25 Favorite Scribings for 2002

By Jason Gross

I'll be the first to admit that I don't read enough. The problem with writing is that when you focus on that, you get a bad case of tunnel vision. If you edit, you don't have the luxury of writing as much as you'd like to and most of what you read is going to be the stories for your own publication. If you happen to write and edit, you are truly screwed when it comes to keeping up with other writing that's out there.

And yet, you have to make the time. You have to because not only will you learn something about the subjects involved but you'll also see some fresh styles on display.

Looking over my list, I notice a few things. I included a number of entertainers who aren't usually thought of as scribes: they're good pieces because of or in spite of that and maybe I'm just a starfucker at heart. Also, I didn't include columns that I read and enjoy regularly from the old guard: Christgau's Consumer Guides, Marcus's "Real Life Top Ten," Marsh's columns for Starpolish. Maybe I take it for granted that I always find good, interesting stuff there or maybe I'm just a booster for not-always-obvious sources at heart, being a 'zine editor, you know (though I did include two Times pieces. Oh, the shame...).

I'm sure I missed tons of things and I'm sure I'll get bombarded with all sorts of e-mails wondering what the hell I was thinking when I forgot to include this or that article. I'm guilty as charged--my day's still only 24 hours and I wish it was longer and I wish I had more good sources to track down good stories. As it is, I send out missives almost daily to other scribes when I find good articles and always appreciate it when someone does the same for me.

A huge thanks to Andy Flynn at SXSW for trading headlines with me throughout the year. And so, by the alphabet we go...

[Editor's Note: Every effort was made to provide links to these articles. Some will require user registration, others don't appear to be archived on their sites.]

1. Paul Beston: Life and Death on 'The Late Show' (American Prowler), 11-22-02
A very stirring piece, praising an unsentimental attitude towards impending doom (Warren Zevon's, that is). All the more poignant once Ed Ward pointed out: "Jeez, even the fascists like Warren!" Sure enough, the Prowler calls itself "a successor of sorts to the old American Spectator Online." Compare this with "Rock & Roll R.I.P." by R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. (See below in "Barrel Bottom" section.)

2. Jon Caramanica: When I Reminisce (Village Voice), 11-6-02
As good as the other pieces in the same issue were about the Eminem flick, I was even more impressed by this breakdown of other rap films and what the genre is really all about.

3. Andrew Curry: Men In Blackface (US World & News Report), 7-8-02
Their whole music issue deserves praise as it's the best non-music-magazine coverage of the year. Hell, it was even better than the regular full-issue coverage of most music magazines. The editors took the wise tact of not trying to cover whole styles in each article (which would have needed an encyclopedia)--instead they took individual stories that seemed to typify each genre. Most of the pieces there could just as easily have been listed here but Curry's article on minstrel music was particularly enlightening (for me, at least).

4. Roger Ebert: The Last Waltz review (Chicago Sun-Times), 4-19-02
Ol' Rog' doesn't just get recognition for being a TV celeb--he also pens some pretty thoughtful columns. While most write-ups of "one of the greatest rock films ever" endlessly praised the parade of stars, he took a very sober look at the spectacle and what he saw as the end of era. (Also see Geoff Pevere's review for the Toronto Star).

5. Fiachra Gibbons: Cor baby that's really mean, Otway tells shops (The Guardian), 10-11-02
The story itself is incredible--a UK singer/goofball who the retailers decided was too old and ugly to have a hit single. Reading the story, you imagine that the quotes from the shop owners, the management, and fans have to all be put-ons and hey, maybe they are. A nice piece of fiction or non-fiction either way.

6. Danny Goldberg: The Ballad of the Mid-Level Artist (Mercenary Radio), 5-24-02
A sobering, depressing look at the music business, with an emphasis on business. These kinds of tales of woe should be enough to discourage almost any bright-eyed, aspiring entertainer (and God bless the ones that do it anyway). Still, I'd recommend reading Steve Albini's The Problem with Music first.

7. Lynn Hirschberg: Who's That Girl? (New York Times), 8-4-02
A fascinating look into the star-making machinery (as worked on one Amanda Latona) and extremely well-written to boot--the kind of thing you wish you could put your byline on.

8. Janis Ian: The Internet Debacle (Performing Songwriter), 5-02
Hope springs eternal in this aging hippie and even if I'll never enjoy her tunes, her Net-music musings are more lucid than just about anything I've read about the subject in any techie or non-techie magazine.

9. Eric Idle: Eric Idle Honors George Harrison at Hollywood Bowl (Daily Llama), 6-28-02
Like the Beston/Zevon piece, a very unsentimental look at the great beyond. As a bonus, it's funny as hell (he's a Python, right?), deadly accurate in many places, and he read the damn thing in front of a crowd who were there to mourn. Hope I get a send off like this.

10. Mark Jenkins: Hit Charade: The music industry's self-inflicted wounds (Slate), 8-20-02
The facts that are laid out are pretty obvious but I haven't seen it done so neatly and cleanly.

