Chuck Eddy,
The TVD Interview

Chuck Eddy is America’s foremost music critic. Hell, he’s probably the world’s foremost music critic, unless you count the woman in North Korea who’s said to write one hell of a Laibach review. Over the past several decades Eddy’s smart-ass wit, super-charged prose, lightning flash (and often controversial) pronouncements) and mind-boggling knowledge of musical esoterica have made him a must read for anyone who gives a hoot about popular music.

Eddy’s abiding interest in (and love for) what he calls “inessential music,” championing of genre-blending (think country disco), and defense of such derided-by-the critics genres as New Country offer readers an ear-opening new perspective on popular music—read Chuck Eddy, and I guarantee you’ll never listen to music the same way again.

Eddy’s resume is too extensive to go into here. Suffice it to say he’s written thousands of articles for The Village Voice—where he served as musical editor for seven years–Creem, Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly and other forums.

Eddy’s books include Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe (Harmony Books, 1991); The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘N Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music (De Capo Press, 1997); Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism (Duke University Press, 2011).and Terminated for Reasons of Taste (Duke University Press, 2016). Eddy currently dedicates his energies to programing music for Napster.

In the following interview Eddy talks about Stairway to Hell, which has been enraging metalheads for decades, declares his love for B-sides and dollar bins, says he doesn’t think of musicians as people and doesn’t give a flying fuck about their personal lives, and makes the astonishing admission that given the choice between having Guns ‘n’’ Roses or Suzanne Vega over for dinner, he’d go with Vega because “she eats less.”

And finally, he talks candidly about the “Infamous Beastie Boys Incident.”

Without further ado, a conversation with Chuck Eddy.

Your back story’s an unusual one. You have to be the only human being who got his big break with The Village Voice while serving as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in West Germany.

Where do I start? I’m from Michigan. I grew up there. I had no interest in music at all before college. When I graduated from high school in West Bloomfield in suburban Detroit in 1978 I think I owned four albums and a couple of singles. I was the editor of the high school newspaper and my main interest was in becoming a sportswriter. It wasn’t until the year I attended the University of Detroit that I started getting interested in music.

This was during the New Wave era and I started wearing skinny ties and stuff like that. Albums were passed on to me by bands like the Boomtown Rats and I began to write about music for the Varsity News at the University of Detroit. During summers in college I covered zoning commissions, sewage boards, school boards police reports and city council meetings for a suburban weekly paper in Michigan, and I kind of assumed that was what I’d end up doing. But seeing as how I was writing about everything else, I thought I might as well try to write about music too. The first album review I wrote was in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I’d transferred to Oakland Community College in Michigan when I reviewed my first album, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp.

Great album.

Yeah, it is. Anyway, I transferred [from Oakland Community College] to the University of Missouri because they have a reputation as a great journalism school. And again, I was writing about everything but music. But I started reviewing records for their weekly student newspaper, The Maneater. The first album I reviewed was the American edition of The Clash. At any rate, I reviewed albums and reviewed shows. And after graduating I had an army commission because I’d gotten a full-ride scholarship from the Army ROTC. So I had to do that even though I hated it.

In 1979, I think, Bob Christgau, who edited the music section of The Village Voice in New York and was in charge of the Voice’s Annual Pazz and Jop poll—the biggest music poll in the world—wrote an essay in which he basically said, “If you’re out there writing about music go ahead and knock yourself out, let me know you’re out there.” So, I sent him a letter and he liked it and I started voting in the poll probably my junior year in college.

The third year I voted in the poll I was a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps in Bad Kreuznach, Germany and I attached an 11-page letter, just kind of dissecting where I thought music was at and where music criticism was at, and basically saying that music was going to shit and all the exciting stuff had already happened. At any rate, [Christgau] wound up running a big chunk of the letter as a sidebar in the Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll, and he’d never run comments from voters before. He wrote in his own essay that my spiel or manifesto, whatever you want to call it, had given him the idea to start sharing the pages with voters.

One day I got a check in the mail. At first I was like, “Why am I getting a check from The Village Voice?” I didn’t really write my letter for publication; I was just letting off steam when I wasn’t in the motor pool or running around in an NBC mask or secluded in a biological and chemical equipment room. Anyway, he asked me to come to write for the Voice. Bad Religion’s Into the Unknown was the first album I got paid to write about. That’s the album they kept out of print for years because it sounds like seventies rock and roll.

It’s a weird album.

It is. I think they considered it a sellout record. Years later, all their albums were in print except that one, which I guess they were embarrassed by. I think it’s the only distinctive record they ever made. All their other records sound the same to me and they’re fine, I guess, but nothing I would ever want to listen to again.

Anyway, by the time I got out of the army in ’86, I assumed I would go back to writing for a suburban weekly paper about local news, but suddenly I had this national forum. I wound up writing for Creem magazine in Detroit, Spin and Entertainment Weekly when they started, Rolling Stone, the LA Weekly, as well as publications in Boston and Phoenix. It was rare for somebody to write for all those publications at the same time. By the late ‘80’s I was probably the main music critic for The Village Voice outside of R.J. Smith, and Christgau of course.

People liked my voice, I guess. They thought I had a distinctive voice. So I wound up writing about music full-time as a freelancer. A lot of what I wrote about was metal or what was called metal at the time, not because it was my favorite kind of music but because there wasn’t really anybody writing about metal then. I filled a niche, which I filled for decades, along with other niches nobody wrote about. Nashville country or Italo-disco or whatever. I just had a pretty wide curiosity. If nobody was writing about stuff, it made it more interesting to write about. It wasn’t a big strategy, just what I wanted to do.

