A People With Passion series
January 24, 2012: Jim DeRogatis
We are meeting in Jim DeRogatis‘s office at Columbia College. Jim, or DeRo as he sometimes calls himself, is a large, excitable, generous man — he is in person very much as he is on his radio show Sound Opinions, and during our conversation, (which lasts a little over an hour) I am treated to my own mini DeRo solo show, replete with countless names of bands, albums, song, newspapers, magazines, writers, and events.
As he tells his stories, he routinely takes on voices of the people he is talking about; throughout our time, he launches into brief vocal interpretations of Robert Christgau, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, a New York club owner, a cranky old woman, a British newspaper editor, an excited teenager, his New Jersey mother, a cowering Chicagoan, and his partner Greg Kot. He pulls no punches, and let’s no hero go unloved; he is, as he tells me, “an obsessive fan with obsessive opinions to inflict on people.”
In Part I of this 24th installment of my Chicago journalism interview series, Chicago music critic Jim DeRogatis discusses his introduction to music and music criticism, his interview with his idol Lester Bangs two weeks before Bangs’ death, and his early journalism years.
I grew up just across the Hudson River from Manhattan – you know, Jersey City – in Hoboken, between the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. Our local newspaper was the Jersey Journal. It was a 65,000 circulation daily paper when I started working there, eventually.
Hudson County was a very colorful place. You know, it’s very Sopranos. All of the problems of the bigger metropolis across the river with none of the charms. No museum of modern art. What we had was the exhaust from the tunnels. But in terms of crime, political corruption, drama – you name it – it was a fascinating place to be a journalist, and before that, to read the journalism.
I was an obsessive rock fan from 13 or so, all through high school. I always felt much as Lester Bangs did – I was an obsessive fan with obsessive opinions to inflict on people. I played music in bands. I collected music obsessively. I wrote about music. I eventually played it on college radio. It was all the same impulse to me. So growing up that close to New York, discovering Manhattan in concentric circles from the PATH train stop at 6th Avenue and 9th Street. (Excited teenager voice.) Walking to Bleecker Bob’s, and then Washington Square Park, and eventually CBGB, right?
I worshiped the Village Voice. The writing about culture, arts, politics, sex – everything. And this was the height of alternative newspapers, the kind of new journalism ideals of the 70s that got me excited about journalism. They were tri-fold. There was investigative reporting. Woodward and Bernstein. Watergate. Sacred text All The President’s Men. The Silkwood reporting in Rolling Stone – although I never liked Rolling Stone. But every once in a while the journalism was good. And Hunter Thompson. I discovered Kerouac first, and of course Fear and Loathing is just the 60s version of On the Road.
So alright, Hunter Thompson. But also this notion – I’m teaching a class now on advanced readings in creative nonfiction, the new journalism, where we’re looking at that 70s movement and also how it’s continued. Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism Anthology changed my life. Not only is journalism important, has an impact on society, is a noble calling, “Can save the democracy!” as Woodward and Bernstein did, “Can save the planet!” as the nuclear Silkwood reporting did, right? – It can be art. Journalism is literature. “Journalism is more powerful than literature,” Tom Wolfe said, because we can use the techniques of the short story writer or the novelist, but we’re writing the truth. Ironically, Wolfe becomes a good to mediocre novelist himself eventually…
But these ideals were strong. They had preceded me. They’re alive and well in the Village Voice. And Lester Bangs is writing for the Village Voice. And film critics in the Village Voice are extraordinary. The food – I mean, every writer in the Village Voice is amazing. So when alternative weeklies were continuing to pursue this ideal of a particular kind of journalism, that’s what got me excited. The Jersey Journal was fun to read, but there wasn’t no genius reporting in the Jersey Journal, or in the Star Ledger. Both mediocre Newhouse papers.
I feel like every music fan has two (pause) bumps in their awareness of music. The first is just the first tapes or CDs or records – however old you were – that were something adult that wasn’t Mickey Mouse Show or Sharon, Lois, and Bram or whatever – there was that one when you were like ten or eleven, and then there was the first one where you went, “Oh, this is REALLY good. This is now something that, whoa…”
Well, I would alter that and say “This really speaks to me, personally.”
Because when you first discover the music, it seems adult and forbidden and enticing. Sexy. It sucks you in. And then you realize, “Wait a minute, this is my life.” So I would say you’re close. If you take a sociology class on, say, the drug culture, or gay subcultures, or sexual subcultures, generally speaking you need someone to initiate you. Because who knows how to roll a joint and smoke a joint and properly inhale and all that? You don’t. An older, cooler friend teaches you the way, and the lingo, and the same thing with going to a gay club, or whatever. Any subculture, cultural underground –
I remember Josh Engel teaching me how to dribble a basketball.
