Pushin' Too Hard: Frank Kogan, Part 2
By Scott Woods
when music sucked and why bowie doesn't (necessarily) suck
when music sucked and why bowie doesn't (necessarily) suck
Scott: You stated in the first issue of Why Music Sucks that, "Music in the '80s is merely much worse than music in any other decade in the memory of sound recording." I have a twofold question here. First of all, how serious were you about that? And secondly, in hindsight do you still think that's true?
Frank: I was absolutely serious. And in hindsight I think I was wrong. But not utterly wrong. There was a lot about '80s music that I wasn't liking that I came to appreciate, but I think my critique of the music I wasn't liking was really a good, smart, interesting critique, and basically it's a critique of alternative rock, which is not the worst music ever made, but given its place in the hearts of post-graduate, intellectualized thinkers, it's really not that good. But there was a lot of other music that either I wasn't listening to or I wasn't getting. I didn't think much of what I would call British haircut pop; it's not my music, but I think there's just a lot more going on than I'd realized. And the same for the stuff I call haircut metal--yeah, haircut music in general [laughs], I definitely underestimated haircut music.
Scott: Did you have any reaction in, say 1982, to ABC or something like that? Did you despise that sort of stuff or did it just not ...
Frank: Oh no, no, it was more like a ho-hum response, thinking like, here's Roxy Music, and in some ways it's not as bad as Roxy was and in some ways it's not as good as Roxy was, meaning that it didn't have Roxy's interesting rough edges and it also didn't have Roxy's godawfulness. My basic feeling was that, it's therefore less interesting, it's sort of diluted Roxy Music, whereas now I can sort of get a sense of--not necessarily from ABC, but they're a part of it--a kind of a world there that was probably a lot more interesting than Roxy Music. You know, Roxy Music in their rhythm was sort of doing old soul, sort of pasting soul on underneath, whereas the old Jefferson Airplane actually integrated soul into what they were doing. I don't think a lot of people hear that in the Jefferson Airplane, but their rhythm and their bass playing was actually taken very much from soul music. To me the Airplane was--I hate to use this clichéd word, but I think it actually applies--they were much more organic, whereas Roxy Music was like--the voice was one idea, the noise was another, the rhythm was a third idea and you put all those ideas together. The Jefferson Airplane, though, weren't these ideas pasted together, they were actually the sentence that would happen if someone was talking.
Scott: But isn't that naturally kind of true of British pop in general, the fact that it's not its own music?
Frank: Actually, I kind of don't think so. I think that's what people tend to say about British pop--and it's funny, I kind of think that about Elvis Costello too, what I said about Roxy Music--but I think that, say, Joy Division and the Human League, whatever you think of them, I wouldn't say they were just doing the idea, I think they were... I mean, I think ideas are good things [laughs], it's just like, I don't want the idea instead of the music, I want the idea to come with the music, to enrich the music, to be carried by the music. In Roxy Music, the idea was taking precedence.
The Stones and the Animals are British music, and someone could say, oh gee, Mick Jagger was singing in a very stylized way, but to me everyone is singing in a stylized way, it's called their style. And the point is, it seemed to me that people like Bryan Ferry, who may be the worst offender--I actually wrote this to Simon Frith, though I have a feeling he really adores Bryan Ferry--I said I thought that David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were to style as Simon & Garfunkel were to poetry. Paul Simon would use poetic language, back in his old days, poetic language that sort of signified poetry, and to me it was like Bowie and Roxy--and actually I way prefer Bowie, he actually really moved me a lot--but there was still the sense of which, there was just total bullshit, where on top of it he was saying, "Look! We're being artificial; that means we're being stylish," and my feeling was kind of like, so what? To what effect, what does it mean? It was like they were the idea of a style, but it wasn't a style you lived with, and I guess for some people that was the appeal--yes, it was a style that you put on. But ultimately there wasn't that much of a musical payoff.
Scott: See I guess that's where I would differ. To me those bands do really rock, Bowie probably more often than Roxy Music, though Roxy Music--I kind of feel clichéd saying it--probably rocked a little harder than Bowie. So to me that's the payoff. I don't know, I heard that stuff as a kid, so I have a completely different impression of it. That was, in a lot of ways--apart from the Stones and the Doors and all that stuff--that was my first real rock and roll. I understand that whole idea about it's all a style, there's no payoff with the style, if that's what you're saying, but I listen to the records and I don't hear that.
Frank: Well, obviously I like Bowie a lot more. And I think in some ways that some of Bowie's flaws sort of worked with each other to come out as virtues. The image that people have of Bowie is, well, he's very smart, but he's cold. Whereas my opinion is just the opposite. To me, I think he's really naive and sentimental--I wouldn't necessarily say he's stupid--but I think he's really naive and sentimental and really passionate.
Scott: I totally agree with that.
Frank: But this is something I sort of get approaching it through his lyrics. I'm gonna probably misquote this but it's that one on Ziggy Stardust where, "Someone came home to do this thing, someone came home to starve, I can make it all worthwhile as a rock and roll star." I think he ABsolutely believed that. There's a sense in which a lot of his pseudo-intellectualism and, like, bad poetry and all that...
