The past decade has been a rough one for me (and for a lot of other writers, of course), as work dried up, magazines and newspapers died, and the publishing business started going off the rails. Fighting off eviction, termination of telephone and electrical service, and trying to find enough to eat are all too familiar activities much of the time for all of us. I often joked bitterly that the main reason I didn't just end it all was because I didn't want the New York Times obituary to have the headline "Ed Ward, Rock Critic."
A joke, but one with a serious center. I was there for the birth of rock journalism, but I never intended for it to define me. And, as that happened more and more, and was used as an excuse to exclude a number of us from other writerly pursuits, I became increasingly uncomfortable with it. I find I have to explain this to people from time to time. It still surprises them that I'm so vehement about this, so let me take the opportunity to explain.
I began my writing career as a teenager, getting published in what would nowadays be called a fanzine, a mimeographed magazine about topical folk songs called Broadside, published out of an apartment in New York by a couple of honest-to-god Communists from Oklahoma. I didn't get paid, and I didn't engage with the politics of it, but I did enjoy the entrée it gave me to the folk scene. Over the holidays in 1966-67, I worked in the Christmas card stockroom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and when the job ended in January, I decided to stay in New York and look for work. I went to buy tickets to a folk show at Town Hall and found a woman I knew at the ticket window. "Press tickets aren't moving," she said, "so I'll sell you two cheap." Thus, my girlfriend and I wound up surrounded by journalists. At the break between the opener (Tom Rush) and the headliner (Judy Collins), a nervous young man seated behind me stood up, a bundle of magazines under his arm, scanning the crowd for important people. On a hunch, I asked him if he were Paul Williams, about whom I'd just read in the Village Voice, and he rather impatiently admitted that he was. I told him that my girlfriend had galley proofs for a book by Bob Dylan called Tarantula, which her father had lifted from Macmillan, and he haughtily said that if Dylan had written a book, he'd know about it. "Well," my girlfriend said, "it's true. Would you like to see it?" I exited the concert with a couple of issues of Crawdaddy! magazine and its address scrawled on the cover of one of them. The next day, I visited the office, Paul took the galleys uptown to Elektra Records, and hit the Xerox. Two days later, he found out I could type quickly and accurately, and I had a job. In February, I was sent to San Francisco to report on the scene there for the fourth issue of Aspen, "the magazine in a box," and saw the last days of the flowering of the Haight-Ashbury. This was fun.
The job at Crawdaddy! didn't last long -- I went back to college in March -- but I'd found out I enjoyed writing, which was good: it was what I had always wanted to do. I did a bit for the college newspaper, and one day the underground bookstore in town had a new magazine called Rolling Stone, which was published out of San Francisco. In the back was a small box asking for writers, so I contacted them. After a little correspondence, I was assigned a piece on electronic music, something I knew a lot about from my teen years attending the New York Avant-Garde Festivals Charlotte Moorman put on. They sent me a bunch of records, I listened to them, and I wrote an article. (Presciently, I said they were mostly crap, but one had two young composers I liked, Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich). One thing led to another, and I was reviewing records on a regular basis for them. A journalism class I was taking got a grant for students to research articles, so I took some of the money and went to San Francisco to report on the San Francisco State student strike -- and to drop in at Rolling Stone, where I met the crew. Some months later, two things happened: the record review editor, Greil Marcus, decided to go back to school to get his Master's, and the editor/publisher, Jann Wenner, decided to expand the staff. Marcus recommended me for his job, Wenner offered it to me, and also asked if I'd like to move to San Francisco to work for him. In March, 1970, I said yes.
Again, the job didn't last long, but I learned a lot, largely thanks to the managing editor, John Burks, a refugee from Newsweek who handled the day-to-day operations at the magazine. During the six months I was there, my fellow editors were fired, one by one, and in October it was my turn. Rolling Stone still wasn't a big name, although the record business had taken note of it, but it became one the following spring when it was awarded a special prize by the Columbia Journalism Review for its reporting of the student unrest in the summer of 1970. None of the reporters who wrote or edited that issue, including Burks, was employed there when Wenner flew to New York to accept the award.
I wound up freelancing, struggling to pay the $175 rent I often split with a roommate on a basement apartment in Sausalito. A young writer I'd used at Rolling Stone, Dave Marsh, had gotten his new magazine, Creem, going by then, and I wrote a lot for them, as did another writer I'd used, Lester Bangs. Throughout the 1970s, rock magazines were a good deal for writers: the record business was stuffed with cash, and bought ads and subsidized trips to interview performers. The magazines made money, and paid the writers. (Late, and not much, but they paid. Usually.) A lot of writers used this as a stepping-stone to other work, writers who maybe wouldn't admit it today, so I'll respect their privacy. But it was never exclusively what I wanted to do: I also wrote book reviews, stories on food, and general cultural pieces, like the one I did for a British magazine about Marin County, where I lived, headlined with a phrase I borrowed from Marsh, "The Master Race of Hippies."