There you go. Yeah! I suppose that’s even the same. More importantly, how to look cool on the basketball court, and not like the nerd.
So I had an older cousin who had these albums and passed them along. I inherited some Black Sabbath. I’d fallen in love with the Beatles early on. I think the first albums I bought were the Beatles Blue and Red best-of collections, and those were amazing. And I saw Beatlemania on Broadway and I just thought that was cool. I remember being a freshman in high school, it was a Hudson Catholic Regional School for Boys, and we had mass, it just so happened, the morning after John Lennon was assassinated. This cheesy band was supposed to play something from Godspell or something, and instead they played Let It Be. And the way that bass drum resounded through the high school gym, it was just fucking brilliant, and very emotional.
And you were right in that 16 or 17 year old range – if one of my musical idols had been shot and killed when I was 16 or 17 –
Well, I listened to WNEW, which was kind of the XRT of New York. Really cool. And moving from playing Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin to B-52s and Talking Heads circa ’80. And there was this wonderful DJ who was from Hudson County, Vin Scelsa, and he’s still a legendary New York radio personality, and he was on the air that night. Normally I would always have the radio on – I would fall asleep to it and wake up to it. So that made an impact.
But I think really, initially, I was way enamored of Jethro Tull. I think the first concert I saw was 1978, Jethro Tull at Madison Square Garden. UK opening – John Wetton and Terry Bozzio, who would go on to Missing Persons – um, you know, way into progressive rock. Because I read a lot, Tolkien, and all this comic book stuff, Yes and Genesis and Jethro Tull, and then the older cousin who’d initially passed down the Yes, Genesis, Zeppelin records and Black Sabbath soon is into Clash and the Ramones.
So there was a period there – and actually, this is my aesthetic in a nutshell – I’ve never repudiated the Yes, Genesis – well, some of it – but I would say I have this dichotomy as a critic: I love psychedelic rock, which is the attempt to transcend. “Go toward the white light,” you know. Music that is spiritual and intellectual. And I love the punk rock, which is purely physical. Rolling around in the gutter in the slime and muck and sex and dope, right? It’s heaven and hell. But then Aldous Huxley said – you know, he coined the word “psychedelic” from Greek roots meaning “soul revealing” or “mind manifesting” – you know, “To fathom hell or soar angelic, take a pinch of psychedelic,” he wrote in a poem when he coined the word. To me, there’s never been a conflict between psychedelia and punk, or liking Genesis – or equally loving Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and London Calling. (Laughs.) So there you go. (Laughs.)
Not that I understood any of this at this time. But I was a senior in 1982, and the smart kids at my all-boys Catholic school took masterpieces of Western literature, and the football team took journalism. Short sentences, okay? No highfalutin ideals at my school’s journalism class. The guy who taught it likes to follow my career so I hate to badmouth him much, but there were no high ideals. And I was driving him crazy with these questions about “What is the new journalism?” and “What is investigative reporting?” and “What is the difference between criticism and journalism?”
So he says to me – I took both masterpieces and journalism, I was the only smart kid in the class – so he says, “Do me a favor: Stop coming to class. Go interview a hero in your chosen field. You’re a pain in my ass. Write that up and you’ve got your ‘A’. Just give me a break, alright?” So I picked Lester Bangs, and I spent this very long and influential day with him. It was April 14th 1982.
How’d you get in touch with him?
It was interesting. I’m not much of a journalist yet, so I didn’t think of looking him up in the phone book. But it wouldn’t have mattered: he did not have a phone. He told me at this point it was because (highfalutin Lester Bangs voice) it distracted him from writing. The bard in his garret. But in fact, he was so broke he could not afford a phone. It had been turned off.
I wrote to the publisher of the only book that came out in his lifetime, which was Blondie. It was a quickie fan book on Blondie that none-the-less had some brilliance in it because there was a pocket history of punk rock from nuggets in the 60s to CBGB. And there were some interesting ideas that resonate to this day, I don’t care who you’re talking about – Lady Gaga, Madonna, or Liz Phair – about post-feminism.
So there’s two fascinating things about that book, plus a lot of pretty pictures of Blondie. I wrote to his publisher, “Hi, I want to interview Lester Bangs,” and I did not hear back. The semester’s drawing to a close, and I got to give this guy this paper, so as backup I called Robert Christgau, who was very easy to find because he’s the Village Voice music editor at this point. And I also admired Christgau. Again, opposite poles. Christgau the ultimate intellectual rock critic, Bangs the ultimate emotional rock critic.
