Notes on a rock critic life
It’s a risky business, having ideas in public. Sometimes it’s better to let a thought simmer in your head for a few days before airing it out.
Example: Backstage at the opening date of Lollapalooza ’94 in Las Vegas, I was having a nice conversation with Kirk Hammett, the friendly and unassuming guitarist from Metallica. Since profiling his band for Creem a few years ago, I’ve run into Kirk a few times, and he’s always been very cool. Just a regular guy.
We were talking about Billy Corgan’s proficiency as a guitarist – me saying the big Pumpkin was a great player, the true guitar hero of alternative rock, and Kirk calling him “a little too retro.” Then Kirk qualified his opinion with a joke:
“How many guitarists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
Answer: “Fifty: One to screw it in and 49 to say they could do it better.”
I was the envy of my rock-scribe peers, who drifted closer to me and Kirk, hoping to overhear something for their story and maybe pick up a few pointers about how to be so hip that rock stars will talk to you without someone named Heidi having to set it up.
Everything was going well until Nick Cave’s guitarist walked by wearing tight black pants, a pink shirt, pointy shoes and a cowboy hat. He was holding his ax, and I had this thought that I couldn’t wait to share.
“Being in a band used to be so cool,” I said when the Cave-man passed. “It was real daydream material, but nowadays it’s kinda ridiculous to be in a band. The rock scene is all over. In five years, we’ll be talking about rock musicians the way we think of mimes today.”
I hit my stride and kept going. “I think the public is finally catching on to the rock ‘n’ roll facade,” going on and on about how insincere and cynical rock has become. I questioned the motives of the modern musician and, with a sweep of my arm across the stage and the audience, I said, “This is all based on myth and illusion, and heaven help the poor saps who believe in it.”
This didn’t sit well with either Hammett, who suddenly realized he had to be somewhere else, or the eavesdropping crit clique, which pretty much jumped me for the next 10 minutes. Heck, they were just about to introduce themselves to Metallica’s guitarist, and I blew it.
The more I think about what I said, though, the more I’m convinced that I was right. And you know what? A good example of this devitalization of rock is Metallica. They used to be a great band because they stood for something more than playing chords and flinging hair. Unpretentious and hard-working, Metallica was the home team, the good guys, the one metal band that received universal respect.
But now we see that the band, which held off making a video until its fourth album, is slated to play at the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, in tribute to the naive, sunshiny hippie spirit that Metallica’s songs blow to smithereens. Tickets to Woodstock ’94 cost $135 each and originally were sold only in blocks of four. If Metallica cared as much about their fans as they used to, they’d realize that most fans don’t have that kind of money, let alone three friends.
When drummer Lars Uhlrich hooked up with guitarist James Hetfield and original lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (now with Megadeth) in 1980, it was a time when hard-rock bands were a blur of leather, sparkles, headbands and poofy hair. But Metallica, which took its cue from several obscure European metal bands like Diamond Head and Tygers Of Pan Tang, went onstage wearing T-shirts and jeans.
Riding Hetfield’s unique lead guitar style, the influenced became the influential with their 1983 debut LP, Kill ‘Em All. As inspirational to the current thrash scene as the Ramones’ first album was to punk, Kill ‘Em All set the blueprint for most of the heavy metal that would come after it. When early stage fright speeded up its songs, Metallica found a new beat that plugged right into the socket of frustration and alienation. The sound was a raw conspiracy of jackhammer beats, guitars that sounded like huge Wagnerian bees and the voice of Hetfield, which implied Satan possessing a choirboy.
A blast of integrity in the face of all the phonies who formed bands just so they could get chicks, Metallica was one of the first Los Angeles metal bands that could find the righteous groove.
Every two years they’d get off tour long enough to make a pretty decent metal album. And they always had the best T-shirts.
In 1991, however, something horrible happened to Metallica: They became hugely successful rock gods, selling more than 10 million copies of their self-titled album and even having a Top 10 hit with Enter Sandman. The band members tried to keep things from deviating into the usual rock star trappings, but they changed anyway, if only in perception.
Metallica tried to rekindle that closeness they’d once had with their fans by designing a stage that had about 50 seats sunk down into the middle of it. The problem with the pit was that it felt like a pit and the “lucky” fans looked like carnival geeks. You half expected the road manager to poke ’em with a stick every once in a while, which is not exactly the “we are you are we” effect the band was going for.
