Thursday, April 29, 2010

Congratulations to Jim Derogatis, A Critic I Have No Problem With

I've devoted many of my most precious blog hours to the criticism of certain music journalists, which is fine, but uncharacteristic given that I spend just as many hours outside of this blog defending the practice of criticism as a whole. It's perfectly reasonable to ask: well Nathan, who is a critic that you admire/can say mostly good things about?

Let's talk about Jim Derogatis, because it's a perfect time to do so. The long-time Chicago Sun-Times music critic finally left his perch at the newspaper on April 21, much to the rock crit community's disbelief. For many, it seemed that Derogatis was as much a firmly embedded Sun-Times guy as Roger Ebert (of whom the comparisons don't necessarily stop there), and given the state of the industry, I was expecting the Sun-Times to fold long before Derogatis would ever quit. According to their distinguished competition, Derogatis is choosing to split his time between working at Chicago Public Radio (where he has hosted Sound Opinions, the "world's only rock 'n roll talk show," for many years) and teaching at Columbia College. I also believe that part of his reason for leaving is that he no longer has to mediate the racist and verbally abusive comments on his Sun-Times blog, which are among the worst you can find on the Internet.

Jim Derogatis has long been a critic I respected and admired, a guy who refuses to apologize for his counter-cultural leanings in a landscape of too many obsequious and fame-seeking music journalists. Like the two of us at Rockaliser, he is first and foremost an 80's college rock kid, but he was around long enough to actually see the days of Our Band Could Be Your Life in action. Like the musicians he admired in Sonic Youth or the Replacements, Derogatis tried to maintain a level of conviction, honesty and DIY integrity in his writing, choosing to completely ignore the groupthink of the Pazz 'n Jop establishment and the Billboard Hot 100-ites alike.

You may recall that the first notable test of his character as a critic came during his brief tenure as an editor at Rolling Stone in the 90s. I'll briefly recount this story, because it should be told more as lesson to nascent music journalists. It starts with a review Derogatis wrote of Hootie & The Blowfish's album Fairweather Johnson, in 1996. Needless to say, he did not give it the RS-mandated three-star review:
To these ears, Hootie are the blandest extreme of a wave of bands for whom blame can be placed squarely on the Grateful Dead. The Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, and most of the other "baby Dead" or "jam" bands try to uphold the Dead’s ideals of exploring diverse musical genres such as jazz, bluegrass, and worldbeat from a rock perspective, as well as transcending the everyday through a combination of hallucinogens, music, and community. Hootie doesn’t even attempt the first (though they do stretch things out a bit live), and they only succeed at the second if you consider Bud Lite a psychedelic drug.

But the connection to the Dead is there in a recording style that reduces American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead to their lowest common denominators: a down-home hippie folksiness, a lilting melodic approach, and, of course, that lazy, elastic groove. Hootie music never rocks, and you certainly can’t dance to it; at best, you just sort of do the awkward white-person wiggle so prominent at Dead and baby Dead shows alike. (Remember, too, that David Crosby, the Dead’s secret weapon on American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, also crafted the harmonies on "Hold My Hand.")

Come hear Uncle Hootie’s band, playing to the crowds. More than 8 million buyers can’t be wrong. Or can they?
That review was killed and replaced with a more favorable one written by Elysa Gardner. A few weeks later, The New York Observer called Derogatis to ask him about a possible conflict of interest between himself and Wenner, with the kicker being the following, printed as a pull quote right next to a picture of Wenner:
The very next day, Derogatis came into work only to be fired and immediately escorted out by security. In a way, this reflected a similar RS firing of Derogatis' hero Lester Bangs after he wrote a negative review of Canned Heat in 1971. Can I say how right both of them turned out to be? Darius Rucker, last time I checked, was doing commercials for Burger King, I think.

One of my favorite pieces of music criticism ever is a long interview published in the Sun-Times with Stephan Jenkins, the lead singer of Third Eye Blind (it was included in one of the earlier Da Capo Best New Music books, and reprinted elsewhere as well). The article is about as far from a sycophantic celebrity interview as you can get, and it's brilliant. The story began when Derogatis wrote an extremely negative review of Third Eye Blind's stage show, saying about the lead singer: "Rarely has such a mediocre singer, uninspired songwriter, and uninvolving stage presence been lucky enough to be deigned a rock star."