11. Penn Jillette: Southern Rock Penn (SinCity), 5-20-02
Dave Marsh insists that a lot of people have said the same things and more poignantly (himself included). Still, even though I'm not a Molly Hatchet fan, I found the comments from the magician/comedian (Penn, not Marsh) very moving, and he does make a good case for the Southern boys.

12. Terry McDermott: Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics (Los Angeles Times), 4-14-02
Smart, well-researched, and endlessly readable (on the history of NWA); you don't want the thing to end. Probably the best piece of music journalism I've seen in years--it ought to be taught in any scribe class.

13. "Onion Editorial Staff: RIAA Sues Radio Stations For Giving Away Free Music" (The Onion), 10-2-02
Unfortunately not online anymore (that I could find). If it wasn't so sad and plausible, it would be even funnier than it is. "'It's criminal,' RIAA president Hilary Rosen said. 'Anyone at any time can simply turn on a radio and hear a copyrighted song. Making matters worse, these radio stations often play the best, catchiest song off the album over and over until people get sick of it. Where is the incentive for people to go out and buy the album?'"

14. Bart Plantenga: Wreck This MeSS playlists (Radio 100 / Radio Patapoe)
Courtesy of one of my favorite DJs (working on Dutch radio now and WFMU). His selections are tantalizing enough but then he makes it all the better with his bon mots about the tracks. A shame that they only have three of them archived (there are a few more at the FMU website). When was the last time you got excited about reading a playlist?

15. Ben Ratliff: A Jazzman Open to Everything (New York Times), 11-24-02
A good subject (pianist Jason Moran, all of 27 years old and already poised to set the music scene on its head) gets a worthy chronicler. As always, Ratliff loves to throw in some stirring historical bits. "In the 1950s and early '60s, loving jazz was a part of keeping abreast of modern art in general; filmmakers and painters and writers and students listened to it in order not to fall behind." Also this: "(Moran) is a member of the first generation in jazz not to have a defining movement."

16. Gordon Rumson: I've Got the Music In Me (Music & Vision), 10-25-02
A good cultural exam of the lowly status of troubadours from a fine, under-appreciated classical 'zine. "Musicians, as a class, have been rather low on the social totem pole for a long time. Indeed, in many cultures to be a musician is just a few steps above a beggar. My teacher of Arabic music...informed me that in Tunisia under its old penal codes, legal testimony could not be accepted from children, women, alcoholics and musicians. In some of the legal schools of Islamic law musical instruments are the invention of the Devil. If they are stolen there is no punishment of theft."

17. David Schmader: Suicide Solution (The Stranger), 11-27-02
Quite a tale. Up-and-coming metalheads (Pariah) squashed by the grunge revolution, leading to another rock 'n' roll suicide (Sims Ellison) and then a mental health foundation/movement (SIMS Foundation) springing up in its wake. A great story that had to be told.

18. Guy Schwartz: Lionel Hampton--Jazz Man R.I.P. (my rememberances) (Music Thoughts mailing list), 8-31-02
I was so amazed and moved by this lovely tribute by this Texas bluesman that I felt compelled to give Schwartz the ultimate back-handed compliment--I contacted him to ask "did you really write this?" Yep, he did. Better than his Jaco Pastorius tribute: "Genius, sad guy, innovator, drunk, and crack head two or three times... Poor guy. Still owes me $10. Damn him for pissing off that much talent!"

19. David Segal: Where's the Return Fire in Culture Wars? (Washington Post), 7-2-02
During the Cold War, after beating back the fascist menace, America cultivated its own as it looked inward for its enemies and found them in the form of alleged communists. Nowadays, as Segal points out, the war on terrorism has sapped the strength of the self-appointed guardians of moral standards--poor Marilyn Manson is getting a hernia trying to outrage people nowadays. Surely one day, the wheel will turn back again.

20. Andy Serwer: Inside the Rolling Stones Inc. (Fortune), 9-30-02
Much like the Goldberg article, music as business. What better place to learn about the profitability of the "world's great rock 'n' roll band" than from Fortune?

21. William Shaw: Portrait of the Artist in Jail (The Guardian), 8-31-02
Ol' Dirty Bastard's persona catches up with him. Considering his talent, a shame, but in retrospect, probably inevitable. As his record company front man points out "his dysfunction was the attraction, to an extent. You don't come across a character like that too often. He was a calamity waiting to happen. That's kind of the beauty of it." Compare Lloyd Williams's less sympathetic po-faced "writing" in the "Barrel Bottom" section below.

22. Sam Smith: 22 Questions with Jim Booth (Lullaby Pit), 10-15-02
Admittedly, I'm a sucker for music fiction (Geoff Nicholson's Flesh Guitar is one of my recent favorites). This interview is worth reading alone for question 20 where they dissect what it means to be a rock star nowadays.

23. Tom Waits: Perception of Doors (letter to the Nation), 9-19-02
Responding to Doors drummer John Densmore's "Riders on the Storm" article, the croaky singer flaunts his integrity and actually makes a moving case for fighting mammon. A losing battle to be sure but you gotta admire his spirit.

