I Become a Rock Critic
As you may have noticed, I like reading about rock music. It may even seem like I spend as much time reading about rock as listening to it. And since I've always had the ambition to be a writer, eventually it occurred to me that maybe I could write about rock music.
I saw my opportunity in my final semester of college, in the fall of 1979. The college paper, Climax (did I mention that I went to an extremely liberal liberal arts college?) had a table set up outside the dining hall, recruiting writers. I decided to bribe my way into being their rock critic. Maybe bribe is too strong a word, but I had a deal for them.
I had a ticket to the Who concert in Madison Square Garden the next week. (The Hampshire dining hall had come through for me again --someone had posted a note that they had a Who ticket for sale. I forgot about eating, grabbed the note, and ran up to his dorm room immediately. Scored the ticket, and ended up becoming good friends with Steve, the guy who sold it, not least over shared musical tastes.) I told the Climax people I'd review the concert if they would make me their regular rock critic. They said yes. So I found myself an official rock critic. Coincidentally or not, I saw three of the best concerts of my life that fall.
The first was, obviously, The Who. This was their first tour after Keith Moon's death, so my expectations were mixed. On the one hand, I was thrilled to be finally seeing them. On the other, I recognized that this was not the REAL Who; I remained disappointed that I had never managed to see them. Still, it was a great concert. A bit of what I had to say about it (my first published review!)
At the end of the Young Man Blues encore, Pete Townshend removed his guitar, twirled it, tossed it in the air and... caught it and handed it to a roadie. No guitar smashing tonight. But, much as the audience wanted to see it, destroying a guitar was in no way necessary, for the Who just performed the best concert I have seen in well over a year. It needed nothing more.
... as one would expect, Townshend completely carried the show. He did look less enthusiastic about his leaps and arms swinging than previously, at times it appeared he was only doing it because it was expected of him, but he still did them just fine, and when he was just bouncing around, he seemed to be having a great time.
More spectacular, and more important, than his showmanship, though, was his guitar playing. He's lost nothing there; he's only gotten better over the years. It rarely comes through on the albums, he is a great hard rock guitarist.
...All in all, it was show lacking in excesses. Which is a little surprising, considering the Who are a band who build their reputation on excesses. But Pete Townshend once said, "I used to try and make up visually for what I couldn't play as a musician." (Rolling Stone interview, 1968) The Who now have that musical ability, and don't need the visual excesses. Though I'm all in favor of rock'n'roll where the energy and emotion overwhelm the musical skills of the group, for those are usually the best shows, that is not necessary when the group can express the same emotion cleanly with superb musicianship. The show I saw was by a band who are mature and secure in their talent. They no longer need to prove anything. All they have to do is go out and play, and that's what they did. And they did it exceptionally well.
You can clearly see some of my punk rock prejudices coming through there, but that remains a pretty good description of the show I saw.
Next up were two Clash shows, within a week of each other. The first was at the Palladium, in New York City. That show was memorable for a couple of reasons. Sam and Dave opened for them, and I will admit frankly that I did not appreciate them like I could have. I had a vague notion of who they were, but no real appreciation of either their place in rock history, or the significance of the Clash asking them to open. The other thing is, at the end of the show, Paul Simonon smashed his bass on the stage, a move which took us by pleasant surprise. And which showed up a few months later as the cover to London Calling.
That weekend turned into a full rock'n'roll/art adventure for my friends and I, college students wandering freely through the cultural wonderland of New York City. We took in a Brian Eno art installation, which consisted of TVs stacked on top of each other, playing various shots of the building at N. 2 Fifth Ave., shots which faded in and out in time to Eno's Music for Airports. We saw I Love a Tornado, a bit of absurdist theater by Arto Lindsay and John Lurie. We also wandered into an aborted gig by David Peel, a sort of punk-folkie, at some Greenwich Village club; Peel spent most of the show ranting about how he wasn't going to play because he was pissed off about one thing or another. We also passed up a chance to see Sun Ra, because of the $7.50 (!) cover charge.
A week later I saw the Clash again at Clark University, Worcester MA. That show had its own memorable moments. They sold 1200 tickets for an 800 seat auditorium, leading to a number of tensions, but not quite a riot. Opening for the Clash this time were The Necessaries, a CBGBs regular, and Gang War, the union of Johnny Thunders and Wayne Kramer. Gang War played a too short but rocking set, which included 'Rambling Rose' (MC5) and 'Chinese Rocks.' They were a nice surprise, and, in the end, my only chance to see Thunders.
My review focused on the differences between the two shows, which were significant, even though (much to my disappointment) they played nearly identical sets both times.
I enjoyed the New York concert greatly, but throughout I couldn't help feeling they would put on a better show in a smaller place. The Palladium is not [that] large as a concert hall, but it still felt too large for the kind of music they were playing. The size seemed to demand a lack of spontaneity...
