A candid conversation with Ira Robbins and Gene Sculatti
If Ira Robbins and Gene Sculatti had ended up on different career paths, a lot of people’s lives would have been distinctly duller. Music journalism heroes and O.G.’s, they helped put some major movements on the map in America.
As co-founder, editor, and writer for Trouser Press magazine, New York native Robbins proved there was life in pre-punk rock by bringing word of U.K. glam, prog, and more to mid-’70s American audiences and becoming the go-to source for post-punk and New Wave sounds in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. A subsequent series of Trouser Press books, a pair of novels, and his Music in a Word trilogy of collected writings from a variety of outlets (plus contemporary commentary) all add ballast to Robbins’ legacy.
As a cool Northern California kid in the ‘60s, Gene Sculatti was on hand for the birth of the San Francisco psychedelic scene, writing the first-ever feature story about it, for the first-ever rock magazine, Crawdaddy. He’d go on to chronicle the scene in the book San Francisco Nights and carve a template for underground coolness in the ‘80s with his seminal Catalog of Cool and its sequel, Too Cool. His collected works in Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ‘Bout Rock and Roll reveal a rocker consistently on the right side of history.
Both Robbins and Sculatti have new books bolstering their bibliographies. Robbins had already published Music in a Word Vol. 1 as an e-book, but in the wake of Vol. 2’s physical release, he’s presented its predecessor as a hefty paperback, cherry-picking from his first couple of decades of work. For the Records: Close Encounters with Pop Music finds Sculatti looking back on his great musical loves one tune at a time, wrapped in plenty of personal and historical context.
With both writers brandishing fresh output, your humble correspondent—one of the many whose life was forever altered by both men’s work—seized the opportunity to moderate a Zoom-enabled, bi-coastal summit meeting between these venerable rock scribes. Topics ventured far and wide, so strap in for a wild ride, presented in two parts.
This conversation has been edited for length.
IR: Gene, let me just say how much I enjoyed your book, I just found it really marvelous. The combination of information, anecdotes, and enthusiasm is really infectious, I just had a really good time.
GS: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed yours too. I really like the idea that there’s so much coverage of things happening right at the time—shows, reviews of records, and then later you might say, “Well I changed my mind about this” or something.
Something that was important to both of you early on in different ways was Crawdaddy, which was the first real rock magazine. Gene, you started writing for them almost from the beginning.
GS: Almost, yeah, I think September of ‘66 is when they published my article on San Francisco.
Ira, Crawdaddy was a big inspiration to you early on, but you wrote for them towards the end of their run, right?
I wrote for Crawdaddy when it was in New York and not owned by Paul Williams. Peter Knobler Was the editor and Jon Pareles was the reviews editor. I did some stuff in ‘77, ‘78, around then. But I coincidentally, a few years later, got to know Paul [Williams, Crawdaddy founder]. There’s two whole elements to Crawdaddy, there’s the Paul Williams world, and there’s the Peter Knobler feature magazine, it was a totally different thing. I got to know Paul Williams a little bit and it was a real thrill, he was such an amazing character.
What are each of your impressions of him?
IR: Remarkably gentle, he was the sweetest person. I just felt like I was talking to somebody who created the environment in which I was able to build a life. If Paul hadn’t started Crawdaddy, how would Trouser Press have ever come into being? Crawdaddy inspired all these other magazines—there would have never been a Fusion or a Zoo World without a Crawdaddy. Meeting Paul was like, “Oh my God, I’m so grateful, thank you.” And he was everything you’d want him to be: smart, funny, erudite, weird, generous, supportive, and friendly. Gene, you obviously knew him a lot better than I did.
GS: No, honestly, I didn’t meet him until years later. I’m trying to remember how I found out about the magazine first, maybe through Greg Shaw and the Mojo Navigator Rock ‘n’ Roll News. Somebody said, “There’s a magazine about rock ‘n’ roll coming out.” Shaw was the one who told me I should try to write a piece about San Francisco because there wasn’t any national coverage of it yet, so I did. They took the piece, and I got a nice letter from Paul and all that. I thought, “I’m off and running now,” so the next thing I pitched them was this totally over-enthusiastic review of The Seeds’ Web of Sound album, and somehow that didn’t sit well. I never appeared in their pages again [laughs]. I was proud to wave the flag for The Seeds.
