Waking up to what's possible
A conversation with Ben Ratliff

By Steven Ward

Ben Ratliff is one of "those" music critics. You know the ones I'm talking about. The ones who can show you something brand new about an artist you've loved your whole life. The ones who can define the cultural status of a musician with one well written sentence. The ones who can write about Duke Ellington one day and Pantera the next. Most of all, Ben Ratliff is a writer who can send you to the CD store in search of a brand new high after just a few paragraphs.

Here, Ratliff easily nail's guitarist Tony Iommi's cultural significance in today's metal world while writing about his solo debut in 2000:

"Iommi is more conceptually graceful, partly because of tempo and texture: Iommi's sound is wide and fat, and these tunes are slow, plush Cadillac rides. But also because the central figure is both so elemental and unconfining. Sure, those Sabbath riffs are the inspiration for all heavy music. But Iommi is a weight, an enveloping sound, not a soloistic detail. It's not so much that he's defined the shape of the brushstroke; he's laid out the city that the art hangs in."

And here, Ratliff describes the pioneering playing of Miles Davis on Miles Ahead:

"(Gil) Evans's arrangements in Miles Ahead were plotted like wily preparations for a siege. In the first twelve measures of "The Meaning of the Blues," the contents of a rising counterpoint behind Davis's melody keep mutating: French horn and trumpet give way to oboe, which slides back into trumpets, and the progression into the fourth measure, with nothing but the treble of muted trumpets in unison, feels like an airplane taking off. So much happens on these tracks, and Davis's trumpet voice sails over the tumult, unaffected, as cool as can be. It was the beginning of his sound as a cultural icon."

Ratliff is a jazz and rock critic for the New York Times. He's recently published his first book, The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz--A Critics Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings. He's only 34.

As far as I'm concerned, Ben Ratliff is the second coming of Robert Palmer, the late and great pop music critic for the New York Times who has influenced a generation of talented rock writers. During the following e-mail interview, Ratliff tries to convince me I'm wrong.

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Ben Ratliff photographed by Jack

[Ben Ratliff photographed by Jack Vartoogian]

Steven:   First off I want to clear something up. I saw on the Internet that there's a Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter on the web named Ben Ratliff. That's not you, is it?

Ben:   No. But we are increasingly credited for things the other has done, so I'm proud of him.

Steven:   Could you please talk some about being able to write about all kinds of different music. One of the things that really impresses me about you is how you can write about jazz one minute and heavy metal the next.

Ben:   It's not always obvious how A informs B--how knowing something about jazz or hip-hop or bossa nova would help you in understanding things about rock or salsa. (Most professional circumstances in American culture encourage you toward specialization.) But I think in the long run it comes down to Kipling's line: what should they know of England, who only England know? If you see a lot of performances, you start thinking of the things that really matter: about performers and audiences and the social ritual of music; about rhythm and how it comes to be borrowed and how it drifts from one culture to another; about how we use music in our lives. It also humbles you and grinds down your snobbery, and maybe nothing else is more important.

Steven:   In connection with the above question, I wonder if the late and former NYT pop music critic Robert Palmer had any kind of influence on you as a writer? He was amazing. One of the only guys I read that could write about Louis Armstrong and Megadeth.

Ben:   I read Palmer's Deep Blues as a teenager, and at the time I was dimly aware that he reviewed a lot of different kinds of music. But I was equally aware that Jon Pareles worked the same spectrum. When I got to the Times, I think the job description influenced me more than anything else. Which is to say, I was brought in there for the most part to cover jazz, but was quickly sent off to review Janet Jackson and Slayer, because the idea was that jazz critics at the Times don't have to only write about jazz. I suppose I could have refused, but I didn't want to.

I think a greater influence on me was Peter Watrous, the staff jazz critic at the Times who agitated to hire me as a stringer in 1996, and who carried on at the Times for a few more years writing about jazz and Latin music (mostly) and left in 1999. He was supportive, but also kept a very skeptical watch on the things I wrote. We talked a lot about avoiding received wisdom, and about the meaning of performance, and how jazz functions in society, and--increasingly--about Brazil and Cuba.

As an adolescent, reading Rolling Stone and the Voice's music section, I thought that the whole point of being a music critic was that you could live in a cultural cocoon and foist your hipness on the world. It seemed like subsidized record-fetishizing. And I think that for some people, it is precisely that.