Metallica is a case of a band reaching the point where its music is overtaken by its popularity. What does Metallica mean anymore? Can Enter Sandman still have any relevance after we’ve heard it on the car radio about a thousand times? Metallica was cool in the beginning because it was so unlike the other hard rock bands. But its music has been made ordinary by its accessibility. Metallica used to be a band that someone had to tell you about, but all of a sudden its music was everywhere and its members’ faces were everywhere and we wondered if, you know, maybe they did start the band just to get chicks. The only thing they did wrong was to play the game and become superstars, but by doing so Metallica has become the band it once revolted against.
Sure, they can still kick heads in concert; they’re a very tight and powerful band. But look closely at Metallica onstage and you see guys with guitars around their necks and sticks in their hands. And hundreds of people backstage waiting to tell them how great they are.
The truth: I’ve attended almost every single concert I reviewed
I had this reputation for reviewing shows I didn’t actually see. Normally, a music critic would fight that sort of character assault, but I played it up. Rock n’ roll bad boy. Like preachers, music critics are in the myth biz.
In truth, it only happened twice, both times in Chicago. One was a popcorn offense- a local band promoting their new release with a pre-show Jagermeister party. This was 1990 and I’d never had the chilled liqueur before that tastes like licorice. After about six shots, I said “Are you sure there’s booze in this?” At least that’s what they told me. I was assisted to the couch they had in the dressing room at Lounge Ax to nap it off until show time.
I woke up to see the members of New Duncan Imperials toweling themselves off, with clumps of powder blue tuxedos on the floor. OK, no problem. They gave me the set list and told me a few of their antics and no one was the wiser when my 10-inch review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The second time was much worse. It was the next year and my drinking had gotten way worse as I was on the outs with The Love of My Life #3. Got a call one day with a question that my mind answered “Fuck, yeah!” while my mouth said let me check my schedule, why, yes, I am available that day. “Do you want to review the Neil Young concert in Chicago for Rolling Stone magazine?”
This was back when Rolling Stone really meant something. And Neil was hot again with “Ragged Glory,” the album with Crazy Horse, topping many year-end lists. This was the tour with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion opening. You dream about reviewing Neil Young for Rolling Stone. And it was big money for me.
It didn’t matter that I was only moderately familiar with Mr. Young’s oeuvre. I brought my friend Dave Suarez, who knew every burp. We were a couple of lunks in the crowd, drinking beers during the opening sets. When it was my turn to get more, right after Sonic Youth, I was in this massive line (thinking “Five dollars for a fucking beer!”) when my old friend from the Continental Club Terry Pearson walked by and did a double take. He had left Austin to be Sonic Youth’s sound man. “Hey, man,” he said after we hugged, “we’ve got beers backstage and the band is not big drinkers.” I had the full-on “Rolling Stone reviewing Neil” pass, so I just followed him back there.
OK, you’re way ahead of the story, but you’re not wrong. One Heineken became six or seven. I got along pretty well with Lee Renaldo, who took photos of my John-John tattoo, and I knew Steve Shelley from Debbie Pastor, while The Couple kinda checked me out like I was a sociology project. They want to see demented? We could hear Neil and Crazy Horse onstage, but I had to have just one more.
As I was leaving to go back into the arena, a single man was walking my way. Neil Young. Shit! The set was over, so I caught just the encore, which led off with the disposable “Welfare Mothers.” That song had never received as much ink as on the subsequent RS review. I scrambled back to Suarez. “You missed a great show, man.” What did he play, what did he say, details, details, details? But I guess Dave was pissed I never came back with his beer. He couldn’t remember shit.
The biggest Neil Young fan I knew was Rick from 11th Dream Day, so I called him up the next day. I could’ve been coy, like “What were your favorite songs last night?” But I just came out and told him what happened and he saved my ass. Not only knew the entire set list, but which guitar tunings were used. So I wrote the review and everything was cool.
Made one big mistake, though. I trashed Sonic Youth, who bored the hell out of me. (As always.)
About a week after the full-page review was published, I got a call from Barbara O’Dair, the assigning editor. Someone narked on me, most likely The Couple. “We heard you were getting drunk backstage for most of the show,” she said. Um, well, um, I was taking some new medication, and um, I felt faint, um, and I have a friend with Sonic Youth, um, do you know Terry Pearson? Great sound man. You know he got the gig with Sonic Youth because they were double-booked one night in Austin with Brave Combo and clear-headed Terry made it all work, and, um, he saw I was having trouble with the medication, and said why don’t you come backstage and lay down, and, um…”
I was fucked. No more assignments from Rolling Stone. But the weird thing is, I got a contract a few weeks later from Rolling Stone asking to reprint my review in a book they were doing on Neil Young.