IR: How did you decide to become a rock writer?
GS: I was just a music nut like both you guys forever, all the way growing up. I was a huge Beach Boys fan, and then I was in Frisco and Ralph Gleason started writing in the San Francisco Chronicle about these new dances [concerts] taking place. I went down and saw my first dance and was going to college, so I hooked up with Greg Shaw so I could write for Mojo Navigator. And then I started writing for other places—Crawdaddy and eventually Fusion and Creem, and I actually got a gig as the weekly music reviewer for the Sacramento Bee, which is a pretty big paper in Northern California, and then kind of rolled on from there.
IR: I think my experience was different, only because there were a lot of rock magazines around when I was growing up, so I saw the evidence that you could do this, whereas you started early enough that you had to imagine that this was possible more so than see examples of it that you could copy. I was reading Hit Parader and GO magazine and 16. I also read Broadside and Sing Out! because I was a folk guy, I was a red diaper baby in a left-wing commie summer camp and all that. So, reading about music was something I grew up with. By the time I was fifteen or sixteen I thought, “Well I can do that.” Your leap of faith was bigger than mine, you had to actually create the environment.
GS: Well, maybe. At that time, Hit Parader was really pretty solid. And that was really the only thing going besides Gleason, for me anyway. And when I heard there was a magazine just about rock ‘n’ roll, the real thing, and I saw the first Crawdaddy, I couldn’t believe it.
IR: You know what’s really funny, I’ve been looking at old photographs recently. I have a fair number of pictures of bands that we interviewed holding up Trouser Press and reading Trouser Press. This is like in the mid ‘70s, I’m looking at these magazines and they’re so amateurish. They’re poorly printed, they’re mimeographed—the idea that bands were looking at this stuff and taking it seriously in retrospect seems almost unthinkable. The idea that Status Quo or The Troggs or Sparks would be sitting there reading something we had typed, literally typed on a typewriter, just seemed sort of out of character These guys are standing on stages in front of tens of thousands of people and we’re printing on a mimeograph machine and they’re taking us seriously, because there wasn’t a lot of other journalism around that was interested in them.
GS: Yeah, and plus just the explosion of records and groups at that time. The labels had to get coverage of these guys wherever they could, and we were all a part of that.
IR: Yeah, and Trouser Press had the advantage at the time, we were so focused on British bands that someone like Capitol would bring some EMI signing over, no one had any clue who they were, but we put our hands up, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll give you The Troggs.” Who else in America was going to be caring about The Troggs in 1975 when they had a record out on Pye America?
Did Mojo Navigator precede Crawdaddy?
GS: I think so. Ira, do you know offhand?
IR: I don’t know offhand, but I think Greg Shaw was still doing a science fiction fanzine before Crawdaddy came along.
GS: It started in ‘66, ‘cause that’s when I wrote for it, and so did Crawdaddy.
So they started around the same time. But there was no real rock magazine before those.
GS: Well like I was saying, you had coverage of pretty hip groups in Hit Parader. I mean, they’d write pieces about the Blues Project, who had no hit records.
IR: And 16 magazine also, and there was this thing called GO magazine, which was a free giveaway that was sponsored by local radio stations. And that must have started in ‘65. Weirdly enough, that was edited by Robin Leach. It was a tabloid, but it was only like 16 pages. The daily papers had rock coverage also. The New York Times had Janet Maslin writing about music, and John Rockwell. There were people covering it, but were there dedicated music magazines? I don’t know. The first thing I was really serious about was Melody Maker. About ‘68 or ‘69 I started subscribing by sea mail to Melody Maker, they would come rolled up in a tube, about six, eight, 10 weeks late. It was hysterical. Like, “Wow, The Who broke up!” But we were obsessed with that, that was like our lifeline because that was all I was interested in was the British stuff.