One of the people employed by the Voice was Frank Hurley, who was one of my best friends in fifth grade. We used to trade baseball cards and didn’t talk for 15 years, and wound up writing for The Village Voice at the same time. It’s one of the weird coincidences in my life.

For instance, I wrote a review of Aerosmith’s Done with Mirrors for The Village Voice, where I talked about how “Walk This Way” and “Lord of The Thighs” were rap music before rap music happened. Doug Simmons, the editor of The Village Voice, said, “You’re just messing with people.” But Rick Rubin read [the review] and it gave him the idea, apparently, to get Run-DMC together with Aerosmith. Coincidence? What I do know for a fact is the press release about them getting together came out just a couple of weeks after my review. So I was apparently responsible for both Aerosmith’s comeback and decades of really bad rap rock.

I also wrote up an interview with Aerosmith in 1986 or ‘87, while they were working on—what’s their comeback album, Permanent Vacation?—and they seemed to know about my review. And in the same piece I talked about growing up in the seventies with people smoking dope in high school parking lots and listening to, I think it was “Back in the Saddle.” And Phil Dellio, who lives in Toronto and is a writer I’ve always been in touch with, pointed out to me a few years later that Dazed and Confused, which came out 1991, opens with a scene in a high school parking lot with people in the seventies smoking dope to [an Aerosmith] song. So there are all these weird coincidences.

Or not.

Here’s another one. Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth has a song on it, I guess it’s part of a trilogy, called “Eliminator Jr”. Earlier I’d reviewed Sister for The Village Voice, and I talked about how Sister was their Afterburner. Again, was that a coincidence?

Anyway, I freelanced for a long time for all these different publications, and I wrote much differently for Creem than I did for Entertainment Weekly or Spin or The Village Voice. I had a different voice for each of them, based on the extent to what I thought I could get away with while keeping my voice.

By the end of the ’90s I had written for different editors at The Village Voice. Actually, I was persona non grata at the Voice for a while because I pissed off the Voice’s music editor Eric Weissberg, by writing about either a Sheryl Crow or Monster Magnet record. We spoke over the phone and he told me, “The next time you do a review here or the next time you write for us, we’ll have a different music editor.” And I was like, “Really? Where are you going?” And he said, “Didn’t you know I’m leaving?” And I was like, “No, I wasn’t in the loop.”

I was just this guy living in Philadelphia by then. I said, “What if I apply for the job?” And he said, “I don’t think you have the disposition to be a music editor.” I had a reputation as being a crank, I don’t really know why. There were times when I was young and would get pissed off if a semicolon got changed or a comma or whatever, but by then I had pretty much mellowed. Anyway, I applied for the job.

I called Doug Simmons, the Voice’s editor, and he told me, “You need to send a resume and a letter about what you would do with the music section if you got the job.” I did that and wound up interviewing for the job. Maybe a week and a half later they hired me. I’ve been told some 60 people applied for it. I wound up moving to New York, which I had only visited maybe two or three times in my life. In fact, a lot of my writing had this kind of like Midwestern chauvinist attitude, and I thought New Yorkers were a bunch of artsy-fartsy poseurs or whatever.

But I wound up living in New York, which is pretty easy when you’re the music editor of The Village Voice. You basically get New York on a platter. All the shows I wanted for free, whether they were at Madison Square Garden or a club. I was being begged to go to shows and I was out pretty much every night. And I wound up DJing in bars regularly there. I met my second wife at a lesbian bar in 2001. She was in a band there, a couple of bands actually.

After seven years the Voice changed ownership, which was followed by the layoffs or firings of several Voice editors. I was terminated for “reasons of taste” because they disagreed with my idea of what the music section should look like. And the phrase has always amused me, given the other ways it can be interpreted.

And this was bizarre to me because I thought I would have that job for the rest of my life. I don’t consider myself an ambitious person. It wasn’t like I was using the Voice as a stepping stone. I liked the job. I had amazing leeway and brought in some pretty amazing not-so-well-known people to write there. Like Metal Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans, who’s a CTA [care team assistant] at a hospital run by nuns in California now.

Really?

Yes. He had actually written for Phonograph Record magazine in the early ‘70s when he was a teenager and wrote a couple of reviews for Rolling Stone. He may have written the first review to use the phrase “heavy metal”—this was in a Sir Lord Baltimore review. Anyway, he wound up in the band VOM with Richard Meltzer and went on to sing for the Angry Samoans. I brought him back to write about music, but he didn’t write about metal, mostly he wrote about Radio Disney stuff. He did 4,000 words on Britney Spears for me once.

I also brought in Frank Cogan and this guy George Smith [aka Dick Destiny] who’d been in a band called the Highway Kings. He had a Ph.D. in chemistry from Lehigh University in Allentown [Pennsylvania], and he’d written the first or one of the first books on computer viruses in like 1989 or ’90. He also did military reporting for The Morning Call there. I really changed the mixture of the Voice music section. I brought in a lot of really young writers and brought back old writers and tried to make it as diverse as I could.

And it was fun. It was like creating in and of itself. I could do these conceptual pages that were just fun. I might have Douglas Walker review the first Moldy Peaches album on the same page as a review of a Peaches album. And there was another one on the same page about peaches. And I got to make up the headlines. I headlined that one “Really Love Your peaches, Want to Shake Your Tree.”

Anyway, after I lost my job at the Voice I freelanced for about a summer and wound up at Billboard and a business magazine for a year and a half, which was—I did the job. It was a lot more like my army job than my work for The Village Voice. I liked a lot of the people and I think they thought I was doing a good job; I just didn’t enjoy it. Eventually, I left and went back to freelancing.