A later Neil Young assignment would even further exemplify the kind of anti-critic I was. The editor called and said they were starting a new feature called Overrated/ Underrated, where two critics would state the pro-and-con cases for a certain artist. The first one would be Neil Young. I guess he read my Rolling Stone rave. Are you interested? Sure, I said, and we discussed money, length, deadline and all. But just before we hung up I said wait a second. “Which side do you want me to argue?”
Going through Manhattan to interview a neighbor
I’m like the Cat Lady of pet peeves I’ve got so many running around. One of my big ones is when an Austin musician hires a high-powered NYC publicist that you have to go through to set up an interview. I’ve been emailing back and forth six times, like a negotiation, to talk to someone whose house I pass on the way to and from HEB. This is the kind of publicist I hate, the one who wants to make sure you focus on what they want, which, in this case, is a new album coming out in a couple months. (I should point out that I’m not trying to interview Beyonce, but someone who plays the Continental Club.) Normally, at this point I would say “forget it” and move on to the next story. But I’m having fun toying with this woman. She kept asking me how much of the article is going to be about the new album (how the fuck do I know?) and I either ignored her or was intentionally vague. She was persistent because, you see, it makes her day when the story comes out and she can harangue the writer about how it ended up different from how he or she “promised” it would be.
After the third email, in which she specified emphasis points on the release, I almost emailed back “what album?” but I caught myself.
I’m not going to tell you who the Austin artist is, but if you read a 2,000-word article that mentions an upcoming album, without naming it or giving the release date, you’ll know they have a pushy NYC publicist. God, I love my job!
GRAMMY STORIES? YEAH, I GOT ONE
I’m not a great talker. I couldn’t sell earmuffs to an Eskimo. But I talked my way into the Grammys once. It was the night after I crashed Clive Davis’ A-list black tie party at the Beverly Hilton. Something was going on that year- 1995.
The Dallas Morning News sent me to L.A. for five days to cover the Grammys because this was back when big newspapers had a lot of money for shit like that. But I had to write different stories every day. I reviewed club shows by Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, did a party scene report and hung out in the lobby during Clive’s big bash, just taking note of all the celebs for my daily column. I knew the publicist for Arista, Clive’s label, who was at the entrance checking credentials, then she came over to me and said, “Carlos Santana is coming on next and his new album (Supernatural) is going to be HUGE (it was). Clive would want a critic to see this, so I’m gonna turn my head and you’re gonna walk right past me, OK?”
So I did just that. I scooted by her in my black t-shirt and ripped jeans and found myself in a huge ballroom, full of big stars. Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Tyson, Puff Daddy, Bobby DeNiro, Will Smith – they were all sitting 10 feet away from me. Whitney Houston was onstage singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and then she was off and Santana came on with Wyclef from the Fugees. As soon as their song was over, I was being led out of the room by security, but I was grinning. I’d be able to write about attending the most exclusive Grammy party of them all, as if I was invited. Also, I talked to Dallas native Erykah Badu for 10 seconds when she was walking through the lobby, so I had a quote from a big local. Shit, man, I was gold.
Which was a relief because I had kinda fucked up a couple weeks earlier. I sent in my request for press credentials to the Grammys a little late and there was no room for me. But I’d covered the Grammys before and spent most of the time in the press room watching the show on TV. They’d parade the winners by every minute or so, but the quotes were hardly ever any good, so I figured that I could just cover the show from my hotel room and no one would be the wiser. The Associated Press had a file of backstage quotes I could pull from. Just had to give them credit at the bottom.
So I was getting all set up in my room. Beer on ice, joints rolled, just had to find what channel the show was on. This was about an hour before the Grammys were to start. I went to the channel menu for 5 p.m., which was 7 p.m. Dallas time, and no Grammys. I scrolled to the right and it said that the show aired at 8 Pacific. FUCK! They delayed the broadcast on the West Coast. I wouldn’t be able to watch it on TV and make my deadline. WTF! I didn’t know what to do but throw on some clothes and run down to the lobby and get a cab to the Shrine Auditorium.