Scott: The alien stuff...
Frank: Yeah, in a sense I would say those are flaws, but without those flaws you would have this embarrassingly sentimental guy who wants to save the children, which is exactly what I think he was. [laughs] And because he had all this pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-style and stuff--because in a sense his voice wasn't really a good voice so he kind of played up his coldness and did all this sci-fi stuff and all that--there's a sense in which, instead of having him be Harry Chapin, you know, he actually ended up being a lot better. But also, I kind of agree with him, what he was trying to do with the style, though I think the Dolls did it more effectively for me, and later on Madonna did it more effectively too, and the message was really clear: what I was describing before with [no wave] bands like Mofungo and V-Effect, they were taking scraps of sound from anywhere and playing with it. For Bowie it was like you could take a style from anywhere and play with it, and then you have style. With Madonna, it was a three-chord style that anyone could play--or maybe it was a three-chord glamour that anyone could play. I really loved Bowie as a human being--actually, I don't know how I'd feel if I met him--but I mean, I love his intentions. I guess for me I was reading his intentions, whereas with the Dolls I wasn't just reading them, I was feeling them. To me the Dolls wrote better songs with better words.
Scott: I'd like to ask you about some of the terms you invented in Why Music Sucks...
Frank: Okay, but I didn't quite finish answering your last one, and I'll try and keep it brief.
Scott: Okay, go for it.
Frank: About why [pause]...
Scott: I forget what the question was...
Frank: Do I still think that '80s music--how does it stand in the history of music? I actually think talking about the specific artists, like Bowie, was more interesting. I'm realizing that, gee, I sound like a raving Bowie fan [laughs], which I guess I am. What I was liking from the '80s, I loved very early 1980s, I'd almost call it like this post-disco; it was basically disco that wasn't being called disco anymore, it was kind of fuzzier and funkier. Stuff like--I don't even remember the names of the bands... Yarborough & Peoples, S.O.S. Band, and then New York was playing a lot of stuff which I thought was even better than that, but was more obscure, Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat"... Stuff like that, plus the early hip-hop, when it was still like a bunch of kids trying to top each other and it was just fabulous, and they were willing to take rhythms from everywhere, but not even make a big thing out of it.
So there was stuff going on that was really good, but when I'd written that sentence, I'd almost heard nothing of what was dubbed variously 'freestyle' or 'Latin hip-hop,' 'Latin freeze,' 'Miami mint,' 'Miami sound,' you know, whatever you want to call it--and of course that actually describes a bunch of different sounds. And to me that was absolutely the '80s great contribution to music, maybe more than anything. You know, I just kind of wanted to throw that in there for various reasons, but also, I wouldn't say my disappointment with alternative rock has changed--basically, I was an alternative rocker, that's the reason I was playing stuff based on the Velvet Underground and the Fall, plus whatever else you wanted to throw in the kitchen sink--and essentially, as the music went on for a while, it really did seem to become not just musically worse--bands like the Troggs and the Kingsmen sound like masters, at least rhythmically, compared to the average alternative rock band--but there was something where, the thing I complained about in Roxy, you could just say in spades about a lot of other bands.
But you know, I don't wanna go into what I don't like that much, because I kind of think music of the '90s is a lot worse, but it doesn't bother me because music always regenerates itself. And I don't even know what music I'm talking about when I say the music of the '90s is worse, and it might just be that I'm pretty broke now so I'm just not buying a lot, so who knows what's there? And sometimes when you're hearing just a little bit, you don't get it.
why important people like chuck eddy come to visit frank kogan
why important people like chuck eddy come to visit frank kogan
Scott: I was going to mention something about you and Chuck Eddy. You and Chuck, to use your own words, "counteracted the rock critic tone of voice, counteracted Village Voice-ness." This kind of counteraction doesn't pop up too often, if ever, in the 'official' rock press these days, Spin and the Voice, for instance. Does this bother you, or is it enough that there's challenging, fun writing out there in Why Music Sucks and Radio On, in other smaller venues? Does it bother you that it's not happening in Spin and Rolling Stone?
Frank: Yeah. It's funny, I mean did I actually say that it was Chuck and I who were counteracting the rock critic tone of voice?
Scott: You did, but I think you were just kind of using Chuck as--I think you were talking to Christgau or something, but you meant yourself and a few others.
Frank: That's interesting because there's a sense in which Chuck and I come from a whole tradition of rock criticism. I mean, definitely [Richard] Meltzer and [Lester] Bangs.
Scott: Well it's funny that you mention that, I'll let you answer the original question, but I'll turn it into kind of a twofold question. The way I kind of see you and Chuck, in the bigger picture of rock criticism, in a lot of ways I see you two as picking up where Meltzer and Bangs finished, but I'd even take that a bit further and say that those two were kind of, for their time, the quintessential punk critics, whereas you two kind of branch off a bit into more of a disco aesthetic if that makes any sense at all--I mean, it helps that you're both big disco fans. But it's more than the fact that you guys like disco a lot--does that make any sense? Do you agree?
