inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #26 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Thu 18 Jan 07 09:55
    
It's really fun to review good records and really fun to review bad records:
the problem is that so many albums fall in the middle.

Good questions; I'm running out to a screening, so I will ponder and answer
them one by one later in the day.
.y
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #27 of 85: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 18 Jan 07 11:43
    

And a reminder that readers are welcome to e-mail inkwell@well.com with
questions and comments, whether dumb, fan-mag type or otherwise.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #28 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Thu 18 Jan 07 17:19
    
Absolutely! Especially if I've said something incomprehensible and you want
me to translate it into English, or just have a follow-up question.

The dumbest questions were variations on the one I got from some guy in
France: "Why doesn't anybody like Lenny Kravitz?" Put in the name of Kiss,
or Rush, or whoever was regarded as getting insufficient love, and sometimes
vary the query to be why they're not making it into the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame. I suppose they weren't questions, when it comes right down to it,
since there's no answer I could have given that would have satisfied the
questioners, more shaking of the fists at the heavens, hoping for a day when
Lenny Kravitz ascends his rightful throne at the left hand of God.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #29 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Thu 18 Jan 07 22:07
    
Unsolved questions:

Some questions in the book are answered to the limit of the available
information. "What does Jimmy Page's symbol on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV
mean?" That's the one that looks like "Zoso," in case you weren't sure.

Well, Page only ever told one person: Robert Plant, who says he forgot. So
the only person on the planet who knows is Page himself (if =he=
remembers)--I didn't have any delusions that somehow I would get him on the
phone and trick him into answering the question. (Although on a much smaller
scale, I once got They Might Be Giants to answer the Influence Question,
which they had prided themselves on never ever answering.) So I was able to
write about everything that's known about that album title, but that
question is currently unanswerable.

The other question I'd love to answer is "Which rock stars wear hairpieces?"
Because way too many of our senior-citizen rock stars still have amazing
heads of hair. (Yes, we all know about Elton.) I need somebody insider who's
in a mood to dish--I once asked David Bowie, who got this evil glint in his
eye and clearly was considering the notion of spilling, but decided against
it. Maybe someday.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #30 of 85: My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Fri 19 Jan 07 06:41
    
only if it's not in your book--how did They Might Be Giants answer the
Influence Question?
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #31 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Fri 19 Jan 07 07:53
    
It's not in the book!

They were actually the first band I ever interviewed; circa 1986, I saw them
like seven times in a year and wangled an interview for a student
publication. At which point I asked them for their influences, and they just
said "The Influence Question" portentously and refused to answer it.

(Nice guys and good subjects for a first interview, being friendly and
funny. Flansburgh did most of the talking, while Linnell would hang back,
but every now and then, drop in the perfect one-liner.)

Fast-forward to 1992: I'm writing a short piece on them for Details pegged
to Apollo 18, so I visit their Brooklyn studio and we have a chat. At a
certain point, I ask them "Do you think you've influenced any other bands?"
(Not trying to be tricky--genuinely curious because although I liked them, I
thought they were a bit sui generis, and was interested in their perspective
on that.) They started discussing the nature of influence, and then one of
the Johns, Flansburgh I think, said something to the effect of, "Well, when
we started off, we were influenced by [Band X] and [Band Y], but you take
those influences and make them into something new." He took a beat,
genuinely bewildered. "Hey, we just answered the Influence Question. How'd
that happen?"

(Apologies for paraphrasing--the notes from the interview are in a storage
locker someplace, and I'm doing this from memory. Which begs the question:
what were Band X and Band Y? I =think= it was Pere Ubu and King Crimson, but
I wouldn't want to bet the mortgage on that.)
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #32 of 85: My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Fri 19 Jan 07 08:17
    
ha!  thanks for that!
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #33 of 85: Get Shorty (esau) Fri 19 Jan 07 09:23
    
Pere Ubu and King Crimson?!
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #34 of 85: Berliner (captward) Fri 19 Jan 07 10:07
    
Scary. Although the Influence Question is one of the dumber ones in
the young rock scribe's quiver, I've always thought. 