I had put out two books in the ‘90s, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe and The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ roll—A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music, which actually started out as a book about Def Leppard’s Hysteria album. That was the book I was contracted to write but it kind of evolved over the space of about four years. Since leaving the army, or leaving Billboard—see, I equate Billboard with the army—I’ve basically worked freelance, and I’ve [published] two collections of my work.

Since 2008 I’ve been working as an independent contractor basis for Rhapsody/Napster, which is mostly what I do now. Mostly I make playlists for a living and program online radio stations and stuff like that. I have barely written in the past year and a half, two years. I don’t really miss it. I would probably love to do it if I thought there was a forum that would pay me a rate comparable to what I used to get and let me write the way I used to write, but I don’t think such a forum exists. And I guess I’m okay with that at this point.

Can I ask you a question?

Sure, ask away. When was I going to shut up? You asked for it.

Let’s get down to Stairway to Hell. Some of your picks are, for lack of a better term, infuriating. What were your criteria for the book? Because plenty of people assume your list was a goof.

It wasn’t a goof! I’m glad we’re talking about this. I’d been writing about metal or what was called metal, mostly hair metal but also thrash stuff, through the ‘80s. And I was asked by at least one publisher, I think it was Harmony Books, to write an encyclopedia of metal. Now, to write an encyclopedia of metal I would have had to go out—there was no streaming at the time, obviously–and buy every album by bands like Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Mötley Crüe and Judas Priest, because I owned exactly zero albums by Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Mötley Crüe and Judas Priest. It just wasn’t physically feasible. It also would have taken so much time.

So what I said was, why don’t I come up with a list of the 500 greatest heavy metal albums and write about them? And that’s what the contract was for. Now my definition of heavy metal has always been very clear cut. I spell it out in the [book’s] introduction. I define it as any album that would have been considered heavy metal at any time in the history of heavy metal.

So, had a 1983 Meat Puppets album come out in 1970, it would have been called heavy metal. And if a Jimi Hendrix album from 1968 was considered heavy metal at the time, Prince’s Purple Rain would have to be considered heavy metal as well. At any rate, what I did was pull 500 albums out of the collection I owned. I just went through my entire collection and I was like, “Oh, this could pass as heavy metal.”

Obviously we wouldn’t call Jimi Hendrix heavy metal now, but in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, people still would have called him heavy metal. If you look at Creem’s [1981] heavy metal Special Issue—I used a lot of their criteria. They had somebody write about the 10 best heavy metal albums of the ‘60s. Somebody else wrote about the 10 best heavy metal albums of the ‘70s. And somebody else wrote about the 10 best heavy metal albums of the ‘80s so far. The ‘60s one included bands like the Troggs, Jimi Hendrix, and the Yardbirds. The ‘70s one, which was written by Gregg Turner who was also in the Angry Samoans, included Iggy and the Stooges and a couple of singles by Pearl. And the ‘80s one included ZZ Top’s Eliminator, I think, and a Hanoi Rocks album if I remember right. At any rate, a lot of stuff they included would not be considered heavy metal now.

My point is that Creem magazine was calling a lot of this stuff heavy metal a decade before I wrote Stairway to Hell. So, you have to understand that and then you have to understand the way my brain works. If Jimi Hendrix is considered heavy metal, obviously the louder guitar Funkadelic albums have to be considered heavy metal too, because they’re basically the same thing. And if the louder guitar Funkadelic albums are considered metal and stuff like the free jazz band Last Exit with Sonny Sharrock doing distorted guitar is considered metal, then obviously the Jimmy Castor guitar albums and Prince’s Purple Rain should be considered heavy metal too.

Still, some of the ratings seem to have been written to piss people off. For example, you put Teena Marie’s Emerald City at No. 9 on your list.

If [Prince and Funkadelic] are considered heavy metal, then Emerald City must be heavy metal too, because one side of it is all loud guitar songs. Now, was that a leap? Some people consider Jimi Hendrix a leap. Other people would consider Funkadelic a leap or Run-DMC’s Raising Hell a leap or Purple Rain a leap.

[Interviewer tries in vain to interrupt.]

Please let me finish this, Michael. The point is, I wasn’t trying to pull one over on people. I was being all-inclusive. In the introduction I also said an album had to have one side of ear-bleeding guitar music. Now we can quibble over whether the one side of that Teena Marie album qualifies. I think it rocks as hard as anything that came out in the ‘80s. I believed it when I wrote the book and I still believe it. I also think Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” rocks as hard as any song to come out in the ‘80s. It’s just as hard, say, as [Motorhead’s] “Ace of Spades.”

Take the Osmonds’ Crazy Horses, which came out in 1973 or ’74. Crazy Horses has basically three songs with loud guitars, but the title track especially is a kick-ass metal song or hard rock song or whatever you want to call it. To me, it sounds like Aerosmith’s [Rocks]. Now of course, [Rocks] would never be considered metal. But in the late ‘70s there was no question that Aerosmith was a heavy metal band or AC/DC was a heavy metal band. That wasn’t even a question.

That was what heavy metal was. Heavy metal did not start with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Heavy metal started at least with Black Sabbath. But there were also clear precedents for Black Sabbath, whether you’re talking Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf, or further back to the Yardbirds, the Troggs, and Chocolate Watch Band, and from there back to Link Ray, who I also included in the book. Would people call that taking the piss? I obviously thought a lot of it was funny because there’s a lot of humor in that book. For instance, I put [Crazy Horses] at number 66.6. I was going to put it at 66 but I was like, “Oh, man, I have to put a 66.6 in there.” So, yeah, there are inside jokes running through the book and all my books, I think.

