Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 8 Jan 07 09:58
It's my pleasure to introduce our next guest, Gavin Edwards. Gavin is the author of "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John? : Music's Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed." He is also the author of "'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and Other Mishead Lyrics" as well as its multiple sequels, page-a-day calendars, and temporary tattoos. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and has also written extensively on music, movies, and food fights for Details, Spin, New York, and GQ, among other publications. Joining Gavin is Inkwell regular Ed Ward. Ed, too, has worked at Rolling Stone, between March and October of 1970, when it was still in San Francisco, although his first music-mag job was at Crawdaddy! in 1967. Serving as Rolling Stone's record review editor, he published Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, J.R. Young, and many, many others. Since then, he's appeared in numerous music magazines, and had the pop music beat at the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman from 1979 to 1984. He's also the "rock and roll historian" for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently, he lives in Berlin. When asked about the state of contemporary music journalism, he said "These kids today! Why, when *I* was coming up [statement edited for space]." Welcome Gavin and Ed! Glad to have you here.
Berliner (captward) Tue 9 Jan 07 10:35
...and another thing, you young punk... Tap. Tap. Oh, wait, is this thing on? whiiiiIIIIIINNNNE Oops. So, good to be here, and I figured I'd hit you right off the bat with a controversial question. Some years ago, Greil Marcus published a book of essays by various rock writers called Stranded, in which he asked us to write about the album we'd want to be stranded on a desert island with. I chose "Dedicated to You" by the "5" Royales, an album practically nobody had heard of at the time. In fact, there was so little known about them that, instead of writing an essay, I wrote a short story, just making it all up. Then, at the end, I switched into essay mode and *admitted* I'd made it all up. I *liked* the fact that there was nothing known about them, and that I could project my fantasies onto the music I was hearing. I thought that one very bad thing Rolling Stone and its successors had wrought was to take the mystery out of rock stardom. We now know every detail we want to know about almost every rock star. And, of course, your book just contributes to that, but the genie's been out of the bottle so long there's no putting it back in, so there's no use complaining. So, as Rolling Stone's "answer man," what's your take on all of this?
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Tue 9 Jan 07 14:31
I forgot that essay was by you! A fine piece of work in a really excellent anthology. I think the making-everything-up approach is fine as far as it goes: that is, it's obviously going to say a lot more about the writer than the subject, so the writer had damn well better be sure that he/she has something interesting and important to say. (An unsuccessful example: that Michael Stipe profile in Esquire a few years back where the writer didn't get a good interview and so made most of it up, with the fictions only footnoted online.) I have mixed feelings about the level of rock 'n' roll disclosure in the world (knowing that as you say, that particular bottle is uncorked). I =like= the mythic aspect of rock 'n' roll and I love how people make the music and the characters their own. ('SCUSE ME WHILE I KISS THIS GUY and its various sequels are an illustration of this--I genuinely love that people mangle rock lyrics into something more meaningful and important to them than what the singer intended. My copy of MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD is just as good as your copy (or David Byrne's copy, for that matter).) So is it better or worse for a rock listener to know that there's an answer to the question of "Who was Carly Simon singing about in 'You're So Vain'?"--and that the answer isn't Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty? Well, it's both. The answer you have in your head is probably more entertaining than the reality--but I wouldn't have done this book if I didn't know that there were lots and lots of people who had unanswered musical questions like that one that had been eating away at them for years. At a certain point, you just want to know. My favorite tactic with lyrics sheets was always when bands didn't print it on the album, but offered them free for via SASE. That seemed like a fair deal: you had to wrestle with the words of PINKERTON for a while and try to figure it out for yourself, but eventually you'd get the official answer from Weezer headquarters. That's the spirit in which I answered the questions in TINY DANCER.
Berliner (captward) Wed 10 Jan 07 07:51
You're right about "owning" an artist or an album, in that that's one of the things that gets people -- particularly younger people -- hooked on pop music in the first place. I'm just thinking -- and what I'm really doing is thinking out loud -- that the demystification process has led to the "everyone can do it" mindset, which has led to the gawdawful amount of overproduction of music we're suffering through right now. Or I am, anyway, as someone whose taste encompasses a whole lot of different genres and styles and who therefore finds himself unable to keep up with any of them at this point. What I'm saying is that when making rock and roll was seen as being in the hands of a priesthood, an elect, it was not only quantitatively, but qualitatively different. Again, we've let a genie out of another bottle, no turning back, etc. But when the guys on the stage are no more glamorous than your cousin -- because the bass player *is* your cousin -- I think rock and roll loses something. Still, that's not a slag on the book. I laughed at the question about how many states Springsteen's mentioned in his songs (that used to be a guarantee of airplay, which is why there are like 50 different versions of that song "High School U.S.A.") and there were a lot of stories I'd never heard before (Duane Allman shooting himself in the foot). Errr, is there a question in here somewhere? Gavin? Comment?
