Writer’s Workshop: Jim DeRogatis

HT: I was going to ask, did you learn anything about them you didn’t know before?

: Mainly, I think the challenge with the Velvets is that they’ve become these gods and we’ve lost track of some of the context. What makes them extraordinary is a lot of the mundane stuff. They’re hailed as like the princes of darkness of rock ‘n’ roll, and yet three of them grew up within a few miles of each other on idyllic, manicured-lawn Long Island, a la Mad Men in the 60s. To think that Lou Reed once walked the streets of Long Island and was on a track team, you know?

But instead of knocking them down as mere humans, you can give context of who they were that came from rather mundane origins. Reed was a musical swan. He didn’t have a lot of training. He was obviously very skilled but wanted to appropriate capital-A art into what he was doing with this primitive rock ‘n’ roll. He was drawn to inserting immediacy and spontaneity and being sophisticated while getting out of the conservatory. They covered more ground in a shorter time than even the Beatles, and those four studio albums are all extraordinarily different.


HT: You see a lot of that in the art and photos in the book.

JD: This was a band that arrived as a fully-formed package. By that I don’t just mean the all-black, but to see Maureen Tucker as this androgynous young women who doesn’t really fit but yet is essential to what they are. Mo looks like the key punch operator she was before she started playing drums in this band. Anyway, you can find a lot of this stuff surfing the net, but I still like having a really cool book you can ooh and aww over. It’s like good pornography [laughs]!

HT: Have your opinions of the Velvets changed at all over the years, especially that you’ve spent much time with the band members themselves?

JD: I’ve interviewed both [Lou Reed and John Cale] a number of times. I last talked to Reed with the Edgar Allan Poe record [2003’s The Raven], and John as a guest on Sound Opinions. I differ with a lot of Velvets superfans already in that I think Cale’s solo output is as rewarding if not more — and I know this is heresy — than Lou’s. I think the directions he’s gone are fascinating, and a natural evolution. Lou has given us brilliant work and he mystifies us. He’s Lou Reed, right, whatever?

HT: In the past few years we’ve seen the flowering of your Sun-Times blog, and you’re also doing plenty of regular beat features and reviews and everything else. You’re the music critic for a major metropolitan newspaper with a solid web presence, so how are you balancing your time and how do you assess time spent on Web hits versus features, all that kind of stuff that has to be considered?

JD: I think we’re in a tough transitional period, overall. The immediacy of the Web is great, but it is also removing a lot of the most thoughtful essays and criticism in a rush to get something up and blurb it. I didn’t have anything to say about the death of Mary Travers, for example. Nice lady, Puff the Magic Dragon, cool. Whatever, does anyone want my take on that? Whereas, take the movie “Juno.” I strongly disagreed with Ebert on the merits of that film. It treated abortion casually and we’re supposed to believe that this is a brilliant young woman who’s absolutely whip smart? I hated the way that it incorporated indie rock next to some misguided family message. It was shit. So I wrote this essay, essentially as a screed but nothing more than that, and it got hundreds of thousands of hits.

The good side of the Web is that a unique argument can reach a zillion readers. But the substance of that idea counts for the most, not the stupid fucking Tweet. Would it be possible to craft a great critical idea in 150 words? Maybe. Have I seen it done? No. To me, the means of delivery is rather a red herring. It doesn’t matter if a piece that I’m writing lands in dead wood on your doorstep or if you read on the Web or you’re plugging a USB into your head and you download me directly. The question is how you’re going to monetize that. I’m an anarchist rock radical in most ways, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for someone who does the hard work of writing to get paid. I don’t know how that shakes out. It’s a transitional period.


HT: You bring up a curious point on deciding what to weigh in about. Yes to Juno, but no to Mary Travers. I know you took a lot of heat from readers for not weighing in immediately on what Kanye West did to Taylor Swift at the VMAs.

JD: Once Obama called him a jackass, I had to say something. But the paper has Bill Zwecker, who is the people columnist. I think I wrote with a fair amount of insight on [West’s] “808s and Heartbreak” when it came out, and with so many of the top 10 albums crafted whole or in part with help from Kanye, obviously I think neither his peers nor fans of inventive hip-hop are going to turn on him. I mean, yeah, people point out the Taylor Swift thing but why don’t they point out that everything at MTV is contrived, right down to the brass butt [Bruno] in Eminem’s face. Everything is lab rats under a microscope. I would argue that the best thing you can see is that Kanye keeps deviating from the script. I was kind of entertained by it, but really who gives a fuck? The guy’s important.

HT: So you didn’t quite feel compelled to write about it?

JD: The pop critic doesn’t need to be the gossip columnist. We are first and foremost journalists. If you’re at a concert, and a fire breaks out, you’re not supposed to lead with ‘Sonic Youth was really good on stage.’ I think a lot of critics don’t have those basic reporting chops. I was writing for free about music for fanzines and small magazines for 10 years, while I was covering gentrification, political corruption and riots in Hoboken.

You’re a reporter with a great beat, as a pop critic. When a 26-minute, 39-second video that might be of R. Kelly and a 14-year-old appears in your mailbox, you’re not worthy of writing for any place if you’re not going to pursue that story. No one else did, either. I kept waiting for other people to jump on it.

HT: Is it accurate to say you see problems both in younger reporters who haven’t spent any time in the news reporting trenches and older guys who just got lazy as critics?

