Best of the Archives #6: The Road to Anywhere

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE ROAD TO ANYWHERE

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

This was from the 2003 “Summer Issue” of Metroland. It was one of our periodic group pieces, when large chunks of the paper would be turned over to a single topic, and all of the writers (staff and freelance alike) would be given somewhat free reign to write something that fit within the theme. They were sort of the bottle episodes of the journalistic world: easy to produce, usually somewhat disposable, but occasionally some good and memorable things would emerge from them.

For me, that was the case with this one. The “Summer Issue” was usually intended to be frothy, light fare, and I started writing this piece that way, but it went in different directions as I started thinking about the story and how various pieces fit together. Since much of this particular archival article actually is “the background story” itself, I won’t say much more about it than that, except to note that this is one of the pieces that generates more direct contact with me from readers than any others on the site. Oh, and I’ll also note that it was one of the last pieces I ever wrote for Metroland, perhaps even the final one. So it really is a tale of transitions, with resonance.

Our Ford LTD Country Squire was named “Eloise.”

Best of the Archives #5: Fin de Cyclical

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

FIN DE CYCLICAL: MILLENNIAL MUSICAL MUSINGS (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

While we are all hunkered down under the cloud of a global pandemic, the anxiety many of us were feeling in the late months of 1999 regarding the Y2K Bug seems truly quaint by comparison. But it was very real in its time, as legitimate sources predicted airplanes falling out of the skies, global markets and banking systems collapsing, personal computers being turned into expensive paperweights, and a slew of other scenarios guaranteed to create sleepless night and despairing days.

As it all turned out, the actual impact was fairly benign in most cases, although it is hard to say whether that was because the threat itself was overstated, or because the hard work of a lot of people over a short period of time actually fixed the things that needed to be fixed. The outcome certainly allowed laypeople of certain proclivities to claim it was all nothing but media hype, and to ignore any and all future warnings related to computer security and safety, resulting in the wider spread of malware and viruses in the years since than would have been the case had we all taken good computer and data hygiene to heart for the long-term.

Here’s hoping that the astounding work being done to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 reaps similar benefits, and that even if the global catastrophe does not end up as utterly dire as some experts are forecasting, that we are thankful for the efforts of those fighting the plague, and that we learn something about how to manage our lives and health in an increasingly linked global ecosystem. That’s probably a pie in the sky fantasia at this point, since stupids gotta stupid . . . but we can all dream anyway.

The other things that were filling airwaves, websites, television screens, magazines and newspapers as 1999 wound down were navel-gazing articles about the state of everything at the turn of the century, and what the next year, decade and/or century might hold for us all . (Yes, yes, I know that the new century technically did not start until January 1, 2001, but that number’s not as exciting as the big 2000 was, and the media weren’t going to let a good story line go, even if it was factually incorrect). I was assigned to do a story like that, with a focus on the music industry. I wasn’t really excited about the task, but I set off to figure out how to frame me.

One thing that seemed intuitively clear to me was that the best futuristic forecasts from anybody I talked to would likely be wrong, just given how much the music industry had changed in the decade before the turn of the century. All but the most hardy of record stores died that decade, for example, completely supplanted by file sharing and other online music exchanges, some licit, some not. So instead of looking forward to 2100 and making stuff up, it actually seemed like it might be more interesting to look backward to 1900, just to explain how ridiculously far we’d come in terms of the creation and exchange of music.

I did a fair amount of research into what was going on in the music industry, and also what was going on in Albany circa 1899, and I wrote a fictional piece about an ambitious musician, set in that time and place, dreaming as big as his times would have allowed. Then I interviewed half a dozen music luminaries in various fields around Albany to get a sense of what was going on right there, right then, and knit the two streams together. That compare/contrast — forecasts from 1900 coupled with realities of 1999 — seemed like it might lead to something different that everything else that I was reading on this topic at the time.

You’ll have to tell me whether I was right or not after you read the piece.

Super high tech 1900 music machine. Surely this will be widely used in the future . . .

Best of the Archives #4: Interview with Kim Deal

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

INTERVIEW WITH KIM DEAL (1997)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

For many of my music critic years, I hewed to a fairly rigid, cyclical schedule: one record review, one concert review, and one “what’s happening in town” preview page per week, one artist interview every other week, and one “think piece” each month. Occasionally, there would be a “group piece” (some topic would be picked, and all of the writers would opine on it), or some articles and interviews would be accorded “cover story” status, giving me more column space than regular stories received, but it was all pretty production line and predictable for the most part.