But not necessarily for writers: who were *you* influenced by, to the
point where you said "I yearn for a life of poverty and squalor! I'll
write about popular music for a living!"
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #35 of 85: An egg originating from an old Oldsmobile (crow) Fri 19 Jan 07 13:29
    
The "Kiss your albums goodbye" topic reminded me of a rumor I'd heard: Is it
true that the Beach Boys mixed their albums through car stereo speakers
becaue that's how their listeners would hear them?
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #36 of 85: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 19 Jan 07 17:16
    
When my former husband had a mastering studio, he'd do that, or at
least listen to it through crappy speakers (as well as his nice ones)
to make sure it still sounded ok.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #37 of 85: Get Shorty (esau) Fri 19 Jan 07 18:58
    
An interviewer once asked Frank Zappa that question -- do you mix your
songs to sound good coming out of a radio speaker? Frank naturally
responded that since he was never played on the radio, why would he?
 .
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #38 of 85: "The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Fri 19 Jan 07 19:12
    
And nobody brought up the chicken-and-egg deal?
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #39 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Sat 20 Jan 07 14:36
    

I'd never heard the car-radio story specifically with regards to the Beach
Boys, but I'd be surprised if it =weren't= true: that was pretty much
standard operating procedure back then (and sometimes today). I've heard
plenty of stories about everyone from Aretha Franklin to Phil Spector to the
Motown crew keeping a crappy transistor-radio speaker in the studio to see
how things sounded through that. According to Minneapolis legend, Prince
would take the latest mix of a single out for a drive in his car stereo.if
he didn't like how it sounded, he'd pitch it into a nearby lake as he drove
by it, which meant that somewhere in Minnesota, there is a lakebed full of
rejected Prince music.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #40 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Sat 20 Jan 07 15:25
    
My rock-critic influences:

I'll try to keep this short, and I'll fail.

I grew up listening to classic-rock radio (specifically WNEW 102.7 out of
NYC): I was a music fan without being super-obsessive about it. Then one day
when I was seventeen, I was driving back to high school from lunch ,
listening to the radio, which was playing a "rock block" of Bob Dylan. They
played a typical hit or two, "Rainy Day Women," I think, and then followed
it up with two songs I had never heard before: "Highway 61 Revisited" and
"The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." Well, they both blew my head
off; I sat in the school parking lot, astonished that I didn't know this
music existed. That afternoon, I asked friends if they had ever heard of
these songs; they all said no, but one suggested that I talk to Ted
Friedman, who was one year younger than me and an enormous music fan.

Ted knew the songs, and loaned me Biograph, in what proved to be the first
step towards our becoming best friends. (He's a professor at the University
of Georgia now; pick up his book Electric Dreams if you're interested in an
excellent cultural history of the personal computer.) I borrowed piles of
records from Ted, becoming more of a musical omnivore, but more to the point
here is that he also exposed me to rock criticism, which wasn't something I
had ever thought about existing; I don't think I even had a subscription to
Rolling Stone or Spin at that point. So my earliest influences were Greil
Marcus, for Mystery Train, and Dave Marsh, for his subscription-only
newsletter Rock and Roll Confidential. (It's been a long time since I had
much interest in Marsh's work, but as a teenager, it was heady stuff, both
because of his level of enthusiasm in The Book of Rock Lists and his
Springsteen biography and because I hadn't thought much about the political
implications of popular music; he had a sledgehammer approach to those
issues, admittedly, but addressing them at all was something new for me.)

When I got to college, I fell in with a crew of people at Nadine, a pop-
culture magazine founded by Joe Levy and Julian Dibbell, and staffed by a
bunch of smart music maniacs: a lot of my peers there were huge influences
on me, including but not limited to Ted, Rob Sheffield, Sandy Smallens, Marc
Weidenbaum, Andrew Jaffe, Jen Fleissner, and Erik Davis. (Most of those
folks have gone on to writing-related careers, as some casual googling will
reveal, although Andrew's an astrophysicist.)

Around this time, I started subscribing to the Village Voice, Rolling Stone,
and Spin, and tuned into the larger musical critical conversation. Psychotic
Reactions and Carburetor Dung came out, and gave me a sense of the
possibilities of the format (although I never went through the phase of
imitating Lester Bangs that infects so many young critics); I borrowed a
battered copy of Robert Christgau's '70s record guide that I devoured and
practically memorized; the Yale library had a copy of the Stranded
anthology, which I loved, especially Greil Marcus's discography epilogue.
Chuck Berry's autobiography came out around this time too; that was
important. Joe Levy told me I should check out Ellen Willis's writing in
back issues of The New Yorker, which was a good tip. Simon Frith's Sound
Effects was influential on me, as were other writers ranging from F. Scott
Fitzgerald to Donald Barthelme to Pauline Kael.