I wasn’t trying to piss people off, I was just pushing buttons. I knew I was pushing the definition of the genre to its absolute limit if not its breaking point, because I didn’t want the book to be boring. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that it would make people mad for the subsequent several decades. Does that answer your question?

So you’ve caught a lot of shit about the book over the years.

Of course, I have. So what? What you have to remember is there were tons and tons of records I’d never heard. There were huge gaps in my knowledge and [complaints about that] are completely valid. There are no Raven albums in there. Should there be? I don’t know. I thought the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was imaginary. I honestly thought somebody had made it up.

The only thing that’s not valid is—there was a guy in Chicago who reviewed the book and said I was lying. I wasn’t lying.

Perhaps I should have subtitled [Stairway] The 500 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums That I’ve Actually Heard, but that would have made for a really awkward title. Frank Cogan says the most important words in the title—and that people don’t get is the most important…What do you think the most important words in the title are?

You know, I can’t–

Take a wild guess. Pick one word. Frank says the most important words by far in that title are five hundred. I think there’s this endless stream of music that was interesting to write about or interesting to listen to. That’s the story of my career. That it never stops and I’ve never stopped. You’re on Facebook, you see that I do that Pazz and Jop report twice a month, 10 new albums I’ve listened to and I’m almost 60. I’ve written about thousands of albums over time, and [I’ve listed them] in the appendices of my later books. How many hours of listening went into the making of those books? At the same time, there are very few bands I’m a completist about.

I wanted to ask you about that.

I don’t know if there’s anything I’m a completist about. There are a couple of bands, like Crack the Sky—I have every album because whenever I see a Crack the Sky album or a Babe Ruth album or a good rap album in a dollar bin, I’m going to buy it. I have a lot of Fall albums. Most bands seem to peak really early and then get boring. I published this long list once of bands I thought peaked with their debut album or EP, then every subsequent album was worse than the one before.

The first bands I thought fit that description were The Clash and Patti Smith, Then I started thinking, “Oh, wait, what about The Replacements?” “What about the Psychedelic Furs?” And the list kept getting longer and longer. I’m sure I wouldn’t agree with all of the bands on the list now but there are a lot. Anyway, what was the question again? Oh, by the way, did I warn you that I go on tangents?

I see that. Can you explain what you mean by the title The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll?

I think the idea was that none of this stuff is planned. Take Ike Turner. He’s credited with inventing rock ’n’ roll, but on “Rocket 88” he blew a fuse on his amp distorting the sound of his guitar or something like that. It was an accident. I think one of the things I wrote about was Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Do you know the story?

No.

The original title of my Def Leppard book going to be Pour Some Sugar on Me: Rock and Roll History Through the Eyes of Def Leppard’s Hysteria or something like that. I was originally contracted to do it in like 1988 but by the time I got around to it I’d lost the contract. I think they thought [the book] would just be about Def Leppard. So I had to find a new publisher and by then it was like 1992 and nobody cared about Def Leppard anymore. I had to redo it. I think if you look in the index, Def Leppard get more mentions in the book than Bob Dylan. I think they have the most entries, those two.

Anyway, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was apparently written during a coffee break. Joe Elliot was getting sugar for his coffee and the first record he ever bought was “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies and there’s a line “pour some sugar on me” in it. So there’s another example. The idea of that book was to take the history of rock ‘n’ roll and put the puzzle pieces back together in a different order. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle but there are other ways the puzzle might work. So I came up with all these subjects, like amputation rock, orgasm rock, math rock, and so forth. By the way, my definition of math rock is different than what ended being called math rock. To me, it was songs like “2 + 2 =?” by Bob Seger or “Two Divided by Zero” by the Pet Shop Boys. You can’t divide it by zero obviously, it’s impossible.

Anyway, I had these short chapters, there was one called like “Party Going on in the Background Rock” which is any music where you can hear a party going on in the background. I also wrote [chapters] about train songs that sound like trains, car songs that sound like cars, and airplane songs that sound like airplanes.

It even had a paragraph on washing machine songs that sound like a washing machine and all these other goofy ideas. And to make sure I didn’t miss songs I had these notebooks where I did all these weird schematics and cross-referencing. I went back and listened to every album in my record collection, I think, or the vast majority of them. And I would notice something that would remind me of something else like, I don’t know, the Bo Diddley beat on some disco records or disco bands covering ‘60s garage rock songs or whatever.

The point is the ideas came accidentally to me. I didn’t go looking for specific ideas. It’s in the subtitle, A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music. The word “misguided” is important. It was like I’m going to take you on a tour but we’re going to take a really weird scenic route through all these abandoned buildings and vacant lots that nobody pays attention to. That’s always been what bugs me about books about rock music. Accidental Evolution wasn’t going to be about stuff that’s supposed to be “important.” And I think that runs through all my books.

The subtitle of my fourth book, Terminated for Reasons of Taste—which is the reason The Village Voice fired me–is subtitled Other Ways to Hear Essential and Inessential Music, because music critics are always obsessed with essential music, but I care just as much about stuff that’s not essential.

That’s what’s fun. It’s like the line in “Burnin’ for You” by Blue Oyster Cult, “time to play B-sides.” I love that line so much. Until then I hadn’t heard a song about playing B-sides. Back in the vinyl era, that’s what a lot of the fun was—the B-sides nobody paid attention to. But I also like bands that ended up in… I’ve always been addicted to U.S dollar bins. Due to the pandemic this is one of the longest times I’ve gone without going through a dollar bin, but that’s where you find the good stuff. Plus they’re cheap, and so am I. Does that answer that question?