When you looked at the compensation for each type of piece, and then how much time it took to produce it, record reviews easily had the highest hourly rate, since I could bang out a 250-word piece in 15 minutes, if I was already familiar with the artist, and had been spinning them around the house, as I would do anyway. Concert reviews had a far lower net cash compensation rate, since I had to go to the show (that could be five or six hours sometimes, if you factored in the travel time), then write the review, usually to a much tighter deadline than a record would require. But, of course, I got the concert ticket(s) for free, and while I couldn’t buy food or pay the rent with them, it did free up other funds for those necessities. Think pieces were reasonably lucrative, since I could think while doing other things, and the actual brain-to-paper time was usually reasonable.

Interviews could be a bit more unpredictable in how they played out, since you and the interview subject had to be on the phone or (rarely) in the room together at a certain time, and let’s just say that rock stars are not always the most prompt and responsible people when it comes to things like that, no matter how hard their handlers try to manage them. Since I was typically interviewing artists before they played in town as part of larger tours, most interviews followed the “phoner” format, where the artist sat in a room somewhere for some period of time and took a stream of calls from writers, each given a certain amount of time, and each probably asking the same questions, over and over again. I could generally tell where I was in that sequence by how interested and alert, or not, people were when I was talking to them.

Writing interviews was always an interesting process, because our paper did not generally present them in literal “Q-and-A” conversational format, where you transcribed a taped interaction, cleaned it up for grammar, and ran with it. You had to have the conversation, capture the conversation, then process the conversation to glean the key components, then find quotes that accurately reflected the artist’s voice, and present them in a sequence that accurately reflected how they were intended, all while communicating to readers — who may or may not have been familiar with the artists — who they were, and why they mattered.

While it seems like it would be fun to have conversations like this with artists you love and admire, I quickly learned that was not often the case. Some folks I talked to were just jerks, plain and simple. Some were not actually very interesting, even if their music was. Some were tired, or bored, or distracted, and were just begrudingly talking to me because they had to, not because they wanted to, at all. You can pick that up over the phone lines pretty quickly, and it tends to deflate any enthusiasm in the exchange, from both sides of the conversation.

But sometimes, those phoners could be magical. I had one such case when I interviewed Kim Deal, of Pixies and Breeders fame, some years after her greatest commercial success with the latter band’s Last Splash album. She was touring with a new incarnation of The Breeders, without several key members of the group’s original line-up. I took the interview because it was assigned to me, but I wasn’t all that excited about it: I liked Last Splash well enough, but I mostly detested The Pixies. Not for Deal’s contributions, mind you, but because I found the band’s other front person — who was then known as Black Francis — to be extraordinarily irritating, rendering their music mostly unlistenable to me, critical consensus be damned.

So I didn’t have many, or any, expectations that this particular phoner would be anything of note, since I didn’t have any burning excitement or preconceived notions about the subject, and there didn’t appear to be anything “wow” about the event I was previewing: a club show by a band without a new album out, missing some of its better-known members. Seemed like it should have been a quick fifteen-minute chat of minimal substance, bang out a thousand-word summary of it, hit “send,” collect check. Done.

Boy, was I wrong. Kim Deal was utterly delightful to talk to: smart, funny, and free from any of the “I am the artist, barely deigning to speak to you with ill-disguised contempt” affect. She was also incredibly generous with her time, admitting that she was happy to talk because she was in a hotel room on the road, bored with nothing else to do. We covered the business stuff, and I figured that would be that, when she unexpectedly said “Okay, what else do you want to talk about?” So we just shot the shit, and laughed a lot, for something close to two hours. My effective hourly rate for this project was tanked, but it was worth it from an experiential standpoint.

Of course, then I had to turn that sprawling mess into an article. Fortunately, the tape (yeah, we still used those then) ran out at some point, so I didn’t have to transcribe and parse the latter parts of the conversation. I wanted to capture the fun aspects of the call, but also wanted to convey that Deal was serious about her work and her craft, and smart about why and how she did what she did. So today’s “Best of the Archives” piece is the published interview that came from that chat.

If you enjoy this piece, and would like to see some of my other interviews with other artists — some famous, some not-so-much — you can click here for an index of the 35 or so interviews still on the site today. Unfortunately, the digital versions of probably 40 more were lost in a server crash in 1998, and the print versions that I had as backup were lost in a basement flood a few years later. Oh well. I know that the print editions exist in the New York State Library, so at some point, I might need to visit the morgue there to be reminded who else I talked to, and how interesting they were. Or not.