But I loved Christgau. His 70s Consumer Guide had come out, so I’d read everything he’d written at that point. And was introduced to a tremendous amount – you know, I didn’t know what funkadelic was. So Christgau says, (low Christgau voice), “Yeah of course, come meet me at the Voice.” I went over and I spent an afternoon with Robert Christgau. I trailed him around the Village. He made me follow him to the post office where he picks up that day’s haul of 25 or 30 albums, and carries them home and sat there as he ate a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, and I’m interviewing him. He’s very earnest. And I had him sign my copy of the consumer guidebook, and he’s like (Christgau voice), “Good luck in your chosen profession. Robert M. Christgau.” Very professorial. Intimidating. I thought I held my own.
I came home that afternoon from the Village, and my mom says, (Jersey mother voice), “I got this weird phone call honey. Some guy who says his name is Lester. He was calling from a phone booth. He doesn’t have a phone. But he says if you want to talk to him you can come over next week. You gotta stand on the corner of 6th Avenue and 14 Street in front of Gum Joy Chinese Restaurant and shout at the sixth floor because the doorbell isn’t working ‘Hey Lester!’ and he’ll let you in.”
So I did that, and I went and met Lester, and he was incredibly – you know, I’m thinking Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac –
And did you stand on the corner and yell?
Yeah yeah, you had to. And he tossed me the keys down, which is when I first heard from Cameron Crowe. He’d read me writing about this in a tribute fanzine to Lester Bangs, and he says – I get this call one Sunday night, like 9:30, and he’s like (surfer voice) “Dude!” Cameron’s very southern Cal. “Dude dude! You gotta write a book about Lester Bangs. I read this piece – you caught the keys! Dude, you gotta write the book! You caught the keys!” I’m like, “Who is this?” “Cameron Crowe man! And I just read the – ” And that’s how we met. It was great.
That stuck with him. Standing there, catching the keys from the sixth floor, spending an afternoon with Lester. It was very similar to his experience with Lester a decade earlier. The difference was Lester died on April 30th, 1982, two weeks after I met him. Once again, I’m listening to WNEW, and this time I’m sitting in my room in the basement on a Sunday morning, and I’m transcribing this interview with Lester Bangs, and I hear on the radio that, you know, “Famous rock critic Lester Bangs is dead.” Which is interesting, because give me another rock critic anywhere ever who would have made New York radio news. But he was a larger than life character, as important as any of the bands he wrote about.
And that, I felt, was key. I fell in love with his writing. And the reason I did not become a fat, racist, Jersey city cop or garbage man like everybody I went to high school with is I discovered other ways of thinking, other ways of living, partly from reading, but an even more emotional connection was made via the music. Listening to White Light/White Heat for the first time, as mind blowing as it is, means a lot, but reading Lester Bangs telling you what he felt that it meant and where it fit and why it was important and what to listen for – you know, I think great criticism puts the art in context, and to me it was every bit as important as the art itself.
So to me, it was a partnership of the Velvet Underground and Lester Bangs that changed my life, or Lester Bangs and the Ramones, or – you know what I mean? Because you don’t know where this fits without that.
I had this notion that rock criticism at its best was a spirited dialogue between people that cared passionately about the music. I think that’s criticism in any – you know, your classic music critic, your stuffed-shirt art critics will say “My tastes are better than yours, and I tell you what you should like,” but I think in popular culture, and I think this is true in film – I mean, Pauline Kael, my hero Ebert, David Edelstein – you got this sense that here are people who love this art form and are obsessed with it, and you just came out of the movie, concert, gallery, and you’re gonna sit for hours over coffee, or beer, and talk about this art! Because what else on Earth is there to talk about? What matters more? Politics, religion, sex? Fuck! That’s all in the art! This is everything! This is life! Right? Again, how did I not become a fat, racist Jersey City cop or garbage man? I care about this shit! You know?
So I started making music. And you meet freaky weird people who live differently. A bunch of gay, Cuban immigrants from Union City I’m in a punk band with, and the first deep friendship I ever had with an African-American, you know, Don Jackson, coolest guitarist from Trenton, New Jersey, and we’re in a punk band. Your worldview opens, and you’re introduced to life.
So tell me then about when you started writing. Your Lester Bangs interview, was that your first piece of journalism?
