November 11, 2008

Q & A with Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times

I've been meaning to post this for awhile...

Many music fans and critics alike have lamented about the lack of true music criticism, which to a large extent is true. I find that most modern music writing is mild critique with Q & A attached. However, that doesn't mean there aren't a few music writers out there holding it down for true, abashed rock crit. One of those writers is Jim Derogatis. Jim has written several fantastic books, including Milk It!, Let It Blurt, and Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock. Over the years, he's has gotten a bad rep for being brutally honest, and in particular butting heads with Rolling Stone head honcho Jann S. Wanner and Billy Corgan (which involved the lead singer calling him a "fat fuck" and banning him from shows).

And with that, I would like to extend a special thanks, again, to the wonderful Mr. Jim DeRogatis. He spent almost two hours on the phone with me this May as I asked him every question under the sun about the perils of rock criticism, R.Kelly, and why po'boys are vastly superior to McDonalds, among many other things. I love it :] Make sure to check out Jim on Sound Opinions, his weekly podcast with fellow rock critic Greg Kot.

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Interview with Chicago Sun-Times Pop Critic Jim DeRogatis:

I know you just got from Austin for South By Southwest, and that's like an amalgamation of all these different bands and critics. What's that like, as far as being a gathering critics? What is everyone like basically?

There's a lot fine people doing it. And it's sort of like: where Sound Opinions came from was [Greg] Kot and would be setting together at shows watching Mary J. Blige one night, and Arcade Fire the next. It's always interesting because there's 15,000 people at the Mary J. show, and there's 3,000 at the Arcade Fire, and nobody except him and I have been to both of those concerts. That's just fascinating. So, naturally people who are obsessed by music wind up arguing: “Do you like that album?” or, “That review you wrote made no sense.” I mean, it's exactly what you do when you're with your friends. There's a bunch of people who are really cool, and that's exactly what it's like. And there are a bunch of assholes. The one thing about doing the Lester book is that, people who are the most talented, the most incredibly inspiringly talented. Like Lester [Bangs], or Nick Toches, or Richard Meltzer are the most generous, and are the least threatened by other writers. The people who are like mediocre talents are very hostile, and very they'll be very protective, and don't want to share, and don't want to talk to you. They have their own crowd of people who they're sleeping with, or went to Yale with and that's it. I think that's what I've always found. You know, there's a lot people like David Fricke –who is still afraid of me-- and run the other way. I worked at Rolling Stone with him, and it's been the worse job I've ever had. I'd be there late on a Friday night, or something like that, and he'd be playing a Husker-Du Live album. And I'd bop into his office I'd be like (speaks in frantic gibberish), and he wouldn't say anything. He just wouldn't say anything. It was like he didn't want to any conversation with me. It was like, “Wow. That's fucked up.”

Yeah, that is really rude.

There are a lot of people who are pure, and utter, assholes. But it would be like if you went an accountants convention. There would be a lot of people who are complete, an utter, assholes. (laughs) I don't think it's anything unique, necessarily. The people who are worth knowing, are the people who are worth knowing.

[Frederich] Nietzsche was a cynical motherfucker, of course, but he had some points: “What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger” and all that. He also had this notion of the “Talented Tenth”, [or] that one in every ten people are truly alive or are truly creative people; intellectually curious lust-for-life, the kind of people that are worth knowing. A lot of that's best not to be put down. (mocking) “This, is why the fascists adopted him.” However, in life, what he was saying, that you meet a lot of people who kind of just bounce along. All of the people who live in New Orleans, [I wonder] why do people [living there] eat at McDonald's? Why the fuck would you eat at McDonald's, when within a 1-block radius there are six incredible Mom-and-Pop stores that will give you the best po'boy of your life?! And you're going to McDonald's?! What's the matter with you?! (laughs) But, that's just life, you know what I mean? I think rock criticism is the same fuckin' deal. One-out-of-ten of these fuckers are worth knowin'!

Right, oh yeah. I could imagine. Well, I can't imagine really, because I've never been. I'm gonna try to go next year actually.

You should. You should. I think it would you know, it's worth saving up the money, and it's worth going... Kot, and I could offer you lots of tips about where to go, and how to get there, and how to in.

That's awesome. One of my history teachers, she's actually... I'm taking a class called the History of New Orleans Music, and she's actually a journalist herself, and she was saying I should I really go. Something with the school might be able to help me out [getting press credentials]. It would be awesome. I'm going to definitely try to go, and see for myself.