Frank: Yeah, except for in some ways it's not even a branching. My impression is that Meltzer couldn't care less about disco, but in some ways I was using disco in the way that he was using rock and roll in his writing, as this kind of big thing that can contain all sorts of everything, contradictions included. At the same time, it was kind of protected from high culture and all the high cultural justifications in the sense that you could get away with stuff because it was considered to be trash. So disco can be this really really really big world in the way that rock and roll had once been this really really big world, but at the same time not having to justify itself to the big wide world because it was so cheesy, basically.
Scott: Okay, well talk a bit about you and Chuck. There did seem to be a moment, in the mid-'80s or late '80s when something kind of exciting seemed to emerge--I mean, obviously you had been around for a while--but something exciting had emerged and it was popping up in all these places like Spin magazine. There's still great stuff going on, in fact there's probably more now than there was ten years ago if you look at this kind of little network of like, Radio On, Why Music Sucks, and I'm sure there's other 'zines that you're interested in or whatever, but...what happened?
Frank: In some ways what happened with me in particular--this wasn't necessarily new, I'm always fighting writer's block--in some ways makes me a little uneasy about criticizing rock criticism, just because I really think in magazines and journalism there's an environment that more and more is shutting down good writing, but I can't necessarily blame it for shutting down MY writing since a lot of times I shut down my own writing. I slam the door on Frank Kogan much harder than any editor can.
But there's a bunch of different things and I think I'll--despite all this I'll take the opportunity to slam journalism, which I don't even know that much about, you know, I haven't worked for that many magazines and I've certainly never been on the staff of a magazine, but journalism itself--not just in rock criticism, but across the board--has gotten really much worse in the last ten years, just looking at it very casually. And a lot of people will point at, "Look, everything's being bought up by the same people," like Condé Nast and Newhouse own half the things that are out there, something like that. But also, you read them and the writing is just way way way way more boring, there's less risks taken all the way around. But I wouldn't necessarily say that this is true of Spin, or that this would explain what's going on at Spin or even Details. But there's definitely something overall that's happening which I didn't think was happening ten years ago, certainly wasn't happening in Fusion or Creem 20 years ago, or 25 years ago. And a lot of people will say, "Oh well, everybody's now concerned about selling product." And this doesn't quite get the problem--it has something do with the problem, but the problem isn't that Spin will say "Oh, our demographics show that blah blah blah people in Tulsa want to listen to the Stone Temple Pilots or"--well not Stone Temple Pilots, that's a bad example 'cause you can get away with writing bad reviews of them [laughs]--but you know, "People wanna hear Pearl Jam so we better run a good review of Pearl Jam." I don't think they think that way; it's not this sort of conspiracy or something like that.
Scott: It seems like tepidity--if that's a word--on the part of the writers.
Frank: Yeah. But what I think is going on is something else, it isn't that people are trying to sell the product or have to give a good review because that's what the readers want to read or something like that, but it's much more something along the lines of they have to sell the subject matter as something worth reading about to the reader. And this is where I think something really evil has kind of overtaken.
In rock criticism it's like, you know, the pull quote will be something like, "Three years ago, PJ Harvey was milking cows in bars in the south of England, and now her third album has gone platinum." Or something like, "Frank Kogan is this obscure Basque sheep herder, except important people like Chuck Eddy or blah blah blah blah climb the Pyrenees to visit him." [laughs] That'll be the whole thing, we'll sell Frank Kogan by the fact that important people have come to visit him, rather than saying what Frank Kogan said, allowing the reader--well, not allowing them, just sort of letting the reader decide for himself whether he's interested in Frank Kogan or not, rather than having a bunch of testimonials telling you that if you're interested in Frank Kogan that's a good thing because Frank Kogan is important so you're not wasting your time, or for someone who isn't interested, well you should be interested in Frank Kogan because important people are and he's important.
And this cuts to the bone of not just rock criticism, but even of what I think is wrong with ROCK. There's a sense in which--I think the way I put it in some of my pieces is that I don't want to tell the editor or the audience that the subject matter is important, I want the audience to figure out their own importance. This is how journalism--cultural criticism--is doing a big disservice to the reader. One thing I imagine in my fantasy is that what Iggy was trying to do for the audience is in a sense put them on their own to decide, rather than come in in a package that says "Iggy is important." I think a lot of the readers want to be told that, "I'm important through this thing I like"--it's very human. But I think this is something that--excuse the expression--it's important to deny them. I think readers DO want to read testimonials to some extent, but being a good parent isn't always giving in to what your child demands, and this is something where you don't give in to the reader's [pause] insecurities. Their own importance is a trip that they've got to follow themselves, and whether they find Spoonie Gee or Teena Marie, or all these other people I've championed, interesting and of value to them, I want to put Spoonie Gee and Teena Marie on the page, I don't want to put the fact that other famous people were influenced by them.