Civility Bites Mourning the age of mean-spirited critics

After Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin overdosed one month apart in 1970, Fusion magazine editor Robert Somma put together an anthology memorializing artists who had recently and accidentally offed themselves. Among the contributors to No One Waved Goodbye was Richard Meltzer, who called the book a “deathsploitation quickie.”

Which isn’t to say Meltzer was reluctant to join the party. In his piece, Meltzer made a strong case that Elvis Presley should be the next to go. “Elvis oughta die real soon,” Meltzer wrote. “He deserves it both because he’s no good no more (so he deserves to die like a dirty dog) and because he’s still okay or used to be (so he deserves a better peace than all the cretins squawking at him saying he’s no good).” Meltzer also suggested ways in which the King could perish. Say, a pool: “Brian [Jones] set the precedent and [Presley] likes swimming even more than Brian and is less fat so it’s easier to drown because fat is lighter than water.”

The stunt won Meltzer few friends. The head of publicity for Capitol Records called Meltzer’s piece “offensive, repellent, repulsive, and totally without redeeming social anything.” Even Somma, a pretty far-out dude, cut out the climax, in which Meltzer suggested preserving Hendrix and Jones in Jell-O and cutting off Joplin’s nipples, “which sure would have been great appetizers in celery flavor jello on the Thanksgiving table.”

In his 2002 memoir, Meltzer wrote that he was making a point in the excised Jell-O section about “rock fandom’s ever-burgeoning cannibalism.” He called the essay “a naughty, naughty rockwriterly calisthenic.”

Today, we call such pieces, and their foul-mouthed authors, fossils. Derogatory -isms are verboten and stuffy explanatory -isms are on the rise. Rock writing has been democratized. As a result, the salaried critical establishment reflects the bland consumerist dichotomy of buy/don’t buy. It’s all so very civil: No death scenarios please, we’re shopping.

It’s easy to get all huffy about how music can’t be reduced to three out of four stars. But that’s letting the writers off the hook. In 2010, few of them appeared to have any opinions that might make anyone care what they had to say. It’s enough to make you miss Meltzer.

Take The Washington Post, which devotes quite a bit of space to music writing, using credentialed folks like Chris Richards, the former editor of The Fader magazine and founder of D.C. post-punk band Q and Not U. In the newspaper, he still sounds like a schoolmarm. “A numb fury resides at the heart of Rihanna’s new album ‘Rated R’ -- and it comes swelling to the surface almost instantly,” he wrote in late 2009. “During the opening verse of ‘Wait Your Turn,’ the embattled singer bellows her opening salvo: ‘I pitch with a grenade, swing away if you’re feeling brave.’ Then she drops the first of this album’s numerous bombs. Many start with the letter F.”

Why is Richards publishing his name atop a flowery joint press release from Tipper Gore and the Parents Television Council? Words that “start with the letter F”? Really!

Civility not only makes for boring newspapers, it kills magazines. Take the late Paste, dedicated to “signs of life in music, film & culture.” Writing after the Georgia-based magazine ceased printing in September, critic Maura Johnston called it “the tasteful-culture bible.” Tastefulness, I’ll bet, doomed the outfit. Paste’s listicles, which it continues to publish online, are civility embodied: “Sixteen Comedians, Musicians and Actors to Follow on Tumblr” and “The 10 Best TV Title Sequences.” I suspect Paste would have earned more of a following by being interesting. For instance: “This album blows: Here are 10 reasons why.”

You could argue that the same aversion to confrontation rules the pinnacle of rock writing. Someone already has: Shortly after Da Capo released review copies of Best American Music Writing 2010, Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff unloaded on book editor (and Los Angeles Times music critic) Ann K. Powers.

“As a guest editor, Powers proves to be fervently multicultural. This is not always a good thing,” Smirnoff wrote on the Oxford American’s website. Smirnoff argues with a slew of essentialist arguments about poverty, or race, or sexual orientation. If he had tacked a little back to the left, Smirnoff would’ve found the real weakness: Multiculturalism, as an end, is incredibly boring.

Did anyone buck the civility trend? Bill Wyman memorably did, adopting the voice of Mick Jagger in order to skewer Keith Richards’ memoir in Slate. Now, the whole adopt-a-fake-voice shtick is pretty well-established, but Wyman shares a name with the former bassist for the Rolling Stones. This inspired him to claim, in the editor’s note to the piece, that Richards had sent his manuscript to the wrong Bill.

Pretending to be Jagger writing to Wyman the bassist, Wyman the journalist painted a bleak picture. “We were priapic jackals ourselves, fucking even one another’s girlfriends if they got left, as it were, unattended,” reads the section about a love triangle between Richards, Brian Jones, and Anita Pallenberg. “I stood by him and propped him up and didn’t fire his ass for many, many years,” he later writes of Richards’ drug-and-booze habits. It goes on for more than 5,000 words.

Some of Slate’s readers were outraged. Some of Wyman’s fellow music critics were outraged. Wyman was claiming to be Jagger, and Slate was helping him! Where was the note informing readers of the illusion? “There’s been some confusion about the piece, besides people thinking it was real. Some say it was parody, some satire,” Wyman wrote in a postscript. “It’s just a book review, done to make a central point: That the solipsism of Richards’ book becomes, if you stop to think about it at all, slightly disconcerting. Step away for just a bit and look at it from a new perspective, say from that of a close associate, and it becomes almost monstrous.”

There’s a reason that Wyman’s piece, in this year of bleak music writing, is the one we remember.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, the article originally misstated the year of a Washington Post review by Chris Richards. It was published in 2009, not 2010.

Our Readers Say

word is that hendrix was murdered (a gallon of boozed forced down his throat by hulligans), set up by his manager who owed a lot of money and was about to lose his one famous client by the end of the year. instead, he collected on the insurance money, confessed his complicity to a studio engineer, and died in the airplane crash he always feared. fwiw

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