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!

We Now Resume Our Regularly Scheduled Social Media Blackout

Long-time readers here may recall that I bailed on Facebook in 2012 and Twitter in 2018 after having been quite active on those platforms at various times. In both cases, I found that the time-killing, soul-sucking shrillness, nastiness, deception and profiteering of the sites got to a point where they just made me angry, stupid, slow and tense. And once something that was supposed to fun becomes painful instead, it seems sensible to kick it to the curb. Done and done.

When I registered for the Iceland Writers Retreat earlier this year, they were using a Facebook group to communicate with participants, so I felt obligated to sign up for that, and did. I said “howdy” to a ton of old friends I hadn’t seen for a long time in virtual space once I got there, which was nice, but the ickiness factor of what showed up on my wall quickly made it all feel unpleasant again. So once the Writers Retreat became yet another COVID casualty, it was an easy decision for me to also close out my Facebook account again.

A few days back, a community of fun and creative folks who I regard highly among my digital friends decided to do some live tweet events that were of interest to me, so in the spirit of positive connectivity that feels important now, I activated my Twitter account again to be able to participate in those events. I only followed a few friends, I customized my trends and interests, and I blocked all the words that I loathe seeing online, but my page was still quickly filled with crap every time I looked at it. When I logged on this morning, the “trending now” bar was filled with things like “#PelosiHatesAmerica,” “#DemocratsAreDestroyingAmerica” and other stupid, dangerous, hateful fare. Of both left and right stripes, I will note, to be fair.

So I immediately deactivated my Twitter account again. Life’s just too short and the times are just too tense to be spending time, by choice, getting punched in the face over and over again with the bloodied gloves of hatred and stupidity. I am putting this note here on the blog for those who may have briefly glimpsed me on Facebook and/or Twitter this month and wonder why I am not there anymore. Sorry about that. It wasn’t you, it was me. Well, unless you were posting or propagating that kind of stuff, in which case it was you, and we probably shouldn’t be communicating regularly anyway.

I do appreciate that having a place to commune with distant friends online would be helpful right now, but it can’t be a place where disinformation and destruction are being peddled for profit. Hit me if you know of a good online sandbox that isn’t filled with cat turds. I’ll bring my bucket and shovel.

I’m off to my happy place. Maybe there will be fish.

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Five Songs You Need to Hear

I was in Florida as the pandemic erupted and the markets tanked, so as things began to shut down and I began to socially isolate myself, I found myself spending a lot of time outside walking by myself with my headphones on, looking at birds, and avoiding humans. My playlist for that trip had Gang of Four’s first three albums (Entertainment!, Solid Gold, and Songs of the Free) on it. They were a favorite band of mine in the ’80s, and their founding guitarist-vocalist-conceptualist Andy Gill had just passed away before we headed Southward, so that was an act of homage, on some plane. As I ambled and listened over the course of a few days, those three records somehow seemed to begin perfectly capturing the way that things are feeling right now, with smart songs about economics, societies, politics, communications — and their inevitable breakdowns.

I suspect that after we come through all of this (whenever that happens), any time that I hear Gang of Four, my mind will be carried back to the Time of the Coronavirus Correction. That’s how it has been for me with System of a Down’s Toxicity album, a chillingly resonant score for the horrors and aftermath of September 11, which happened just as I was spinning that great record constantly as a fresh new release. I can’t hear Toxicity anymore without thinking about that time, which means I don’t listen to it very often. We’ll see if that happens with the songs of this crisis era, most especially (for me) Gang of Four. It probably will.

I include one of Gang of Four’s more prophetic songs in this installment of “Five Songs You Need to Hear,” along with four others that have jumped out at me in recent days for their lyrical or emotional resonance with these trying times.  As always, the concept underlying “Five Songs You Need to Hear” is that they’re favorites of mine, many of you have not likely heard them, and so we should rectify that situation, stat. Musically, none of them have anything in common, though this month they do have some thematic commonality, even though that’s not normally the case. If you like the concept, you can click here for all of the earlier installments.