Was Paul Williams a direct inspiration to you as a writer?
IR: As a writer less so than as a publisher, just the idea of a music magazine. I never really learned how to write in any sense of “I want to write like this guy.” I took it all in, but I always just went on instinct. I was fairly grammar-friendly and had done some writing, but I didn’t read rock magazines and go “I want to write like this guy.” You couldn’t read Lester [Bangs] and not think, “I gotta loosen up, I’ve gotta be more wild, I’ve gotta have more strong opinions about things.” But the writers that I really looked up to were Nik Cohn and Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. I think I was probably less attuned to style than I was to content.
GS: I agree with that, the influence of Williams was more like, “Here’s somebody that’s doing it.” I will say I think Shaw and David Harris at Mojo Navigator did influence me. It was good, clear writing and it was enthusiastic in a way that became even more so in [Shaw’s subsequent magazine] Bomp. He was such an advocate for stuff that you wanted to get up and tear the doors down and go in and do this thing. He was an influence that way.
IR: I think the early Trouser Press was influenced to a degree by Alan Betrock, because he had Rock Marketplace, and that kind of insane, discographically astute, fussy, “The B side of this is better than the B side of that,” and “look for the green label that came from Poland,” that kind of stuff. We really shouldered that and took a lot of that on. My father was a philatelist, so I was familiar with the picayune details of collecting, that was kind of in my blood. But Alan really was the only writer I knew who fussed over records the way he did. And Trouser Press for the first year or two did a lot of that. And then we took over the auction ads that Rock Marketplace was running when he folded and started New York Rocker.
GS: He’s really missed, he was a good friend. And also, God, just think of the amount of information that was exchanged in TRM. People would write in and say, “I went to a thrift shop last week and this is what I found,” that are now acknowledged girl-group classics or psych-pop classics.
IR: The thing that comes up most in conversation about this kind of stuff for me is always explaining to people who aren’t our age that there was a time that learning about rock music required actual research. There was no internet, there were no magazines, there were no books, there was no MTV, there was no place to go to learn the facts about what you were hearing. You had records in your hand, you had the liner notes that you read, and after that you were pretty much on your own. Gene, what you were saying about going to a thrift shop, it was like, “Oh, there’s a British edition of this album and it’s got different songs on it!” That was the primary research. And we were finding this stuff out and sharing that information, and then it entered into the vernacular.
How do you think the dynamic is different for those who’ve never known anything but the information age?
IR: I can’t imagine how they think about it. How do they think we did what we did?
GS: The one good thing about the information age is that if you’re listening to Spotify or whatever, if you find something that piques your interest you can go deep and jump in a hole and find out everything. You don’t have to go to thrift stores, although I sort of miss the romance, the joy of those types of adventures of discovery.
IR: When I became a Who freak in 1966 after hearing The Who Sell Out, the first thing I did was go to a record store to see if they had any other albums. I had no way of knowing if they had other albums. There were no biographies of The Who that I could read to see what I’d missed. I just had to go to record stores and find out what they had. My [Trouser Press] partner Dave Schulps and I would just go to the 69 cent stores and buy anything we saw that looked interesting, and then try to figure out what it was, and how it connected to other things. We were making all these “if you like this, you’ll like that” connections in real time through our own sweat equity.
What have your basic tenets been over the years for conducting an effective interview?
IR: For me it’s always, “Be prepared, have a strategic idea of the sequence you’re going to go in. I usually jot down every thought that I have about what I want to ask and then I put them in some sort of order. I know what my opening question is; I really think about what’s going to get me in the door. I tried to be sort of buddy-buddy with artists—not buttering them up, but showing that I know who they are, and developing a confidence level by showing respect, interest, knowledge, all those things, rather than the horrible interview where it’s like, “So can you tell me what city you’re from?”
You have to be willing to ask the stupid question that actually embarrasses you because you want the answer. As I wrote several times, you always save the dangerous question for last. You never start with the “When did you stop beating your wife?” question, because you know the interview could end right then and there. In my third volume [of Music in a Word] that I’m preparing, I had my back and forth with Morrissey, in which it wasn’t me saying the dangerous things, it was him. At the end of the interview, he said something about immigration, because he’s a virulent jingoist In England and very anti-Asian, and he said, “My dream is to sit at Heathrow in a deck chair with a shotgun and blast them as they come off the plane from India.” I was like, “Fuck!” Looking back over the interviews in my books, I’m shocked at some of the questions I had the nerve to ask people. Ian McCulloch from Echo & the Bunnymen, I talked about his alcoholism. Nowadays you can’t bring up hot-button subjects because the publicist will click off on you.
GS: I’ll just give you my worst one. I agree with you, I try to be real schooled before I go into interviews When I was at Radio & Records, these promotion men would come by every week. One day the publisher, Bob Wilson, said, “Get your tape recorder, we’re going over to Martoni’s. We’ve got to interview Art Garfunkel. His solo album is coming out.” I said, “Is there a record [to listen to], is there something?” “No, no, let’s go over there right now.” Wilson pushes me up with my little tape recorder with Art Garfunkel, who was the biggest putz I’ve ever known, I have no problem saying this. So, I was totally unprepared and trying to think of a question, so I said, “Well, this is your first album. How did you go about writing the songs on this?” He said, “I don’t write songs.” He shut me down on everything, it was horrible.
IR: Yeah, those interviews where you get off on the wrong foot, those are always hard to come back from. I was interviewing Bowie about 10 years ago and I went onto this soliloquy. I went off on this long spiel about how much I love the song “Rebel Rebel” and I said, “It’s incredible what Carlos Alomar did on that guitar part.” He said, “That wasn’t Carlos Alomar, that was me.” But he was so nice about it. He could have made me out to be a complete asshole. He was very polite about it, he just corrected me daintily.
Was there ever an artist that either of you championed who other writers tended to tear down?
IR: Pretty much my entire career [laughs]!
GS: I think we probably both championed longshots that we were passionate about.
IR: I have people who I really love who were largely hated, yeah. For me it’s usually the opposite, I usually tear down people who everybody agrees are godheads. I’m the Bruce Springsteen hater in the club.
GS: I will say that in my book I talk about how much I love Rick Astley, “Together Forever.” I think that’s an opinion not shared by too many rock critics [laughs]. A lot of us—I’m thinking about Shaw and Betrock and Ken Barnes—I think a lot of us were advocates for things that weren’t ever going to get a lot of critical, Dave Marsh/Springsteen-type adulation.
IR: I’m the kind of person that champions pop music with the understanding that it doesn’t mean popular. But yeah, you’re right, we championed sort of two strains of bands. One is the ones that nobody knew about, the weird find that we discovered opening for some band on a Thursday night in a club. And then there were the ones everybody knew about but nobody cared about. You took up the cause because they needed the love.
VIDEO: Rick Astley “Together Forever”
You were both perfectly placed for different musical revolutions and approached them very differently. Gene, you were the first to write a feature about the San Francisco scene. You talk about this in your book, but can you say a bit about the experience of being on the ground for that?
GS: I had a radio show in college, ‘65, ‘66, but then I started reading about, like I said, Ralph Gleason writing about these dances and things that were happening in San Francisco. I was going to college at UC Davis, which is in Sacramento. So, this buddy of mine and I hitchhiked down to San Francisco and went to see the first appearance of the [Paul] Butterfield band there at the Fillmore with Quicksilver [Messenger Service]. And it was just astounding: the music and that there were that many people who wanted to hear, like Ira was saying, this stuff that wasn’t popular. Nobody knew about this stuff and yet there were hundreds, maybe a thousand people there. Frisco was sort of the first to suspend plural-noun band names, and I would read about these bands like the Great Society and the Mystery Trend and Jefferson Airplane. What could these possibly be? And you’d go and see all these bands and each one was distinct and different. It was wonderful, but as you say it was an accident of geography and temporality, I guess.