JD: I think those are problems. But we also have to blame editors, especially those who think pop music doesn’t need to be covered. You have a network news break when a Columbine happens, and there are goth rockers at those schools who were said to be part of the problem. The machinery of the news would never let that sit there, but yet no one steps forward to say the same thing about pop music. The standards aren’t the same, and they should be. Anyone listening to NWA before the L.A. riots would not have been surprised by them. Anyone listening to how Cobain was singing wouldn’t have been shocked to hear about depression in the music scene. In the 60s everyone got out and protested, and now you have radio controlled by three major corporate giants. Neil Young after Kent State sits down and writes Ohio. Neil Young after no WMDs are found sits down and writes Let’s Impeach the President. One was a number one hit. The other is forgotten.


HT: Is there anyone or any source — critic, magazine, Web site — you see as essential for music criticism these days? Do you read Greg?

JD: Well, once we record the radio show, I’ve just read him. To answer your question, though, the tragedy of the current pop culture scene in the U.S. is that there is no single go-to repository. There’s a tremendous amount of great writing out there, but the impact that a Creem magazine had, that a Nick Tosches or Richard Meltzer or Bangs had, that’s not there. There’s no one go-to site and yet there are 10 million pieces on the Web. The best pieces I find about whatever — what is behind this Grizzly Bear thing, for example — come from Google News searches. I’ll put something in and it’ll pop up 70 entries, and in that, 4 of them are good. There’s no one place where we have to go.

You could argue that the aggregators are doing good work — Daily Swarm does a great job — but there’s no great aggregator for great criticism. On Pitchfork, one out of 10 things will be worthwhile to read. On PopMatters, two out of 3 things will usually be good, but that’s still more work than any of us need to do.

HT: You wouldn’t consider Pitchfork the most influential of the music blogs?

JD: What’s disappointing about Pitchfork is that there’s not the vision or the quality control there should be. This comes down to editing. What I love about Pitchfork is that at the end of the day, it’s guys and girls in their basements writing for free — and they’re doing that with unfettered passion. They’re not going to write something to please the industry or an editor because they want the check from Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly.

Editors are so important. Take Christgau. I’m not a huge fan of his writing, but whether it was the wild boys like Bangs, Tosches and Meltzer or thoughtful critics like Greg Tate, Christgau’s a great editor. He’s one who’s really about words — who would argue for an hour about one adjective. I really don’t think anyone’s arguing about an adjective for 30 seconds on Pitchfork. When the Village Voice and Creem were at their tops in the 70s, they had that stable. People still show me yellowed clips of Bangs stuff that they carry around, or they quote Bangs or another guy in their e-mail signature. Why? Because it was great writing coupled with ideas that endured. Who are you competing with now? The golden seed remains great writing and an idea that no one else has the balls to voice well.

HT: Turning back to you and what you’re working on, any other books in the hopper? You always seem to have something cooking.

JD: Voyageur came to Greg and me, and asked would you guys consider doing a book on the Beatles and Rolling Stones? Like, where you play, who’s cooler, the Beatles or the Stones. That could be fun. The Stones are cooler, let’s face it, but I wouldn’t scoff at McCartney. And even when we probably both think Exile On Main Street is the better double album than the White Album, we both think so for different reasons. It’ll be a fun, quick book.

I don’t know what I’d do next, maybe I’ll write something bitchy about the death of criticism and journalism. But really, as hard is this is to believe, I’m an optimist. I do think things are going to shake out. And going back to earlier, you gotta hand it to Ryan [Schreiber, the founder] and Pitchfork. It’s the most successful start-up of its kind since Rolling Stone in the ’60s, and it is so because it’s not compromised. It’s guys in their basement — still — rather than Jann Wenner saying we shall not diss Columbia Records.

HT: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your favorite music of 2009. Seeing as we’re getting into that all important “best of the year” period, well, what’s been good?

JD: I love that Ida Maria album. I think that’s just tremendous. She blew my mind in the midst of that corporate suckfest that is Lollapalooza. I’m just a sucker for rampant expressions of female sexuality that aren’t coming from a female who’s wanting to sell herself sexually. She’s a real person. I love that record, even above and beyond Perez Hilton liking it. Talk about wanting to hate something because he likes it, but I saw her and she was great. That’s tops, probably. But it’s been a slow year. I really like the Animal Collective record, but lord do they suck shit live. They gotta lay of the drugs or whatever. It’s like, you guys made the year’s “Pet Sounds” and you’re going up there and jerking off for us. If I had a list in front of me I’d probably mention others, that’s why I gotta write it all down. Ida Maria I’d say is there.

HT: One thing that’s unique to you and a few others is that you spent a lot of time giving space and attention to local bands, and your Demo2Dero feature is a really interesting catalog of up-and-comers from the Chicago area. That seems hugely important, and many metro columnists don’t do that for local bands.

JD: It’s writ large in journalism: if newspapers are to survive, it’s about the local community. Having grown up in New York and lived in Minneapolis, I understand communities that feed off of music and other arts. Chicago’s this incredibly vibrant artistic community — there’s so much happening that’s bubbling beneath the surface. If you’re a critic, the reason your picture is in the paper isn’t for ego, it’s so you’re a part of that community. Nine out of 10 things I get suck, but that’s because it’s easier than any point in history to record and distribute your own music. You can find things on Web sites that 10 people have listened to, and they can be extraordinary.

I don’t know why more people don’t do that, I really don’t. Many cities have that. Chapel Hill, NC, might have 100 better bubbling-under bands than even New York. It’s worth listening, at least for a two-graf column once a week. That’s a choice. I have to write about Mariah Carey. Why? It’s news. If people are going to talk about something, it’s news. If U2 comes to town and you have a sell-out, that’s news. Twenty-thounsad people gathering together to do something is news. But so is what’s happening at [Chicago club] Reggie’s for five people. You cover both of them.

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