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 10 Jan 07 13:04
(Wait: *Who was* Carly Simon singing about?)
Berliner (captward) Thu 11 Jan 07 01:14
Get the book, cheapskate!
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Thu 11 Jan 07 15:30
Heh. The short answer to the Carly Simon question is "Nobody you've heard of." I'm curious, Ed--was there a moment of demystification in music that you saw as a (personal) turning point? I think there can still be moments of glorious ignorance, even in the age of the Internet: that single on a friend's mix CD from some wholly obscure band, and you just have to figure out what their deal is. (My all-time favorite misconception of a band was when I first got into the Pet Shop Boys, and I completely bought their public posture that Neil did all the work and Chris just stood around looking stylish. I thought that was one of the most brilliant things =ever= and I was sorely disappointed when I found out that Chris actually did most of the instrumental work in the studio.) But to answer your (non-)question, I think that it's a mistake to pull out the current level of rock disclosure as a thread separate from society's greater woof. We live in a world where people expect to know everything pretty much instantly, particularly about famous people, and a culture where people will post their innermost secrets for the whole world on the net, or shout them into a cell phone on a crowded bus. Ten or twelve years ago, I went through a period when it seemed that every band I profiled had a high-profile member who was/had been addicted to heroin: Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Everclear were among the list. I got really tired of being on the heroin beat, and declined an opportunity to write about Stone Temple Pilots when the story was offered to me--they were awful and sordid in really similar ways, and it had become both depressing and monotonous. But my point here is that it didn't take much prompting to get these people to tell me what they had gone through: part of the dynamic of modern recovery is telling anybody who will listen about the awful things that you did when you were in thrall to the substance of your choice. I think that in general the interview-as-therapy dynamic is overstated, but those were conversations that felt like extensions of group therapy. (And I would argue that the conversation-as-therapy trope has pervaded our culture in many ways.) As it happened, I would end up hearing Scott Weiland's stories of heroin addiction and recovery after all: many years later, I wrote a profile of Velvet Revolver. I jumped at the opportunity to write that story, however, specifically because of this book (or more precisely, the column that preceded it): I had lots of Guns N' Roses questions I wanted cleared up (such as the meaning of the title of "THE SPAGHETTI INCIDENT?") and was glad to finally have the opportunity to quiz Duff McKagan about them.
Berliner (captward) Fri 12 Jan 07 02:05
I don't know if there was a personal turning point for me in terms of the need-to-know thing, but I honestly think that a lot of it -- the good *and* the bad -- can be laid at the feet of Rolling Stone. I think that with the growing importance of popular culture, and popular music culture generally since the '60s it was probably inevitable. But when I came to Rolling Stone, in 1970, the thing that shocked me was the emphasis on hard news. At Crawdaddy! in 1967, it was all about fashionable and goofy critical theory, a trend that, in retrospect, wasn't going to go anywhere with the mass public, as was proven when Paul Williams ceded control to the folks who came after him. (Even worse on this note was the almost-forgotten mag Fusion from Boston, where Jon Landau, who replaced me at RS, got his start.) I found myself at a magazine whose day-to-day operations were in the hands of John Burks, who'd arrived from that pillar of the counterculture, Newsweek, and where actual newsroom conditions were the model we were to follow. John was my journalism school, and I'm forever indebted to him for that. We were seeing our beat, which wasn't only the world of rock music, but the whole culture it was part of, as something worthy of serious coverage in the way Washington or Moscow was, and that, rather than the record reviews I'd come to edit, was what drove the magazine and made it the success it became. It was a long time before anyone could mount a serious challenge to that, and for most of the '70s RS was unchallengable on that front. As for the conversation-as-therapy, that probably started with Jann Wenner's conversations with John Lennon, which were made into the book Lennon Remembers (and yes, heroin entered into that discussion, too, as you'll no doubt remember). It was an important, and necessary, demystification of the rock idol and those ultimate rock idols the Beatles. Still, my own path led me to Creem, which is a magazine people still remember fondly, not least for the fact that it *didn't* take a lot of this stuff as seriously and prolonged for many the simple pleasures of the snotty adolescent pop culture attitudes, even when both writers and readers were fully aware there was more to it than that. The short answer I hear these days is "Rolling Stone was so serious, but Creem was fun." Clearly, we shared a lot of readers, and clearly both approaches were right. I'm wondering: Rolling Stone is an institution now, but is there anything around, whether magazine or website, which preserves the "fun" vibe that Creem had? Lord knows there's room for a little raspberry-blowing in the direction of some of these rock stars today.
