A candid conversation with Ira Robbins and Gene Sculatti, continued
Music journalism heroes Ira Robbins and Gene Sculatti helped put some major movements on the map in America, and here’s where they convene for the first time to look back on it all.
We left off with Robbins about to look back on his New York-based magazine Trouser Press’s front-row seat for the late-’70s NYC punk/New Wave boom.
Where were we….
IR: Looking through the wrong end of the telescope you get a completely different perspective than if you lived through it. At Trouser Press we had this really stupid idea that we were trying so hard to be a national magazine, that we didn’t want to take a focus on New York City because then it would seem like we were a New York magazine. None of those bands had records, so we felt like if we wrote about Television or The Marbles or The Mumps that no one outside New York could have any way to hear them. There was literally no way to hear them. These bands weren’t ready to tour. They didn’t have any records out. So, we were very cautious not to write about those bands, and as a result, we wrote about them a little, but we downplayed the scene that we were at ground zero for. We could have been much more active in terms of documenting that whole era. And then the [New York] Rocker came along and did exactly that.
VIDEO: Television with Richard Hell on NYC public access TV
Judging from the earliest live recordings of bands like Television and Blondie, it must have seemed ludicrous at the time that they would go on to any kind of mainstream success.
IR: Yeah, absolutely. I actually had an experience with Richard Lloyd when I was doing a piece for MOJO where I thought I was saying something complimentary, he took it exactly the wrong way. When I started seeing [Television] at Max’s [Kansas City] with Richard Hell, they were a really loose kind of agglomeration. They weren’t tight, they meandered all over the place, Billy was a really loose, sloppy drummer. But by the time they made the first album, they were like a precision machine. So, I said to Richard, “I’m really curious how you got from being incompetent at the beginning to the incredible skills you showed on the record.” And he took it as an incredible insult. You’re actually right, Jim. The quality of their playing was pretty poor, and Blondie was notorious also for being a really awful live band. I mean they were fine, but they were never tight in the early days. Clem [Burke] was always a great drummer, but they just kind of went off in different directions.
The Ramones were always chaotic. Even by the time they were signed they were still stopping in the middle of songs and doing them again. Dee Dee was always the weak link. Their big coming-out show, when their first album came out, they played the Bottom Line. Dee Dee couldn’t tune his own bass, so Johnny had to come over and grab the pegs and tune the bass for Dee Dee onstage. It was that sloppy. But every band you love was like that. The Kinks, The Who, they were all kind of messes when they started, because they were trying things out. They all figured it out.
Trouser Press kind of disproved the received notion that before punk everyone was just sort of sitting on their hands in the mid-70s.
IR: We started very much historically. The first issue had David Fricke writing about the Animals, in 1974, so clearly, we were not overly concerned with being contemporary. But from there we started with prog rock and stuff like that, a lot of Genesis, and then the glam bands, Mott the Hoople and Slade and T. Rex and such. I was a big fan of Cockney Rebel and Be Bop Deluxe…we had stuff to write about. But then once the New Wave stuff happened, it kind of swamped everything else for us because it was so much fun.
Let’s talk about the idea of critic vs. journalist. Is there a difference between the two, and where do you feel like you fall in that spectrum?
GS: Ira had his own magazine, so your personal taste is gonna have some more space there.
IR: I would say criticism is a component of journalism. I think of myself as both. I think being a critic is a more complicated issue for me. I’ve done more criticism than I’ve done journalism, but I would say that criticism is more what I think of myself as, being a critic. I cling to criticism as my identity because I think that articulating quality and evaluating is really what I’m good at and what I think is important in my writing life.
GS: The printed word has a lot of power. We don’t think of it so much when we write these things, but sometimes the guy whose work you’re criticizing, he sees that and maybe no one else but him saw it. And I think that’s maybe where an anti-rock-critic animus comes from, “This guy is going out of his way to put me down.”
IR: I’ve had that experience of artists being very upset at things I’ve written.
GS: And like, “Who the hell are these guys to give us their opinion on this thing?”
IR: Yeah, I had that conversation with Michael Bolton once, it was pretty amusing.
GS: You develop this critical apparatus for judging things, anyone does. What bothers me is that if I were to express a lack of interest in something that somebody makes now, I would be categorically dismissed by my age. Sort of like, “Well, you’re 75 years old, what the fuck do you know?” But the thing is, if you have standards of evaluation, they should be able to be applied by somebody 75, Somebody 25, and, you know, good’s good. And I think when you lose that, you start segmenting it out, which gets into identity politics and all that other crap. It’s sort of like, “Well, you speak to these guys, and I speak to these guys.” There was a whole piece in the New York Times Magazine about “Whither democracy, how do we keep this thing going?” Once you’ve got this atomized society like this, we need some common place we can all start from.
IR: I agree with what you’re saying, with one big caveat, which is that while we’ve got the equipment to make judgments about any kind of art that we come across because we’ve got these critical faculties, the purpose of music has changed over time. Like dance music for instance, dance music was not created for anything like why The Beatles existed. When the music is created for a completely antithetical purpose to what we grew up caring about—and I think the same case could be made for pop music that’s being written by six people and produced by 12 people in three different countries and then auto-tuned and then remixed by somebody else—that doesn’t have a continuity culturally with what we are good at. And I kind of agree with the idea that I’m too old to write about Dua Lipa.
To what extent do you feel like your job is to describe what a record sounds like versus deciding whether you think it’s good?
IR: Equally, those are the two sides of the coin. You have to do both.
GS: Yeah, and I think your service to the reader, first off, is describing what the hell this is, and then the second is to give your evaluation.
IR: I always figured that my job as a critic is to describe the content, figure out what the goal was, and then evaluate how closely they reached the goal. There are sounds in music that are kind of pleasure centers for me, though, and I have a hard time distinguishing something that I know makes me happy to hear from having a critical evaluation of it. Like, every pop punk record sounds good to me because I just love that sound. And yet I have to force myself to think critically about why the Green Day record is different from the Rancid record. It’s hard to hear The Ramones and not just feel the sheer pleasure of the barre chords and the drums and everything, and yet I have a hard time thinking about whether I actually like the music itself or I just like the rush of the sound. Have you ever not liked a song that has hand claps in it? It’s really hard to not like a song that has handclaps.
GS: Like so much Motown, yeah.
IR: The other side is also the familiarity. Like, I can’t stand Led Zeppelin. And yet I’ve heard their records so many times unintentionally that it triggers that kind of endorphin thing, like, “I know this, I know what lyric’s coming next. I know where the guitar solo is.” And all those things are pleasurable. But familiarity and quality are not the same thing.
At the same time, you might have a band that’s doing something like The Ramones and either doing it really poorly or doing it really well.
IR: Yeah, but there’s also the residual resistance to repetition. You don’t want somebody not doing their own thing. Like, The Queers were essentially—and intended to be—a Ramones copy band. They’ve actually done entire Ramones albums. I love them as much as I love The Ramones, and probably more. But it’s never bothered me that they essentially took the noise of The Ramones and kind of turned it to their own purposes. But there’s other bands that, to me, just seemed redundant because they’re not adding anything.
Are there things that your favorite music writers have done in their writing that you wish you were able to do?
IR: There are people who can marshal much more complex thoughts than I can.
GS: I think [Nick] Tosches was like that for me in a way.
IR: Tosches can bring passion to writing that I never had. He just got inside that stuff. There’s a line of his in that Unsung Heroes [of Rock ‘n’ Roll] book, about Wanda Jackson, that sent me out buying Wanda Jackson records, literally one sentence. He said she sounded like her G-spot was hot enough to fry an egg on. I had no idea what that meant in terms of music, but I had to hear that immediately.
GS: Two guys I can think of who I love their writing, has to do with their ability to convince me that what they’re writing about is something I’m going to like. But on the other hand, it’s also just about the excitement of the writing. Nick Cohn would be the first person, who was basically like Tom Wolfe or something. And then Jon Savage was another guy. He’s someone who seems to continue to be able to find fresh things to say about older stuff. On the other hand, when you read those first couple of Greil Marcus books like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces you really got the sense that here was a guy who was tying a whole bunch of disparate things together, and he’s finding stuff that I didn’t know was there. Then when I would read him subsequently, I was like, “I’m not sure, he might be finding stuff there that isn’t there.”
IR: When Greg Tate died, I bought Flyboy in the Buttermilk, which I’d never read before, and found it really fascinating. I found him to be a very impressive writer. He could sum it up. When you’re writing, all you have is what’s in your head. I was just very impressed by the degree to which he was able to sum up disparate things, just pull them in and in just the right place, I thought that was really impressive.
GS: That’s the way the best of [Norman] Mailer’s journalism always struck me. He’d corral this vast universe of stuff.
JA: Besides the ones we’ve just talked about, what are a few of your favorite music books?
IR: Unsung Heroes by Tosches for sure.
GS: Well, Cohn’s book, I think in Britain it was called A Wop Bop A Loo Bop A Lop Bam Boom.
IR: I’ve read a lot of bios and memoirs, and the odd ones I really like. Roger Daltrey’s memoir is really down to earth and fun and kind of revealing. There’s a really amazing book Kristin Hersh wrote about Vic Chesnutt called Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, and it’s kind of a love letter to Vic, who I really admired, and it’s really a haunting book. Pete Frame wrote a book called The Restless Generation, which is about English rock before Cliff Richard, basically, and it’s unbelievable. It’s like discovering that there’s an entire world of music that you had no idea existed. The [Mark] Lewisohn first volume of The Beatles [All These Years] was a book that I had on my shelf for years. And I was like, “I’m never going to read this thousand-page book about a band that I already know about and I don’t even want to care about anymore.” And then I read it and I was absolutely riveted from page one to page 1000.
GS: Jon Savage’s books. There’s one on 1966 [1966: The Year the Decade Exploded]. England’s Dreaming is another one, and Teenage. George Melly’s Revolt into Style is another one. That was great. Another great one is the last Lou Reed biography, by Anthony DeCurtis [Lou Reed: A Life]. That was very good.
IR: Barney Hoskyns’ Band biography [Across the Great Divide] is really good. His Woodstock book [Small Town Talk] is even better. He wrote a biography of the town of Woodstock, basically.
GS: Joel Selvin’s Bert Berns book [Here Comes the Night] is great. And his book about L.A. in the ‘50s and Jan & Dean and stuff [Hollywood Eden].
You guys have both published a number of books, and I wanted to ask you whether at this point you prefer doing that to doing magazine or newspaper work.
GS: I certainly do. The last two books I’ve done, my selected writing, I published them myself, and I get to do what I want. And I’m a better writer now than I used to be. So, for that reason, writing these books has been great.
IR: I’ve self-published four books and I finally decided this year that I’m going to make Trouser Press Books a real book-publishing company. So, I’ve actually signed up a book that I’m going to publish that I didn’t write. Basically, my full-time job now is, I’m trying to create a small press. I kind of want to publish books more than write them right now. Writing is time-consuming and tedious. I still have a third volume to knock out of my memoir thing, but I’ve got some other projects in mind that don’t involve me sitting and writing for a long time. I like the idea of publishing books. In a perfect world, Gene and I would publish something together.
What’s the book you’re publishing that you didn’t write?
IR: It’s Mitchell Cohen’s biography of Arista Records [Looking for the Magic]. It’s a small book but it’s a really great history of Arista from the Bell/Amy days up through Whitney Houston, basically.
Gene, your first book was The Catalog of Cool. How did that come about?
GS: It Was 1980. I think the Whole Earth Catalog was still around. It was still a big thing, and it was all about chemical toilets and growing your own marijuana and all this crap that was the worst end of Frisco. I just never liked it, and by that point punk was happening and New Wave was happening. And there was, all of a sudden, an interest in a lot of stylish things from the past, whether it was skinny ties or detective novels, or camp stuff—stuff that was just cool and stylish as opposed to utilitarian and spiritual or something. And I said, “Why can’t somebody do a book like that?”
And I knew a guy who was working for some [publishing] house out here and he said, “That’s a good idea, let’s do it.” I made up a sample chapter and got some buddies of mine to write for it, and this guy got me an appointment with, like, five different houses in Manhattan. I flew to Manhattan with these giant boards of layouts. It was raining horribly, and I couldn’t get a cab, so I was walking, and these things were getting drenched. And I went to all these places. There was a guy at one house who was a Lord Buckley fan and I said, “This is it!” A couple of days later a woman named Nancy Neiman, who worked for Warner Bros, she called up and made an offer.
The actual writing is kind of stylized too, which I have to assume was on purpose.
GS: Well, mine certainly was. Everybody who I lined up to contribute had some kind of sync with my aesthetics, and I was trying to write in a sort of Lord Buckley hipsomatic way, but not trying to be obscure or anything. It’s just a style that harked back to so many things that the whole explosion of punk and New Wave had brought up again, popness and real energy and fun, and that’s what I wanted to put into the writing.
What are the things that you’re both proudest of in your careers?
IR: I’m really proud of my second novel, I think I created something of value there and I’m really happy to have done that. As a journalist…I think the Television story I did for MOJO was really strong, I researched the hell out of that and did a good job. But yeah, I’ll stick by my novel, Marc Bolan Killed in Crash.
GS: I’m very proud of all the books I did, San Francisco Nights with Davin Seay, Catalog of Cool and Too Cool. And then I’m glad I did this current memoir stuff. I feel like the best writing I did was for the liner notes when Omnivore did a reissue of Ron Nagle’s 1970 album, Bad Rice, and I’m so in love with that record.
Let’s talk about your latest books. Gene, how did the idea start for this one?
GS: Well, like I said in the introduction, there was not a lot going on during the pandemic and I’d been listening to a lot of records and done a lot of reading and stuff. I started putting down these epiphanies about things I remembered so deeply. I found that I had enough interesting stuff to say or things to attach to those records that maybe there’s a whole bigger thing here, and then I did it.
It makes a great companion to your previous book too, Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ‘Bout Rock and Roll, because in this book we can read about some of the pieces you’ve done—like you talk about doing that first piece on the San Francisco scene for Crawdaddy, or that early piece on The Beach Boys in ‘68—and then if you look at your previous book, there those pieces are for you to read. You could have both of them on hand and go back and forth.
GS: I don’t have any of what some people call guilty pleasures. If I liked something when I was eight years old, I may still like it.
Ira, I guess we should talk about both volumes of Music in a Word.
IR: For years people asked me about doing a Best of Trouser Press, and then I had people telling me that I should write a memoir. And I pooh-poohed both of those ideas because I know the commercial potential that both of them have, which is essentially nil. But somebody asked me a while back, he was gathering up some of his own writing and he asked if I had any problem with him using the stuff that he wrote for Trouser Press, and I said, “Of course not.” But I came away with the idea that that’s something I could do, I could publish an e-book of all my best writing over the years. And then I thought, “Well, I’ll narrate it, I’ll give it some context.”
Then I started to realize that it was really long. The whole thing was about 1200 pages. So, I thought, “Well I’m not gonna publish a 1200-page e-book, that’d be ridiculous.” It occurred to me that maybe splitting it into three volumes was the way to do it. The first one focused on the first half of my career, from being a kid to how I got into it, to Trouser Press and that era, up through my days at Newsday in the mid ‘90s. So now I have two done, the second one is focused solely on nine artists, and then the third is odds and ends, it’s got Interviews and obituaries and book reviews and some more things I didn’t have room for. I’m going to have that out sometime in the summer, and in the meantime, I’m publishing Mitchell’s book.
One of the things I appreciate about it is the absolute honesty that you maintain. You talk about the things that you love, but if somebody was a jerk to you, you have no qualms about talking about it, or if something went down that you’re still bitter about, you’ll come out and say it. And you’re your own harshest critic.
IR: I don’t know if it’s advisable, but I’m from the school that if the bully’s gonna smash your glasses, might as well take them off and do it yourself. I’d just as soon criticize myself before letting other people do it. So, I know when I fucked up. And I can be ashamed of it, but I can also be honest about it. I don’t think there’s any harm in that.
GS: What I really liked was when you interviewed people you didn’t like or something like that. When you wrote about Tears for Fears it just revealed that Roland Orzabal seemed to be the big, smug ass that I always assumed he was, it was a confirmation [laughs].
IR: He was very entertaining, but he was so high-handed, everything was like “I’ve worked it all out, I’ve understood everything, I know what I’m doing.” You made a record, and you spent a million dollars recording [drummer] Manu Katche and then using him to trigger a MIDI synthesizer of Charlie Watts’ snare and Ringo Starr’s hi-hat and you had to piece it together note by note over the course of a year. You couldn’t get the fucking guys just to play the song? It doesn’t sound that different!
Trouser Press and The Catalog of Cool both had a huge role in defining my tastes, and I know for a fact that I’m far from alone in that. When did you guys become conscious of the impact of what you’ve done, and how do you feel about it?
IR: I became conscious of the impact of Trouser Press around 1995. It had been defunct for 10 years before I realized it mattered to people. When we were still doing it, it was impossible to discern what impact we were having. We were a small, underfunded business desperately trying to stay alive for a long time. The feeling that we mattered to people was very hard to discern through the fog of just trying to keep doing it. More people told me what Trouser Press meant to them in the years after it existed than had ever said it to me while it existed. I came to value it in ways that I hadn’t been able to value it before, so it was posthumously.
GS: I think mine is kind of similar, because I’ve had people over the years come up to me and say what you said, Jim, about how much the Catalog meant to them and stuff like that. The one that was especially gratifying to me was about San Francisco Nights that Davin Seay and I did. [Writer/producer/musician] Alec Palao was in England, and he was much younger than me, and he read the book. And he was so flipped by the fact that this was an account of that time that wasn’t full of tie-dyed, bespectacled, all that stuff, and it was more about the rock ‘n’ rollness of it, that he wanted to come to America. And he started a fanzine over there called Creampuff War, and later he came here, and he’s done all this great work. And he was inspired by that, and that’s great.
Okay, well thank you both so much, I’m really thrilled that we were able to do this.
IR: I can’t imagine how you’re gonna winnow through all of this!
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