Talk Eddy to Me
The World's Most Iconoclastic Rock Critic Speaks Out

By Scott Woods

Chuck Eddy's byline has appeared on hundreds (thousands?) of articles on pop music in the last 14 years, and he's written two of the best books on the subject: 1991's Stairway to Hell (reviews of 500 heavy metal albums, from Black Sabbath to the Osmonds), and his newly-released tome, The Accidental Evolution of Rock'n'Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music (Da Capo), which, if you care at all about the Velvet Underground and Tiffany, you should go out and purchase right away. I interviewed Chuck in April, and what follows is most of that conversation--Chuck likes to talk as much as he likes to write, so the interview required some paring down.

As an additional feature, Phil Dellio has written an extensive critique of Chuck's writing--"not a review of Chuck's book," though it is that as well, sort of. This is followed by a back and forth between Phil and Chuck, which is "not a fight," though it is that as well, sort of.

[Originally published in Popped in 1998.]

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Scott:  What I want you to start with is I want you to explain the difference between 'Chuck Eddy' and 'Charlie.'

Chuck:  Boy... Okay, I think the thing is, when I first started writing--by which I don't mean when I first started writing about music, but when I first started writing period--I think I started using 'Chuck Eddy' as my byline. My family--my mom and dad, my brothers and sisters--when I was growing up called me Charlie for the most part. Somewhere along the line I think I started referring to myself as Chuck. My guess is maybe I was, I don't know, ten, eleven years old, or whatever. By which I mean I probably started writing 'Chuck Eddy' let's say on papers at school or whatever, or on homework assignments. But my family still would call me Charlie. When I started writing for publication, on my high school newspaper or whatever, I used Chuck Eddy as my byline. And obviously I continued using that moniker or whatever when I started writing about music later in college. And I think to a certain extent maybe Chuck Eddy was a character I created or something. Obviously, Chuck Eddy is me, and Charlie Eddy is me, but umm--I don't know, I've kind of explained to a certain extent in the book and to a certain extent I think a couple of times in Radio On how I think that there's differences personality-wise. I'm a pretty shy and retiring person in a lot of ways [laughs], and I think that maybe, you know, using the Chuck Eddy byline gives me the opportunity not to be so shy and retiring to say the least. But on the other hand, I think even in high school I was sort of like a shy extrovert. I was the MC of our talent show in high school and so on. I think there's a certain part of me that wants to perform and maybe that's the Chuck Eddy part. [pause] I don't know...

Scott:  Well, it's interesting that you just called yourself a 'shy extrovert' in high school, because one of the questions I had written down here--I was assuming in high school, judging from your yearbook entries that you did in Why Music Sucks [WMS #7, February 1996], I actually figured that you were probably pretty popular in high school.

Chuck:  No.

Scott:  But a popular outcast, I would say.

Chuck:  Actually, I started like an ad hoc organization I think in my sophomore year in high school called 'Frump,' which stood for the 'Fraternal Regime of Unpopular Male Persons.'

Scott:  [laughs] Was that like what's-her-name--Valerie Solanas? The 'S.C.U.M.' organization?

Chuck:  Yeah, I gue--I don't know, I mean I don't even know what... I think I recruited some people who I pretended were my friends. I was pretty geeky. I was well known, and maybe I was well-liked, but I don't think I perceived myself as being well-liked. Like, I ran for student government president, I think junior year, before senior year--I mentioned this toward the end of Stairway to Hell--so people must've, to a certain extent, liked me. When they had, you know, election senior year for class brain and class clown and cutest couple and nicest hair, I didn't get any of those things. So I don't think that I was really well known. I think I wanted to be, and maybe to a certain extent among certain kids I was--there probably were certain kids who looked up to me because of certain things I would do, but I didn't perceive myself as being popular. And as a matter of fact, I went back--Martina [Eddy] and I went back--it was sort of like a tenth-year reunion--we didn't go to the actual reunion, but there was a picnic--this would've been, like, in '88--and I don't think that many people remembered me. So I don't think I was that popular.

Scott:  You were writing for the high school paper, right?

Chuck:  I wrote for the high school paper starting in my freshman year. The first article I did was about baseball cards.

Scott:  Was your writing kind of wild back then?