Michael Zentner (mz) Fri 12 Jan 07 09:33
One thing that separates an artist from the pack for me is whether they are writing about their last boy/girlfriend or not.
Berliner (captward) Fri 12 Jan 07 10:06
Oh, you're so vain! Actually, I'm not sure I agree. I'd say a lot has to do with *how* they might be doing it, and a lot of it -- for me -- has to do with the musical skills they bring to writing about anything. But this is Gavin's interview, and he should be getting back from London Any Minute Now to deal with all these weighty matters -- and the others I have for him. And you readers, too, on and off the Well. If you're of the Well, you can send an e-mail to <firstname.lastname@example.org> with a question and we'll post it for Gavin.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 12 Jan 07 10:33
Now I'm curious -- Michael, do you think it's more artistic to be writing songs about your most recent love, producing your work as a public diary, or is it less so? Of course I'd like to know what Gavin thinks about that: what's imagination got to do with it?
Michael Zentner (mz) Fri 12 Jan 07 13:49
I just realized at some point that the boyfriend/girlfriend thing comprises a huge amount of the total song catalog, so I tend to look for songwriters who at least are doing something different.
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Fri 12 Jan 07 17:28
Does it sound absolutely horrible to say that imagination is overrated? I love the assembly-line grind-it-out model of songwriters, from the Brill Building and Holland-Dozier-Holland to the Neptunes and Max Martin--at worst it's professional, and at best it's genius. (Which isn't to dis the geniuses who chafe at those strictures, like Lou Reed or Becker & Fagen, to name two Brill B. refugees, but to say that the honest cobbler songwriter gets a bad rap.) Anyway, I'm back from London and hugely jet-lagged, but happy to handle all questions.... (There's a lot of places for raspberry-blowing, by the way, from Blender to Idolator, but I want to particulary cite my pal and RS compatriot Rob Sheffield, who writes a brilliant column in every issue (and also has a great book out last week that you should all go buy, LOVE IS A MIX TAPE).)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 13 Jan 07 07:27
I don't know that the assembly-line model is inherently without imagination. It's interesting to watch Becker and Fagen - there's a dvd from a VH1 show where they go over their process for creating Aja, and you still get a sense of tin pan alley origins of their work ethic, but you also get that they are insanely creative. I think your blurbs say that you talk about the Paul-is-dead thing from the downside of the Beatles era... I'm wondering if anyone's checked to see if the current incarnation of Paul wishes that had been true? <grin>
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Sat 13 Jan 07 21:41
I agree that imagination flourishes in the assembly-line model--people don't give it credit for doing so, though! Researching the history of "Paul Is Dead" for the book, I found that there are people out there who have continued to comb his solo work for clues, even up to the present day--which I find rather charming.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Tue 16 Jan 07 07:49
ok, i must confess I haven't got the book yet, but I have a couple of questions.... What were the boundaries that you had for the book--how did you choose which myths, rumors, etc. to include? The subtitle is "Music's Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed" and, if taken literally, that covers a ton of material. What is the earliest myth, rumor, etc. that you cover? To what extent did you cover other genres--jazz, blues, classcal, etc.--as well as rock and pop? Second--to what extent do pop/rock still generate mysteries and mythology? I was a teen in the 70s and that time seems like a sort of heydey of pop/rock mythology to me now. There wasn't lots of easy access to actual information and all sorts of rumors and partial truths with very long half- lifes flourished. Look at some examples mentioned up above--the title of the book references a 36 year old Elton John song, some of the discussion up above refers to a 35 year old Carly Simon song. (Those songs could have kids entering college now!) I guess the one current (well it's old by now) episode that has seemed to generate something similar to the mythology of my youth is the murder of tupac and all the questions/rumors surrounding that. There's lots of entertainment and gossip reporting now, but that seems counter to mystery. Do you find any qualitative different to the mysteries, myths, and rumors of today's pop/rock world compared to that of 20-40 years ago?