Mid-’90s Kim Deal, just before I interviewed her. (Photo: Chris Glass)

Best of the Archives #3: The Shared Experience of Hair Removal

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE SHARED EXPERIENCE OF HAIR REMOVAL (2004)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

I mentioned a couple of day ago that the 1,000 or so posts on this website today probably represent only about 50% of the posts that have actually appeared here over the years, since I tend to cull things fairly aggressively, for one reason or another. Some of the culled items I saved for other purposes, but a lot of them I just deleted, letting them go forever, as happy to be The Destroyer as I am to be The Creator, since I believe in those polarities, deeply, as part of my own personal processes.

If I could compile all the words written here, then vaporized at some later date, it would result in a text of truly formidable volume, but I suspect that it would still pale in comparison to the volume of lost words that I wrote at a couple of other sites that I frequented in the 1990s and 2000s: Xnet2 and Upstate Wasted/Ether. The first of that pair was a closed community, originally founded by a group of exiles from the Compuserve RockNet Forum where I hung out before I started my own website. There’s still a (mostly quiet) Facebook Group of survivors, and I was happy to pop in to say “howdy” to them during my recent (brief) return to Facebook.

Upstate Wasted and (later) Upstate Ether, on the other hand, were screamingly public, though most of what was written there was posted anonymously, by me and maybe a dozen other key contributors. In its early 2000s heyday, it enjoyed massive traffic and actually sort of shaped a lot of the cultural and musical discourse in the Albany, New York region, for better or for worse. Brilliant characters and long-running stories were developed collaboratively and organically. It was laugh out loud funny much of the time, though horribly inappropriate at others, in keeping with Gabriel’s Theory. It was the perfect place for “Wasting Time on the Man’s Dime,” for creators and readers alike, at bottom line, and I was proud to be a part of it, though I would not have admitted that at the time. At least not publicly, anyway.

A good while after it all finally imploded into a burnt little cinder of bile, I realized that I could access many of the Upstate Wasted and Upstate Ether pages via the Internet Archive. The original formatting was essentially comment block based, almost like writing stories in Twitter, with other folks contributing in the middle of the stream, so it was easy to follow when you were playing along in real time, but it was nothing that anybody could sensibly read after the fact. So I spent a couple of months trawling through those immense flat files, recovering the best texts, and formatting them in normally readable, standalone posts. A lot of the posts were so collaborative that I wouldn’t ever put them out under my own name, and they’ve been archived elsewhere, but I did feel comfortable enough to claim ownership of a few dozen of them, and have posted them here at various times over the years.

Today’s “Best of the Archives” choice is one of those, a favorite of mine from the set. Names and locations have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent alike, but it’s entirely based on real experiences, real places, real conversations, and real people. Be sure to keep your coffee covered while you read it, as there just might be airborne hair.

Number two clippers all over, tight around the ears, fade in the back, please and thanks . . .

Best of the Archives #2: On Being A Music Critic

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

ON BEING A MUSIC CRITIC (1998/2010)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

My professional career has covered a lot of ground. I’ve been a congressional liaison and contracting officer for the Nuclear Navy, run a historic house museum, managed food and retail operations at a massive state university, raised money and done public relations for an HIV/AIDS community service provider, served a quirky economic research institute in a variety of executive and governance roles — and that list still covers less than half of the items on my curriculum vitae.

One thing I’ve noted over the years, though, is that when I’ve interviewed for positions or mentioned certain facets of my professional background to people who don’t know me, one of my jobs almost always piques people’s curiosity more than any other, and that would be “music critic.” I’m not quite sure why that is, though I suspect that the interest in that particular role is anchored in people’s perceptions that it’s cool to get paid to go to concerts and listen to music, since most folks have to pay for those experiences, and don’t get to blather in public about them when they’re done.

Today’s deep dive from the archives was originally written in 1998, I think, as part of a novel in which music making and criticism were key plot elements. In the final editing process, though, I decided that as good as this text was, it was also way too much “tell, not show” for the narrative at that particular stage in the book. I ended up cutting it and setting it aside to use elsewhere, but then I forgot about it. I stumbled across it again in 2010 and put it up on the blog, and was pleasantly surprised at how accurate and resonant it still seemed as a standalone piece. And then I forgot about it again.