Here’s hoping everyone reading and listening here is safe and supported. Be good to each other, spin good tunes, watch great movies, plug in with your remote networks as often as you can, unplug from the nattering news machine even more often than that, and wash those hands, you filthy animals, you!

#1. Funkadelic, “Biological Speculation”

#2. Lou Reed, “There Is No Time

#3. Melt Banana, “Infection Defective”

#4. Gang of Four, “We Live As We Dream, Alone”

#5. Snog, “Cheerful Hypocrisy”

Movie Buff: My 50 Favorite Films

Right before our ever-more living through interesting times trip to Tampa Bay, Marcia and I watched Bob Fosse’s 1979 film All The Jazz. She had watched the Fosse/Verdon miniseries without me, then watched Cabaret on Netflix while I was traveling. She expressed an interest in seeing Fosse’s autobiographical Jazz as well, since it covers aspects and elements of the story told in the miniseries, only lightly fictionalized (with a few crucial, shocking exceptions). I have long cited All That Jazz as one of my favorite films, so I was perfectly happy to order the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition of it for us to watch, since it was not available to stream. Bring on the popcorn!

This was, oh, I dunno, probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched that film since its release. My regard for it grows with each viewing, and that was affirmed again this time around. I believe it is Fosse’s greatest masterpiece, and one of the finest films ever made. It’s really rare that I ever want to watch movies more than once, even ones I like, so when one moves me enough to consider multiple repeat screenings, that cements its favorite status in my heart and mind. That’s especially true in Jazz‘s case, with its musical structure and Broadway-style set pieces, given that I usually hate those in movies, just on principal. It takes a lot to overcome my general revulsion toward that form.

Of course, me being me, and me also looking at a lot of unexpected hunkering down time to watch movies over the weeks ahead, after watching All That Jazz, I got to thinking about what other films I’d rank as my all-time favorites, and be willing to watch again. And again. I’ve done that sort of life-time list with albums on here for years, but when it comes to films, while I’ve occasionally plonked some off-the-cuff “Top Ten Movie” ideas down here, or done some time-specific lists as decades roll to a close, I’ve never really sat down to think about my All-Time Best of the Best Film List in any meaningful way.

So while we were in Florida, I went back through all of my various old small lists and made one big list out of them. And then I edited it to a nice round number — fifty — and I decided that for the purposes of this list, I’d not include  documentaries; I might need to give them their own list at some point. I tried to stick to the things that I really, really love, and that I personally believe to be true masterpieces, and not to start off the way that so many lists of this ilk do, with the “usual suspect” entries that critics are obliged to cite.

You know the ones: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Battleship Potemkin, 8 1/2, Breathless, etc.  All fine, important films, of course, but none of them move me as deeply on a personal basis as the ones I put on my own list. On the flip-side of that rubric, I also tried to apply some reasonable objective quality filters to knock things off the list like, say, John Boorman’s Zardoz or George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot, both of which I’ve also seen numerous times and which always tickle me to pieces, but which I know are just not great films, as much as I want them to be so.

I was not particularly surprised when I came up with my final 50 to see that almost all of the films were made in my lifetime. Things with relevance and current release energy that I first experienced when they were relatively fresh are more likely to move me deeply than things from earlier eras. I mean, I’ve read and been told so many times how to process and respond to Citizen Kane that I don’t really quite know what my real personal feelings are about it any more. (I suspect this is true for most folks, though I also suspect that few critics would admit it). While Kane may truly have changed the way we view and make cinema, I’m of the era that was raised on its followers, such that many of its then-revolutionary aspects look, feel and sound tame (and dull) to me, and I can’t remove the lenses through which I view it and others of its venerable stature.

But sitting through Ari Aster’s Midsommar last year? Blammo! My Head A Splode! And I thought about that flick for a long time after it was over, the feelings it created were deep and powerful, its artistry and acting were sublime, and I didn’t need anybody to tell me what I should think about it, and why it mattered. It was objectively great and subjectively a favorite, for sure, in it’s own damn right. Onto the list with you! Huttah!

Okay, with all of that as (long) preamble, I present my Top 50 Film List below, in chronological order (oldest to newest) by United States’ premier dates. Title, release year, and director noted for each one. I wish the directors’ roster wasn’t as much of a white boys sausage party as it is, but that’s what’s been mostly put before me for most of my lifetime by the film-making powers that be, so it reflects that, alas. That said, I am very, very glad to see that dynamic (slowly) changing, bit by bit, year by year, no matter how white and paternalistic Oscar apparently continues to want to be, damn him and his enablers.

I don’t know how many of these are available for streaming, or even on Blu-Ray for some of the obscurities, but I’ll keep the list handy near the TV Command Station in the weeks ahead, and see what we see. Let me know if you’re moved to watch any of these on your own, and what you think/thought if you do. Always happy to discuss great flicks!

  1. The Great Dictator (1940, Charlie Chaplin)
  2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
  3. Seconds (1966, John Frankenheimer)
  4. Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)
  5. The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  7. Petulia (1968, Richard Lester)
  8. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
  9. Walkabout (1971, Nicolas Roeg)
  10. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
  11. Deliverance (1972, John Boorman)
  12. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Buñuel)
  13. Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
  14. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Miloš Forman)
  15. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
  16. The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)
  17. Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
  18. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)
  19. The Last Wave (1977, Peter Weir)
  20. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
  21. All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)
  22. Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam)
  23. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
  24. Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
  25. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
  26. A Zed & Two Noughts (1985, Peter Greenaway)
  27. The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner)
  28. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)
  29. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
  30. The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
  31. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, Lasse Hallström)
  32. Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
  33. The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)
  34. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
  35. Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
  36. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)
  37. WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
  38. Up (2009, Pete Docter)
  39. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
  40. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
  41. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin)
  42. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
  43. Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
  44. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
  45. Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
  46. The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
  47. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
  48. A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
  49. Mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
  50. Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)

It’s showtime, folks!

Florida Man (And Woman)

Marcia and I have been in the Sunshine State for over a week, as part of our ongoing Winter of Warmth Campaign, fleeing frigid Iowa for more pleasant climes, and following earlier trips to Spain, New Mexico and Arizona. While the weather here is lovely, and we’ve gotten lots of great walks in, being away from home as COVID-19 erupts and global markets collapse has been disconcerting, needless to say.

Places that should be mobbed are quiet or closed, and public events that we might have considered are mostly cancelled. Which is good and right. We are practicing social distancing ourselves and monitoring the situation as best we can, keeping safe and smart, and listening to the experts, always. We hope that science and a sense of shared social responsibility carry the day(s) here, even as we worry about the volume of stupid that social media and some suspect politicians are spewing right now.

As it turns out, I had been planning to drive up to South Carolina to see my mother this weekend, but we chatted and decided that it would be best to delay that visit, given her risk factors for respiratory infection. I also learned this week that the Iceland Writers Retreat that I was planning to attend in April has been cancelled, and we have a couple of other trips booked in April and May that we will be evaluating when we get home. I strongly suspect that we will bail on them, opting to hunker down in Iowa instead, hoping that spring thaw might arrive there sometime soon.

All of that being said, I’ve been outside snapping pics as I always do when I travel, while being mindful of personal safety ranges and steering clear of other human beings as best I can. I’m averaging about 12 miles per day walking, according to my pedometer, so I am seeing a lot of sights. The nice thing about keeping that active is that it makes snacking less guilt-inducing, and we did find a fave daily desert stop while in Tampa: Hyppo Ybor. Their fresh popsicles are to ZOMFG for, and I was especially wild about their Horchata and Pistachio-Rosewater ones (dipped in chocolate, of course). Highly recommended, once it’s safe to be out snacking again. I hope they make it through the likely shutdown to come.

In closing, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, if you do not know the inspiration for this post’s title, I picked it in homage to America’s Worst Superhero. To learn more about this legend’s exploits, go to Google right now and search for “Florida Man + [your birthday]” to see the headlines for what he did on your own special day. For me, it’s “Florida Man climbs on playground equipment to tell children where babies come from.” Hmmm, alright then. On with the pictures . . .

UPDATE, MARCH 18: We made it home this afternoon, and are glad to be in our nest for the hunkering down time. If you want to see a few more pictures of the trip, here’s the gallery.

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