It does. I have another one for you. I get the idea the word genre gets under your skin.

Does the word genre get under my skin? No. Well, I mean, I think you’re mostly talking about the introduction to Accidental Evolution. The thing is I love genres because they give me a playground to play in. I’ve done the same thing I did with metal and Stairway to Hell with all kinds of different genres at some point. Now I do it when I’m making playlists.

I know people who file their record collection by genre, like that famous scene in Diner where the guy’s wife misfiles his Johnny Mathis record or something like that. I think it’s one of the best record collection scenes in a movie. But I couldn’t file my albums by genre because there are too many of them. I like platypuses, I think I use them as an example in Accidental Evolution. Platypuses are reptiles and birds and mammals all at the same time. I like music that straddles genres. That’s what makes things interesting.

The one thing people have misread about Stairway to Hell is nowhere in that book does it say the 500 most heavy metal albums in the universe. I don’t care if something’s more metal than something else. I have no interest in that. If it’s the most country-country record or the most blues-blues record, it’s going to be a boring as fuck record. It’s the antithesis of what I like about music. Every record I like straddles genres.

Long before Stairway to Hell I spent a whole season writing about heavy metal and black metal for Creem. And that was the first time I wrote about not just Sound Barrier and some other really obscure African American metal bands but also about Jimi Hendrix and Run-DMC’s Raising Hell. I don’t know who else was in there. Funkadelic, obviously, and the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.” I did that at least a half-decade before Stairway to Hell.

I also did one where I talked about the double helix of punk and metal and this was at a time when punk and metal were supposedly completely separate things. I guess it was because they had different haircut which seems completely absurd now, but I wrote this thing explaining how these two genres were constantly criss-crossing each other, all the way back to the very beginning of both of them. That the MC5 and the Stooges were the beginning of both punk and metal. So that was interesting to me long before Stairway to Hell. There’s even an appendix to Stairway to Hell where I predict a disco-metal fusion.

And I love the idea of early ’80s country disco, which is a real thing. So I don’t hate genres; they’re fun to play with. They’re interesting. But they are obnoxious. People use them to put music in tidy little boxes. I doubt the musicians really care because to lots of musicians it’s a job. They play disco on one record and country on another record. Sometimes they use the same drummers.

You seem to have an issue with artistic integrity, honesty—the ideas seem to bug you.

I think you’re talking about stuff I wrote decades ago. This idea that music is supposed to be honest. It used to be something people were really obsessed with. I think it had to do with people’s lives. I respect musicians who didn’t play in South Africa during apartheid, but it didn’t make me more likely to listen to them. But that wasn’t really what it was. It was about the whole sellout thing that started with Dylan going electric at Newport. Bands and musicians have been accused of selling out ever since. Sometimes because they signed with a major label, sometimes because their music got more “commercial.”

I devoted parts of Accidental Evolution to that because I found it an interesting topic that people talked about, but there were a lot of other ways to think about it. Nobody had really charted the history of sellouts, which I tried to do. But integrity. What is integrity otherwise? Honestly, I’m trying to remember. It’s been so long since I’ve thought about it.

I guess there was music that was supposed to be phony. There was fake metal, like Poison or whatever. But I’m hard-pressed to remember what people meant by artistic integrity. You can give me examples because honestly, I’m having a hard time remembering-

Fugazi.

Right. Okay. Fugazi had more integrity than any other musicians in the ‘90s or whatever. Why? Because they never charged more than a certain amount for their shows. They never signed with a major label. They probably never charged more than a certain amount [of money] for their records. I thought it was silly as a critic to care about that stuff. Maybe all of those things make Ian MacKaye a great person, but they don’t make him an interesting or entertaining musician. Maybe as a human being they should, I don’t know.

In a similar vein, you don’t seem to think much of musicians who seem overly concerned with their legacies.

The thing is, I used to write that way a lot. But I can’t read minds. There are certainly musicians—Springsteen is an obvious one—whose music is being made to be talked about 100 years from now. I like the idea of somebody like John Wayne, who was just putting in his nine-to-five, or Bryan Adams or somebody like that. To tell you the truth, I barely think of musicians as people.

As what then?

I think music critics care way too much about what’s happening in musicians’ lives. It’s just not that interesting to me. It’s boring, musicians’ lives are just boring.

I mean, I’m not saying it’s not interesting to know that Eddy Grant was born in British Guiana or whatever. That might affect his music. And if I was writing about Redd Kross and I found something interesting they said in an interview—like they started recording when they were pre-teens, 13 or whatever—that’s valid.

But at some point, and I blame hip hop and the internet for a lot of this, musicians started making records assuming you knew about their lives. I’m not saying that was never done. Lynyrd Skynyrd had a song about their record label. They also had one about how Ronnie Van Zandt didn’t want to be interviewed by critics. Mott the Hoople had some great songs like that. Hank Williams Jr. and David Allan Coe had a couple of songs that were obviously about their lives. But those were exceptions.

I’m listening to more rap than I was a few years ago, but I don’t listen to rap in those terms. I don’t pay attention to their lives that much. But at some point people started following Taylor Swift on Twitter or whatever. I actually really like Taylor Swift, but I don’t care which song was about which boyfriend.

You have written reviews about country albums that focus on the artists’ lives. There’s the one about the taxi driver.

Okay, right. The guy who wrote the song about driving the cab who was an actual taxi driver.

Yeah. There’s that sort of thing.

