How Close is Too Close? One Music Writer Considers Where to Draw the Line
Originally published by PopMatters on November 18, 2010
There’s not a lot of money to be made in music criticism these days. I don’t know that there ever really was, because I’ve seen where Lester Bangs’ last known residence was and it wasn’t exactly palatial. And these days, gosh knows, there just isn’t a ton of dough being thrown around the music industry, and what is ain’t exactly trickling down to us hacks.
So what compels us to slave over a hot keyboard, our spines twisting into cartoon question marks, our fingers bent and gnarled and cracked from contemplative overuse?
Is it the perks? I won’t lie, I do enjoy sometimes not having to pay for CDs, though I’m not sure anyone pays for CDs anymore, so what the fuck am I so happy about? And though I don’t take nearly enough advantage of it, tickets to shows aren’t that tough to come by. And I suppose I could—gasp!—meet the band, though Twitter has probably robbed the romance from the mystery and majesty of the rock star. Nothing is sacred or secret when you discover that the only difference between us lowlifes and those who trod the boards in the name of the holy rock and/or roll is access to better drugs.
So why do we write here on PopMatters, or in the Rolling Stone or in a million blogs covering a million different opinions that all come off sounding more like three? It’s because we’re narcissists.
Seriously, it’s true. I mean, I love to write. I love every irritating little thing about writing, the edits and re-edits, and the crushing insecurity and dissatisfaction that comes with knowing two minutes after something I’ve come up with has been published, I’ll see loads of shit I wish I’d said differently. I think it’s why some rock stars don’t go back and listen to their old music. It’s not because they’re so locked into the future they don’t want to get stuck in the past. Sure, that sounds all cool in a press release, but it’s probably more likely they just don’t want to hear every fucking mistake they made in music their fans think is a staggering work of absolute genius. Because, yeah—musicians are narcissists too.
But in addition to the shallow admission that we’re sniveling little self-loathers who equate any attention with L-O-V-E, there’s also something pure in what we do. I know, you don’t buy it because I’m the one saying it, but it’s scout’s honor true. We love writing about music because we love music so goddamn much.
Years ago, I burned a friend a copy of My Bloody Valentine’s seminal mindfuck Loveless. She had only a passing familiarity with shoegaze music, and I felt it was my civic duty to lay one of the touchstones on her. As I recall the conversation now, I’m a little embarrassed by the corniness of what I said, but I swear I believed every corny word: “I’m jealous you’re gonna be hearing this for the first time.”
Not everyone is as bowled over by music as I am. Some folks simply do not give a solitary shit about which version of Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is more emotionally gut-wrenching (it’s the one on Capitol, FYI), or why the Ramones practically duplicated the cover of their first album on the cover of their third (fuck if I know, but they both look cool). It’s not even true that people have different obsessions, because maybe someone loves collecting Hummel figurines more than anything in this world, but maybe they don’t feel the driving compulsion to tell the world why.
There are jaded critics, no doubt, who’ve grown weary of the whole thing, yet who carry on because they don’t know any other way. Maybe they don’t even love music anymore, and they look at their ceiling high shelves of promo shit and wonder where their lives got away from them. They may not remember it, but there was a time when it all mattered, mattered like nothing else in the world. Mattered more than breathing sometimes, especially when you think about some of the cruddy dives full of piss-fumes and acrid hand-rolled cigarette smoke curling from the rotten teeth and fingers of denizens of the witching hour for whom a shower is but a fading memory we’ve all suffered just to hear a single note performed by some asshole who’ll have slipped below the surface by year’s end.
I love music. I love jamming my iPod full of stuff I’ll probably never get around to listening to. I love spending two hours putting together 45-minute playlists for chores like doing the dishes, which ordinarily takes maybe 15 minutes tops. I love music. LOVE it.
“Musicians are assholes.”
I remember the conversation well. It took place years ago when I was getting into my first music writing gig that wasn’t a college newspaper. I can’t remember which albums I reviewed, or why we were even on this line of chit-chat, but a legendary music editor said it to me and I’ve never forgotten.
“Musicians are assholes”, he said. “You don’t want to hang out with them.”