Chuck:  It was... I would do a lot of stuff, say, in the April Fool's issue. I did a lot of satirical-type stuff. And again, not music-related. I think I did one music-related article in high school, and it had to do with, umm, some... There was criticism, I guess, of how teenagers reacted at some metal show, maybe at the Silverdome--I might be wrong, but there might've been a big Nugent/Aerosmith/Kiss show, where there was a lot of, I don't know if there was violence or what. But I think I wrote something to the effect that that didn't say much for our generation of kids [laughs], that they would act like that, and I thought, you know, that those kids really reflected badly. But the thing is, you have to understand I probably didn't do it from a moral standpoint, I probably did it from a standpoint of, somehow, subconsciously, this was an unpopular opinion, and you know, I wanted to take it. I know I did an editorial about why there shouldn't be a smoking area in the school, because I said that smoking is against the law if you're a minor, and if they're gonna have a smoking area they might as well have a drinking area and a murdering area for kids who wanted, you know, to drink and murder on school grounds, 'cause they're against the law too. I did a point-counterpoint thing, and part of this ended up in a review in Stairway to Hell; I did one on why it was a good idea to kill harp seals, and I think there's a review of some stupid band called Riot in Stairway to Hell, and that's like the oldest writing in there, it actually came out of this editorial I had written. And umm, what's another one? A Nazi bookstore was shut down in Skokie, Illinois, when I was in high school, and I did like an ACLU type of thing. Remember, this was like an 85% Jewish high school.

Scott:  Is that why there were references in the Why Music Sucks yearbook entries to 'Herr' Eddy or whatever?

Chuck:  Well, no--those were probably kids in my German class, and I went to Germany in junior year. I think there might have been references to me being anti-Semitic, though.

Scott:  There were, yeah.

Chuck:  Okay, the anti-Semitic thing was just--I mean, those were jokes.

Scott:  Yeah, they were very clearly jokes.

Chuck:  And the thing you have to understand about my high school is, the Jewish-Gentile split was a class split: Gentiles in my high school were white trash. But I worked as a busboy at a Jewish country club, and I caddied at a Jewish country club. There was a lot of joking that went around. But, I mean, I was never really anti-Semitic. Some of my best friends invited me over to the Jewish community centre all the time, and I went swimming there and stuff like that, you know what I mean? I mean, it was just something you kidded each other about. I'm no more anti-Semitic than the Dictators or the Ramones, who would joke about stuff like that, and you know, it's kind of the way kids--it's one of the things kids joke about, you know what I mean. And no, I did not...

Scott:  And you can't do that--do you think you can't do that as much in the adult world? Especially as a writer?

Chuck:  You certainly couldn't do it in the Village Voice. I think Creem you could, maybe. The thing is, yeah, Howard Stern does it. And now it's like almost a cliché, you know what I mean? Now it would almost be pointless to do it. And I don't believe that Howard Stern is actually racist or anti-Semitic or anything like that.

Scott:  [laughs] He's Jewish.

Chuck:  He's Jewish, I guess he can't be anti-Semitic, although I don't know, maybe he makes anti-Semitic jokes--I don't listen to him much.

Scott:  Well, he's probably anti-Howard Stern.

Chuck:  Right. But I mean, he has a shtick--you know? And umm...

Scott:  Some people say he's anti-black.

Chuck:  I don't know if he is or not; I'm not a fan or a non-fan. But the thing is, the sort of humour he does is maybe, you know--I think I grew up in a place where liberal ideas were accepted as gospel in a lot of cases, and I think I said things to rile people up, to be funny--and people laughed! You know what I mean? And it wasn't--I don't remember anyone ever being trulyoffended. I may have done editorials that were just the opposite, too. But I think a lot of the writing I did in high school--and you can figure, I mean if you wanna use this to figure out how my mind has worked as a rock critic you can--I think a lot of it was an exercise: okay, I'm gonna take an unpopular issue and I'm gonna figure out how to defend it. And I don't think that necessarily means that I didn't believe what I was writing, but I may have had to convince myself of it.

Scott:  And do you still do that now?

