The Upshot: An insider’s thinly-fictionalized look at the world of rock journalism as seen through the eyes of an incurable—if cynical—romantic.
BY FRED MILLS
Everybody’s heard the old cliché about male and female rock critics: that the guys are just failed or wannabe musicians, and the girls just want to get into the musicians’ pants. But clichés arise from at least small kernels of truth, although speaking in defense of my particular gender, I think my roc-crit peers more often tend to be arrested-adolescent record collector nerds; David Lee Roth famously observed that the reason rock critics adore Elvis Costello instead of Van Halen is because we all look like Costello. There may be some truth to that. But I digress…
You gals out there don’t get a similar pass, however. Because, even though, if you really think about it, there are far easier ways to get the attention of the cute singer than writing about his band—like, duh, standing in front of the stage in your best slinky dress and your Austin-bought cowgirl boots—the unstated assumption is that your ultimate goal is to marry a musician, have his babies, and spend the rest of your life being his goddess and his muse. (Good luck with that.) Rock ‘n’ roll is second only to hip-hop in its institutional sexism, and that’s something not even a million Joan Jetts and Kathleen Hannas are gonna overcome, at least not for the foreseeable future.
First-time novelist Alli Marshall, who is the A&E Editor of Ashville weekly the Mountain Xpress (full disclosure: she’s also a contributor to BLURT), has certainly heard those stereotypes. I am absolutely certain that she, like I, vehemently takes issue with them, too. Yet at first, cursory, glance, her debut, How to Talk to Rockstars, might seem to confirm all our worst fears about female scribes. (Below: the author)
This hugely entertaining story—is it a thinly-veiled memoir of sorts? knowing that Marshall has spent plenty of time in the reviewer trenches lends speculative juice to that entertainment factor—centers around Bryn Thompson, a rock critic who’s worked her way up the food chain to land at Mic Check magazine. Overly introspective by nature, deeply romantic at heart, she’s also managed to forge a kind of cynical body armor that helps provide a reality check whenever she finds herself being sucked into a musician’s aura. Which, over the course of the book, seems to happen with alarming frequency. Early in her career, there’s a scruffily handsome local musician who’s probably going nowhere but is definitely doing all right with the ladies. Later, there’s the swashbuckling frontman for a popular jam band whose star is in full ascent; plus the former record store clerk who lived several lifetimes before one of his bands finally hit it big; and the singer-songwriter whose “stoned British surfer” façade and awkward charisma makes him a chick magnet, of sorts. (I hate those Limey bastards myself, but oh well.)
Chief among Bryn’s entanglements, though, is an ongoing one with “Jude Archer,” a kinda-more-than-semi-famous artist and recovering addict who, in addition to making music, paints and sells his works at shows. (That should be enough to tip you off that Archer was inspired by Joseph Arthur, alliteration duly noted, who also penned one of the back jacket’s praise blurbs. “A very interesting take on the world of rock ‘n’ roll,” he writes. “An unheard perspective.” In real life Marshall has interviewed Joseph Arthur a few times, incidentally.) Bryn and Jude perform a protracted, though oddly appealing, courtship ritual that may or may not see consummation; I won’t toss out any spoilers here, but suffice to say the evolution of their friendship—and, more important, the evolution of Bryn in terms of how she sees herself and the world around her—is what gives the book its delicious tension. The mark of any good story is how much it makes you root for its hero or heroine, and although Bryn can be maddeningly nebbishy and prone to overthinking pretty much every situation she finds herself in, she’s got so many characteristics that (speaking for myself, although I suspect I will not be alone) I can identify with, it’s impossible to stay cross with her for long.
