be. He writes more affectingly about the death of his father and becoming a father himself, as well as his relationship with Deborah. 

What do I mean by an anti-memoir? Earlier is certainly about revisiting the past and tussling with the meaning of experience, but it doesn’t set out with a specific task or purpose. It disrupts or abandons many of the tropes and platitudes of current memoir writing with the genre’s perverse attention to both trauma and accomplishment. Earlier inhabits a space between these extremes. Frere-Jones is still active as a critic. Nothing is entirely finished or over for him. The title word pops up in the brief entry “Earlier (1982)”, which mentions an MTA subway delay – a glib reference that perhaps hints at his casual take on this genre. 

In terms of becoming a critic, Earlier floats the tacit suggestion that a good critic is a person who never quite succeeds in life, at least by conventional standards. That sounds like a diss, but I mean it seriously. As Earlier demonstrates, his exposure to different forms of culture at a young age was essential but had Frere-Jones made it as a musician, we likely wouldn’t have his critical eye. His somewhat chaotic education and professional writing career have further sharpened his ability to grasp two or more sides of a situation. Taken together, like Benjamin (but not Sontag), there is a refreshing anti-careerist aspect to Frere-Jones’ life that has nonetheless led to a considerable degree of success.

Earlier is frequently witty and hilarious as hinted. In contrast to an earlier generation of critics that sought to mimic rock music and attitude through words like Lester Bangs, Sasha Frere-Jones’ writing has never been bombastic, gonzo, or too encyclopedic in a showy manner. In contrast, it has frequently provided a model of intelligence and restraint, with its pull based on a certain accumulated rhythm of image and expression, which is another version of music itself. 

Sasha Frere-Jones’ style might be called post-rock prose. Earlier illuminates the origins of this critical approach while evincing its strengths all at once.

RATING 8 / 10