Here’s a detail I don’t really need, but I’m gonna throw it out there to show just how fucked my day was going. About three blocks down Hollywood Boulevard I saw Elvis Mitchell on the sidewalk. My friend who was a bigwig in L.A. “Pull over!” I told the cab driver and I went over to Elvis to see if he had any suction with Rogers and Cowan, the Grammys publicists. Only, it wasn’t Elvis Mitchell. It was a black guy with long dreads in expensive clothing and black horn-rimmed glasses, but it wasn’t fucking Elvis! I turned around to see my cab leaving, so I had to run back to the hotel lobby and get another cab. I’m dripping with sweat, heart palping, all the way to the Shrine.
Every road was blocked off for about a quarter mile except for limos, so I had to run the rest of the way to the Grammys. So, I finally got there. Now what? I couldn’t get credentials a couple weeks ago; how were they going to let me in, sweating like a dopesick junkie, 10 minutes before the show started? But I didn’t have any other choice.
Luck shined on me, however, when I saw my old friend Chris Morris of Billboard. “Chris, please, could you send someone from Rogers and Cowan out here?” I said from outside a chain-link fence. About five minutes later there was some guy in a suit, looking at me with the right amount of skepticism. I told him my story and how I would probably get fired if he didn’t let me in. “There’s no place for you,” he said. Just let me watch the show from a monitor somewhere, I said. I don’t care if it’s in the men’s room. The guy, whose name was neither Rogers nor Cowan, said, “OK, but you owe me, big time.” Brother Theresa led me to the press room, picked up a big bowl of lettuce on the catering table and said “sit here.” And I did, for the whole show. Press folks would come by with their plates and fill up with cold cuts and carrot sticks and the like and then they’d get to me and turn around.
But I was in heaven. The adrenaline of just getting there had my fingers flying on the keyboard. I was sending all these great dispatches from backstage at the Grammys. Got a few short one-on-one interviews even (Chris from Soundgarden, Don Was, Booker T, Tony Bennett in the men’s room). Bruce Springsteen was winning everything for his “Streets of Philadelphia” song and so during the commercial break before Record of the Year, I finished my A1 recap. Just needed to hear the name “Bruce…” and I’d be sending before they got to “…steen.” I had really kicked ass.
“And the Record of the Year goes to…” My finger was ready. “Sheryl Crow for ‘All I Wanna Do’!” Are you fucking kidding me?!! Goddammit, man. Now I had to rewrite the whole first part of the article. And my final deadline was in 10 minutes. But I did it. And I was done. Shit, man, I even talked my way into the A&M Records party, just two blocks from the Roosevelt Hotel, where I was staying. What a motherfucking day!
That’s kinda like how every day is. I mean, not insanely hectic or heart-racing. But we just take things as they come- bring it on- and do the best we can. But sometimes you look back and go “how did I pull that one off?”
Direct line to Billy Ray Cyrus
I became a pretty decent obit writer because of my time at the Dallas Morning News (’92-’95), which didn’t really hold entertainment writers in high regard unless they consistently landed on 1A. And the easiest way to get a front page byline was writing a celebrity obit. The Morning News didn’t use a single AP obit for a musician in the three years I was there.
When Coway Twitty died, however, I was busy as hell and kinda hoping my bosses would let me outta that one. But I was the country music critic at the time and CW was a major dude, I guess, so I had to fit it in. The reason the day was so stressful was that I had a phoner with Billy Ray Cyrus that took me two weeks to set up. It was during that period, right after “Achy Breaky Heart” came out, when Cyrus was the biggest thing in all of music. His first LP “Some Gave All” debuted at #1 on Billboard and stayed there for 17 consecutive weeks, a maiden run that’s never been matched. He was a sensation who hardly did any interviews, but since the DMN stories were picked up on the wire, his handlers felt they could just do mine and that would cover the country. It was a major coup. But then Conway Twitty died and I was distracted.
I was finishing up my Twitty obit when Billy Joe called for the 15-minute phoner. He politely asked me how I was doing and I said I had been gutted by the news of Conway Twitty (not really) and then Cyrus, very poignantly, told me how listening to Twitty when he was a boy made him realize that country music could also be pop and rock n’ roll without losing its twang. Boom, there was my lead quote on the obit! The next day I got all kinds of congratulations from the big editors, who thought I’d moved mountains to get a quote from the biggest star in the music biz. Today, this would be like Patti Labelle dying and getting fresh quotes from Beyonce. Even the New York Times couldn’t get ahold of “the new Elvis of country.” My Cyrus story wasn’t scheduled to run for another two weeks so they were sixpence none the wiser.