That’s a tidbit. Yeah, I’m going to include it in there. John Conlee used to work in a mortuary and his music sounds like it. He’s writing country songs about people going crazy and stuff. If I come across a tidbit that is illuminating or maybe a coincidence, I’ll include it. When I interviewed Lemmy Kilmister, who collected Nazi memorabilia, I asked him about it. But I think that’s different than what a lot of critics do now, which is follow the musicians on Twitter just to know what they’re tweeting about every day. That’s bizarre to me. There is no musician I care enough about to follow them on Twitter.

So you add this stuff for its entertainment value.

Sure, if I think it’s going to make the writing more interesting. If I think talking about baseball is going to make it more interesting, If I think talking about politics is going to make it more interesting, I’ll talk about that. I don’t want a rule that says you’re not allowed to talk about politics in music writing. If I’ve been reading a book and Redd Kross reminds me of that book, yeah, I’m going to make that connection. But do I feel obligated to? Do I think that’s the way you should listen to music? No. I think it’s stupid.

Okay, quick question here on—let’s talk about Lester Bang for a moment. He’s a very emotional writer. And when I read your… I’m not going to call it cold, but I get the idea that not much pulls your heartstrings.

No, it does but not on that level. [Writing about] transformative spiritual experiences? That’s great. That happens to people but that’s never been—I wrote a review about John Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee. About him driving through the cornfields or wheat fields of Indiana, and I think that’s the closest I’ve ever come to that. But I’m not even sure if I was joking. Honest to God, I don’t remember whether I was joking. I mean, music moves me all the time. A Taylor Swift song about her dad, because I’m a dad, will move me to tears.

I don’t think my writing is emotionally detached. It’s weird that you would call it cold because cold to me would be like clinical and detached. At the same time, I’m like, I don’t know, a scientist dissecting the music with a magnifying glass and looking at all the little component parts, instead of just letting it damage my heart. That’s not my interest when I write. I’m not interested in expressing my feelings about music. But believe me, if I hear the Chi-Lites or the Stylistics or DeBarge, they move me.

Besides, I think if I tried to do that it would come out phony. And I would guess I’m not capable of it. When I’ve tried, the result has usually been bad writing. I was maybe trying and you’ll never see those writings. I’m a pretty emotional person. For one thing, I’m an extremely neurotic person but I’m also a really, really anxious person—quite possibly a manic depressive. I’ve been taking anxiety medication for the last few years. I’ve been in therapy for most of my life. I had an extremely traumatic childhood. You understand that, right?

You’ve written about it.

But I definitely have emotions. They just haven’t come into my writing. I probably wish they would.

I hear echoes. You wrote a piece on Def Leppard and you really did seem to be emotional at the end.

That’s one I didn’t put in Rock and Roll Always Forgets. And somebody said to me, “That’s one of your best pieces.” And I was totally incredulous. I didn’t believe them. I was like, “Really? I didn’t think it was good.” I went back and read it with that in mind, and I kind of got it. I must have been emotionally involved. But on the other hand, I was saying really good things about a really shitty album and I think that must have embarrassed me a few years down the road. But when somebody told me that I went back and read it. That’s why it ended up in Terminated for Reasons of Taste.

Another one where I did that to a certain extent was about Eminem being a dad. That long Village Voice cover story, The Daddy Shady Show, where I interviewed Eminem’s grandma and stuff like that.

And there’s the short piece on the female country singer who committed suicide.

Mindy McCready. That one, and the one about Kurt Cobain committing suicide.

That one was a bit mean spirited.

Yeah, but that was an emotion. Part of it was he had a kid. I was like, what an asshole. But yeah, I’m probably kind of guarded. I don’t really feel comfortable showing my emotions in public. I see people getting emotional on Facebook. I’ve done that once or twice when I was drunk, and I wound up deleting the posts really quick. In some ways I’m still a repressed Catholic boy.

I’m not going to psychoanalyze you, but does it stem from your own experiences as a child?

Here’s a thumbnail of what happened. My mom got uterine cancer when I nine. My dad remarried and hung himself when I was 14. My mom remarried. I spent two years somewhere in there in a Catholic orphanage run by nuns. My stepmom remarried. My stepdad walked out on Christmas day when I was 15, amidst China flying across the kitchen.

And the way I dealt with it, and I know this from going to therapy for a lot of years, was by compartmentalizing it. When I finished a chapter of my life I would shut the door on it and not look back. And in a way I regret that because I wish I could write about, for instance, my army experience. I was in the army for four years and I’m a writer. I don’t remember most of it. And I was in my early 20s. There are whole years of my childhood that are just gone. I’ve remembered pretty traumatic things [that occurred] with my dad after 25 years. I asked my stepmom, “Did this really happen?” and she was like, “Yes.” I don’t want to go into detail about that but it’s pretty wacky stuff.

At the conclusion of Terminated for Reasons of Taste you bring that up.

Yeah, I think I did. I definitely liked that conclusion better than the whiney couple of paragraphs at the end of Rock and Roll Always Forgets, where I got mad at people who think I’m a—what’s the word—contrarian. But I say some stuff about my memory in the conclusion of Terminated, “I am the World’s Forgettin’ Boy.”

Any thoughts on politics?

This is a weird time not to write, I have to say. All of this stuff that’s happened. I mean, if you look at Terminated for Reasons of Taste, Donald Trump is not mentioned in the index, but neo-fascism is.

Like, is there any difference? In [Terminated] I talk about reading a book called Right-Wing Populism in America, and there are things in there that almost presage what’s happening now. And in the book What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? there are two guys who wound up being in what we would now call the alt-right. But my writing ends before Trump was elected. [Terminated] came out two months before his election, and I’d finished it a year before that. It’s weird that all those themes were starting to come into my writing, and yet I haven’t really written about any of them since.