Excellent. Excellent.

I guess the next question for you is, when you review an album on the show or for the Sun-Times, do you ever find yourself reneging your initial thoughts about an album after a span of time? Like after listening to it more?

Oh yeah. I always say you should never trust any critic who doesn't admit that he or she doubles back on themselves. I think you live with an album, and your relationship with a piece of music changes over time. Then some incredibly, complicated and dense albums take some living with. Then, they're some albums that go down okay on the first listen, and then you realize, “Wow, yeah, that's a crap. That's a crap album.” Like R.E.M.'s Monsters sounded okay when it came out in '94, but I've never gone back to listen to it again. And know every time that I hear Murmur; or Reckoning or; Fables or, Automatic For The People. I mean, I love those albums still. So yeah, and I mean I wrote about that in the Lester book. There's famous thing he [writes that] Anon's E-Street is the worse album ever made, and it's a piece of shit. And the next month he wrote all about how the thing is brilliant. It is that kind of album. You don't get it at first.

And I don't think there's any shame in about that. I think it's people who don't admit that they change their mind that are people you shouldn't trust.

What have been some interesting reactions from musicians and/or other writers about your book Milk It!?

Interesting reactions?

Yeah, like good or bad? Or just interesting?

Hmm. You know, I can't say I've gotten much feedback on that book at all from musicians. Readers tend to write to me, and say, “I like that book, half of it made sense, the other half I don't agree with.” On that book I got a lot more reactions just from regular readers. I can't say that anybody I actually wrote about in the book has actually said a damn thing. (laughs) Which is not unusual. Rockstars, for lack of a better word, even the ones who are accessible and seem to be human beings –like Wayne Coyne-- they're egotistical people. I think one thing that Cameron Crowe got right in Almost Famous. I mean there are a lot of the things he got right. It was kind of a romanticized view of being a rock critic, but Cameron is prone to romanticization. [He's] the Frank Capra of our day. One of the things he got right was that you can't be friends with the rockstars. If you're setting out to do that, it's a losing battle. There are there to use you, you are there to pawn their shit.

Oh yeah. Completely.

They don't like to be asked difficult questions, and they don't like to have somebody show them in anyway that they're not in control. I heard from more a lot more artists who like the psychedelic book, and tons of artists who connected with the Lester Bangs book. It depends. Different books. I think the psychedelic people have that kind of connection because, it's rarely written about and it's always dismissed as “San Francisco 1967.” It's like god, My Bloody Valentine had nothing to do with that, and there was so much more, you know? In the Lester book it's one of those Talented Tenth things. You're either somebody who likes Lester Bangs, or you're someone I don't want to know. (laughs) You know what I mean? The magic of that book has nothing to do with me.

That's totally Lester.

I mean, you know, you can't read him at his best and tell me that is not good writing, and that that's not art on the same level of much of the music he was writing about. Well, you just don't get it.

Those are people who go to McDonald's instead of going to get the best po'boy of their life.

Right, right. If you don't like good food, and you don't like to have good sex, and you don't like wine, and you just don't...then why would I ever want to know you?

Right, yeah. Totally. And you it's funny, that mentioned Almost Famous, but I don't know why, but I've always, always, always wanted to ask a music critic: You know that scene in Almost Famous where William he's got to interview Russel Hammond, and he's like, “Fuck off! Go away!”? And he starts having a meltdown, because he has 2,000 words to write, due in five minutes, and his editor is calling him? Have you ever had one of those moments where you're like, “Oh my God! What I am going to do?”

Oh yeah. All the time. Yeah, for sure. But I have that daily newspaper training, so I cornered Perry Ferrell at Lollapalooza last year. He was doing a press conference. Which wasn't really a press conference at all. He sat a bench and sat with a bunch of journalists... It's like motherfucker, you're going to answers my questions, or I'm going tackle you and put you in corner and make you answer my questions. I mean, I think we've all done that. You see should R. Kelly run away from me. (laughs)

I would love to see that! Yeah. Tackling down a child molester. I could imagine --not to that extent, because I've never actually had to publish anything that important. But I've definitely had my moments, where I've been like, “What I am going to do?” But just like you said, you've got to fall back on that basic journalism training where you just have to make it work.