But the real challenge of the job--and particularly in writing for a daily--is to keep in motion, always putting more distance between you and what you thought was cool when you were in your early 20s. (You can always admire the old favorites again, but carefully: you must meet them on new ground, as a more developed person.) You have to keep going against assumptions, especially your own. Hipness is a disease, it really is. It freezes thought.

Palmer usually gets the credit for the unified-field theory of popular music journalism, but John Rockwell was actually doing it first at the paper, being a classical music critic who also wrote about rock and jazz and whatever else. But Palmer was also a musician, and sort of streetwise, and very attuned to everything that goes on around the performance. It's been very helpful to read what he wrote.

The aesthetics of rock and jazz are different, it's true. You have to deal with the fact that in rock, the notion of progress is both prized and paid for. There are all these auteur producers who can make records sound new and different, and sometimes at huge cost, but in rock there are budgets that put that level of experimentation within reach. There are also millions of teenagers who really do want to hear something that can be theirs. Whereas in jazz you have an older audience who, for the most part, want things to stay quite steady; they want to be reminded of what they know. Yet even in the most preservation-minded cultures, change does happen, if slowly. When people tell me that jazz hasn't changed in forty years, I know they're not listening.

Once you get that down, you just have to feel comfortable among very different kinds of audiences. And again, the more interested you are not only in the music but in a kind of audience-theory, the easier it becomes.

Steven:   Talking about influences, tell me about your favorite rock critics--the ones that influenced you as a writer and the ones you grew up reading in the '70s and '80s.

Ben:   My family lived in London for a few years in the early '70s and we had a paperback copy of Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. That book led me in. It was published in 1969: a very early entry. Cohn had a kind of aesthetic, but mostly he was writing about mass hysteria, and about the siren of anxiety that was a secret frequency in teen-pop records of the late '50s and early '60s. Any music that made young girls and boys piss their pants was interesting to him. The book is not terribly well written--there are lapses of concentration and there's some repetition--but it's stylish and speedy and slightly mysterious, and better written than a lot of books that are better written, if you know what I mean. And talk about someone who dealt with the space where the music and the audience connect.

I read Marcus, Christgau, Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home, Tosches' Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll. The essays in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll probably had a greater impact on me than any single book except for Nik Cohn's.

Later, in college, it was a mixture of jazz and film writers: Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Gary Giddins, Albert Murray, James Agee, Pauline Kael, Otis Ferguson, David Thomson. I spent a lot of time in my early twenties trying to write like Manny Farber, and I still feel that he wrote a kind of poetry, but in the end all that syntactical compression tortured me when I tried to emulate it.

Steven:   What about magazines. What were your favorite music magazines back then and which ones, if any, do you read today? And why did you like them?

Ben:   As a teenager, Rolling Stone and the Voice, occasionally Creem or Trouser Press. Musician, too, for a little while. Rolling Stone had a certain authority, and covered things I both knew about and wanted to know about. In my extreme innocence I barely understood the Voice. But I was excited that seemingly intelligent people were writing about music that I loved. Creem and Trouser Press were good for a hit of fan enthusiasm. Musician was readable and also had a lot of stuff about gear, which I was interested in as a young guitar player. I remember a few great, heady things in it--a long interview with Sonny Rollins, Lester Bangs writing about Defunkt.

I bought a lot of fanzines in London in about 1981, which introduced me to home-brewed criticism. In the early '90s, Motorbooty was pretty wonderful. One of the best music magazines I've ever read is Grimoire, a death-metal fanzine. The primary guy who writes it conducts many of his interviews in fake old English, making fun of goth pretension by asking raunchy questions. It's very obsessive--he knows everything--and at the same time very cynical. I don't know how he does it, how he manages to maintain that outlook.

Steven:   Before you landed the NYT gig, what publications did you write for? And talk about where your first piece of professional music writing was published and how that happened?

Ben:   My first piece of professional writing--after school newspapers--was in Coda magazine, a jazz magazine which has been around forever, and doesn't have a very big circulation. It was about Sonny Sharrock, and I wasn't paid for it. I think maybe after my fifth 5,000 word article for Coda I got a $50 check. But I was into it. I really wanted to figure out how to write long, because I figured that if I ever got a job doing this for a living, I'd have to write short for the rest of my life. And I was right.