24. Carl Zimring (on Warren Zevon) and Carl Wilson (on Pere Ubu): Song Noir thread (Fearnwhiskey mailing list), 9-02
Zimring does a radio show on WRCT in Pittsburgh. Wilson writes for Canadian newspaper the Globe & Mail. They have some engaging discussions on Zimring's mailing list (named after his radio show). Participating in these musings or just spectating them are worthwhile and instructive. I mean, where did they come up with the idea of chewing the fat about "song noir"? Great follow-up by Zimring on Tom Waits: "... the fleabag L.A. motel content of many of his early songs fits the noir tradition well. (I may--if I find the time--do a search on BMI and ASCAP's sites to see how many songwriters name check the Tropicana motel.)"

25. Zorn posters: Comments on CD Burning/Unauthorized Duplication etc. (Zorn mailing list) 12-02
No, they don't all agree to one solution to the ethics (or lack thereof) of music downloading, but no one can. They do point out all the arguments and all of the pitfalls of each. Again, it adds up to the fact that there is no one complete answer and that there needs to be much more debate and not just from the RIAA.

Other favorites

  • Julian Cope: Album of the Month column (Heritage Head) He needs editors, fact-checkers, and detox. So why are his rambling musings so compelling? A lot of knot-heads take the same tact, trying to channel Lester Bangs, but I'll be damned if the ex-Teardrop doesn't do it much better than most.
  • Phil Dellio: Thesaurus In My Pocket (Village Voice), 3-13-02
  • Kurt Hernon: Why haven't you heard (of) David Baerwald yet? (bangsheet), 6-29-02
  • Robert Hilburn: Ask the Critic column (Los Angeles Times)
    A shame that more scribes don't do this in print where most of everything else appears as a one-way medium.
  • I Love Music: Favorite Piece of Music Writing So Far in 2002... (ILM), 7-02
    I found a lot of good picks for this list here. Wish I had more time to go through the rest of the site though...
  • Gerald Marzorati: Beck Gets Serious (Slate), 9-20-02.
    He's wrong (the record's bad Nick Drake) but what an argument he makes nevertheless.
  • David Peisner: The Deafening Buzz (Creative Loafing), 1-23-02
  • Chuck Philips: "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" (Los Angeles Times), 9-6-02
    Strangely absent from their website now. Lawsuits, no doubt.
  • Frank Rich: Mr. Ambassador (New York Times), 11-3-02
  • Matthew Weiner: Welcome 2 The Funk Bible (Save The Robot), 5-3-02

    Reading for the 25th Hour of the Day

         I've liked the bits that I've read in these places and yes, I wish I had more time for them.

  • Disquiet Magazine
  • Tim Finney: Skykicking
  • Freaky Trigger
  • Mark Richard-San: Resonant Frequency columns (Pitchfork Media)
  • Philip Sherburne: Needledrops columns (Neumu)
  • Glenn McDonald: The War Against Silence

    The Barrel Bottom:

         Originally, I didn't want to include a section like this because I usually think it's a waste of time to carp about crap. But some things just demand to be pissed on so if you don't mind, let me unzip...

  • Hilary Rosen: Rosen Plugs Music Community Into The Future (RIAA), 7-8-02
    As I heard her being interviewed at SXSW, I had only one question for her: "Which circle of hell do you think you'll burn in for eternity?"
  • Mike Kelly: Bruce's Big Beach Party (Bergen Record/NorthJersey), 8-02
    Not really a bad article per se, but a great wasted opportunity. It would have been much more instructive to look at the other end of the hype spectrum and examine why the media itself had a love affair with the Boss recently. PR/management are supposed to get as many stories about their clients as possible but that doesn't mean that every piece of the media is supposed to line up and pucker up when they come calling. In any case, Kelly got a lot of shit for this article but not for the right reason unfortunately.
  • Lloyd Williams: Rappers often killed by their own lifestyle (The Metro), 10-5-02
    At one end of the spectrum, you had a very sweet tribute to Jay Master Jay from Harry Allen (Village Voice). At the other end, you had this. It's so fucking ignorant (as point out) and racist (ditto) that Williams should add his byline to The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (which itself is even a better-written pack of slimy lies and I say that as a Jew).
  • R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.: Rock & Roll R.I.P. (American Spectator), 9-02
    This mag's founder and editor has written two anti-Clinton books (talk about shooting fish in a barrel). As such, you'd figure that as ignorant as a piece like this would be (John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas as his main target? Burying rock at this late date?), he'd at least have a little more fun here and take some good (and deserved) pot-shots like his buddies Bob Novack or Larry Kudlow love to do with assorted bleeding hearts. If Tyrrell wants to be childish and petty about pop, I could just as well shoot back that he looks like a constipated version of Norm McDonald. Sadly, he just proves how out of touch and afraid he is of any mainstream culture since the 1950s. Frankie and Dino as role models that trump the smelly, lice-ridden rockers (which is funny, I admit)? Also, if you're going to deify the classical crowd, let's not forget about slobbering skirt-chasers like Mozart and Rossini and anti-Semites like Wagner. Interesting that he doesn't have the courage of his convictions to include this cover story on his magazine's website.

    Visit Jason Gross's online 'zine, Perfect Sound Forever.