After a few testy exchanges, Derogatis and Jenkins set up a follow-up interview where each party had a chance to defend his view on Third Eye Blind's general quality as musicians. Think about that: when was the last time you have seen, before or since, a critic interviewing a band and asking (or demanding) for them to defend their posturing and childish behavior? Christopher R. Weingarten can go off on Big MP3 Blogging for not saying anything negative about the new Broken Social Scene, but would he even say that to Kevin Drew's face? I'd like to see that, for sure (and I'd particularly like to see him doing that for one of his corporate overlords at Rolling Stone).

The great thing about this piece is that both Derogatis and Jenkins give everything they have to their arguments. They don't pussyfoot about and try to come to some generalized agreement. But neither of them are overtly hostile or insulting, either. In Derogatis' case, he's simply laying out his case as any journalist might. Here's an exchange:
J.D.: I'm not threatened, and that's not what this is about. This is about me respecting you wanting to have your say. There's not enough meaningful dialogue in rock today; it's all about hype. I don't like your music, but I respect your desire to talk.

S.J.: Hype is something that our band has certainly eschewed. Our band has been, if not the most DIY next to Fugazi, then number two or three.

J.D.: How can you say that? Third Eye Blind is a creation of MTV and modern rock radio and a major label. And you're taking money from the Hard Rock Cafe to play a festival that has corporate sponsorship up the wazoo.
Though Derogatis' view on Third Eye Blind's music is pretty close to being vindicated, I think both parties come out looking pretty good (phenomenally stupid comparison to Fugazi aside), and there's a refreshing honesty and openness to their exchange that is at an intellectual far above anything I have ever seen in corporate rock mags. It remains an interview that I will often read for pleasure, and for inspiration.

The Jenkins interview was my first real exposure to Derogatis, but the thing that really got me interested in him was a book he edited called Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsider the Classics, which I bought the day it came out at my local Borders. Now oddly out of print, the book was apparently inspired once again by Rolling Stone, whose recent list of "the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" was so weighted towards 60's establishment rockers that he conceived this book as a necessary countermeasure. It mainly consists of reappraisals of sacred cow albums, ranging from It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Exile On Main St (Derogatis wrote a fine and convincing piece on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rolling Stone's #1 choice). Some make better arguments than others (the pieces on Led Zeppelin IV and Nevermind are especially unconvincing), but the book itself is invaluable as a rejection of canonicity in a market often driven by focus-grouped lists.

Astute readers may remember that I've railed against needless contrarianism in the past, so how is Kill Your Idols different? It's a matter of perception to some degree, but I don't see Derogatis as someone who says "your band sucks" for the sake of being the only guy who thinks your band sucks. There's always a level of honesty to his writing that is backed up by carefully considered facts. It's one thing to say that Sgt. Pepper's is terrible, but it's another thing to point out (quite rightly) how messy of a concept album it is, how weak tracks like "Getting Better," "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Fixing A Hole" are, and how much better "A Day In The Life" is than anything that preceded it.

Derogatis is surely reacting to an establishment line that puts this album on a pedestal, but he certainly isn't a Beatles hater by any means, and his disembowelment of this album is, at the end, an act of love. And that's something I detect in his writing more than I can with most music critics. In fact, if he resembles anyone, I'm pretty sure it has to be Roger Ebert.

I've gone this far without discussing the "world's only rock 'n roll talk show," Sound Opinions, which was conceived as a Siskel & Ebert for music geeks and features Derogatis and Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot (another favorite of mine). I miss the days before it was on Chicago Public Radio and it was a three-hour show, but even in its current one-hour form it's still about the best podcast in the world. Again, this might be because Kot and Derogatis' interests are very similar to mine--a few weeks ago, they did a "classic album dissection" of London Calling, and anyone who knows me can tell you, if there's two things I love, it's dissecting classic albums and London Calling. But apart from that, what makes Sound Opinions great is that the two will often rail against the corporate music industry, attacking Clear Channel or Live Nation, defending file-sharing networks from the litigious eye of the Big Five, and in general expressing solidarity with the miserable loners who enjoy music most as the most solitary of pleasures, not as a means for cocktail chatter or making money. They also seem to be the last critics alive who care about music being ruined in car commercials.