By 1977, I had to break up with Creem, which had gotten irresponsible about paying writers and, because I complained about that, didn't use me, but continued to put my name on the masthead. I'd spent a lot of time in Austin, Texas, because friends had moved there and I'd reported Willie Nelson's recording sessions and 4th of July parties for Creem, so when the music reporter slot at their daily paper, the American-Statesman, opened up, I applied and got the job. I wasn't sorry to leave California, where I'd never fit in, and very enthusiastic about Austin, where the cost of living was cheaper and music was a way of life. This time the gig lasted almost five years, and I got used to the rhythms of a daily paper's production cycle. Nonetheless, I wasn't unhappy when Rolling Stone sent me a telegram to ask me if I'd like to write a book for them, a task that would take about a year. I quit the paper, banked the advance, and, along with Geoffrey Stokes and Ken Tucker, wrote Rock of Ages, a narrative history of rock and roll, for which I provided the first section, which covered the period from Stephen Foster to around 1960. When the book came out (to reviews which praised my part in particular), I was offered a weekly slot on a new radio program, Fresh Air, doing a rock history nugget. Twenty-five years later, I'm still at it.
I was freelancing again, and happy to be doing it. I still wrote about music, but not exclusively. But in 1984, I had a transformative experience which still haunts me today. Some rich kid in Minneapolis wanted to make a film about blues, and centered it around three evenings at a club there, which he'd document. A bunch of rock writers were invited to attend, so they could write about it. I went because one of the writers, Charles Shaar Murray, was someone I'd always wanted to meet, and we became good friends over the next few days. There was, however, the problem of what to do with us all during the days. An art student friend of the filmmaker was hired to show us around, and the first day we went to the fabled student ghetto of Dinkytown, where Bob Dylan had lived, and visited its legendary record stores. The next day was a bit of a problem, but our guide had decided on a trip to the Walker Art Center, one of America's top museums of contemporary art. It beat hanging around the hotel, so everyone piled into the car.
As with most museums, there was a permanent collection and a visiting show, in this case an exhibition that was a turning point in the career of a major contemporary artist: "Jim Dine: Five Themes," in which the artist, who had been on the edges of Pop, showed paintings of hearts, robes, gates, tools, and trees. I was transfixed, and spent a lot of time looking at these works, where it was apparent that the artist was trying to take overfamiliar shapes and figure out how to make them so new that we stop and think about them again. Some of the time he succeeded, I thought, and some of the time he didn't. In particular, I was fascinated by the gates, copied from those at the workshop of the Crommelynck Brothers, fabricators of fine art objects, in Paris. I was staring at one of these paintings when I heard someone say "There he is. Come on, man, we've been waiting for you." Back in the van returning to the hotel there was much grumbling about how boring the museum was, and the subject soon turned to familiar rock talk.
It was then that I realized a sad truth: rock criticism had become a business. There were people who wanted nothing more than to be a rock critic. All well and good, but the other thing was that they focused so intently on one subject that they forgot that popular music comes out of a cultural context. Hell, by 1984, rock had just had a major flirtation with the art world, at least in New York and Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, London. If David Byrne or Brian Eno or Sparks or Sonic Youth could interact meaningfully with painters and filmmakers and practitioners of other art forms and make their art better as a result, who were these dolts, who were only interested in building up their record collections, to write about the end product? There was a connection between what Jim Dine was doing and what the best artists in any medium were doing, and somehow those pieces were communicating that to me until my "colleagues" almost died of boredom.
I'm afraid that the majority of creative people out there don't think much of rock critics, and one can hardly blame them. For every actual thinker like Robert Christgau, there are a thousand blinkered idiots, especially in these days of blogs and opinion-free "reviews" which are nothing but lists. Even a more polymathic writer like Greil Marcus becomes pretentiously incoherent when he tries to describe music: lacking any background in the mechanics of music itself, he doesn't have the tools to do it, as his recent books on Van Morrision and the Doors make very clear.
And this is the battle I'm fighting at the moment: I'm trying to move away from the whole rock thing because it became such a debased currency years ago that I didn't want to be associated with it. It's a huge struggle: two book proposals on vastly different subjects I've written in the past five years have failed. Was it because nobody thought a "rock critic" could do them? I'm now trying to come up with another one, but trust me: I'm not going to add to the horrendous glut of rock books. Please join me in hoping I don't get hit by a bus any time soon: there's still time to save that headline. And don't be surprised if next week's post is about revisiting my old employer, the Metropolitan Museum, where, if all has gone well, I spent yesterday.