Chuck:  I have no idea. Not consciously. I don't say I want to like this record. In 1986 or '87 did I? I don't know. When I first wrote about Debbie Gibson after I had been writing about Die Kreuzen for a few years? Umm, umm--did I convince myself that I wanted to like Debbie Gibson? I honestly can't remember. I think I liked her; I think I thought the songs were catchy. But I think the thing is, I think if you look at some of those first articles that I did along those lines--I think there was a nerf-metal thing I did in the Voice--there's a lot of hedging, where I'm kind of saying, "Well, yeah, this is really cheesy stuff, but it's sort of okay, because blah blah blah." So I wasn't, you know, I wasn't really accepting it at face value. And I think that ten years down the line I'm probably more able or willing or brainwashed into being able to do that--I don't know. But umm, I think I convinced myself that I liked Die Kreuzen and Killdozer--give me a break! You know--God! I mean, did I really like Killdozer?

Scott:  [laughing] I don't know, did you?

Chuck:  God, I hope not--but I did! you know? I must've--why would I write such positive things about them if I didn't? But it's hard for me to get--you know, I can't put myself back in that position. I mean I did like them. I mean, did you ever--is it possible for you to truly like something? Or is it, you know--do I really like feta cheese on pizza? I don't know, I convinced myself I like it. What does that even mean? What does it mean?

Scott:  But your tastebuds will determine if you actually like it or not.

Chuck:  No--tastebuds are learned.

Scott:  Do you think so, completely? I mean, sure, you can acquire taste--but some things you just will instantly like or dislike, and that's just an honest reaction.

Chuck:  Yeah, I don't know--I mean, I don't know enough about tastebuds. I don't have a sense of smell, so I seasoned my food really strongly early on, which is one of the reasons I might've ended up with an ulcer. And I convinced myself really early on that I didn't like sweets. I still can't--I still gag at the sight of honey. I think that that's probably a learned response, I don't know what it goes back to.

Scott:  So what do you think of the Ohio Players' [Honey] album cover then?

Chuck:  Umm, no I don't gag at that. I don't own a copy of it, actually, but what I remember of it... actually, if it was in person, I don't think I'd wanna--I don't know. [laughs] I don't wanna get into that.


turn me loose: chuck finds his voice

Scott:  You said it was Pazz & Jop [the year-end Village Voice rock critics' poll] that turned you into a rock critic.

Chuck:  I think at University of Detroit--my freshman year in college--there were maybe like four or five people who did record reviews for the paper--I was not one of them, I did other stuff.

Scott:  Like sports?

Chuck:  I don't think I did sports for them, I covered campus things or whatever--I think I did some features, and wrote some satirical stuff. But they had their own miniature Pazz & Jop poll among the five critics there, and so they came up with a list of the best records from 1978, and they referred to the Village Voice one, and I'd never heard of the Village Voice before. And on their list it's kind of funny, because I think a Styx album finished 20th or 12 th or something--I don't know [laughs]--I don't really know what won. But I remember one guy voted for--I know his name, Walter Turowsky--who ended up in some band that I reviewed later called the K-Martians, maybe ten years later. Anyway, someone voted for the Funkadelic record, One Nation Under a Groove--probably Darkness On the Edge of Town might've won. Anyway, they referred to the Village Voice poll, and I'd never heard of the Village Voice, and I looked it up, and for some reason--I looked at it and I was just fascinated. And remember, I was a math guy, right? I think I was fascinated at the numbers. I would look at it and I'd be like... I had kind of started to listen to some music in the dorm, like some new wave or whatever--although the first half of my freshman year in college I thought I was gonna like Yes and Jethro Tull, because that's what so many people in the hallway liked--it wasn't until maybe halfway through my freshman year in college that I started getting into Fabulous Poodles and Armed Forces--Armed Forces probably came out in January--and Tonic For the Troops and Manifesto and You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic.

Scott:  Who's that again, Ian Hunter?

Chuck:  Ian Hunter, right. Those were some of the very first records I bought. And for some reason I was fascinated by the list, by the idea of the poll, and I saw the Voice poll and I think I was fascinated that there were groups on there that I'd never heard of. Like Pere Ubu and Wire. And so I would see the records and I would buy them--like Modern Dance and Pink Flag. I didn't really have a concept of punk or anything. I think the thing is I read Robert Christgau's essay and I think I really wanted to understand it. He would refer to people like Pere Ubu or whatever--I didn't know who David Johansen or Tom Verlaine were --and I think it was like a puzzle I wanted to put together. And I think I started buying records, to a certain extent, for that reason. And so, [Christgau's] essay, "The Triumph of the New Wave," was probably a big influence on me starting to write about music initially in the first place anyway. And a lot of my tastes early on--which explains why I was so into Neil Young and George Clinton and Lou Reed... I wasn't so into them, but I mean, Christgau loves those people, you know what I mean? And it's always kind of dumbfounded me that people always assume that I'm so [Lester] Bangs-influenced. Because Christgau was a much bigger influence on me.

