I started doing album reviews for Cavalier magazine back in the summer of ’66, my first being a review of Velvet Underground and Nico’s Banana Album, written in the form of a brief adventure story about a man whose plane crashes in the woods, who fights off a boar with an Italian penny loafer. The buxom blonde he hoists into the sunset is supposed to be emblematic of Nico’s contributions, though how exactly I can’t remember. You know what they say about the sixties, eh? Heh, heh…heh…
Ah, but what a strange and delightful journey it’s been! I lived across the hall from Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe during the Chelsea years and personally brought Rob into Warhol’s inner circle (thanks for the omission, Patti!). Richard Hell stuck a knife in my back outside CBGB, and it took me four years to realize the damn thing was even there (Rimbaud would’ve finished the job, you fucking pantywaist!). For the better part of a year, my only articles of clothing were an Anvil tee-shirt (Metal on Metal Tour ’82, bitches!) and a pair of slacks fashioned out of a burlap sack. Remember that scene from Almost Famous where everybody sits around jamming to “Achilles Last Stand”—the one those fatcats at Dreamworks left on the cutting room floor? I was the second unit rock out consultant for that scene! Check the credits. I’m there, damnit!
I’d say the high point of my career was meeting Orson Welles in a Soho coffee shop the year of his death. He talked extensively about the inspiration behind his famous “cuckoo clock” diatribe from The Third Man, and mentioned that Citizen Kane would be returning as a space-faring children’s cartoon later that year—imagine a more cerebral version of Gilligan’s Planet. Sadly, the project never came to fruition. I also slept with Grace Slick on a tire fire outside New Canton, but that might not’ve actually happened. Things kind of went downhill from there—meeting Orson Welles, not possibly sleeping with Grace Slick; honestly, it might have been Cher or a man in a Cher wig. I haven’t been paid for a review since the eighties (Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, for the last issue of Man’s Conquest). My last published review was featured on a promising digital publication known as Pitchfork Media (Current 93′s Soft Black Stars), though it has since been removed. I e-mailed Ryan Schreiber about it the other week, and the bitch-bastard said it was no longer “up to their standards.” Motherfucker, I did peyote with Gary Snyder and Lester Bangs back in ’82. How many preeminent writers have you done peyote with? That’s what I thought, fancy pants!
Still, I’ve kept at it, and the good people at Poplar have invited me into their little corner of the internet to discuss music criticism. First and foremost: music criticism is a young man’s game; Christgau only gets away with it because he’s still a twenty year-old douchebag at heart (that’s the great thing about New York’s intellectual community—it never ages). You won’t make any money, unless you join one of the big boy sites and conform to their standards, and the days of getting a banquet meal out of this trade are long over. You’ll never be as venerated as ‘Gau and Bangs, or as wealthy as Wenner and Schreiber, not without years of dumb luck, hustling and consistency. You’ll never pal around with Thom Yorke, Bob Dylan, PJ Harvey, Henry Rollins, Kate Bush or whatever musical deity you revere; they won’t even know you exist, unless you write something that pisses them off. I guess you could become one of those pompous academic critics who publish long-winded tomes about Sun Ra, Jandek and the fifty best calypso albums of the 1970s. Nobody actually reads that shit, but it might give you a vague sense of accomplishment. You’ll never be the next Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken or William Faulkner; hell, you won’t even be the next Roger Ebert. And if I may be forthright: good music journalism is a thankless fucking endeavor. If you’re doing it right, the only people who’ll notice are the handful of writers that excel at it too, and seriously, who gives a shit what they think? Nothing but failed novelists, playwrights, poets and musicians, who refuse to shut up and like XL’s flavor of the week.
I once envisioned Lou Reed, or maybe John Cale, opening that month’s issue of Cavalier, flipping past the articles about “Building Your Own Motorized Tie Rack in Six Easy Steps,” and “How to Keep Your Dame from Stepping Around,” and short stories titled “Attack on Fire Ant Mountain” and “The Cannibal Tribesmen of Piranha Lake,” and coming upon my latest review of their work. I imagined them thumbing through each line, pausing for moments of deep contemplation, taking in every letter like some beautiful shiksa’s kiss, and announcing to everyone and no one, “Man, this cat fucking gets it!” I met Lou once when I still lived in New York; he was riding a motorcycle and swinging a chain and I’m almost positive that his head was on fire. Bastard tried to run me down. And then I find out an hour later that Elvis is dead; that Colonel Tom Parker personally dispatched him to deliver the message (exact same shit happened the day the Fat Boys broke up). I learned a very important lesson that day, one I’d like to pass along to you: not only are musicians harbingers of doom, they’re also fucking assholes.