The Clark show, in an 800 person auditorium, gave the chance to test this theory, and it stood up to the proof. The show was much better. It seemed more alive, more sincere, and established a more direct relationship with the audience. In general, it had more impact.
The reason for this lies in the nature of the Clash. They play true rock'n'roll with a purpose. They have things to say to their audience, and more importantly, emotions to communicate to them. Their songs are almost all full of anger directed at the fucked up nature of the world around them... They express, especially in live performance, the joy of transcending this anger through rock'n'roll. The more intimately they can relate to their audience, the more easily they can get those feelings across. At the Clark show, they succeeded in this. In New York, they only came close.
Again, my punk rock preferences came out, especially when I discussed their musical abilities
The Clash play very tight as a band, but are otherwise technically weak. Their talent is limited, and they play without any great precision. But none of that matters, because it is not relevant to what they are doing.
I had paid for all my own tickets so far, but I decided it was now time to try to cash in. The Talking Head were playing at UMass (just down the road). As the official Climax rock critic, could I possibly get free tickets to the show?
Yes. I could.
To tell the truth, I didn't quite believe my luck. Didn't believe it even as I stood in line at will call, expecting to be told it was all a fantasy, and they had nothing for me. But no, they had a ticket. And as I looked at it in wonder, I noticed something interesting. 'Row A, Seat 8.' (And no my memory isn't that good, and yes, I still have the ticket.) Hmmmm, I thought, that sounds like a pretty good seat.
How about, front row, center? Where I could literally put my feet on the stage. As good a seat as I could possibly get.
This was the third time I had seen the Heads, the third time in just a year, including a New Year's Eve show at the Beacon in New York. In the previous shows, I had primarily been impressed by the intensity of their performance, the band as a whole and especially Byrne as a front man. This time I was impressed by their musicianship:
The Talking Heads are well known for making highly danceable music. However, their concert at UMass was more appropriate for careful listening. Sure, the beat was there, but they played with precision, complexity and intensity which deserved close attention.
In another surprise, though leader David Byrne is most famous for his psycho vocal delivery, his guitar playing was at least as important to the show. He did many extended solos, sounding mostly like a late-Sixties acid guitarist, fiddling with feedback and coaxing other noises out of his instrument. but he really didn't sound like anyone else; Byrne is one of the most original guitarists playing today, eccentrically original.
The whole band was excellent musically. Much of the program was filled with periods of instrumental jamming; almost every song was extended this way....
The major feature of a Talking Heads concert is intensity, and this one was no exception. Intense is by far the best word for Byrne's performance. He screamed (his voice can produce sounds I've never heard elsewhere), his eyes stared strainingly, his neck tensed, then he bounced back to his amp to produce feedback. He really did seem about to crack at all times. The music was intense too, often progressing within a song from a sparse sound to a thick, solid frenzy....
Few other bands or performers can provide this intensity. Combined with their complexity and musical expertise, it made for a great concert.
That was my final semester at Hampshire, so I didn't review any more concerts for them. In fact, that Talking Heads review was my last bit of rock journalism for nearly twenty years. My next attempts would come when I published Next... Magazine in the mid-90's, and they all focused on rock the context of spoken word (much more on that in a later column).
I did do some other writing for Climax while I was there, including an editorial piece which long stood as my most successful piece of writing. Successful because it got the entire campus talking about the issue I raised. Hampshire had, not surprisingly, a very strong feminist movement on campus. That fall they had initiated a rape awareness program which, in my opinion, went far beyond safety tips to teaching all women to be afraid of all men. I said so, in a fairly satirical tone of voice. My article generated more mail to Climax than everything else they published that fall combined. Like I said, I got the entire campus talking. Many of them disagreed with me, but they were discussing the issue, and I could only see that as success.
Again, it wasn't until I started publishing Next... that I managed to produce anything which affected the larger community as much. Probably more than any of my rock writing ever will.
One thing which strikes me about this initial foray into music criticism is how little it actually affected my listening experience. I don't recall ever being struck with the critic's curse, where you are too busy trying to think of something to say about a concert to really enjoy it. Part of that was, no doubt, the bands I was reviewing. These were three of my absolute favorite bands at the time; no way was I going to let anything interfere with my enjoying their shows. There was also my innocence, and the freshness of the experience. I had no doubt about my ability to see a concert, and then go home and write about it. Or perhaps I just always listened to concerts like a critic. I've always tried to remember the set list, and how they played various songs, especially how what they played live might vary from the recorded versions. It goes back to my first experience getting stoned at the Alice Cooper concert -- I've always intellectualized my concert experiences. It was only later, much later, that I learned to lose myself in the music, and not think about it. But again, that's a topic for another column.
(Portions of this column originally appeared in Climax, the Hampshire College newspaper, copyright 1979, Climax Publishing Co.)