Tag Archives: rock journalism

A change has gotta come

4 Jul

It’s been hard to post lately. My get up and go … got up and went.

I kind of ran out of gas when confronted by mounting evidence that rock and roll is becoming a dead language. Sure, I can listen to Greta Van Fleet and marvel at how much those kids from Frankenmuth, Michigan sound just like Led Zeppelin, but that isn’t moving the genre forward. My idols were back in the news for the wrong reasons. Prince and Tom Petty had more in common than that glorious version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: both were felled by fentanyl taken to ease the pain of their screwed-up hips after decades on the road. Plus, my iPod – the power source for my astoundingly superior musical taste – is spinning its last. Its obsolescence is a gloomy metaphor for the state of the art form.

Jonathan Van Ness kitty pic

The real Kleenex moment this episode: Jonathan petting baby kitties! SQUEE!

I’ve tried to assuage my ennui by binge-watching Queer Eye and slowly paging through The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones, by Rich Cohen … both well worth the time, both modern takes on nostalgic favorites.

Fact is, I’ve had to turn my attentions elsewhere. In case you haven’t noticed, America’s public institutions are being threatened, vandalized and outright incinerated right now. It’s so dire, I have been driven to do something I never thought I’d do: become politically active.

While I have long had a strong interest in current events, and I turn out to vote in every election (you’re welcome), I have never put my money where my mouth is until this year. It’s not simply that I am a Democrat in a Republican era. This administration’s brute ignorance, blithe corruption and sinister disregard for the humanity of others leaves me no choice but call, and write, and argue, and donate and march, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!”

My first political rally was the Women’s March in Lansing last January. Clever, biting protest signs are the price of admission to these events, and I didn’tWomen's March 2018 want to disappoint. I wanted it to convey who I am and what I stand for. I wanted to promote positivity rather than spew insults. I wanted it to be so awesome that perfect strangers would take photos of my sign to share with their broad-based social media platforms.

As you can see from the far more awesome signs created by my daughters, for any of that to happen, my pop culture references need to crawl into the 21st century. (There was a moment when I got a tap on the shoulder from a gal with her phone ready to take a photo. As I was prepping for my closeup, she said tersely, “Could you move your sign out of the way? I want to take a picture of the Beyoncé poster.”)

Concerned Citizen 3

I. Mean. Business.

Since then, I’ve attended candidate forums and signed petitions. I’ve written postcards encouraging people to register and vote in the primaries. I was even featured asking a question at a televised town hall focused on reducing gun violence in schools. I’ve coached my younger daughter as she led the walkout at her school after Parkland, and I’ve ensured my older one registered in her new Brooklyn precinct.

Families Belong Together MarchAnd yet, it often feels like it doesn’t add up to much. Each day brings more to be angry about; each news item piles on disgust and despair. I never had to worry about the safety of my nearly 30-year relationship with my female partner before now. I never imagined tearing children away from their asylum-seeking families and incarcerating them would be considered okay by anyone, much less Americans. I am astonished by how fear and greed have overwhelmed common sense and compassion. And I feel helpless.

I hate feeling helpless.

So I continue to call, and write, and argue, and donate and march, believing that by showing up again and again, I and millions of others will break through the bullshit and make the world a better place – for I do not intend to let democracy die on my watch.

See you on the flip side … and at the polls!

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Guaranteed to sell with dead faces on the front: Rolling Stone celebrates 50 years

6 Nov

Rolling Stone magazine is turning 50 this year, and CBS Sunday Morning kicked off its show this week with an interview with Jann Wenner, who began the counterculture mainstay when he was just 21. Over the years it’s gone from newsprint to glossy, oversized magazine to what is now a slim, stapled publication that is more an advertisement for its online material as anything substantive. In the CBS interview, Wenner talked about why he has put the publication up for sale last September, explaining it needs to “live on its own.” That’s code for, “It’s breathing its last, and I don’t want to be here to watch my baby die.”

At least, that’s how I hear it.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame RS installation

The news itself is now the story: Rolling Stone’s 50 Years anniversary retrospective at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I’ve been a subscriber since sophomore year of college. (I still remember the string of scolding dunning notices I got from the publisher in 1982 saying, “Bruce Springsteen pays his bills; so should you.” I replied in my final, successful letter, “Here’s another copy of my canceled check from three months ago. Signed, Bruce S.”) I did my thesis on Hunter S. Thompson (and named one of my kids in his honor). I became enough of a fan of Annie Leibovitz, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore and many other journalists to buy their books and tune into their podcasts. For decades, the magazine has been tactile proof of the permanence and importance of what I hold dear: rock music, self-satisfied leftie politics, innovative celebrity photography and Dave Grohl gushing about his mom.

RS’s sale is yet another sobering sign that all of that may be coming to an end. Chuck Klosterman just published X, a terrific collection of essays on his two abiding loves: sports and earsplitting, ridiculous heavy metal. (Gotta hand it to a guy who invests 10,000 words into justifying his devotion to KISS yet retains his self-respect.) In the final piece,”Something Else,” he observed something both obvious and shocking enough to stop my breath: “Dying used to be an occupational risk to living like a rock star, but it’s now the primary thing rock stars do.” By extension, that’s now the publication’s reason for being:

 I have a friend who works at Rolling Stone magazine, and we sometimes play a party game where we speculate on whose death would (or would not) warrant the magazine’s cover…. It’s almost become a business decision: The only issues of Rolling Stone guaranteed to sell exceptionally well are the ones with dead faces on the front.