I also wrote for Option a fair amount at first, and eventually for the Voice.

Steven:   How did you get a full-time job writing about music for the NYT?

Ben:   I took a cultural criticism class with Gary Giddins while I was at Columbia--he taught for a few semesters in the General Studies school there--and it was one of the best things I ever did. About five years later I was unhappily working in book publishing, and as a sideline I filled in for Gary at the Voice when he went on sabbatical, writing articles about jazz and all those weekly choices and so forth. Around that time Peter Watrous and Jon Pareles started looking around for a stringer to join the Times, and there I was, ready to quit my day job at a moment's notice.

Steven:   I remember your metal CD reviews for Revolver for the first few issues of the magazine. Revolver started out as a mag like Mojo or the old Musician. It was a general interest music mag. Now it's strictly a metal/hard rock mag aimed at teens. Do you know why that happened and were you disappointed to see that change?

Ben:   I don't know why it happened, and no, I wasn't particularly disappointed to see the change. I thought the magazine was a little confused.

Steven:   You primarily write about jazz for the NYT. Do you find that restricting? Do you want to write about metal and other genres for the Old Grey Lady?

Ben:   I primarily write about jazz in the daily because nobody else is doing it. Subsequently I really feel a sense of responsibility toward jazz. And the Times is a very, very good place to write about jazz: you reach the audience pretty directly, as these things go. But whenever I can take a break from jazz, I do. Not just that it drives me crazy to hear more mediocre jazz than I should have to, but it really does my head good to turn to other things.

There are no restrictions, actually, except the self-imposed ones. We divide up our reviewing every week, and we're usually ready to trade up or compromise if it comes to that. I can write about whatever I want, as much as I want. I've found it fun writing about metal in there; not long ago it was a pretty un-cool genre. And, look, there's no better way to get the residue of five not-so-good jazz gigs out of your system than going to a Pantera show.

Steven:   You have written your first book--a jazz album guide. With words like the The New York Times and "essential" in the title of the book, did that intimidate you at all? You know--these are the essential jazz albums according to the NYT.

Ben:   I only wish more people knew that they are the essential jazz albums according to me alone-I made the book quite personal and the book tries to be quite anti-official. As for all the nervous huffing about the power of the Times as an institution, you can't take it seriously after a while. I meet a lot of people who naively feel that the Times critics are higher beings of some sort, and a lot of people who think that because I write for the Times everything I write is basically invalid.

Steven:   Tell me what you honestly think of Blender. Good or bad for rock journalism? There's a lot of debate on that subject with music writers out there.

Ben:   Honestly, I don't think it's bad at all. It's cleverly written, and all the sexual teasing of the photo shoots is only commensurate to what's actually there in pop. It doesn't feel old, nor does it feel misguided.

Steven:   What's the best thing about music journalism today and the worst thing?

Ben:   The best thing is what's always been true: music journalism is a flexible form and wide open. You're not expected to have been to journalism school, or have a music degree; you can use a discussion of a record or a concert as a jumping-off place for talking about society and history and geography.

I can think of a few bad things. One is an alarming trend in arts journalism I've heard about, where newspaper critics are being asked to write about concerts as they happen, in a live feed to the paper's website. Another is unmerited confessional rock criticism: people are getting "new journalism" confused with perversely dull personal nosepicking.

A third is the phrase "forward-looking" and all the lazy thinking that goes along with it: that you can look into the future and make predictions about anything, that artistic expression evolves neatly along a linear model, that "forward-looking" is good and "backward-looking" is bad, and that those are the only two choices.

Steven:   You are only 34. Do you ever pinch yourself and say, I'm writing about jazz for the New York Times!

Ben:   I do pinch myself and happily realize that I have a job. That's the main thing.

Steven:   Any plans to write another book about music?

Ben:   I'm writing a sort of critical biography about John Coltrane's work and influence. And plan to write more books, yes.

Steven:   If you were on a deserted island and could only bring one CD with you, which one would it be and why?

Ben:   Duke Ellington's The Okeh Ellington, or some more carefully chosen collection of Ellington's music from the late 1920s, because it wakes me up to what's possible.