Had this stuff that happened, like, in 1988, when I was writing constantly. I would have been able to work it into my writing. But I was so stupid politically then. I called myself a libertarian.

Would you still call yourself a libertarian?

No, hell no. Decades ago. I mean, in 1984, I did write a short thing for the Voice, which wasn’t very good, about why I wasn’t voting for Reagan when I was in the army. There was a lot of knee-jerk conservatism in my writing about BDP [Black Dog Productions] but also in my review of the Ramones’ Too Tough to Die. In [Terminated] I also talk about how I wrote about a lot of music by people who I disagreed with politically. Obviously, I wasn’t agreeing with Ted Nugent by the end of the ‘80s.

If Black Lives Matter had been happening then, would I have gotten snide about it? I was on a panel. This is embarrassing. For the new music seminar in, I guess, in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. And I said something like, “Those are only words. Words don’t hurt people.” Which has got to rank with the two or three most asinine things I’ve ever said in my life. I was young and stupid. But back then, somehow, there was something refreshing about it or something. This was pre-Howard Stern.

I don’t think it completely permeates my writing, but it’s there. Before I wrote any music criticism, I wrote an editorial in my public high school newspaper—and this was a high school that was majority Jewish, possibly 75% or 80% Jewish–about why the Nazis had a right to march in Skokie, Illinois.

And I still think they have that right. I think colleges have the right to hire conservative speakers, and progressives have the right to shout them down in much higher volume.

I mean, somebody was just saying a couple of days ago that the only thing more boring than being politically correct is complaining about political correctness. And it’s probably true—the only thing lamer than being a social justice warrior is complaining about social justice warriors. What’s wrong with being a social justice warrior? That’s a good thing. But had there been an alt-right in the early ’80s, when I was 20, would I have been one of them?

I doubt it.

Maybe I would have thought [political correctness] was lame. I don’t know. It almost didn’t exist then, as far as I could tell. And I thought it was entertaining to rebel against what I thought was… where I went to school, they were all liberals. This was the post-hippie ‘70s. We had gay teachers in my high school. We had hippie teachers in my high school. So I read Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative when I was in 11th grade, or whenever. Maybe I was being a contrarian. Maybe if I was that age now, I wouldn’t be a contrarian. Anyway, that’s a spiel I never got to go on before. Congratulations, you’re the first person to do that one.

I’m honored. In a similar vein, you write about some flag-wavers most liberals consider right-wing assholes.

Oh, yeah, Montgomery Gentry. I basically pin that video [2004’s “You Do Your Thing”] as fascist and compare it to Laibach. But I was talking a lot about my own reaction, which is complicated. Toby Keith was an opportunist in the same way Merle Haggard was in the early ‘70s. I no more believe Toby Keith necessarily believed that stance than Merle Haggard believed “Okie from Muskogee.” [By the way,] I can’t think of a male in any genre who was a better singer in that decade. And Montgomery Gentry played hard fucking rock in the same way “Mister Man” by Teena Marie was hard fucking rock in 1987.

They’re jerks. But they play hard music. And it’s like, “Damn,” They’re cranks but they didn’t invent it. Take Hank [William] Jr’.s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” It’s always been there but [Montgomery Gentry] perfected it and it rocked harder than any supposed indie garage rock in that decade.

There’ an undertone in the pieces about artists like that—you seem to be telling lefties to get over it. That you refuse to look at artists in terms of their political ideas.

I don’t know. I think I say that in my Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry pieces. I’m clearly conflicted, and I think that’s part of what makes things interesting. I think part of what pulled my strings about Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith was I couldn’t abide their politics. Somebody said I should write a book about politics and music, but I don’t know if I can take that path.

I think people who like alt-country and Americana—for them there’s an integrity issue. The whole alt-country Americana thing has produced a lot of good music and still does. But their idea of pure country is [albums with] the production value of a demo tape. If you use Nashville production, if you have drummers you can actually hear and propel the music, it’s “fake country.” It’s fake if it incorporates hip hop like Big and Rich, as if country had never incorporated current black music. Country music has fucking done that back to the 1920s with Jimmy Rogers.

I mean, what do you think Bob Wills was doing in the ‘40s? He was incorporating the black dance music of the time. I don’t care what real country is, but it’s incredibly stupid today to be making these claims for [alt-country] music that is generally pretty dull. I was probably more critical of [alt-country] than I should have been. I probably did the same thing at times with indie rock and [so-called] real metal. I was probably wrong in a lot of those instances. I probably underrated all of them to a certain extent at the time, but I think I was on the right track. I think I was making points I didn’t see other people making.

But there’s that thread. It’s not hard to draw a thread from Appetite for Destruction to Montgomery Gentry. By that decade, not only had a lot of heavy metal people moved to Nashville, country bands were covering Guns N’ Roses. Taylor Swift was collaborating with Def Leppard. Montgomery Gentry covered “Wanted Dead or Alive” and they all covered AC/DC. Heavy metal survived, but it survived in Nashville. Bret Michaels hit the country charts. Would you have thought that possible? Cinderella kind of went in a country direction. And a country music Mötley Crüe tribute album come out a few years ago.

That sounds great.

No, it was terrible.

In your introduction to Terminated for Reasons of Taste you say, and I quote, “Music history is always repeating itself, evolving again and again in strange, intriguing, disturbing, revealing, often hilarious ways.” You want to riff on that?

That’s total bullshit. I remember thinking that paragraph was a bunch of clichés but the publisher really liked it. I think a lot of it is a repeat of what I meant by accidental evolution. That there are all these wormholes or passageways that people haven’t gone down.