I re-revisited this piece again yesterday, and it still seems good and spot-on to me. I suspect today’s paid music critics’ experiences are much like mine were in the 1990s — only with less second-hand smoke in clubs and fewer freebies in the mail — because as more and more “amateurs” are willing to write about music and share it online, there’s little incentive for magazines, newspaper and websites to increase professional critics’ compensation, nor to improve their working conditions. It doesn’t make much commercial sense, after all, to pay top dollar for something that gazillions of music geeks will gladly do for free in exchange for “exposure,” that awful word with which media companies entice writers to give away their time and art.

Note that today’s piece is written in the first person, but it was originally intended to be part of a fictional work. While the details of what being a music critic looked like and felt like are accurate, they’re a composite of a variety of experiences, and are spoken by a dissolute character in a novel, and not by me. And with that as introduction, click below for today’s archival selection, if you dare . . .

The novel from which this text originated, long, long ago . . .

Best of the Archives #1: Rulebound Rebellion

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

RULEBOUND REBELLION: AN ETHNOGRAPHY OF AMERICAN HARDCORE MUSIC (2010)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

Sometime in the next few months, I’ll mark a pair of 25th anniversaries, though their exact dates elude me.

First up, in the summer of 1995, I published my initial two articles in Albany, New York’s (now defunct) alternative newsweekly Metroland. I think my reviews of The Roches’ Can We Go Home Now? and Foetus’ Gash albums ran in June or July, though I probably submitted them in April or May, based on their release dates. I wrote for Metroland on-and-off for about eight years, and accumulated about ~750 bylines along the way, while also contributing a lot of uncredited work there, e.g. the “What shows should you go to?” listings/previews every week for a couple of years.

The second Summer of ’95 milestone occurred when I left CompuServe’s RockNet forum, where I had been since 1993, eventually being granted my wizard hat as a SYSOP there. (Check out this old Washington Post article about what it was like then and there). I moved my primary online activities instead to the first version of my personal website, administered by a former college room-mate, about as early as one could do such things. In its earliest incarnation, my site was a repository for the articles that I was writing for Metroland (which did not yet have its own website), interspersed with little bits and bobs and links to other sites that interested me. In early 1999 — after a couple of hosting moves and a server crash that destroyed a chunk of my online content — I registered the “jericsmith.com” domain and began managing the back-end of the site myself, with a little help from a dear RockNet friend. In September 2000, I learned that there was a name for what I had already been doing for five years. And I am still doing it, two decades later.

As part of my 2020 sabbatical year writing activities, I have been going back through the ~1,000 articles currently on this website to clean up and/or restructure things a bit. I would estimate that I have actually posted closer to 2,000 pages here over the years, but some things are time-dependent and later dropped (e.g. mid-year “Best Record” lists that become pointless when I do my final year-end lists), some things are workshopped here and then removed for other non-digital purposes when finished (e.g. 2004’s “Poem a Day” project, 2016’s short story project; I may cull 2019’s Credidero project here shortly too, so read it while you can), and some things just do not add much to the site in hindsight or do not reflect my current thinking, so when I stumble on those, off they go.

Since many/most of us are spending a lot more unexpected free time at home in front of computers these days, I have decided that for the next couple of weeks or so, I’ll post an article a day here from the archives for your entertainment and edification, if you’re seeking such things, and as I find pieces in the dusty backrooms that I think merit a return spotlight on the front-page. The only rules I’m setting on what I’ll feature in this series are that each piece must be more than 10 years old, must be substantial (at least 1,000 words long), and must be a “standalone” item, i.e. no short stories or poems if they appeared in one of those series, and none of the “music tournament” articles that were written in multiple installments, then kluged together upon completion. I’ll post a link to the archival article of the day, and then a background story about it, where pertinent.

While writers are always bad judges of their own work, I personally consider this first archival deep dig, Rulebound Rebellion, to be one of the finest pieces of music writing I’ve ever done. It combined academic studies, freelance writing work, and my own personal activities as a long-time concert-goer into one tight package. By applying rigorous scholarly research lenses to something that I usually experienced and communicated in more subjective fashions, I actually reached conclusions that surprised me, and that I had not actually considered when I started the piece. If you’ve never experienced a hardcore show, and this articles makes you wonder what one looked and felt like (Hollywood never creates believable moshpit scenes, for some reason, trust me) here’s raw video of a brutal 1997 show featuring Section 8 at Albany’s legendary QE2 nightclub; I had interviewed the band around the time of this show, which I also attended:

Watch this space in the days ahead, and let’s see what else we find in these dusty digital boxes over the next couple of weeks!

ARCHIVES! ARCHIVES! ARCHIVES! ARCHIVES!