So: Bob Christgau and Greil Marcus headed up my pantheon, but any smart rock
critic got my attention, from Frank Kogan to RJ Smith to random Pazz and Jop
commenters I don't even remember the names of anymore. I left school really
excited by the notion of being a music writer, and blissfully unaware of
that not being a fast track to, you know, paying the rent. (When I started
doing more feature-article writing, I acquired a different set of prose
heroes, including Michael Corcoran, Chris Heath, Bill Zehme, and Mim
Udovitch, but that's another story.)
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #41 of 85: "The Best for Your Health!" (rik) Sat 20 Jan 07 16:40
    
Every studio, in the 60s and 70s had these cheap little crap speakers,
called Auratones, that were used to simulate crap systems.    But we also
used to knowck off a dub and go out to the car.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #42 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Sat 20 Jan 07 20:26
    
Auratones! That's a great detail.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #43 of 85: Dan Levy (danlevy) Sat 20 Jan 07 20:34
    

That is an amazing group of people that were at Yale at the same time...I
had never connected the dots.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #44 of 85: Berliner (captward) Sun 21 Jan 07 06:53
    
So how do you see things as having changed since you got into the
game? I mean, I see things like more niche magazines, and certainly a
tendency to shy away from any negative criticism -- particularly where
it might impact ad revenue. I also see a failure of critical
vocabulary, largely because of the sheer volume of product. 

But what are your views?
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #45 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Sun 21 Jan 07 07:13
    
It was a great crew--and I didn't even mention James Hannaham and Steve
Bodow (now head writer of The Daily Show). (Alan Light, who went on to be
EIC of Spin and Vibe, was also there at the same time, but he didn't write
for Nadine.)

If you spend four years focused on something, working with smart peers,
you'll end up good at it. I assumed at the time that Nadine was my hobby,
but by the time I left school, it was what I wanted to do. Most schools,
there's a guy who reviews records for the school newspaper, and either
learns to do it well or not, because the student editors probably haven't
thought much about criticism; Joe and Julian created a situation where there
was a whole bunch of people attuned to music writing, both its possibilities
and its clichés, and we were constantly challenging each other to write a
better record review.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #46 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Sun 21 Jan 07 07:13
    
(slippage; I'm going to the Bronx to check out the Tropicalia show, but will
answer Ed's question later in the day.)
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #47 of 85: Gail Williams (gail) Sun 21 Jan 07 12:18
    

In your posts above you mention Nadine:
  > When I got to college, I fell in with a crew of people at Nadine, 
  > a pop-culture magazine founded by Joe Levy and Julian Dibbell...

Was that a local or college publication, perhaps?  Or just one of the many
cool pubs I have never heard about...
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #48 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Mon 22 Jan 07 07:33
    


It was a college publication at Yale, circa 1984 to 1994, named after the
Chuck Berry song and sometimes subtitled "The Magazine That Wished It Was a
Band." (Other subtitles included "The Magazine with Three Vowels in its
Name, All of Them Different.")

It came out four or five times a year, about sixteen pages at a time, and it
was uneven in that college-publication way, but the high points were pretty
great, including a Lynn Harris piece about a road trip to Minneapolis to
find everything and everyone Prince-related that she could, fake CIA-
recruitment ads, and a nutritional analysis of rock 'n' roll. My most
memorable contribution was probably an essay on the homoerotic imagery in
Bruce Springsteen's songs: =that= started a lot of arguments, I don't mind
telling you.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #49 of 85: Gavin Edwards (lagoon) Mon 22 Jan 07 11:00
    
The Tropicalia show was pretty great (if you're in NY, go catch it asap,
because it closes this weekend); now I'd love to read a good English-
language primer on the movement that covers both the art and the music. Any
suggestions?

How things have changed: Well, I think that a lot of the sea changes in rock
criticism happened before I started getting paid circa 1989. For example, as
the music magazines have become more mainstream and professional, there's
less and less room for truly eccentric voices. That's a mixed blessing, I
think. Zines are dead, of course, replaced by the Web, which has also become
a magnet for those niche publications you mention. Nobody's ever reigned me
in when I wanted to write a negative review; admittedly, American
publications never approached the critical evisceration with as much glee as
British ones.

I think the biggest change is that everything keeps getting shorter. When I
started, it seemed like a radical move that many places were cutting a
standard record review down to three hundred words from five or six hundred
words. I've since seen them shrink to 150 words, or even 120, and sometimes
below 100. There's some added value there to readers, based on the "sheer
volume of product" you allude to; magazines can legitimately review over 100
releases in a month, and that can be helpful to a consumer trying to wade
through it all. And writing a review that short is an art in itself, like
doing haiku: every word counts and you have to make it all mesh together.
(I've sometimes said that you have room in a capsule review for one
description, one opinion, and one joke.) But something's definitely been
lost.
  
inkwell.vue.290 : Gavin Edwards, "Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?"
permalink #50 of 85: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Mon 22 Jan 07 12:22
    
"one
 description, one opinion, and one joke."

Yes! Such an art form.

The other big diff the Web makes is that it can put listeners/readers close
to the music itself, not just to reviews. Like back in the day when the
fanzine had a flexi-disc, those 100-word reviews can point at files of
entire songs. That helps the compression problem -- "don't take my word for
it, listen for yourself" -- but what we'd really like is the long list of
brief reviews, excerpts or whole songs behind them, and then longer, more
insightful criticism to be had behind that.
  

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