Yeah.

I’m making connections. I’m not the first person to do that. There’s Greil Marcus, who will say some record in a completely different genre reminds him of a doo-wop record from 60 years ago. Or a dada sound poem from Zurich in the early 20th Century or whatever. And, in his book Lipstick Traces he connects John Lydon to some pagan king called Sir John of Leiden or something.

So it’s not unheard of to do that. Richard Meltzer is probably an influence in some ways. Those guys are all influences—Christgau, Bangs, Meltzer, Dave Marsh. All white males, I know. I have influences that have nothing to do with music criticism too, but all I’m saying is music evolves by accident and it’s fun to find those passageways.

It’s that word “disturbing” in your quote that interests me.

Well, it may be the Axl Rose/Montgomery Gentry connection that’s disturbing. I think I say, it may be in my Appetite for Destruction entry in Stairway to Hell, that [Guns N’ Roses] aren’t the kinds of people I would invite over for dinner. I’d probably invite Suzanne Vega because she’d eat less.

What are you listening to nowadays?

Okay. I listen to old music through the week. Remember I told you I was going through my whole collection, the vinyl and then CDs? While I’m doing that I’m creating playlists, mostly for Rhapsody, using a spreadsheet I do every Wednesday. I program what they call their new release pages for six different genres for the releases coming out that Friday.

I think I keep like 100 new releases on each spreadsheet. Every week I go for hip hop, pop, R&B, country, metal, and the like. I do that new release spreadsheet. I get to see what’s coming out that week, and also on Facebook. Other people may say, “You should really hear this record.” There’s like one guy who– I’m not even sure I’m Facebook friends with him–who posts on Eric Weissberg’s wall and is always recommending these underground backpacker hip hop records. That’s not my area of expertise, but a lot of them sound interesting to me.

Anyway, I dump all the stuff I think is interesting into a personal playlist and starting Friday, maybe Friday afternoon, I put it in random play to see what hits me—metal, country, hip-hop, African stuff, whatever. When I do the Pazz and Jop report twice a month, that’s all from that listening. And that’s what I listen to on the weekends.

How many albums or songs would you say you listen to per year?

I would say I hear hundreds of albums and EPs every year. I don’t know about songs because I’ve never done the mp3 thing. I’ve never downloaded a song. The only songs I’ve ever downloaded are when I was reviewing records and albums and that was the only way I could hear them in advance.

That’s a whole lot of music.

It’s not hard. I play it in the background. I work at home, and I pretty much have music on when I’m working, reading, doing Tai Chi, maybe cooking in the kitchen or when we’re having coffee and reading the paper in the morning. I don’t have it on when I watch TV but I don’t watch TV very much. I know it sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t feel like a lot. Depending on the product reports, I listen to 10 albums or EPs twice a month.

So that’s 360 [per year] and that’s still a fraction of what I actually hear. But I will say this, I don’t tend to play any of them a lot. I doubt I’ve played an album or a new album more than 10 times in a year, in recent history. Even the ones I liked the most.

Some people will say, if you’re listening to that many albums you’re not really listening. And I don’t know, maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m listening to zero. But I usually know how much I like something after listening to it a couple of times.

You don’t seem like the kind of guy who could put together an All-Time Favorite Bands List. But if somebody put a gun to your head, who would be on your list? Or would you rather take a bullet?

In alphabetical but not preferential order, undoubtedly leaving out a few by accident or including a few some sticklers might not consider “bands” per say: AC/DC (‘70s only), Aerosmith (‘70s only), Amon Duul, Art Bears, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Babe Ruth, Bloodstar, Boney M, Brownsville Station, Jimmy Castor Bunch, Crack the Sky, Miles Davis (mainly early ‘70s), Dion and the Belmonts, Bob Dylan (mainly early/mid ‘60s), Einsturzende Neubauten, the Fall, Good Rats, Holy Modal Rounders, Kaleidoscope, Kix, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Teena Marie, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, John Cougar Mellencamp (through 1987 only), Memphis Jug Band, Mott the Hoople, MX-80 Sound, Pere Ubu (mainly ‘70s), Pet Shop Boys (‘80s), Louis Prima, Schoolly D, Bob Seger (‘60s/‘70s), Shangri-Las, Slade, Donna Summer (‘70s), the Sweet, Uz Jsme Doma, and Voivod.

Care to say a few words on the infamous Beastie Boys incident?

Basically Creem magazine flew me to Los Angeles in early 1987, just when Licensed to Ill was beginning to take off, to interview the Beastie Boys. I’m pretty sure it was their first national magazine interview, and they were all still teenagers or thereabouts. After an entertaining discussion during which they acted like Bob Dylan being interviewed by Time magazine in Don’t Look Back and my acting the exact same way, they made their snotty appearance on The Joan Rivers’ Show. I had retired to my hotel room so I could catch an early flight back to Detroit in the morning.

A couple hours past midnight, apparently having obtained the key from the hotel desk by saying I was part of their entourage, they broke into my room, dumped water on me, and videotaped the incident for posterity. I jotted down the time since I now had the lead for my cover story, propped chairs in front of my door so they couldn’t break in again and went back to sleep on the dry side of the bed. Some months later, they released a VHS collection of a few of their music videos, with the water dump (now also long available on YouTube under the title “Beastie Boys Prank Home Movie”) between a couple of their songs. Later they converted to Tibetan Buddhism or something and released several albums not as good as their first one.

Thanks so much for speaking with me. It was highly entertaining.

My pleasure.

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