Just because you're not going to get an interview with somebody doesn't mean that you can't do the story. You're not going to get an interview with Britney Spears, but you can talk to her road crew, and her choreographer, and her videographer, and the guy who does the sound who hits play on the tape with her fake vocals. Again, it goes back thing I talked about when we first started. You're going to have to work ten times harder, but you're going to be able to do it. Because no one's going to tell you, you can't do a story. You can always do a story. You can't get an interview with George Bush about Abu Ghraib. Yeah, well, there are 500 soldiers who worked in that prison. You can get the story. You're gonna have to work harder, and you're going to have to go to Iraq. And George isn't going to tell you truth anyway.

My next question is, what do you feel are some of the biggest mistakes that music journalists make today?

Well, that's probably a 10 hour answer right there. (chuckles) I really dislike writing that's not engaging writing. It bothers me to read Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus, and it's always bothered. It bothered me when I was in college. You read one of their essays, and you don't understand what the fuck they're talking about. I used to have this kind of inferiority complex that I'm not smart enough. I had to realize, you know I went to college, I was a double major in Journalism and Sociology. I read voraciously. I've now been doing this for 15 years writing about music. It's just bad writing. It's not me. It's just very dense writing. Anybody who writes in a exclusionary way, whether it's the emo kid who takes for granted that you know all the innovations of the sub-genres of sub-genres of the emo world. Or some snobby jazz critic, or some egghead academic. I think that you could have great ideas and be an entertaining writer, and this is the argument I've had with Marcus and Christgau. Basically, they said he [Lester Bangs] was entertaining writer, and that he was a clown. He was a comedian. His writing was a lot of fun to read, but there's no ideas there. You know, Lester could say something. The number of people, who use some of his writing as the signature line for their e-mails is extraordinary. The number of people who carry quotations by him, and have him on the top of their blogs. He could say something like, “Fashion is fascism,” or “Style is originality.” And it's like, wow, that is a profound idea. But it's acceptable and understandable. I know exactly what he's talking about, and boom, it's brilliantly worded and it's a heavy idea. So, I don't like that kind of writing that doesn't invite me, or that my grandmother couldn't understand.

I totally, totally agree. For me, I know how you can read something, like a journalism textbook and you can definitely tell it was written by a journalist because it is accessible? To me, that's a sign of intelligence if you can make that point, and make it well, and that it's not dense. It's compact. I'm a fan of lean writing. That is one of the gripes I have with Robert Christgau. He's awesome, he's got some really great stuff, but like you said, it's so, so dense. It's like you, you could have gotten that 10,000 word screed across in maybe 3,000, and it could have been way better.

That's interesting. I mean, Christgau's best stuff was always in the Consumer Guide. Where each blurb that had to be 150 words, (laughs) and he had to make every single word count... That was when he was at his best. God, 10,000 words of reading Robert Christgau is like fucking torture.
That's a big thing. You know, you one the thing that's crazy about South By Southwest is that you go and have lunch, and you're sitting at the table with 10 writers. And you say, “What do you think of the new R.E.M. album?” and they go, “Ehhh.” But you were in fucking Rolling Stone and you gave it three-and-a-half stars, you know? For better or worse, one thing you could say about me is that my opinion is what I'm saying you on the phone is what I wrote in the paper. They're all the same thing. I don't have one opinion from print, and another opinion that I'm really going to confess you if you ask “Is this worth buying this record?” I think that that's interesting. A lot of writers for, they're writing for an editor, they're writing for the public, they're writing for the artist. The very bottom of the list –if at all-- is the reader. I think that every writer has in his or her head the ideal reader. Who am I writing for? In my case, it's always been that 13-year-old kid who's got $10 in his pocket, and he's going to buy one album, because that's the lifeline out of fucking Jersey City. To me, music is my whole fucking life, and I don't want to be sold a hype. It's everything to me, and you're going to tell me to go buy fucking Huey Lewis, and there's this Husker-Du album. That's really important, and I think that, you're doing a lot of these thing already. You see that, and every good writer has to read voraciously. You've got to read everything. You're going to read Christgau, and you're gonna read Klosterman. You've to read, and read, and read. You're going to read outside the stuff that's music writing. You can, and see what works for other artists, other writers, and try those tools yourself. The best journalism teacher I ever had said, “If you see something good, steal it.” By the he did not mean plagiarism. A lot of people in the class didn't understand what he was talking about. To me, those techniques that work for other writers, and you try them out. Soon, you have a toolbox full of these things, and that your style is made out of it.

Right, right. Exactly. Yeah, I mean definitely. I've seen things in all of my favorite writers. That's one thing I have to say I've gotten from you, is to be honest. Like you said, there's never inconsistency in what you put in the Chicago Sun-Times website with what you say on Sound Opinions with what you say in an interview.