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Wed 17 Jan 07 09:20
Well, the subtitle came after the book was written, not the other way around. I was focused on rock music (to quote my introduction: "and by 'rock,' I mean 'the whole megillah of popular music since 1955, based on the union of blues and country, but encompassing soul, folk, hip-hop, distorted electric guitars, and the funky chicken'"), and my usual filter for questions was not "what era from this from?" but "does this seem interesting and new to me?" (I've read a lot of books about rock 'n' roll over the years, starting a couple of decades ago with Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll (cowritten by (captward)!), so I figured if something was fresh for me, it would be for most readers too.) I think the earliest question in the book relates to the death of Johnny Ace, who died of a gunshot wound in 1954 (long rumored to be either Russian roulette or a music-biz gangster laying the smackdown, although the information I found suggests that it was probably a self-inflicted wound from Ace horsing around with his gun, or as the Houston homicide detective on the scene put it, "pistolitis"). I'm not sure exactly what the latest question in the book would be.maybe "Why does Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters chew gum when he sings and plays live? Is there a reason for this, or is it just a bad habit?" I think that the rock stars of the '60s and '70s may seem more iconic to us (and there's plenty of questions about them in the book, ranging from the meaning of "Norwegian Wood" to Led Zeppelin's legendary encounter with the shark, which I finally got the definitive word on), but the stars of today are creating their own mysteries on the fly, and you can wade through a lot of misinformation before getting the real answer. Which is why in many cases I did original reporting before answering the question, whether it was on who was the guy holding the umbrella in the Outkast video, what the deal is with John Mayer's synaesthesia, or the secret connection between the Darkness and Neil Diamond.
Get Shorty (esau) Wed 17 Jan 07 10:08
I'm curious whether either of you play an instrument, write music, or have played or recorded in a band, and whether it makes a difference in critiquing an artist.
Berliner (captward) Wed 17 Jan 07 10:51
I've played *at* instruments ever since elementary school, although I haven't touched one recently. I've played in a couple of fun groups, people getting together to have fun, but not for public consumption. Unlike many people, I've been blessed with the realization that my enthusiasm does not equal talent. Actually, this question gets asked a lot, and here's what I have to say about it; I hope Gavin gets his licks in, too: The experience of playing music, whether well or not, teaches you some things. It teaches you how music is constructed, how whatever instrument you've got is played, and what it sounds like. If you play with a group (or sing with one: I have a lot of church choir experience from my childhood), you learn about the give-and-take that makes a group more than a collection of individuals. You can also, if you're very, very lucky, have the experience that comes when the group is more than the people contributing to it, the "did we do that?" moment. As to whether this makes one a better critic, well, critics have gone out of fashion these days, so I can't tell if it's a worthwhile skill at the moment, but I can understand why things are working on a technical level better than someone who doesn't understand harmony and orchestration. Critiquing an artist, though, implies that it's the artistry, not the technique, that's under scrutiny, and no, none of that necessarily helps with criticizing someone's art. That's another matter entirely. Mind you, this will turn into my rant about "criticizing" versus "reviewing" if you don't watch out, and this is Gavin's show, so let's hear what he has to say about that.
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Wed 17 Jan 07 14:38
As I once put it in an article: "I've long thought that only one thing stood between me and rock stardom: musical talent." (If you want to check out the article, which was about Pro Tools, specifically Butch Vig producing a song by me in his basement, it's on the RS website at http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5935689/pro_tools_nation or <http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5935689/pro_tools_nation> . If the song isn't downloadable anymore, tell me and I'll see if I can put it up someplace.) Anyway, I learned just enough guitar to discover how easy it is to get some acceptable noise out of one and how hard it is to get good. I think knowing how to play music makes a difference in how one approaches music, but so does everything else. I had to learn a lot of my musical vocabulary on the fly--oh, so that's an arpeggio, okay, that's what a key change sounds like-- but that's life. Some qualities that come in handy reviewing records: the patience to listen closely, a knowledge of music as a musician, a knowledge of music as a fan ( meaning an awareness of what else has come before, or is happening now), a good sense of humor, an ability to make deadlines. Some things that I always love disproportionately on pop records: woodblocks, scatting, key changes.
Get Shorty (esau) Wed 17 Jan 07 16:04
Well, it's interesting because I could argue either way. I certainly know people whose extreme skill has seemingly led them to be closed- minded about styles and choices -- listen to a nonguitarist talk about a Neil Young solo and it's obvious that he can satisfy some people playing one note repeatedly. So musical knowledge can get in the way of enjoyment and (I would think) reviewing. On the other hand, I really enjoy getting insights into the making of music. Alex Ross's profile of Radiohead in the New Yorker fascinated me because of the comments about the unusual structure of their songs, which seems unusual. (I wonder if Ross plays?)