How to Talk to Rockstars is, at just over 200 pages, an easy read, although the readers who’ll get the most of it are Marshall’s fellow journos and music biz denizens. (Actual “rockstars,” beware.) At numerous points I found myself chuckling and nodding, like, yeah, that’s exactly how it is. For example, Bryn constructs some basic rules on how, specifically, an interviewer should talk to the artists, among them “do your research and ask good questions,” “listen more than you speak” and “build rapport but don’t try to win the rockstar as a friend.” (Anyone who’s ever interviewed an artist and come away thinking, “Hey, he and I really hit it off; I bet we’ll get to hang out a lot after the show!” is in for a rude surprise. That artist was doing a job, and part of that job was to make you think he likes you so you’ll write nice things about him.) And some of the book’s laugh-out-loud moments come when Bryn is mentally fine tuning her questions so she doesn’t feel like a dork when it comes time to actually ask them. We’ve all been there, Bryn. Among my favorites:
–“Since you’ve been touring this album for [insert number of months], how has your relationship to this group of songs evolved?” (This is one I used frequently when I worked at a weekly paper as the music critic and show previews were the typical features I penned. For some reason I never quite got it through my head that musicians don’t think in those terms. The road is the least introspective context an artist can find himself in, and when he’s onstage he’s just trying to make sure he remembers the chord changes, the lyrics, and at what point in the song he’s supposed to make that clever knowing gesture. Plus, 9 out of 10 songwriters will tell you that as soon as they have recorded a song, they’re done with it, and it belongs to the, uh, universe. So to speak.)
–“Was the intention to incite something within your listeners? And if you could incite some emotion, what would it be?” (This twinned question is just screaming to be answered along the clichéd lines of, “Joy. Anger. Passion. Anything to break the tedium of everyday life.”)
–“Ten years out, in what ways has your career followed the path that you originally imagined when you first got into music?” (Once in a while an artist will pull something pretty witty out of his ass for this one, but by and large you’re gonna get the stock “I never really think of that. I just live one day at a time” reply. Unless they got their starts on American Idol or The Voice artists are loathe to confess to planning out paths for themselves, because to do that would admit to a woeful lack of spontaneity and creativity.)
A number of drolly entertaining behind-the-scenes moments dot the book as well, such as when a 45-year old cougar buttonholes the aforementioned stoned British surfer after his concert, or when Bryn attends a press conference for Brian Eno and finds herself surrounded by sweaty-palmed, Music For Airports-worshiping press nerds peppering the musician with their heard-‘em-all-before questions. The latter was doubly entertaining for moi: I was actually at the real-life Eno press conference that the scene was based on, which took place one year during Moogfest in Asheville, and while I take issue with Bryn’s depiction of my fellow male members of the press—I can guarantee you that I am not paunchy, nor do I wear “crumpled button-downs and Rockports” (they are Florsheims)—on all the other counts it was pretty dead on.
The book’s little details ring true, Marshall consistently painting an honest portrait of her characters’ lives. Given her chosen profession, well… the old saying about “write what you know” comes to mind. And that’s also why Marshall manages to upend the stereotype mentioned at the start of this review. Although of necessity Bryn interacts with musicians—hence the book’s title—and therefore situations do arise that can yield to romance, of both the requited and un- type, the pursuit of same isn’t necessarily what motivates her.
On a key level, in fact, it has nothing to do with the musicians themselves and everything to do with the music. The whole reason I started writing about music in the first place wasn’t because I was a frustrated musician or, to cite another cliché, wanted to see how many free albums I could score. It was because I felt a burning need to express how I felt about the music, and in turn by delving deeper than the casual listener, maybe some of the magic would rub off on me. Later, when I started doing interviews, it was for the same reason—reflected glory, maybe, an attempt to get as close to the flame as possible. This is not to say that none of the stereotypes apply. Some of us form bands. Some of us wind up working with bands. Some of us—male rock critics included—even, ahem, get into the pants of the cute singer. But I digress…
In an early chapter, author Marshall writes, by way of helping the reader understand part of what motivates Bryn, “Music called her back… music was what she sought out… To listen to music was to enter a conversation. It was to be in the company of thoughts and ideas that had been around for longer than Bryn had, and would long outlast her. Music was a language that required no translation.”
That’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever heard. And How to Talk to Rockstars is as good a description of what it feels like when you’re under the spell of that magic as I’ve ever read.