And while we’re on the subject: all music critics are fucking assholes. Perhaps you’ve noticed it yourself and swore you’ll never turn into a boring prick like Stephen Thomas Erlewine or a know-it-all douchebag like Bob Lefsetz. Sorry, kiddo, but there’s no way around it. By the time you hit sixty, you’ll be a bearded asshole living in an attic somewhere in Portland, Athens or Hoboken (yes, even if you’re a woman), with nothing to your name but an oversized Vanilla Fudge tee-shirt and a garbage bag filled with vinyl. Like Mrs. Havisham, without the quiet dignity. Here’s why: listening to music is a religious experience, the closest any of us will get to heaven’s gate or hell’s blast door. Even a miserable bastard like Kurt Vonnegut realized it. How do you put something that abstract into words? It’s an issue we all face at some point. You can’t overthink it either; if every music writer in existence took just a second to think about the overwhelming futility of what we’re doing, we’d all be fetal in the streets of London, like the people in that Radiohead video.
The best music writers have enough sense to jump ship before they reach my age. They become successful novelists, architects, filmmakers, painters—hell, maybe they start their own bands (if you really want to pay homage to your musical idols, starting a band is the most romantic way to do it). Or maybe they grow up, realize there’s no salvation in art, start a family, find a real job, dedicate themselves to a cause etc. etc. I used to wonder why someone as gifted as Rimbaud would throw it all away. I don’t anymore. I’d like to say that I’m doing this for some higher cause—to reclaim music journalism from the dullard indie masses or what have you—but the truth is that I don’t know how to do anything else. I think most of the older rock critics feel the same, whether they want to admit it or not. Everett True might claim that he’s doing this to preserve the sanctity of music criticism; personally, I think that if he stopped making fun of Coldplay and bitching about sexism, his life would come apart. It almost gives me sympathy for The Rolling Stones.
I ever tell you about the time I asked Chrissie Hynde out on a date? She smashed an acoustic guitar over my head and tried to shove the splinters into my fucking eye! And then I find out twenty minutes later that Elvis is dead; that Colonel Tom Parker personally dispatched Lou Reed to deliver the message. Did I forget to mention that Lou Reed was chasing me on a hellfire scooter while I asked Chrissie Hynde out on a date? Needless to say, it was the second worst birthday of my life. Speaking of birthdays, Chuck D. visited me the day Blue Ivy Carter was born. He was wearing a blue suit with striped ribs and a star patched into his chest, and carrying a matching shield. He said that she’d kill me in gladiatorial combat in the year 2182, after the Reapers invaded Earth and turned everyone into biological machines. I have done all that I can to be prepared.
I’d like to close with a story. I was hitchhiking through New Mexico with this kid named Doug—or maybe it was Adam? Nope, I’m pretty sure it was Doug. Anyway, Adam was interning for Creem that summer, another fresh-faced young lad trying to break into the exciting world of music criticism, and Les thought I’d make a decent mentor figure. Ah, shit. Les might’ve been a genius, but he had no fucking sense sometimes. Guess that one goes without saying. So me and this kid are high as fuck and walking around the fucking Will Rogers, and he’s talking about some shit—it all sounds like water running under a distant bridge—and wearing a Foreigner tee-shirt he got from the press kit of their then latest album, Head Games, showing a young woman squatting over a urinal.
A little context: Foreigner are a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nevertheless. I’ve always been a sucker for “Roll with the Changes,” “Sister Christian” and “Carry On Wayward Son.” And I can honestly say, with no hint of sarcasm whatsoever, that the album cover of Head Games poses more existential quandaries than the entirety of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Is she trying to piss in the urinal? Is she really a man? Did some chainsaw-wielding maniac corner her in the men’s room? Who wears socks with heels? Seriously, what the fuck? I wanted that damned shirt. Doug got to the press kit before me, which he had no fucking right to do, and claimed it for himself. I offered him twenty dollars and a half-bag of pot for the shirt, but the little bastard wouldn’t take it.
Anyway, we’re walking on the Will Rogers, haven’t seen a vehicle for at least an hour, and there are orange crystals forming along the horizon. And as we’re passing an abandoned pump station, I see this thing on the side of the road. It looks like a car battery, but I’m not sure what the fuck it’s supposed to be. Adam is still gabbing about whatever he’s been gabbing about for the past seven hours, completely oblivious to the road, the pump station and the car battery—so I pick it up and crush his skull in with it. He doesn’t go down easy. By the time I get done, he’s all putty and cartilage, and the Foreigner shirt is ruined. I still peel it from his corpse after leaving him in some rustheap behind the pump station. I caught a ride with GG Allin in Las Cruces, told him the whole story. We had a good laugh about it.
Astoundingly enough, Doug survived. They glued his face back together and sent us to cover an ABBA gig in Copenhagen. He hasn’t really left me alone since then. He’s sitting on my windowsill right now, with his bandaged face and bloody Foreigner shirt, watching me type out this article.
He says, “Hi.”
Let that be a lesson to you: if you’re not ready to smash a man’s face in with a car battery, then you shouldn’t be doing music reviews.
Hank Gerbik has been reviewing music for over forty years. His writing has been featured in Rolling Stone, Creem, Playboy, The Village Voice, Melody Maker, NME, The National Police Gazette and other celebrated publications. He is currently working on an untitled memoir and putting the finishing touches on his first novel, Bumming Dharma from the Stag. On behalf of the Popblerd staff, I’d like to thank him for sharing his insights with us. — Greg