IR: Did you get drawn into the drug culture there?
GS: I went to most of those dances pretty straight. I was trying to be non-drug, because I had a cousin, who was actually the guy who turned me on to this…and he drove off the deep end. Sometimes when you tell people you like The Grateful Dead, which I certainly, in the beginning, loved them, people say, “Of course you liked them, you were stoned.” But the truth is that I wasn’t stoned most of the time and I still liked them, so there.
IR: I always have a really hard time explaining to people that I’ve been in the music business for 50 years and never used drugs. People can’t believe that I was able to be backstage and things like that and never been obliged or enticed to use drugs.
GS: That must place both of us outside the mainstream.
IR: I was just thinking that. You seem kind of straight to me. You’re talking about the Grateful Dead and the San Francisco scene. I would imagine that it was almost de rigueur to be high at those shows.
GS: There was a lot of sex and drugs, but it was mostly music for me.
IR: I had this conversation with Legs McNeil once, I did a piece when [his punk book] Please Kill Me came out. We agreed that we had totally different experiences at CBGB. I was there writing about the bands, and he was there getting blow jobs in the toilet. He said, “You’ve got to understand I wasn’t there to see the bands! I wasn’t paying attention to the music!”
It’s often the case that moments in cultural history that become part of iconography were in fact a lot different than the way they’re portrayed. Do you think that was the case with the early San Francisco scene?
GS: Oh, very much so. There’s a great quote from Paul Kantner, which I don’t necessarily believe, but it has a kernel of truth in it, which was that up until a certain part of 1966 almost anything that you wanted to believe could come true. What it was like in the beginning was not what it was like by 1967. When you look at pictures or videos of all that now, what happens is that the photographer or the video person sees a bunch of people outdoors and they’ll focus on the guy with the tie-dye and the girl who is straddling the shoulders of her boyfriend. In the very beginning it was different. It was a bunch of college kids. You know, I had a corduroy coat or an army jacket, and girls just looked like girls looked in 1966. It hadn’t been codified yet. That’s what’s so weird when I tell people that I was there, they say, “Oh you must have smoked dope and you had the tie-dye. And I say, “No, no!” It would have been the same in New York with punk.
IR: Absolutely. We went to shows wearing the clothes we had come from work in. The bands didn’t have crew cuts or shaved heads, they had long hair. The Ramones always had long hair. It was a small audience, and the same people would always go to shows. It wasn’t like this mass movement of people flocking to CBGB. Before CBGB even became a happening place there was already a small scene that was even smaller, with bands like Suicide and The Fast and The Planets and the [New York] Dolls. That was a very, very minor phenomenon. There were very few people who actually knew about that stuff. They were all in clubs that held like a hundred people. Even CB’s at its best…anything more than 150 was crowded.
So, you’re talking about legendary concerts that were witnessed by, like, a hundred people. The New York scene in ‘75, ‘76, ‘77, it was small. It was insular. Everybody knew everybody. There was very little competition. And there was absolutely no ambition that was visible. Nobody was trying to get rich or have a hit record. People wanted to get signed because this was before the days of independent labels being predominant. Everyone was waiting for the labels to come calling and they didn’t until Arista got Patti Smith. And then Elektra got Television and Sire signed The Ramones and The Dead Boys and Richard Hell. And that was it for like three years of effort. There was never, like, a feeding frenzy in New York. Mink DeVille got signed, and Tuff Darts, The Shirts. There weren’t a lot of bands that got signed. There were way more bands playing.
GS: In retrospect, all these things seem like they were inevitable. But they weren’t. In Frisco the Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother [& The Holding Company] too, they each released about three or four singles and nothing happened. It looked like, “Okay, maybe this thing just stays here, we don’t know.”
Click here for Part Two!
VIDEO: Jefferson Airplane “If You Feel Like China Breaking”
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