No, I’d already been reviewing records. Schizophrenically, you know. There was a newspaper at Hudson Catholic. It was student-run. And I reviewed Genesis Duke and a Clash album, you know. I was already writing because I loved reading Christgau and Bangs and everyone else, and the cornerstone of Bangs was DIY, Do It Yourself. That character you see in Almost Famous where he’s very encouraging and mentoring to Cameron Crowe – I mean, that’s exactly what I met.
People have challenged, you know, “Was that Lester Bangs?” And he could also be a raging asshole. An alcoholic. A drug addict. But he had this thing throughout his career that he very much encouraged other writers and thought everybody should do it. Whether it was making music – the punk aesthetic – or whether it was writing, or whatever. Do it. Create. DIY. I’m sitting there interviewing him, and he’s saying, (Lester Bangs voice) “Well, what are you listening to?” and “What do you read?” and “What do you like?” I’m a fat, clueless kid from Jersey City, and you’re Lester Bangs! What are you asking me for? But I think that rubbed off.
So I was already writing stuff. And then all through college I wrote for the underground newspaper. I interviewed David Johansen, Stiv Bators post-Dead Boys. Stuff like that. And wrote for fanzines. I started sneaking into Maxwell’s, which is an amazing club – still is – in Hoboken, New Jersey, way under age. I could do it because the front part of it was a restaurant. Eventually the owner caught on that I was way under age, but he said, (scratchy, old owner voice) “If anybody ever questions you, you wandered in from the restaurant.”
All through college I wrote for fanzines. There was a fanzine called Jersey Beat – still is, still going – that a friend of mine Jim Testa ran, and I wrote for him. One from Chicago called Matter Magazine that Steve Albini wrote for. And one from Philadelphia called The Bob. And did my own, earnestly calling it Reasons For Living, (smiles). I was addicted. There was nothing else more important than music.
I was really laser-focused. From high school, I wanted to do journalism. I wanted to do criticism, but I knew even then that nobody starts out getting paid as a professional rock critic, and getting paid to be a reporter, a journalist in general, was better than any other job I could imagine, so I’d work my way toward writing about what I wanted to write about. I knew you don’t graduate from j-school and start covering the President of the United States. You may work your way there.
I started writing for a weekly paper in Hoboken. It was a neighborhood shopper basically, but had three or four pages of news content, and some features, where I did music reviews and previews of stuff that was happening in Hoboken, and I wrote about local politics. This was in my sophomore year at NYU. And after a year, year and a half of that, I had broken enough stories in my humble way – you know, local political corruption type stuff – that the Jersey Journal, the daily that covered Hudson County, one of two dailies at that time – I had approached them, and they said, “We’d love to have you work here.”
I started working full-time as a reporter at the Jersey Journal when I was still in my senior year at NYU. I had all of my classes on two days, and I would work three days during the day at the Jersey Journal, and those two nights after I had class all day, at night – so the two nights I’d cover the cop beat, if there was a fire, if there was whatever, I’d get sent out to do it – and the three days – I mean, it was kind of unprecedented. Would never happen now. I’m full-time in college but I’m full-time at a newspaper of 65,000 circ. A serious newspaper.
One of the papers you grew up reading.
THE paper I grew up reading. But the three days that I was there, they only – the way that they hired me and kind of snuck me in is they had me, um – I worked in what was still, unrepentantly – 1981 – called “The Women’s Section.” So there was this one old woman who was a broken down alcoholic who kept a pistol and a flask in her purse, who was a feature writer there.
And there was this other old woman who was legendary. She’d been a pioneering feminist in the Newhouse chain of papers, she’d covered hockey at one point, and now she’s running the Women’s Section, a cranky old woman who so resented that this boy was imposed on her, that uh – I’m writing wedding announcements and like Church social tea postings, right? She never would talk to me. She’d only ever refer to me in the third person as “That boy.” (cranky old woman voice) “Tell that boy this is not the way we do a wedding announcement!”
And then there was this other woman who was very nice and kind and the only reason I survived. She actually ran the whole section, because the drunk woman didn’t do any work, and Lois the editor was too old and crotchety, so she didn’t do any work. This other woman did.
But then as soon as I graduated I went five days a week, full-time as a regular reporter in Hoboken. And did a lot of stories. Covered jail riots. Covered dead mobsters fished out of the Meadowlands. It was all very Sopranos. Did an investigative story that got a councilman indicted for voter fraud. Yeah, stuff like that. It was great. And I did that for five years. I was at the Jersey Journal for five years.