Derogatis opens his biography of Lester Bangs thusly: "Sometimes Lester was full of shit." To be honest, I could say the same thing about Derogatis, occasionally (take his review of the latest Vampire Weekend, for example). But I still think, post Sun-Times, that he's probably the best music critic in America today. Surprisingly, there aren't many people I think who'd agree with me--in doing Internet research for this post, my general conclusion is that Derogatis is one of the most hated and consistently derided music critics working, which makes absolutely no sense to me (seriously, someone explain it). Maybe that's the price you pay for taking on The Man, but that usually should give you props in most critical circles. Theories can be posted in the comments section.

It probably has something to do with the fact that Derogatis is unashamed about what he loves--the earliest days of the 60s psychedelic movement, the late 70s punks and post-punks, the bands of Our Band Could Be Your Life, etc. Like Roger Ebert, he's a critic that tries to be inclusive, genre-wise, but he's open and honest about the fact that, as a human, he has biases--in fact, he confronts them in some fashion in many of his reviews. And, most importantly, he's a dying breed of media type who writes consistently against the corporate media hype and what constitutes modern popular radio. Industry and musical trends have changed dramatically during the last few decades, and it is to our credit as a democracy to have someone out there standing athwart those trends, evaluating them on a case-by-case basis, cautiously skeptical but not needlessly antagonistic. It's why musicians like Billy Corgan, so wounded when given a bad review, come to see that he has a legitimate viewpoint many years later.

So congratulations to Mr. Derogatis on his new job, if he needs it. He's especially needed now that the most basic precepts of music criticism (i.e. the fact that it should continue to exist) are under attack, and there's a lot of flash but very little heat to most of the arguments I hear. The only reason I mourn is because he won't last forever, and there has yet to be anyone who seems to be adequately prepared or willing to take his place.


  1. a lot of people are really willing to attack dero:

    i like what he does as "sound opinions" host--on the radio, his enthusiasm can be infectious, and he and kot are great foils for one another. not as sold on derogatis in print however, i just don't thing the guy is that great of a writer. he gets the facts wrong sometimes, and as charming as his anti-corporate stance is, it's also at odds with (1) some of the music he enjoys, which includes the black eyed peas, (2) the corporate newspaper that paid him, which was once owned by rupert murdoch (not while j.d. was there, but it was still pretty conservative, i believe). i share many of his tastes, but i think his notion of authenticity is very selective, and somewhat quaint.

    BTW, Darius Rucker is actually a huge country star these days

  2. Good points, all. Anti-corporatism is always selective to some degree (and I probably have no idea of the extent by which I am owned by multi-national conglomerates), but that doesn't invalidate anyone's opinion on the subject. And Derogatis has yet to provide a convincing answer for why he likes "My Humps," despite being needled about it constantly by Kot. Again, I don't think it's unfair to be critical of a media machine that only puts out one type of music, even if (for instance) you and I both like a lot of the music that's out on the radio.

    And yeah, Derogatis was at the Sun-Times during the years of Lord Conrad Black, another shady Murdochian character. I've seen him write highly critical things about Lord Black before, and the Sun-Times is certainly independent compared to the Tribune.

    Maybe I feel justified in writing in his defense because I see such animus on the Internet--any comments section featuring Derogatis will likely devolve into "huh huh, he's a fattie" remarks, much like people used to do with Roger Ebert (remember Vincent Gallo's "physique of a slave driver" comment?) until he had cancer and a big Esquire profile and all of a sudden everyone became solemn and respectful.

  3. I was lucky enough to receive Kill Your Idols from a certain someone during a secret santa exchange one year, and agree that the Sgt. Pepper piece is one of the most convincing in the book, because, as you say, it says something interesting about the album (i.e. how awfully nostalgic it is for a cultural zeitgeist) that doesn't preclude still having affection for it (I happen to love "Fixing A Hole"). Ditto the piece on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That book really works when the critics are able to rip albums away from the stale contexts in which they have been written about.

  4. the next Prescott NilesJanuary 7, 2011 at 9:48 PM

    All the DIY integrity in the world can't fix Derogatis's crippling problem, which is his consistently dreadful taste--he simply has no ear. Championing "A Day in the Life" both (a) puts Dero on the exactly same team as the 115-year-old Summer of Love-worshiping Rolling Stone listmakers and (b) outs him as someone who just doesn't know what the good stuff sounds like. "Good Morning, Good Morning," is of course, the best song on the album; the second best is "Getting Better."

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