TP Rolling Stone coverSadly, Tom Petty was on the cover of the most recent issue for that very reason.

Perhaps it’s best that the publication passes the baton. Their reputation for investigative reporting took a near-lethal hit and lawsuits continue from the magazine’s debunked story about campus rapes at UVA, and they are not alone in railing against Trump and his cockamamie cronies. While they may feature Kendrick Lamar on the cover (between obituaries), it’s less because young rap enthusiasts read RS and more because older RS readers want to say they know something about rap. And it’s all about the video clips on the website now, accompanied by photos scaled to be viewed on iPhones. Times have changed.

Sob!

***

Thankfully, before I posted this and crawled off to drown my sorrows in a reasonably priced pinot noir, my younger daughter intervened. She assured me that rock music will continue to thrive as long as people like me continue to care. So, everyone out there, c’mon: clap your hands and say with me,

I do believe in rock and roll!
I do believe in rock and roll!
I do believe in rock and roll!
(fade out)

See you on the flip side …

New to the Rock and Roll Bookshelf: Memoirs by Graham Nash and Lisa Robinson

29 Sep

For someone who purports to being a novelist, I read very little fiction. I should probably do something about that.

Instead, I read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about people in show business, many of whom are in the music industry (natch). For instance:

Lisa Robinson's backstage passes, or, another reason to wish you were her/ VanityFair.com

Lisa Robinson’s collection of all-access backstage passes, or, another reason I wish I was her/ VanityFair.com

There Goes Gravity: a life in Rock and Roll by Lisa Robinson 

Let’s get one thing straight: Lisa Robinson knows more rock stars than you ever will in your entire life. It’s up to you to get over your seething jealousy and enjoy the fruit of her labors as a journalist by reading this entertaining, intimate memoir about making a living by writing about the biggest names in rock and roll history.

Robinson is still one of the few women in her line of work. She got her start as the editor of several rock magazines then became a columnist for the New York Post and now is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. She was also on the nominating committee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 18 years.

Robinson championed Led Zeppelin at a time when they were being savaged by Rolling Stone and others, and that – and her deep knowledge of jazz and blues – earned her a seat on their private jet the Starship during their tours in the mid-1970s. Holding her own with those “lads” led to her covering the 1975 Rolling Stones tour along with Annie Leibovitz (riding the Starship again, as it turned out). Since then she’s covered everyone from John Lennon and Bono to Eminem and Lady Gaga.

She credits her knack for gaining her subjects’ trust to being a journalist rather than a critic, and she was able to offer a uniquely up-close perspective on the artists and their lifestyle by not getting swept up in the debauchery:

Often, I was the only woman in the room and certainly the only one who wasn’t sleeping with any of [the musicians]. I wanted to keep everything professional, to get the stories. For me, the lure was always the music. But if you’re not having sex with someone on a tour, or participating in the drugs, you really are on a different tour than everyone else.

Yes, she drops a lot of names but she’s earned that right. The photos from throughout her career – pointing a cassette recorder at an 11-year old Michael Jackson; sitting on David Johansen’s lap to chat to Freddie Mercury; reading a newspaper with Joe Strummer – are proof.

I liked this book so much I bought it after I returned it to the library. Check it out yourselves!

Graham Nash's Wild TalesWild Tales by Graham Nash

Graham Nash rightfully earned his place in rock history as a founder of  2 1/2 seminal bands: The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally & Young). He was one of the organizers of the No Nukes concerts in 1979 that brought rock music together with environmental  fundraising. He has also enjoyed success as a solo musician, a photographer, book publisher and visual artist. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars he blew on cocaine, he has survived and saved enough to enter his 70s living in Hawaii … with the time and means to fly into New York to participate in Occupy Wall Street.

Wild Tales chronicles Nash’s rise from the council projects of Salford to becoming a British Invasion sensation with the Hollies. Then the action moves over to nearly five decades of his ins and outs with various combinations of Stephen Stills (whom Nash depicts as a relentless egotist), David Crosby (best friend and cringe-inducing drug addict) and Neil Young (infuriating musical genius). Along the way, many women were loved (including Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge) and many drugs were done and, as Nash tells it, he was usually the one  stuck waiting for his friends to show up or sober up to perform. When contemplating reuniting with the Hollies in the early 1980s, he took the gig because

God almighty, was it easier to sing with the Hollies than with CSN! It was certainly more fun, less plagued with personal bullshit. No freebase, no egos, no Neil Young.

Humility is not his strong suit. Neither is literary finesse. That’s what makes this a rather tiring read.  At best Nash’s book, like his lyrics, demonstrate his straightforward charm, but often he gets preachy and pedestrian. Also, his overuse of nicknames (“Clarkie,” “Croz”) and his hippie grandpa phraseology – for instance, he refers to “smokin’ it” (it being marijuana) constantly – does him no favors. Still, he does have an insider’s view of the California music scene and all its unwashed glory, and his celestial harmonies should be celebrated and enjoyed two generations later. Rather than read about why he thinks they’re great, put your copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash on the turntable instead and experience Graham Nash’s best talents for yourself.

What’s on your nightstand these days? Let me know … even if it’s fiction.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Do you use the Facebook? Stay up to date on the doings associated with my novel by liking the Love and Other B-Sides page there – and I hope to see you at my first author event on October 26 at Leon and Lulu in Clawson!

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