The Author Speaks

Hi, my name is David, and I am a rock critic. If that sounds like the sort of confession you’d hear at an AA meeting, well, there’s a very good reason for that.

In many ways, rock criticism is The Profession That Dares Not Speak Its Name. Embarrassment & even self-loathing are occupational hazards of rock writing. It’s not just the lack of money, though that doesn’t help; nor the fact that covering rock music carries about as much prestige in a newsroom as the junior-high soccer beat. No, it’s the fact that nobody seems to like us very much.

Even the artists who are critical favorites don’t have much use for us. Elvis Costello famously compared writing about music to dancing about architecture. Perhaps he was nicking from the other people that quote has been attributed to (Martin Mull, Frank Zappa). But I think he was miffed over David Lee Roth’s immortal observation that rock critics like Elvis Costello because so many of us LOOK like Elvis Costello.

More recently, Mike Doughty of the generally well-reviewed band Soul Coughing published a diatribe in response to the annual Village Voice critics poll. To the 586 critics who voted in the poll, Doughty writes, “I would like to take a moment to stress what a jerk you are. You are just about as definitively jerky as a jerk can be.” Echoing Elvis Costello, Doughty goes on to call critics “a gaggle of half-assed interpretive dancers,” & he pities us because we spend our lives “writing about our mail.”

“Looking at that list of 590 or so names,” Doughty writes — and in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my name is indeed on this list — “I really should feel bad for these people.”

As you might expect, the bands we critics DON’T like hate us even more. If the mail I get from readers is any indication, so do most of the people who read us. But what seems truly odd is the attitude of critics themselves.

I once wrote that the only thing rock critics and readers agree on is that they both hate rock critics. Michael Corcoran, critic for the Austin American Statesman newspaper in Texas, once wrote that rock critics are to real writers as a miniature golf course is to Pebble Beach. And over the years, the annual SXSW critics panel has had titles like “Who Cares?,” “Is Rock Journalism Relevant?” or (my favorite) “Why Rock Criticism Sucks.”

Whether they’ll admit it or not, all critics are at some level profoundly insecure about what they do for a living. Which doesn’t keep the occupation from also being absurdly self-important. A number of poor, deluded souls who voted in the aforementioned Village Voice poll proclaimed 2000 as “the year of the rock critic,” largely based on two movies that tanked at the box office:

“Almost Famous,” former rock critic Cameron Crowe’s love letter to 1970s classic rock. And “High Fidelity,” Stephen Frears’ love letter to record-store clerks.

Really, though, “Almost Famous” is more about the dawn of celebrity journalism than it is about criticism. And “High Fidelity” is about losers who spend too much time reading the fine print on record covers — a group in which critics are but one subset.

As far as capturing the rock-critic gestalt, I myself actually preferred a third box office failure from last year, “American Psycho,” a love letter to murderous sociopaths who long to be rock critics. “American Psycho” follows the homocidal antics of an unhinged yuppie played by the actor Christian Bale.

Stockbroker by day and lunatic murderer by night, he also talks just like a critic — except he’s into the sort of music no self-respecting critic would be caught dead listening to. Consider the way he describes Huey Lewis and the News to one of his victims:

“Their early work was a little too ‘new wave’ for my taste. But when ‘Sports’ came out in 1983, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that gives the songs a big boost.”

Then, as the song “Hip To Be Square” plays in the background, our hero picks up an axe, decapitates his victim, sits back down and listens to the rest of the song. A true landmark in American cinema. You’ll never hear Huey Lewis again without shuddering, and for that alone this movie deserves praise.

But I digress.

One thing about the rock-write racket that has always puzzled me is why you don’t see more of us writing novels. We have just the right combination of arrogance and insecurity. And like everyone else, we all think we’ve got a book in us. But any critic who’s been doing the job for a while and paying attention really does have fantastic raw material for fiction.

The music industry is a veritable parade of seven deadly sins. Pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth — they’re all there.

Or as Hunter S. Thompson once so poetically put it: “The music business is a cruel & shallow money trench. A long plastic hallway where thieves & pimps run free, & good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

For those of us in the journalism business, the frustrating thing is that most of the really interesting things that go on are of the off-the-record variety. Try & put any of it in a newspaper, & it will get you sued (or worse).

I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, long enough to get pretty jaded. By now, it’s a shock to run into someone crazy or angry or careless or stupid enough to actually tell you the truth for attribution: That the label is dropping the band because it lost $800,000 on their last album.

That the band is breaking up because the bass player wants more of his songs in the set list. That the tour was cancelled because everyone hates each other and the drummer slept with the singer’s girlfriend.

These tend to be the off-the-record versions of red-flag phrases like “artistic differences” or “amicable departure.”

So the obvious thing to do is turn what you know into thinly veiled fiction. Spin a tale and make some stuff up, sure. But also see how many of those juicy back-of-the-notebook anecdotes you can work in, changing the names to protect the guilty.

Which brings me to my own contribution to the modest canon of rock literature, a novel called “Off The Record.” The first kernel of this book came with a story I heard many years ago about a minor rock star (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) who died of a drug overdose amid whisperings his slimeball manager had been feeding him heroin.

I started writing it in the fall of 1994, and the first draft took about three years. Revising, rewriting, redrafting, proposing and pitching took another three years. Following an unsuccessful fling with an agent — during which time I heard the phrase “ROCK NOVELS ARE A TOUGH SELL” more times than I could count — I decided to join the ranks of do-it-yourself nation. I put the book out myself, to better-than-expected results thus far.

“Off The Record” traces the misadventures of the fictional Tommy Aguilar Band, TAB, the greatest one-hit wonder you’ve never heard of. I don’t want to give away too many details, because I’d like you to read the story instead of have me tell it to you. But I will say that TAB’s ride to the toppermost of the poppermost is less than smooth.

People in the industry should recognize a lot of the people, places and things in the book. So should anyone familiar with the myths, legends and cliches of rock history — everything from mechanical problems with the touring van to death as the ultimate career move. As for people who don’t know anything about music, I hope they’ll just think it’s a good yarn.

Ultimately, this book is about the choices that people have to make in an industry where it always seems easier to get along by going along. Perhaps that’s not so different from any other field. But in the music business, bad decisions and ill-advised compromises tend to boomerang more spectacularly. Most bands have to figure out how much of their soul they’re willing to part with in order to “make it” — whatever that even means anymore.

And we critics have to figure out a version of the same thing for ourselves, too. As hopeless as it seems, we do serve a purpose. Sometimes, our job is to be the only people paying attention when important things happen. Or to point out that that trendy, supposedly ground-breaking new band you like so much isn’t really doing anything new at all. Or just to let people know that there’s more out there than the swill they’re being force-fed.

That makes us utopians if you like, or finger-wagging cranks if you don’t. Either way, if everybody liked critics, that would probably mean we weren’t doing our jobs. So it’s actually a good thing that everybody hates us. A newspaper columnist I know once wrote that it’s preferable to be loathed than liked, because reader loathing is less intrusive but just as loyal.

More often than not, being a good critic will get you loathed. But that comes with the territory. There’s a scene in “Almost Famous” where the late great Lester Bangs tells his young understudy that being a critic means you have to “be honest & unmerciful.” “Off The Record” is about just how hard that can be — and why, at the end of the day, being both honest & unmerciful is always a good idea.

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