Friday, July 18, 2014

Writing musical history

If you've ever blogged about music, if you've ever dreamed about writing music criticism AND GETTING PAID FOR IT, you might want to check out Paul Gorman's IN THEIR OWN WRITE: ADVENTURES IN THE MUSIC PRESS (2001). It's an "oral history" about what it was like to be a rock critic back in the "golden age" of rock critics -- say mid-'60s to early '90s. It's a compulsive 300-page read -- I gulped it all down in three days and wished there was twice as much.
But then, I was a sucker for rock criticism early -- since reading THE ROLLING STONE RECORD REVIEW VOLUME TWO in the fall of '76 and getting sucked into the wild, vivid way these men and women could write, and the freedom they seemed to have.
Some of the freedom and good times comes across in IN THEIR OWN WRITE. What could possibly be wrong with being a rock journalist?: You got to get high and write about music all day and night, go see gigs, hang out with the bands -- maybe even go with them on tour!
What mainly comes across is how much WORK it turned out to be, and how many people burned out in a couple of years or so. The book quotes most of the rock-crit greats, from Lester Bangs to Nick Tosches. You hear from the Noise Boys and the Deep Thinkers. And from some of the women who ventured into this seemingly all-male clubhouse.
From about halfway through, the book turns from describing working at the U.S. mags (ROLLING STONE, CREEM, etc.) and moves to the British music weeklies -- NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS, MELODY MAKER, SOUNDS, etc. This makes sense -- there were more British music papers, and the competition was a lot heavier. I'd like to have heard more about working at the American rags, but if you've already read Robert Draper's ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY and Jim DeRogatis's biography of Lester Bangs, LET IT BLURT, you already know more than this book will tell you.
It's still a vivid trip, and there are many laugh-out-loud moments. There are also some stories that are pretty embarrassing. A lot of these writers still hold grudges and continue to grind their axes in these pages.
I was surprised there wasn't MORE back-stabbing. As is, there's a lot of Who wrecked who's story and Who ruined who's career and Who got somebody else fired so they could take over their job.The only punches thrown are when Tony Parsons punches out Mick Farren over the attentions of fellow NME critic Julie Burchill.
The Brit stories are pretty great -- that's where most of the musical action was happening, after all. But it seems like Gorman could still pull together another book going more in-depth with the Americans.
The only downer here is the high number of rock critics and writers who are no longer with us. Fully 10 percent of the folks interviewed in this book are now dead.
This is only the third "oral history" I've read that actually works, that makes you feel a little like you were there. If this old scene appeals to you at all, if you ever gobbled up the British weeklies, or RS, CREEM, TROUSER PRESS, MUSICIAN, CRAWDADDY -- you'll probably love this book.
But you'll also wish there was more....
P.S. -- I would LOVE to write about music 24/7, so if anybody out there's hiring....

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