Right. Some many of these reviews repeat the same language over and over again. If put them all in the same typeface. Scan it in, put them in all Microsoft word, and took off the byline. Rolling Stone is saying the same thing, (indiscernible) is saying the same thing; Pitchfork the same thing. There's no personality, there's no style, there's no insight. You've got to try to go the extra mile. I prefer to see people do as simply as possible. I mean, life is short. If you can't you can't hit me right away with, Dominique thinks this, about this album. BAM! And make me want to read the rest of that 400-word review, then why are you wasting my time? (laughs) There's a 100,000 reviews about this goddamn album, you know?

When you were starting music writing, what are any mistakes you made, that don't now or wish someone would have told you about?

When I was really young I did a long interview with Anton Fier for Modern Drummer. He was my favorite drummer. I played drums, so I really wanted to write about him for Modern Drummer, this guy was a hero of mine. He played with The Feelies and was in the Golden Paliminos and he played with Herbie Hancock, and was the only white drummer to play with Miles Davis. He was very insecure about his own musicianship, and he wanted read the transcript before the article, and I said, “Okay, sure. Go ahead.” I mean, this guy was a hero of mine. I spent hours interviewing him, and then transcribing it and writing it up, and I was really proud of the piece. He looked at it and said, “I have nothing to say, I don't want you to publish it.” I promised that he would get to 'OK' it, that was stupid. It's like look, you're a journalist. You're a journalist, he's either going to give you the interview and trust you, or not. Other than that, not huge mistakes. That was a lesson, and a huge mistake that I've never nade again. That'd be my first Modern Drummer cover story for $300 (laughs)! I mean, Fuck! I'd given him my word, and I wasn't going to go back on it either. I think that the moral ethical things are getting more and more complex in this media age.

Do you think there is a need for more diverse voice in rock-n-roll writing. Women, African-American, minorities, et cetera?

Absolutely. I've had this fight –well, not a fight. A good-natured argument-- throughout my career with some women who came up, who are about my age. Ann Powers is now the rock critic at the Los Angeles Times.

Oh, I think she's great.

Evelyn McDonald, until recently, the rock critic at the Miami Herald. They're about my age. They wrote that female rock critics' Rock She Wrote. Have you seen that book? It's a good book.

Yeah, I have seen it.

We would always have this debate. Well, they would say there's this old boys' network that made it very hard to break through if you were a woman. And I'd say, “Look, I agree, there's a old boys network, but you guys are putting the emphasis on the wrong word.” It's not necessarily boys, it's old. That's the part. That's the key. It's old, but there is this media elite. A lot of it comes down to who you know, and who you sleep with. You could be the greatest writer in America today, and you know a snowball's chance in hell of doing the Radiohead interview for Spin, because there are fifteen people in line ahead of you –and eight of them have slept with the current editor of Spin. The other seven went to college with the editor of Spin. I ain't getting that assignment, and you ain't getting that assignment. We didn't go to college with them, and we didn't sleep with them. That's life. If you were going into politics; if you were going into computer programming, or insurance. It would be the same damn thing. That's just life, and we've got to deal with that. What does it mean for people like us? That means we have to work three times as hard.

I was this acne-ridden punk kid from New Jersey who wanted write about why Husker-Du and the Minutemen were a million times better than your fucking Bruce Springsteen. I was not going getting published in the Village Voice, or Musician magazine, or New York Rocker, or –Lord knows-- New York Times. I mean, I was boring. (laughs). I wasn't saying things that the old-guard media elite wanted to say. I mean, by old, you don't fuck with people who are 30 when you are 20, and I think that they came to see that. If fact, it was an asset for when they were hired for the Los Angeles Times or they were hired by the Miami Herald, but they were women.
Ann makes a big thing about it. If I have any gripe with Ann's writing it's that I've heard enough about your kid. I've got a daughter too, but I don't talk about her all the time, (laughs)? It's like, “Okay Ann, we know, we know.” But that's her, you know, and I respect Ann a lot. I do think that's the case. It's not easy for anybody with a different viewpoint to break in. You're ain't gonna get published at Pitchfork saying the Arcade Fire sucks either. That's the way it is.

But where you have opportunities, is the stuff that nobody else is writing about. That means you have to work ten times harder to find those stories. You're not going to get into Spin doing the Radiohead interview, like said. But it just so happens that there's some 80-year-old guy down in New Orleans who studied with Robert Moog, and is the last guy in the world who can fix analog synthesizers. And Johnny Greenwood has this great selection of vintage Moogs, and they're broke he needs to fix them so he can bring them on the road. So, he found this guy in New Orleans who can fix them. This is guy who fixes a Radiohead synthesizer; the only guy in the world who can do it, and you just know because he lives next door. And it's like: Bingo! Spin will pay you $500 to write 350-words on him, and you break in. That's a metaphorical example, but you gotta find those stories that nobody else has. And that's 10 times harder than just sitting and just having lunch with Radiohead. But, like I said, until you're sleeping with editor of Spin or going to Yale with his cousin...

Oh yeah, because that's going to happen, right.

You and I are left with finding the guy who fixes Radiohead's synths, or finding motherfucking R. Kelly videotape. That's just our life.

I'm gonna be honest, who hasn't, but I have not lived an easy life. I'm used to fighting. I know people are going to look down on me every single day or my life, because of my socio-economical status. It's kind of like, “What's new?” (laugh) Whatever, I'm so used to working really hard.

You're ready to roll up your sleeves and do it. When people say, “I'm so jealous of you, you don't deserve to be where you are.” I mean, that's the only thing people can say that gets me mad. It's like well, “Fuck you,” you have no idea how hard I've worked to get here. That's more reason why that Kelefa kind of rockist argument burns my ass. Have you sat with 18-year-old black girls who slit their wrists because R. Kelly fucked them when they were fifteen? It's like, “Fuck you!” Did somebody shoot out your front window? It's like, “Fuck you!” And you're gonna call me a rockist because I like guitars, and I say I don't understand hip-hop? [My response is,] “Fuck you!” (laughs).

And that's really close-minded, because anybody who actually took the time to actually read any of your writing, or listen to Sound Opinions --at least a few episodes-- would know that that's not true, with either you or Greg. It's just the fact that most modern hip-hop really freaking sucks. It does.

I'm not going to apologize for disliking sexist, misogynistic, homophobic... And it's also like: Look, the African-American experience in this country is really rich, and there's some small portion of people in this country who are dealing with life on the street as drug dealers. However, there's many people like Lupe Fiasco, who love fucking video games and Star Wars. And like Common, who worked at the Cultural Center [in Chicago, IL], and Kanye who worked at The Gap and didn't make enough money to catch the bus to get to The Gap. That's as valid as fucking 50 Cent (laughs).

Exactly. It's like, you know that stupid Mims song, “This Why I'm Hot”? He says: “I can make a mil singin' nothin' on a track.” I'm like, first of all, that is what you're doing. Second of all, why would you want to do that? You are totally raping rap music. That's why they have these rockist kids who say “Rap Sucks.” I'm like, “No. It doesn't. You just haven't heard any good rap.”

You could say whatever you want. I say that, and I'm a clueless white guy who doesn't understand hip-hop. Nevermind that it's 25-year-old white kids from Shawnburg who are sayin' that. I'll confess to you. I've often thought, I would like to invent a pseudonym, and every once in a while write a piece. She would be a black lesbian mute. She would be mute, because I couldn't talk on the phone and pull off this character. I would have to only communicate via e-mail. So, she's handicapped; she's a black lesbian mute, and I could say anything. I could say absolutely anything. (laughs)

That would be awesome.

You are almost there!

I just need to not speak, I need to not speak. (laughs)

Don't do that! You're such a good writer, don't do that. You're from New Orleans, so that makes up for it.

One of those clich├ęs that absolutely true is that you don't wrestle with a pig in the mud. Nobody wins, and at the best you just get dirty. That's not the point. It's amazing to me how this happens, whether is happens in the “I-love- the-music” kind of uber-intellectual website, or the fuckin' douchebags e-mailin' me saying, “Ooh, you fat fuck!” What does the fact that I'm fat has to due with anything? It's like you're mad at me because I don't like Ryan Adams, you call me a fat fuck. It's like, “Okay, okay. Whatever.” (chuckles) “I've never noticed until I got this e-mail, I never noticed I could stand to lose a few pounds. Amazing, thank you for bringing that to my attention.” (laughs)

I think that's really dumb because at the end of the day, who's getting paid to say Ryan Adams sucks?

But, you know what I mean? You have a lot of advantages, and I think it pays to keep those in mind. It's one of those things where your prospective, is your prospective, and let it blurt. And don't worry about what people think.

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