Scott:  I can see Bangs, sort of, in the style--in some ways.

Chuck:  Well, I think I have, to a certain extent, his energy. I think that I have...

Scott:  You can be a provocateur.

Chuck:  No, there are similarities. But I'm not that influenced by him. I think later on I probably incorporated some of that, after I read Psychotic Reactions. But the initial influence was Christgau--more than anybody else. And he obviously was my first editor at the Voice. So, I don't know if that tells the story or not.

Scott:  Yep.

Chuck:  First record I ever reviewed--bet you don't know it.

Scott:  No.

Chuck:  Look Sharp. For a community college paper over the summer, pre-sophomore year in college when I was taking this shorthand class, because I wanted to learn shorthand for reporting purposes. Then I went to Missouri and the first record I reviewed there was the American version of The Clash.

Scott:  So how did Look Sharp fare in your review?

Chuck:  I gave it a good review, I said--I don't have a copy of it, unfortunately--but I said that [Jackson] would probably be nominated for Best New Artist for the Grammys, or like, maybe they would ignore him--I don't think I said he would be nominated, I said that they would probably nominate people like Steve Forbert or--I don't know what adjectives I used but--"stupid disco singers like Anita Ward" [laughs] and ignore Joe Jackson; and he's starting this new music called 'spiv rock.' [laughs] I think I read that somewhere. And I said something about how his music has been compared to Steely Dan and Steve Miller--I think I read that in some review! And I think I said--I don't know. Actually, I love that album--I like the first two Joe Jackson albums a lot. And when I reviewed the Clash record I said that I liked new wave, but I didn't like punk. And that most of the punk that I'd heard, like Richard Hell and the Dead Boys--and I can't remember if I said the Sex Pistols--I thought was just really noisy and abrasive, but I liked The Clash because parts of it were sort of, like, r&b-oriented or something. [laughs] What's bad is I think I ended up being really embarrassed by those reviews, and I ended up getting rid of them, and of course now I'm really really sorry that I did, I'll never see them again.

Scott:  Phil [Dellio] told me once he saw some of your earlier reviews and he was laughing because he said you kept using the word 'anger' or something.

Chuck:  [laughs] Maybe I did. I think the funniest thing is, at the end of the '70s, the Maneater--which is the weekly paper at Missouri--put out a special issue of the '70s, and they had different people--like Gary Graff, who ended up writing for the Detroit Free Press wrote a lot of stuff there; he graduated from Missouri the same year I did. In fact, Sheryl Crow was supposedly at Missouri the same time I was too.

Scott:  Wow, she might have read your reviews.

Chuck:  Yeah, I think I was a big influence on Sheryl Crow. What was I gonna say? Oh yeah, I reviewed the third Nick Lowe album along with Lindsay Buckingham, I said they were 'pure pop.' But they had different people do essays on different genres at the end of the '70s, and they gave me the new wave essay, right, 'cause I was like the token new wave guy. I talked about what I called 'old wave' music, which was like the Stooges and David Bowie and Alice Cooper, and "great groups from England, like Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground." [laughs] One of the worst factual errors that I'd ever done, until the new book came out and I said the Monkees are from England. [laughs] I've grown absolutely none!

Scott:  I was amazed when you told me that that was an error--I did think it was a joke.

Chuck:  Maybe it was a joke--it's possible that I meant it as a joke, and I just can't remember what was supposed to be so funny about it. It's weird, because I have it in there twice.

Scott:  Well, there's one reference where it is funny, you list a bunch of British bands, and include the Monkees, who are like a pale imitation of a British band, in some ways.

Chuck:  See now I don't know whether to correct it, because a couple people have told me that it's really funny. Even if as a joke it completely falls flat.

On to Part 2 of Chuck Eddy