I did though. I was young and foolish and in absolute awe of anyone who was willing to pay me money to write about something I loved. And, yeah, he was right. Not about the asshole thing, although I’ve certainly found that not to necessarily be across-the-board true, but I do have some stories I try not to tell when I have a little too much to drink.
He was right in sensing that I wanted to hang around musicians. Merely an amateur drummer myself with naught but garage and college bands under my belt, there was probably a part of me that wanted to see in them what I’d never have myself, a taste of success that extended beyond a few extra drink tickets once in a blue moon.
But the primary reason I wanted to hang around musicians is the same reason I wanted to hang around other writers or kids who worked in indie record stores or actually had something relevant to say on message boards. We all loved music in some sick, stupid way. It’s gratifying to find that, to argue with friends over something as utterly meaningless as whether the Style Council or the Jam were a better use of Paul Weller’s talents.
I’ve got friends who are musicians, some of whom you’ve heard of and maybe some you haven’t. And because I’m a blabbermouth music writer, I sometimes wish I could talk their shit up a bit more. Believe it or not, I take what I do pretty seriously. It’s why I’ve struggled with whether or not to write album reviews of people I count among my actual friends. Everyone thinks music critics are already full of shit, so I know I can’t submit a review of an album by a friend and feel like I’ve got any credibility at all.
Here’s an example. Last night, I joined a packed house at the Living Room on the Lower East Side for a performance by Amy Bezunartea. Her album—Restaurants & Bars—just dropped, and it’s really fucking good. I mean, if you dig singer-songwriters who make you want to cry your eyes out one second and grin like a loon the next, and have your heart swelling up inside your chest and a thousand other clichés throughout, this is right up your alley. But Amy is also a friend of mine, as is her partner and label boss Jennifer O’Connor, and she’s a seriously awesome musician, too. Plus, my girlfriend Eve sings on the record. So when I say something like “Mostly I’m Just Scared” reminds me of Moe Tucker when she was still with the Velvet Underground, would anyone take me seriously knowing all that?
Here’s another example. I’m really good friends with Carlos Halston, one half Boston’s—jeez, I don’t even know how to describe them—Halston. If was putting together a playlist, let’s say, I’d very easily slip Halston’s newest groove, “The Beats (of How You Feel)” between the Buzzcocks’ “Autonomy” and “The Party’s Crashing Us” by Of Montreal. But if I also told you I once drunkenly stumbled out of a Beantown bar into the dark night leaving Carlos to deal with a triple-digit bar tab, would any of what I had to say about his band’s music matter to you? What if I added that I paid him back the next day when I sobered up, figured out where I was, and braved a sun that was far too bright and a cab that was far too full of meaty aromas to make it happen?
How close is too close? It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself more times than I’d care to admit, and not even in my own professional life. My collection is loaded with creaky home recordings by friends of mine, and when I’ve really found myself liking it, I’ve wondered whether it’s at least partly because I’m thinking with my heart. And conversely, I’ve also found myself pondering if I think something kinda sucks just because I’m overcompensating. Narcissistic and neurotic.
Why do we write about music? Why do we try to surround ourselves with people who either share that love or are at the very least part of the reason we feel the way we do? And why, if we sincerely love when those lines cross, can’t we do something about it? I’m sure I’m not alone in this phenomenon among my peers, because while that editor’s advice wasn’t without merit all those years ago, I’m not sure anyone he ever gave it to took it terribly seriously.
Maybe Lester Bangs got the mix exactly right when he was flown over to the UK to follow the Clash on tour for the NME. Bangs certainly wasn’t friends with the Clash before then, and I’m sure not what Paul Simonon lighting his trouser leg on fire did to move that relationship in either direction. But in spite of his hanging with the band and realizing they were the genuine article, Bangs’ praise for the power of the music never seemed inauthentic.
I guess the key is to figure shit out for yourself, and that’s how it’s been all along. I could tell you I love the music of Amy Bezunartea or Halston, and even if you think I’m full of shit because they’re pals of mine, you’ve still got to judge it for yourself. The same is true of what any critic has to say, whether they know the artist personally or not. The only critic who can really speak to whether you’re gonna like anything is you.