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Wed 17 Jan 07 20:30
for me, it's not that the stars of the 60s and 70s seem more iconic than those of today, it's that back in the 70s, there was a lot of secondhand info that was passed around and primarily available orally. so there was an oral culture of stories and apocrapha about the rock/pop stars. Sometimes you might find mention of them in print, but it was difficult to go back and track down original source material. Today, a lot of that info is just a couple of queries away. An example--the jim morrison exposure incident. I heard about this years after the fact, heard different versions of what happened, read references to it but not actual factual accounts. If the equivalent happened today, not only is it likely that someone would have captured the whole thing on video and posted it to youtube, it is likely that police reports and mug shots would be available on smoking gun. There would be several first hand accounts available. I could track down news articles about it in the daily paper of the town where it occurred. There's a good chance i could also read the police blotter report about the incident. Don't get me wrong, i'm a fan of this info and the easy availability of it, but there does seem to be a sort of demystification factor that goes along with it as well.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Wed 17 Jan 07 21:00
i have a question for both of y'all--listening to music is a big part of your job, how does that affect the way you listen to music? Is it still possible for you to listen to music on a purely pleasureable, as opposed to professional, basis? Have your leisurely listening habits changed during the course of your career as a music journalist/critic? How?
Berliner (captward) Thu 18 Jan 07 01:28
Hmmm, I'm not sure which side of Neil Young's one-note guitar solo <esau> is coming down on, but one well-placed note can, I think, neutralize Steve Vai's whole career. As for <pdl>'s question up there, I think I'll let Gavin answer that for the moment; my listening has gone down to a few days a month.
Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Thu 18 Jan 07 08:27
I used to =edit= a record-review section, back in the early '90s when I was an editor at Details, and that dramatically changed my music consumption. It was only two pages, but we ran over twenty capsule reviews every months, which I would distribute to a dozen or so freelancers. So I had to stay on top of everything that was coming out, make a lot of snap judgments on whether an album was good or interesting, listen to each record enough to interact meaningfully with the writer who did the review.as you can imagine, that didn't leave a lot of time to linger over old favorites or even new favorites. (I'd say that, in broad strokes, that's the biggest difference I've noticed in the listening habits of among professional music critics: the constant search for the new becomes an end to itself. Since many music critics were always new-music-thrill junkies, it's easy for them to chase that dragon rather than listen to London Calling or Nevermind one more time, the way a regular person might. I can't help but notice that the biggest recent technological shift in how people listen to music--the iPod--is at its best when it's recontextualizing your entire record collection. The primary pleasure of the iPod is having it dig up an album track you used to love but never hear anymore; on shuffleplay, it sounds like a brand-new hit. (Something else I've been thinking about lately with my iPod (I came late to the party, only getting one last spring when it became apparent that with a newborn boy in the house, I wouldn't be able to listen to have records on all the time the way I used to) is how it does especially well with punk- rock artists with a distinctive sound and short tracks. The Ramones, Wire, Sleater-Kinney: they can all become a bit exhausting over the course of an album, but shine on shuffleplay.)) That stint at Details was a fun job, but I wasn't sorry when it was over. I'm not primarily a critic now: feature writing takes up most of my time. But I keep up with what's happening in music, while feeling free to chase new enthusiasms or spend a week obsessing over a record that I missed in 2003, or 1973. I do a record review or a concert review once or twice a month, on average, which is not really that much. One of the biggest differences between professional listening and civilian listening is that as a professional, you have to listen to and watch a lot of stuff that you would never waste your time with if it weren't your job. When I wrote a Jamie Foxx profile at the time of Ray, I saw a whole bunch of his old movies so I'd be well-versed in his work: man, he made some stinkers (although he was almost always good in them). If they came on cable, you'd flip away like your remote control was on fire. When I reviewed the Train record a couple of years ago, I knew I didn't like it after the first listen, but it was so bland, I had a hard time getting a fix on it so I could say why articulately. I ended up playing it a dozen times, I think.at which point I =really= didn't like it.
Berliner (captward) Thu 18 Jan 07 09:03
Man, I hate when that happens. Of course, negative reviews are pretty much a rarity these days; you're lucky to have an outlet that allows them, from what I understand. Coupla dumb fan-mag-type questions that I suspect might have fun answers: * What was the stupidest question someone asked you? * What was the hardest-to-answer? * Got any that remain unsolved that are still nagging at you?
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