All this time I’m writing for free for fanzines about music. Reporting all day, and writing for free for fanzines. My period at the Jersey Journal was pretty much – I was pretty much done with it by ’88, ’89, so that classic thing in journalism, “DeRo wants to move on to something else, so let’s make him an editor.” (Laughs.) I never wanted to be an editor. I’m a writer, right? But I was assistant city editor for like the last year I was there. I hated it. Sitting at the desk all day. If you’re a reporter, the quality of a reporter can be judged by how much time he or she spends in the newsroom. The reporter who’s always in the newsroom is a lousy reporter. The reporter you never see except like 45 minutes before deadline, that’s your best reporter.
I was miserable. And the career path would have been, I would have had to go to the Hartford Courier in Connecticut or New York Newsday on Long Island and cover cops for a couple years there, and maybe eventually I would have moved on to the New York Daily News where I would have worked 80 hours a week covering cops in the Bronx, right? And I would have been miserable. I would never have been able to go to the New York Times. My name was not Wendell Jamieson III. Real person I worked with at the Jersey Journal. Wendell Jamieson III. Went on to the New York Times and was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning crew that did the 9/11 obits. You know? Won the Pulitzer. People without “the third” after their name, white guys without that after their name don’t get hired at the New York Times. And the Daily News, that grind never seemed to appeal to me.
So I was burned out, and I quit the Journal and I moved to Minneapolis. I had crossed the country a couple of times, touring with bands, and had made friends in the other music cities – Portland, Minneapolis. It seemed to me that all my friends in Minneapolis were living better than I was, killing myself 60, 70 hours a week working at the Jersey Journal. They worked like 15 hours a week at Kinko’s, and then they did their comic book, and they did their movies, and the band rehearsed in the basement, and everybody was sharing this big five bedroom house, and it was great, you know? Plus there were Midwestern farm girls, you know?
I just said, “Okay, fuck, I’m going to move to Minneapolis and be a slacker. I’ll work at Kinko’s if I have to and write about music on the side.” But I didn’t. I lucked into a job as an assistant editor at a magazine called Request. Request was a controlled-circulation but also a newsstand-distributed magazine – every shopping mall in America had two Musicland stores, one at the north end and one at the south. Musiclands were shitty record stores, certainly not like Bleecker Bob’s and Pier Platters that I knew from New York and New Jersey. It was not a cool, independent store, This was a shopping mall store. They sold the top 40, some Beatles and Sinatra catalogue, and then Christmas albums.
But they funded this in-house magazine that was extraordinarily well-written and edited, and got no editorial restriction from the corporation. Every Musicland distributed it, and then it was also on newsstands. Two million circulation. That was graduate school for me. Suddenly I was being paid to write about music. Now, I started as slave labor editor. I took out the trash. I copy edited. I fact checked. But eventually they saw I was a good writer, and I wrote too.
I was making one third of what I’d made at the Jersey Journal, but I’m happier than a pig in shit. I’m living in Minneapolis, and I’m doing music. And it was great. I learned a tremendous amount, I had an incredibly good time, they hired me because they were impressed that I had five, really seven years, if you count the weekly newspaper and you count the Jersey Journal, of journalism experience. If you can cover election night and produce 850 words of copy on 20-minute deadline, you can interview Ride or My Bloody Valentine or Flaming Lips and get it right. I had all 10 years of writing for fanzines, I had five years of writing for a daily newspaper, I had both.
I heard about this job in Chicago. I literally did not know a soul in Chicago, they were looking for a rock critic, I had always been tremendously impressed with what Ebert had done with movie criticism. His detractors say Gene and Roger turned it into “thumbs up/thumbs down.” It was never that. They brought really smart back-and-forth, intellectual discourse about art to a popular forum. Ebert is an entertaining read on paper, he’s an entertaining speaker on television – was – but there was always heft there behind it. These guys knew and loved movies. They’re just making criticism fun. To me it was an extension of what I’ve always loved. Ebert’s the movie critic – fuck yeah: I’m going to be the music critic. And I got the job, again, because I had the professional experience but also the fandom. I was there for a couple years. Round one.
Enjoy this interview? Click here for Part II, as Jim discusses his tenure at Rolling Stone, his return to the Sun-Times, why newspapers are dying, and why Britney Spears could deliver one of the world’s great nights of music but probably won’t.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
January 18, 2012: David Drake, music writer
December 29, 2011: Tran Ha, RedEye
December 24, 2011: Sam Smith, Bulls.com
December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer
December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality
December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist
October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter
November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder
November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder
October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor
September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder
September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer
September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO
September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher
August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist
September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor
August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist