“Why not try to create something better?”: fractured musings on this creature known as rock ‘n’ roll, by the Reverend Keith Gordon, editor and publisher of a kickass new anthology of music journalism.
BY FRED MILLS
In a sense (or two), this interview you’re about to read is very personal to me. For starters, both my topic—the just-published anthology That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 (Excitable Press)—and my interview subject—Nashville-spawned/Batavia, NY-based music journalist and author Rev. Keith A. Gordon—require a disclaimer: a story of mine, about the Replacements, appears in the book, and the estimable Reverend is also a friend of mine who has on numerous occasions written for BLURT. Hey, you got a problem with that? Go learn WordPress and get outta my face!
That Gordon selected a slew of other friends of mine, several of whom happen to be past or present BLURT writers (look it up), also makes the TDMBRW angle suspect as a topic for BLURT coverage. But you know what? While years ago I might’ve been semi-militant about conflicts of interest and related matters, and while I still draw the line at assigning myself critical reviews of friends or close associates (in that regard, I can simply hand off the review to another writer who promises to “go easy” on ‘em if they suck, har har!), nowadays I realize that 99% of readers truly do not give a shit what a particular writer’s so-called “stance” is. They just wanna know (a) what the artifact being reviewed sounds like, and (b) is it worth their hard earned dough?
TDMBRW is indeed worth your hard earned dough, but—shhhh!—you didn’t hear it from me. You can, if you have any affinity for insightful, informative, and even FUN rock journalism, discern that from the dialogue below. Gordon’s collection of scribes, some of whom might broadly fall under the banner of “the usual suspects” and, in many cases, rarely ping the radar of what I’ll call the Spin/Pitchfork-approved hack elite, tackled over the course of last year everything from the iconic likes of Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, the Rascals and, um, the Replacements, to equally-important-though-lesser-knowns like Grant Hart, Leslie West, Emitt Rhodes and Al Jourgensen, to under-the-radar topics such as musicians’ health care, heavy metal in Africa (who knew?) and—drumroll, please—books about rock music. Boy howdy!
Naturally, since I’ve been doing this dumbass roccrit thing from the late ‘70s onward, and since the right Reverend Gordon and I are long overdue in mounting an arm-wrestling contest to see who can claim to have suckled from the teats of Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer first, I jumped at the chance to be a contributor to his book. I instinctively grokked the format, having read the annually-published Best Music Writing anthologies from Da Capo Books prior to the series’ demise a few years ago. The natural progression from all that was to help get the word out, in effect give him some free publicity—hence this interview. Like I said, he’s a friend. But don’t worry: ain’t nobody making any dough at any of this. We just do it ‘cos we love the music, love spreading the word about the music, and in Gordon’s case, definitely love giving credit where credit is due. So let’s do this.
BLURT: Okay, Rev—quickie précis, please, on your publishing company.
GORDON: Excitable Press is about as independent as a publisher can be — basically a couple of guys with computers, and whatever freelance talent we can enlist to be part of our madness. My wife Tracey helps out with her proofreading skills, and my partner in Nashville handles our side business, bringing books to market for people who have always wanted to write a book. The music stuff is pretty much entirely the result of my own efforts and obsessions.
Right on. So could you outline for our readership your motivation behind doing Best Rock Writing 2014, and perhaps a word or two about the original Da Capo series?
Even for a music lovin’ fanatic such as myself, it’s maddeningly impossible to keep up with everything published that might be of interest… there are tens of thousands of music-oriented blogs and websites, and if the ranks of print publications like Spin and Rolling Stone have continued to shrink, there is still a lot of music coverage in newspapers and trade publications. The attraction of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series was that you had, ostensibly, the best reading of an entire year between two covers. The series editor and each year’s celebrity guest editor acted as a filter to whittle down the material to an easily-digestible anthology, and if Best Music Writing often reflected the personality and quirks of the guest editor, it often made the books that much more intimate.
I had hoped that we could jump in with That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 to fill the hole left by the loss of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series and maybe discover and showcase some talented writers.
What about “deep anthology roots” or early precursors that you either wanted to emulate or at very least felt you might be able to add your book to the continuum? The old Desert Island Discs book and concept comes to mind, of course.
One of the earliest music-oriented anthologies that I bought was The Da Capo Book of Rock & Roll Writing, which was published in 1992 and edited by Clinton Heylin. It was a precursor, of sorts, to their Best Music Writing series of the 2000s, and featured writing by critics like Paul Williams, Greil Marcus, and Lester Bangs alongside that of musicians like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Peter Townshend. Before that, I was a reader of science fiction and fantasy anthologies, so I’ve long had an interest in compilations books of this sort.
We published three collections of material from our Alt.Culture.Guide music webzine during the mid-2000s that were well-received so in the absence of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series, I thought that our own That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 might step in and provide readers with a new twist on their old formula. There’s a lot of poor writing about music in magazines and on websites, usually celebrity-driven, but there’s also some fine, overlooked writing that I thought we could showcase in our pages.
What were some of the basic criteria you laid out when sending out the call for submissions—and what were some of your own internal criteria you had when it came time to assessing the submissions?
First and foremost, I was looking for well-written submissions about rock ‘n’ roll music. Da Capo’s collections ran the gamut from pop and rock to jazz, world music, and beyond. I wanted a tighter editorial focus…personally, I’m not a huge fan of jazz (although Jaco Pastorius rules!) and violently dislike much of what passes for pop music these days, so I felt that the book should revolve around rock (with a little blues on the side).
In assessing the submissions, I wanted material that interested me, from a writing perspective, even if it wasn’t necessarily about something that I particularly cared about. We published a piece on Imagine Dragons (below), a band that bores me to tears, but the story piqued my interest and was well-written, so it was included. I found the piece on the No New York album hilarious, even if it was a bit cheeky, and the story we ran on African heavy metal I thought was fascinating. It would be easy for me to put together a tome on my classic rock faves — nothing but Big Star, the Replacements, the Rolling Stones, etc. — but I tried to balance it out with a mix of old and new, and to include stories on punk rock and heavy metal, genres that were both largely ignored by the Da Capo series.
What was the total number of submissions you received? Do you feel you reached a decent cross-section of writers?
I stopped counting around 100 submissions, so it was slightly more than that, although not much more. I like the cross-section of writers that we included, a mix of male and female, although I would have liked to have included a few more female contributors. We had a few international writers, including a couple from England and a lawyer from Greece. Getting the word out about the book was the big problem… we had a few magazine editors that passed the info along to their writers (you know who you are) and we put ads up on Craigslist in several big cities (NYC, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon) soliciting submissions. Most of what we received came from the two coasts, with little from the middle of the country.
There were also a few pieces in the book (Denise Sullivan’s story on musicians and healthcare from Blurt, the tape trader story and the story on Cub Koda) where I actively solicited the writer to include their piece in the book.
What type(s) of submissions did you receive an overabundance of, and what type(s) do you feel were under-represented that you wish you had received? Success or regret anecdotes?
We received way too many badly-written and too-short record reviews, not the long-form pieces I prefer and would have liked to have seen more of in my email box. Some writers just sent a dozen or so reviews attached to their email, in spite of our request to send just two or three of their “best efforts” from the year. We received a slew of concert reviews, a type of writing that I’ve done extensively in the past and abhor… the show’s over, who cares?
We also received a lot of wildly inappropriate submissions that had little or nothing to do with music, rock or otherwise, but the writers felt their story/poetry/review would fit in the book anyway… they didn’t. There was one potential contributor who sent in some in-depth and informative music-related pieces that were just too academic in focus to be entertaining. I spent hours trying to edit them into something that would better fit the other material in the book and not read like a term paper, but just couldn’t make it work.
I would like to have seen more artist interviews, and maybe a few more historical essays like the Emitt Rhodes piece. Overall, I’m happy with this first effort, and think that we’ve collected a fine bunch of writers whose work I’m proud to display in That Devil Music.
Please give us a brief tutorial on how future potential contributors might impress you, or subtly curry favor, or blatantly suck up in order to be celebrated members of the TDMBRW team…
Most importantly, know what the hell you’re writing about… I ran into quite a number of submissions that started out nicely but were ruined by incorrect information or blatant misrepresentation, at which point they were just filed away and unused. The Reverend has been listening to rock music for almost 50 years and writing about it for over 40 years, and while I’d be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn, I also know a lot and trying to pass off some BS ’cause you’re too lazy to Google something just doesn’t fly. Otherwise, just submit well-written material that fits our format (rock and blues-rock) and display a passion for what you’re writing about.
You and I have often discussed what is right and what is wrong about contemporary music writing. Where do we stand in 2014, where do you think we are headed, and what suggestions do you have for old/jaded cranks such as myself AND perilously enthusiastic/naïve up-and-comers? (I am at once proud and fearful that we have both types at BLURT…)
I’m sure that I’ve ranted and raved about the state of contemporary music writing loudly and frequently enough over the past decade that certain people are sick and tired of hearing it (my wife probably tops that lengthy list). One thing that working on That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014 taught me is that there are still a lot of good writers who bring insight, passion, and skill to their work, which is gratifying on many levels. That being said, there’s also still a lot of crap writing on the Internet and in newspapers… poorly conceived, barely edited, criminally brief, and frequently tossed off to meet a deadline or a daily quota for blog posts. I understand the position of many of these writers — I’ve had to cover a lot of artists through the years that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about and I’ve delivered my share of hackwork — but publications like Blurt and Perfect Sound Forever allow writers to put a little more meat on their writing, so why not try to create something better?
The best advice that I can give up-and-comers to this rock critic/music journalist thing is to listen to a lot of music from across the eras, and familiarize yourself with both better-known and obscure artists alike. The Internet is this amazing resource that allows you to explore a world of music, so why not do so? You can also find copies of old music zines and other publications online to read and educate yourself, so if you really care about the music, put in some time and effort to improve your knowledge and your skills.
The recent slate of self-serving artist bios aside, there are a bunch of great publications currently available for anybody wanting to read about rock ‘n’ roll history. Mike Stax’s Ugly Things has been carrying the torch for 1960s rock for three decades and publishes some of the most in-depth stories that you’ll ever find. Shindig! zine, in England, mixes up 1960s rock with contemporary music in the psychedelic and prog genres, while another British publication, Flashback, delves into the decades of the 1960s and ’70s quite nicely. Rolling Stone’s recent special issues on artists like Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and others are useful and entertaining, drawing upon the publication’s lengthy history with interviews and articles.
Lastly: your book is specifically “rock” writing, and of course we have been around the track a few times with how we pay tribute to “rock” via the Rock Hall and the so-called controversies over admitting disco, hip-hop and other quote/unquote “non-rock” artists. So how about going out on a limb here and telling us where you sketch those parameters for this project?
The definition of “rock music” is somewhat nebulous these days, but I know it when I hear it (or read about it). Personally, I feel that rock ‘n’ roll is basically guitar-driven music based on blues, but even that is a bit restrictive and excludes genres like punk, prog-rock, and a growing amount of heavy metal that still fit easily in the big tent of rock ‘n’ roll. Since I’m the book’s editor, judge, and jury it’s going to reflect my own tastes and biases about rock music. I rejected a few stories for That Devil Music that I enjoyed reading, but which I just didn’t think fit the format, but I also included the piece on Son House because of the influence of blues on the formation of rock (plus I’m a giant-sized blues fan and the “Blues Expert” for About.com). I don’t think that I’d ever use a “guest editor” [like the Da Capo series did], not only because I can’t afford to pay anybody, but also because I too prefer a consistent editorial voice. For better or worse, this is the stuff I like to read about and I hope that others enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
Every year about this time the same old argument crops up about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and who should or shouldn’t be inducted. First, a lot of people don’t realize that the physical R&R HoF in Cleveland is a separate entity from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which is who picks the actual inductees. The actual Hall of Fame is really just a tourist destination and a hipper museum than your typical art or science facility, while the Foundation is basically influenced by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Wenner is largely to blame for the disco and hip-hop artists that have been inducted into the HoF with much controversy, although the HoF voters certainly share the guilt for this travesty. Nothing against the Beastie Boys or Madonna, but they ain’t never been rock ‘n’ roll and never will be, so they shouldn’t be in the rock hall… of course, I’m a so-called “rockist” and won’t rest until Motorhead, Wishbone Ash, UFO, and Jason & the Scorchers are inducted!
I’d like to see the Foundation loosen up on the inductions and follow the example of The Blues Foundation and The Blues Hall of Fame. Each year, alongside the artists being honored are a selection of records and books that are enshrined, as well as writers, publicists, and broadcasters that receive the “Keeping The Blues Alive” award. The only music “journalist” that I know of that’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame is Wenner himself, a “Lifetime Achievement” inductee. Why not induct Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and the mighty Rick Johnson? If they need some ideas, Jann knows where to find me.
Still, I’m proud that all my books, including That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing 2014, are archived in the Hall of Fame library (and are also part of the Bowling Green State University music archive in Ohio), providing a small token of immortality for our fractured musings on this creature known as rock ‘n’ roll! (Below: the late Lester Bangs sez, “Good job, Rev!”)
Saluting Our Own Dept.: BLURT writers included in the book are Selena Fragassi, Jason Gross, Danny R. Phillips, j. poet, Tom Speed, Denise Sullivan, Logan K. Young, Lee Zimmerman and of course Gordon and yours truly. Nice going, y’all – a big Lester Bangs noogie for each of ya.